The Society of Environmental Journalists announced on Wednesday that the “Polluter’s Paradise” series won first place for the Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting in the Large Newsroom category. SEJ's annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment are the world’s largest and most comprehensive honors for journalism on environmental topics.
The special report, a project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, in partnership with The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, investigated the petrochemical industry in Louisiana and the lack of oversight from the state’s environmental regulators. The reporters took a rigorous approach, rooted in data, to explore estimated air toxicity levels and Louisiana’s system of dealing with toxic emissions in seven parishes along the lower Mississippi River.
In an interactive map, which used the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model, the team visualized the estimated concentrations of cancer-causing chemicals generated from large industrial facilities and showed how emissions from clusters of facilities combine to increase overall toxicity for nearby residents. The data analysis showed readers how toxic chemicals spread across city lines and what future emissions would look like after new plants are constructed. The team was able to show how emissions from the forthcoming $9.4 billion Formosa chemical complex will impact air quality in Louisiana’s St. James Parish when it opens. Overall the analysis found that a crush of new industrial plants will increase the air toxicity levels from cancer-causing chemicals in predominantly Black and poor communities.
The groundbreaking series also exposed Louisiana’s failure to hold energy companies accountable for the 540 oil spills that occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Not a single post-storm spill had resulted in a fine or mitigation, the reporting showed.
“The reporting team combined traditional document discovery and analysis skills with information developed through extensive interviews to expose a weak regulatory structure that allows out-of-control spills and emissions to go unpunished,” an awards judge said. “The lead piece in the series does exactly what modern environmental justice reporting should do. It blends data with human impact, and binds them together with riveting writing that captures the nuance of living with toxics.”
See a list of all this year’s SEJ Awards for Reporting on the Environment winners here.