The Society of Environmental Journalists announced on Wednesday that “Polluter’s Paradise,” a series of investigative reports by ProPublica and The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, won the Nina Mason Pulliam Award for Outstanding Environmental Reporting. The award recognizes the “best of the best” in environmental journalism and was selected from among the first-place winners of SEJ’s seven award categories. This is ProPublica’s second Pulliam Award since it was introduced in 2018.
A multimedia project of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network, “Polluter’s Paradise” explored estimated air toxicity levels and Louisiana’s system of dealing with toxic emissions in seven parishes along the lower Mississippi River. Even as Louisiana is home to some of America’s most polluted industrial regions — including the corridor along the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge dubbed “Cancer Alley” — many new polluting plants are on the way. The series also investigated the petrochemical industry in Louisiana and the lack of oversight from the state’s environmental regulators. Tristan Baurick, Joan Meiners, Sara Sneath and Gordon Russell of The Times-Picayune and The Advocate, as well as ProPublica’s Al Shaw, Lylla Younes and Claire Perlman contributed to the project.
The reporting team took a rigorous approach, rooted in data. At the heart of the project was its air modeling analysis, which used the Environmental Protection Agency’s Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators model. The team hired a doctoral candidate with expertise in air modeling to help with the analysis, allowing them to assess how polluted the air is now, as well as how levels of toxic chemicals will be affected by the plants that companies propose to build.
In an interactive map, 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 series also included a news application that allows Louisiana residents to plug in their addresses and check the air toxicity levels in their neighborhoods at a granular level. Other stories exposed Louisiana’s failure to hold energy companies accountable for the 540 oil spills that occurred after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Through many interviews and record requests, the reporting showed that not a single post-storm spill had resulted in a fine or mitigation.
"At a moment of crisis for local newspapers, and as nonprofit reporting organizations continue to play an important role in environmental coverage, the series brought their strengths together," contest judges wrote. "Deep, evocative on-the-ground reporting, sharp analysis and terrific visual presentation of data create a powerful picture of the oil and petrochemical industries’ impact on Louisiana’s people and environment."
Learn more about the Nina Mason Pulliam Award for Outstanding Environmental Reporting here.