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ProPublica and Partners Win Two Sigma Awards for Data Journalism

The Sigma Awards announced on Thursday that ProPublica and local partners won two of its annual awards celebrating the best data journalism around the world.

Black Snow: Big Sugar’s Burning Problem,” a ProPublica Local Reporting Network project by The Palm Beach Post and ProPublica, won a Sigma Award in the single project category.

For years, residents living near Florida’s sugar fields have complained about cane burning, a harvesting method that chokes Black and Hispanic communities near the Everglades with smoke and ash that they call “black snow.” Sugar companies and state regulators have told residents that the air is healthy to breathe, but Lulu Ramadan of the Post, along with ProPublica’s Ash Ngu and Maya Miller, tested that proposition. ProPublica’s Nadia Sussman and the 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.

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. It was only after the team started asking questions that Florida officials replaced the unfit monitor the team had identified, 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.

ProPublica and partner newsrooms also won a Sigma Award in the portfolio category, recognizing some of the news organization’s biggest data projects.

The series “Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution” showed how 250,000 people living in hot spots of industrial air pollution may be exposed to levels of excess cancer risk that the EPA otherwise deems unacceptable ⁠— and lets readers see the dangers near them with a first-of-its-kind interactive map. For “The Secret IRS Files,” we used the greatest trove of heretofore secret financial information on the ultrawealthy in the U.S. ever made public to reveal how they pay tiny amounts of federal income taxes.

We used genomic sequencing data to track an ongoing salmonella outbreak for the series “Unchecked: America’s Broken Food Safety System” and created a mobile tool that let shoppers look up salmonella rates for the plant that processed the poultry at their supermarket. We built “What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol,” an interactive video presentation that let readers watch the events of Jan. 6 unfold as though they were present at the insurrection. This project, which published hundreds of videos for the first time, was cited as evidence in impeachment of former President Donald Trump and in dozens of court documents charging participants with crimes. ProPublica and partners also published urgent, data-driven projects about the Police Department in New York City, police union contracts in New Jersey and home-improvement lending.

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