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“Black Snow” Series Wins McElheny Award for Local Science Reporting

The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT announced on Tuesday that “Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem,” a ProPublica Local Reporting Network project by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica, is the winner of the McElheny Award for Local Science Reporting.

“The Black Snow series exemplifies why local science reporting is so important in today’s society,” said the Knight Science Journalism Program’s director, Deborah Blum. “Like so many of this year’s great entries, it cast a much-needed light on a problem that was affecting people’s lives and on the failure of authorities to protect communities in their care.”

For years, residents living near Florida’s sugar fields have complained about cane burning, a harvesting method that helps produce more than half of America’s cane sugar but chokes Black and Hispanic communities near the Everglades with smoke and ash. They call it “black snow.” All the while, politically powerful sugar companies and state regulators have reassured residents that the air is healthy to breathe. Over 18 months, Lulu Ramadan of The Palm Beach Post, along with ProPublica’s Ash Ngu and Maya Miller, tested that proposition. ProPublica’s Nadia Sussman and The Palm Beach Post’s Hannah Morse also contributed to the series.

The team interviewed dozens of people living amid the cane fields and obtained hundreds of public records from environmental and public health agencies. The team also did its own air monitoring, consulting with six experts in air quality and public health from universities across the country and installing sensors at homes in one of the state’s most underserved communities. The readings showed repeated spikes in pollution on days when the state had authorized cane burning and when smoke was projected to blow toward the sensors. These short-term spikes often reached four times the average pollution levels in the area — enough that experts said they posed health risks.

To gauge the effects of cane smoke in the community, the team also created an automatic text messaging tool that surveyed residents whenever our sensors detected a spike in pollution. Some residents reported that they were coughing and had trouble breathing while others shared pictures of smoke plumes looming over the area.

The investigation found that state regulators were relying on data from a single monitor that was unfit to enforce federal clean-air standards across the sugar-growing region. The reporters also found that regulators had already banned cane burning at times when the wind blew toward the wealthier, whiter communities east of the cane fields. It was only after the team started asking questions that Florida officials replaced the unfit monitor the team had identified in the Glades, and leading members of Congress called for the Environmental Protection Agency to investigate air monitoring in Florida and change national pollution standards. The Palm Beach County Department of Health upgraded air-monitoring equipment, which will allow it to enforce federal pollution standards, and officials said they were in talks with the EPA to expand air monitoring in the state.

Learn more about the McElheny Award for Local Science Reporting here.

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