Covering the environment
This story pack offers great tipsheets, stories, and databases for anyone covering the environment. Tipsheets include how to pitch your story, where to find information beyond advocacy groups, and helpful websites to use when requesting records. Stories include investigations into businesses claiming to be "green", schools with lead in the drinking water, the award winning report on the global asbestos trade, and many more.
Websites for Environmental Reporting
This tipsheets contains useful federal and state databases for environmental reporting. Other resources include TRI Explorer, FracTracker, WellWiki and possible limitations and flaws.
Best story ideas for health, safety, environment and consumer goods and services
Veteran broadcast reporter, Lea Thompson, gives over 150 story ideas in this tipsheet. She gives examples on what's already been done, how to do your own investigation and what resources to use.
Sources to identify gaps and flaws in regulatory oversight
This tipsheet provides a number of links to the EPA and information concerning environmental problems and procedures.
Tipsheet: Investigation of a giant energy boom at a small or mid-sized daily: An examination of oil waste spills
Collette outlines how to go about investigating and reporting on oil spills.
Investigating parks conversions
McClure explains how state and local governments are routinely violating federal law by allowing parks purchased, built or improved under the Land and Water Conservation Fund Act to be converted to other uses, including private uses.
Investigating habitat conservation plans
McClure sheds light on how “Habitat Conservation Plans,” or HCPs supposedly protect native species, however do the opposite in reality oftentimes.
Getting beyond the gates: Covering the shale drilling boom when access is a problem
Hiller explains the difficulties involved with reporting on oil and gas drilling, but provides tips on how to get past these.
Getting past the gates: Covering shale drilling
Hiller discusses how to investigate the shale drilling industry.
A Neighborhood In Peril
Fallon's Powerpoint presentation lays out how he covered the secret chemical spill that happened years ago and the story that followed: "A Neighborhood in Peril, How New Jersey environmental regulators failed the people they were supposed to protect".
Using Archives and Historical Records for Environmental and Land Use Investigations
Young explains how to use historical records when conduction environmental and land use investigations.
Environmental analyses for any newsroom
Lucas and Golden walks through the steps to analyze and extract information from environmental data.
Morrison discusses how to do a meaningful story on the environment - beginning with pitching a story "with a clear question whose answer is newsworthy." He discusses the use of data in doing the story, and how to validate your findings.
Sullivan discusses how to bring yourself up to speed on the topic of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Sullivan explains how committed efforts to understand the agency pay-off in terms of having a working knowledge of the subject of your investigation.
Tapping Research to Investigate Science
This PowerPoint presentation recounts the steps taken by AP to reoprt their Pharmawater series about drugs in drinking water. The tipsheet reviews the story and discusses how the authors went about a literature review and creating original surveys to fill in gaps in the data.
CAR and the Environment
Ward offers tips on environmental reporting, inculding where to find information beyond advocacy groups.
Investigating Environmental Regulatory Agencies
Scott Streater provides tips for reporters who are working on environmental investigations. He explains how to find sources, get data and know open record laws. Streater also gives a list of helpful Web sites for reporters who are requesting records.
Digging into the environment
Waite advises on how to use and manage data for environmental investigations, which is a crucial task because the environmental beat is awash in data more so than any other beat. Includes Waite's PowerPoint presentation from his presentation at the 2006 IRE Conference and suggestions for preserving and reusing data for future stories.
Digging up dirt: Investigating American companies' environmental impacts in Latin America
En espanol, tipsheet 2919. This tipsheet describes two instances of North American corporations taking advantage of Latin America's weak environmental laws and need for foreign investors. In these Peruvian cases, U.S. firms contaminated local communities with mercury and lead. The tipsheet suggests several ways to get started investigating American companies that do a lot of business extracting natural resources in Latin America. For instance, the tipsheet suggests visiting the websites of major environmental organizations, using international audits, and talking to EPA officials to find context for the incidents being investigated.
West Virginia Water Crisis
On Jan. 9, 2014, a chemical tank at Freedom Industries leaked on the Elk River, just north of the drinking water intake that serves 300,000 people in Charleston, the West Virginia state capital, and surrounding communities. Residents and businesses were ordered not to drink, bathe in or cook with tap water, a warning that remained in place for up to a week. Stories examined the lack of environmental enforcement, inadequate information about the toxic chemicals involved, and poorly planned water quality sampling that was used to decide when the water was again safe to use.
Missteps and Secrets: Los Alamos Officials Downplayed Waste's Dangers
A leak from a drum of Cold War-era nuclear waste at the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant near Carlsbad, N.M., on Feb. 14, 2014, released radioactive contaminants that reached almost two dozen and the environment outside the ancient salt cavern turned nuclear waste dump. Documents obtained by The Santa Fe New Mexican exposed truths deliberately hidden from regulators and waste dump personnel by Los Alamos National Laboratory, where the waste originated, and the private contractors that operate the lab.
These stories established the deep human toll of extractive industries in India, a country where official corruption, a push for economic growth and a lack of environmental regulation and enforcement have combined to leave millions of ordinary Indians at risk. Our pieces told that story from three different vantage points -- villagers in the shadow of a uranium mining operation in eastern India, locals left at risk of mercury poisoning from coal mines and coal-burning utilities in central India and a group of college students from southern India who met a tragic end during a field trip to the country's north, where illegal sand mining flourishes.
Water's Edge--The crisis of rising sea levels
Few subjects in the news stir as much controversy as climate change. In the U.S., the threat of rising levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, the contribution of human activity to that threat, and even whether the climate is changing at all are fiercely debated and politically polarizing. Inconclusive science only further polarizes the issue. Lost in all the vitriol is one aspect of a changing environment that is not debatable: rising seas. Tidal waters worldwide have climbed an average of 8 inches over the past century. Yet the volume of journalism documenting rising seas as an immediate, observable phenomenon has been scant; more typically, news media have relied on extrapolations and predictions to create frightening scenarios far in the future. Reuters set out to change that in its series “Water’s Edge: the Crisis of Rising Sea Levels.” For this yearlong project, Reuters did its own science. We collected and analyzed vast stores of hard data and combined the results with on-the-ground reporting to produce stories unique in their treatment of rising seas not as a future threat, but as a troubling reality for millions of people living along the U.S. coast.
Drilling for Billions
This series of stories focuses on the potential economic boost and environmental impact of extracting oil from Monterey Shale in Central California. To explore the topic 17 News traveled to western North Dakota to examine the impacts of their shale revolution. Experts in the piece explain the controversial practice of hydraulic fracturing or fracking is used in shale booms. We explore the practice as it is done in California speaking with engineers on the forefront of exploration. According to industry, KGET is the only station ever allowed to speak with Central California industry engineers about the widely talked about oil completion practice used everyday in our community. 17 News was also granted unprecedented access to AERA Energy's exploration department taking a look at information even those in the industry are not privy to.
Employees of Technicoat, a metal coating company based in Fort Worth in the ‘70s and 80s, hired teenagers to dispose of industrial waste and harmful chemicals. None of the employees went through any kind of safety training or were given protective gear. Now many of the company’s former employees have either died from illnesses linked to chemical exposure or are currently battling illnesses that are likely related to being exposed to chemicals during their tenure at Technicoat. The story found that the city of Fort Worth and the Tarrant Regional Water District are still dealing with the environmental impact of the company’s illegal chemical dumping – sometimes down storm drains, in holes dug in the ground, or straight into the Trinity River – as the area that housed the Technicoat plant is being redeveloped. It also discovered that the company blatantly disregarded federal safety standards and was fined multiple times by different federal, state, and local agencies for environmental and safety violations.
Jacuí - Crime and Agony
Illegal Dredging practiced in Rio Jacuí between Porto Alegre and Rio Pardo proves the inefficiency of environmental agencies in protecting the natural resources of the State. During the journalistic investigation, 19 flagrant vessels not comply the terms of the Operating Licenses (LO), issued by the State Environmental Protection Foundation (Fepam) were performed. The main crime is the removal of sand on forbidden places in licensed areas, disobeying, for example, the minimum of 50 meters away from the shores and causing terrible environmental damage.
Explosion at West
Tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer at a central Texas plant exploded last April with the force of a small earthquake. The blast came just two days after the Boston Marathon and, in the national media, was overshadowed by events in the Northeast. While not the result of a terrorist attack, the explosion in West, Texas, was far larger and deadlier, and raised more significant public safety issues. In a series of investigative reports over eight months, The Dallas Morning News revealed that ammonium nitrate remains virtually unregulated by federal and state governments, despite its well-known explosive potential. (Timothy McVeigh used it in 1995 to blow up an Oklahoma City federal building.) Efforts to strengthen oversight have been blocked by industry lobbyists and government gridlock, The News found, even as the Pentagon sought bans on ammonium nitrate in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In pro-business, anti-regulation Texas, the federal government’s lax oversight meant no oversight at all. West Fertilizer Co. – scene of the disaster – violated almost every safety best practice. No state agency was charged with preventing an ammonium nitrate blast. There was no public registry of companies that handled the compound, even though many facilities are near homes and schools. Texas prohibits most counties from having fire codes and does not require facilities like West to obtain liability insurance. Gov. Rick Perry and other state politicians, who created this wide-open environment, washed their hands of the problem. They said West was a tragic accident that no amount of regulation could have prevented. The News’ findings, however, proved otherwise.
Lobbyist in the Henhouse
Lobbyist in the Henhouse is the product of a stunning seven-month investigation into what happens when an industrial lobbyist is hired to serve as Maine's top environmental official. Colin Woodard, a 2012 Polk winner, carefully documented how Patricia Aho, a corporate lobbyist who became commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, smothered programs and fought against laws that she had opposed on behalf of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil and real estate development industries.
Failures in the Golden State
The Department of Toxic Substances Control oversees or has some part in regulating everything from nail polish ingredients to oil refineries, radioactive waste to metal recycling in California. At the heart of our series is the story of a department that’s divided, dysfunctional, and ineffective in fulfilling its mission to protect public health and the environment of the Golden State. We sifted through hundreds of pages of reports, memos, reviews, manifests and legal claims. We also analyzed thousands of records in the department’s hazardous waste tracking system to find out that more than 40% of the hazardous waste manifests in the DTSC’s database contain inaccurate information or are missing key details. Our reporting has held leaders accountable at the DTSC and compelled state lawmakers to call for an investigation of the department, including a legislative hearing this month (January 2014). Through a series of public records requests, we found out some of the department’s top leaders were investing in companies the DTSC oversees. Our reporting into the potential financial conflicts of interest prompted an investigation into deputy director Odette Madriago by the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). Ms. Madriago resigned from her position six weeks after our report aired. The FPPC investigation remains ongoing.
The Battle of Belo Monte
In the Brazilian state of Pará, an army of 25,000 workers is building the world’s third largest hydroelectric plant, a controversial construction project –because of the dam’s low efficiency, its environmental impact and its effects on the Indians, riverbank-dwellers and the inhabitants of Altamira. Folha’s reporters spent three weeks in the region to put together the most comprehensive coverage –with 24 videos, 55 pictures, and 18 infographics– of the country’s largest infrastructural investment. The pros and cons of the dam are presented in five chapters: Construction; Environment; Society; Indigenous Peoples; History.
Blowouts, leaks and spills from the drilling boom
The oil and gas industry doesn't like to talk about its environment and safety record beyond bland assertions that safety is a top goal. But drillers cause more than 6,000 spills each year. Until our investigation, no one had put a figure on it. The records are scattered amid databases, websites and even file drawers of state agencies across the country. EnergyWire spent four months assembling the data for the most comprehensive report yet on the spills that flow from the nation's oil and gas boom.
Farmers vs. fish: Wisconsin's groundwater crisis
Across central Wisconsin, in a region known as the Central Sands, residents have watched water levels in lakes and small streams drop for years. In a state with about 15,000 lakes and more than a quadrillion gallons of groundwater, it is hard to believe that water could ever be in short supply. Experts say, however, that the burgeoning number of so-called high-capacity wells mostly for irrigated agriculture, is drawing down some ground and surface water.
The "Ethanol Project” reviewed the ethanol industry in Brazil, the United States, Colombia and Peru. It revealed a new generation of business executives who lead an industry dependent on subsidies, lobbying and very favorable loans awarded by multilateral organizations. The story showed how the ethanol industry has begun to experience some tough adjustments, and how the environmentalists that once endorsed the industry are asking how sustainable the industry really is and what contribution, if any, it is making to the environment.
Chemical Drift, the Second-Hand Smoke of Big Agriculture
This series documented the dangers posed by agricultural chemicals which are applied both aerially and by land equipment. Some estimates show up to 90 percent of applied chemicals fail to hit the targeted site and drift hundreds of miles in the environment, contaminating people, water systems, air and animals. The series revealed that current safety standards were based on old theories of toxicology, which assume that the danger of chemical exposure is based on the dose. “The dose makes the poison” was the theory. That is not true with endocrine disrupting chemical pesticides that are non-monotonic, meaning that even at very low levels of exposure, significant damage can occur, especially if exposure is during childhood or fetal development. In “Pitchfork Rebels,” Howard wrote about organic farmers training to install environmental sampling devices known as Drift Catchers on their land. The resulting chemical analysis showed the presence of chlorpyrifos, an endocrine disrupting chemical insecticide linked to ADHD and autism, had drifted to their farms from an aerial application more than two miles away. The EPA banned all uses of chlorpyrifos in homes and daycare centers because of its toxicity for children, but it is still allowed in agricultural uses. This article documented the toxin’s drift to an organic farm where three young sisters live.
Coyotes Under Fire
A two-article series on the war against coyotes waged by the Wildlife Services agency and hunters and trappers in rural areas, and by police and hired contractors in suburbs and cities. Killing coyotes doesn't work. It's inhumane and a waste of taxpayer money. If done indiscriminately, it can kill unintended species and pets, harm people, and damage ecosystems and the environment. These stories describe what does work: Non-lethal methods of managing coyote populations that protect livestock, pets, people, and the environment.
As City Plants Trees, Benefits—and Some Burdens—Grow
New York City owns and maintains hundreds of thousands of trees. More than just a touch of nature in an urban landscape, they are a major tool in combating asthma, particularly in poorer sections. But they come at a price. With each major storm ravaging trees, the city faces millions of dollars in claims for property damage, some severe injuries and, on rare occasions, deaths, as limbs shear off and trees are uprooted. The prospects are the problem is only going to get worse. The city has quietly been slashing tree maintenance. The leading species of trees owned by the city is not even native to the area, but variety with a propensity for collapsing in heavy weather. By analyzing city tree databases, obtaining under open records laws records documenting storm damage, scouring budget records, and doing countless interviews, the students, in this unique story, documented the hidden cost of the city's trees, and the policy implications.
Semper Fi: Always Faithful
Marine Corps Master Sgt. Jerry Ensminger was a devoted marine for nearly 25 years. As a drill instructor, he lived and breathed the Marine Corps and was responsible for training thousands of new recruits. When Jerry’s nine-year-old daughter Janey died of a rare type of leukemia, his world collapsed. As a grief-stricken father, he struggled for years to make sense of what happened. His search for answers led to the shocking discovery of one of the largest water contamination sites in US history. For thirty years, unbeknownst to the Marines living there, the Marine Corps improperly disposed of toxic cleaning solvents that contaminated the drinking water at North Carolina’s Camp Lejeune Marine Corps Base. It is estimated that nearly one million Marines and their families may have been exposed to high levels of carcinogens through the water. 25 years after the wells were finally closed, only a fraction of former residents know about their exposure to the toxic chemicals. In the process of investigating the Camp Lejeune contamination, a larger issue comes into focus - the abysmal environmental record of the military. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Defense is the United States’ largest polluter, which raises grave questions about environmental conditions at other bases across the country. “Semper Fi: Always Faithful” is a timely and sobering story of the betrayal of US soldiers and is a call to action for more environmental oversight of military sites.
Frac Sand Fever
Four stories, together with maps and graphics, detailing the environmental, regulatory and ethical dilemmas that have accompanied a sudden sand-mining boom that has swept across the rural Upper Midwest to supply "frac sand'' for the nation's burgeoning oil and gas hydro-fracking industry.
The Fracking Boom: Missing Answers
Is hydraulic fracking for natural gas safe? That’s one of the big questions surrounding America’s fracking boom. Homeowners with these gas wells literally in their backyards have complained of contaminated drinking water wells and noxious fumes. The natural gas industry has said that except for the occasional accident, fracking is not to blame. The American Petroleum Institute, the trade group for the natural gas industry, says fracking is safe and there’s no proof that the practice causes significant damage to the environment or human health. In our series, NPR decided to investigate the evidence the industry bases its safety claim on, and we found something astonishing. Despite some 200,000 fracked wells, very little data have been collected and few rigorous studies have been done to show whether fracking is safe, or whether it is dangerous. Not by local officials, state officials, universities or federal agencies. Essentially there is a data void on this issue. The type of scientific work that tied lead, tobacco smoke and smog to health problems, or that exonerated vaccines as the cause of autism, has not been done. With its safety claim, the industry is actively misleading the public into believing its practices have been solidly vetted and found untarnished. As we show in our seven part series, this is far from the truth.
Frac sand mining booms in Wisconsin
An ongoing series looking at the recent growth in Wisconsin’s sand mining industry to meet the increased demand from oil and gas drillers. The frac sand industry has created jobs and economic development in Western Wisconsin, but many residents worry that the industry is not properly regulated. Concerns remain about the impact of the mining on human and environmental health, transportation, and land use.
A specialty investigative news site by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that focuses on natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath Appalachia.
The radioactive "yellow dirt" -- a world class deposit of uranium under the Navajo reservation in the American Southwest -- lay beneath an earthen shield until the U.S. government cam calling, desperate to make atomic bombs. The book reveals ow the government looked away as miners, and then the neighbors were exposed to uranium's dangers.
"Cruise Ships Dodge Rules"
This investigation takes a look at the claims of cruise ships boasting "green" cruising and whether or not it can truly reduce the "impact on the environment." Despite the claims, reporters found that ships are playing the system and continue to dump harmful waste along their cruise routes, in areas where the rules are "less stringent."
The Climate Desk
The series examines whether or not businesses are adapting and adjusting to climate change. It found that some are actively looking for ways make a profit from the changes that need to be made. Others, however, have not yet started making changes even when they are directly affected.
Grounds for Removal
The four-year investigation detailed the government oversight of the nation's largest statewide natural gas pipeline system. Regulators rarely gave penalties, even in cases of fatal gas explosions.
Looting the Seas: How Overfishing, Fraud and Negligence Plundered the Majestic Bluefin Tuna
"A groundbreaking, multimedia expose on the $4 billion black market in bluefin tuna, the world's most coveted source of sushi." From professional fisheries to tuna farms in the Mediterranean and N. Africa, the business was "riddled with fraud, negligence, and criminal misconduct."
BP's Oil Spill: Beyond the Spin
This series provides extensive coverage of the Gulf oil spill and its effects. It exposes BP's failures to measure the amount of oil spilled and the reasons for the disaster. It also uncovers the Obama administration's inability to asses damage.
Dangers in the Dust: Inside the Global Asbestos Trade
The global investigation finds that a network of industry groups spent nearly $100 million in public and private money to keep asbestos on the market. The disease-causing fiber is creating epidemics in countries such as China and India and it is estimated it will lead to the deaths of five to ten million people by 2030.
In The Name Of The Law
This 5-part series examines the secrecy surrounding police misconduct in Hawaii and the effect that lack of disclosure has on the public. In1995, after local college journalists had fought and won a court battle to gain access to police disciplinary files, the politically powerful statewide police union convinced the Legislature to keep the records out of public view. We wanted to explore the effects of this major public policy decision and, nearly 20 years later, determine if police and other government officials were doing a good job overseeing misconduct and ensuring that the public was being protected from bad cops. Since the public can’t scrutinize police behavior themselves, we wanted to see what safeguards are in place so we can be confident our police officers, with their extraordinary power over ordinary citizens, are professional and competent. It turns out that police officers throughout the state are regularly disciplined for egregious offenses -- violence, lying, even criminal convictions. But there’s no way to know if they are being effectively disciplined, and it appears police administrators are at the mercy of strong union contracts. Local police commissions and prosecutors either ignore serious cases or can’t do anything about them under the current system.
The FDA relies on the Adverse Event Reporting system to flag safety issues and identify pharmaceuticals or therapeutic biological products (such as blood products), for further epidemiological study. It may ultimately prompt regulatory responses such as drug labeling changes, letters to health care professionals, or market withdrawals.
The agency requires product manufacturers and distributors to report adverse events regularly in accordance with 21 CFR 310.305 and 314.80. Mandatory reports for drugs in clinical trials and newly marketed drugs are submitted in various forms: 15-day alerts, quarterly or annual updates. The MedWatch program also collects voluntary reports from health care professionals and consumers. Adverse drug experiences include any serious and unexpected consequences of human drug use in a medical practice - such as failure of "expected pharmacological action," as well as accidental or intentional overdoses or abuse.
AERS replaced the Spontaneous Reporting System in October 1997. The FDA estimates that 118 reports for 1997-98 are included in the old SRS data. The AERS collection begins with the fourth quarter of 1997 and is complete through December 2006. Emphasis on reporting and efficiency of collecting reports have fluctuated, as seen by the relatively small number of records for the earlier years in this dataset and the incomplete entries throughout.
The AERS format attempts to improve and standardize the same basic information fields collected in SRS. The most notable difference between the two sets is a Comments table containing detailed memo fields; it only exists for SRS data 1993-1998.
The HAZMAT database contains the incident reports of unintentional releases of hazardous materials for all modes of transportation (air, highway, railway, and water). The Hazardous Materials Incident Report Subsystem is maintained by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration in the Department of Transportation.
The Hazardous Materials Incident Reports were established in 1971 to fulfil the requirements of the Federal hazardous materials transportation law. Part 171 of Title 49, Code of Federal Regulations, contains the incident reporting requirements for carriers of hazardous materials. An unintentional release of hazardous materials meeting the criteria set forth in Section 171.16, 49 CFR, must be reported.
You can access and download the data (as a CSV) on the PHMSA website here: https://hazmatonline.phmsa.dot.gov/IncidentReportsSearch/. Note that the default option is to only export the most requested fields, but you can also export all of the fields.
The Nuclear Materials Events Database contains records of all non-commercial power reactor incidents and events, including medical events, involving the use of radioactive byproduct material. Regulated licensees and Agreement States report the information to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.Included in this data is the basic record of each event, records of abnormal occurrences (event that could be a risk to the public), information about the radioactive material involved, type of the event, etc.
There are nine categories of events, as well as one "other" category that serves as a catch-all. The category/event types are: Equipment problems involving licensed material; overexposures to licensed material; fuel cycle facility events; loss of control events; leaking sealed sources involving licensed material; medical events involving licensed material; non-power reactor events; release or contamination events involving licensed material; and transportation events.
The database has 12 relational tables with entries from 1990 through March 18, 2011. Some events occurring before 1990 appear in this data, but the most consistent reporting is for records from 1990 and later.
The Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) consists of information about on- and off-site releases of chemicals and other waste management activities reported annually by industries, including federal facilities.
The data includes information on reporting facility, toxic chemical identity, waste treatment and recycling activities.
The fields identify facilities, chemicals manufactured, processed, recycled and disposed of. The location fields give facility sites and which release activities are used in communities. Facilities and sites can be mapped using the fields MAPLONG and MAPLAT. The data shows what happens to the chemical when it leaves the facility, such as whether it is recycled, treated or released into the environment, and where the chemicals are sent. There is also information on one-time accidental releases.
Industries included are manufacturing, metal mining, coal mining, coal and oil burning electrical utilities, hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities, chemical distributors, petroleum bulk plants terminals, and solvent recycling operations. There are now about 650 toxic chemicals and toxic chemical categories on the list of chemicals that were required to be reported.
Although you can download this data for free off the EPA's Web site, NICAR data analysts have done a significant amount of cleaning to make this data easier to use immediately. Fields containing standard date formats, mappable latitude and longitude have been added, and the unique id field, TRIFID, has been altered to make it compatable with past years.