ProPublica is the winner of two awards for environmental reporting. “Postcard From Thermal: Surviving the Climate Gap in Eastern Coachella Valley” won the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism, and “Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution” won the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting.
Administered by the Columbia Journalism School, the John B. Oakes Award for Distinguished Environmental Journalism recognizes journalists whose reporting makes an exceptional contribution to the public’s understanding of environmental issues. “Postcard From Thermal: Surviving the Climate Gap in Eastern Coachella Valley,” a multimedia project co-published with TIME, PBS KQED and Univision Noticias, examines the climate gap — the unequal impact of climate change on people of color and the poor — in Thermal, California. Reporter Elizabeth Weil and visual journalist Mauricio Rodríguez Pons show how the town is both a playground for the rich and home to farmworkers who live in uninsulated, sunbaked trailers in some of the hottest farmland in the world. Nadia Sussman, Almudena Toral, Justine Simons and Mollie Simon also contributed to the series.
“This project succeeded … in telling the big picture of this environmental injustice through the small picture of one immigrant family’s plight in Thermal,” said contest judges. “It succeeded in provoking specific reform, with that family and others being moved into far better housing. This is environmental journalism at its finest.”
In the midst of record-high temperatures and wildfires, the series focuses on Pedro Nicolas and Maria de Jesus Diego Bautista, a married couple with two kids who have been struggling to find livable housing in the desert. Arsenic-laced water and dust storms plague the immigrant family’s dilapidated trailer, the only kind of housing they can afford on agricultural wages. Yet less than 30 miles northwest, more affluent residents cool themselves in pools and on lush golf courses.
Weil and Rodríguez Pons tell the story through three forms of digital media: multimedia, video documentary and narrative text. The storytelling package inspired concrete local changes, including a line item in the California state budget to provide low-income housing in the unincorporated town of Thermal. A screening of the video documentary in Thermal drew community members, local officials and NGO workers and contributed to local community organizing. The film was also the centerpiece of a virtual policy discussion and virtual screening in Spanish.
“Sacrifice Zones: Mapping Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution,” winner of the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding Investigative Reporting, revealed that industrial air pollution has elevated cancer risks for one-fifth of Americans. The series was a collaboration with The Texas Tribune and Mountain State Spotlight, and Lylla Younes, Al Shaw, Ava Kofman, Lisa Song, Max Blau, Kiah Collier, Ken Ward Jr., Alyssa Johnson, Maya Miller, Lucas Waldron and Kathleen Flynn contributed to the series.
“The team analyzed publicly available EPA emissions data, found and corrected reporting errors the agency had failed to catch,” said contest judges. “The data analysis and the mapping tool were the foundation for the extensive reporting required for the five stories: nearly 100 record requests, hundreds of interviews, combing through corporate paperwork and on-the-ground reporting in nine states.”
With its unprecedented data analysis and interactive map, the series revealed more than 1,000 hot spots of toxic industrial air pollution across America. Its stories capture how the Environmental Protection Agency has failed to protect the public, not just through weak policies, but through calculated choices recounted on the record by insiders. Choosing the path of least resistance, polluters wind up in states that prioritize business over public health. In predominantly Black census tracts, the estimated cancer risk is more than double that in majority-white tracts.
Weeks after the series was published, EPA Administrator Michael Regan visited several of the communities featured in our reporting, and, in what environmental experts called a radical change in tone, he pledged to ramp up the agency’s enforcement activities and later announced significant air monitoring initiatives.
In addition, “Black Snow,” a collaboration between ProPublica and The Palm Beach Post, received an honorable mention in the Explanatory Reporting category of the SEJ Awards, and “Postcard From Thermal” received an honorable mention for Outstanding Feature Story.