An investigative piece into toxic air around America’s schools has garnered a 2009 John B. Oakes Award for two USA TODAY reporters.
The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism announced today that Blake Morrison and Brad Heath will be the recipients of this year’s Oakes Award, which honors excellence in environmental journalism. The award recognizes the reporters’ work on the investigative series “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools” and it’s companion Web site, which allows readers to search for their schools and discover the level of toxic air in its area. The series resulted in the Environmental Protection Agency launching a $2.25 million program to monitor the air quality around schools.
“By yoking the locations of private and pubic schools around the country with an EPA model for tracking toxic chemicals, the reporters identified hundreds of schools where children seemed to be at risk,” the Oakes Award judges’ said. “As a result, the EPA and local environmental agencies began to do what they should have been doing for years: paying attention to the environment in which our children live and learn.”
Second prize has been awarded to The New York Times series “Toxic Waters” written by Charles Duhigg.
The winners will receive their awards and speak on a panel about their work at the Oakes Award luncheon on March 30 at Columbia.
Full release after the jump
USA Today Wins the 2009 Oakes Award for Environmental Reporting
New York, N.Y. (February 4, 2010) — The Columbia Graduate School of Journalism announced today that a USA Today investigation into the smokestack effects of toxic air around America’s schools has won the 2009 John B. Oakes Award for excellence in environment journalism.
The Oakes Award judges cited USA Today reporters Blake Morrison and Brad Heath for their “commitment to the public good, that even government agencies entrusted with protecting the health of childrenâ€”the most vulnerable among usâ€”had failed to demonstrate.” Their ambitious series, “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools,” and companion website (http://smokestack.usatoday.com) focused the nation’s attention on the quality of the air that children breathe eight hours a day. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has launched a $2.25 million program to monitor air quality outside schools, and a campaign is underway before Congress for tighter rules on where schools can be built.
“By yoking the locations of private and pubic schools around the country with an EPA model for tracking toxic chemicals, the reporters identified hundreds of schools where children seemed to be at risk,” said the judges’ citation. “As a result, the EPA and local environmental agencies began to do what they should have been doing for years: paying attention to the environment in which our children live and learn.”
Second place goes to the New York Times for its series “Toxic Waters,” an investigation that probed the effectiveness of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
The series, written by Charles Duhigg, an investigative business reporter, detailed how the Environmental Protection Agency and local regulators failed to use environmental laws to stop illegal pollution.
Duhigg’s “Toxic Waters” series (http://www.nytimes.com/toxic-waters/ ) chronicles in print, videos and photos “the failures of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, that federal and state agencies had been ignoring,” the Oakes judges said. Duhigg, who interviewed more than 350 sources and filed 500 Freedom of Information Act requests, received more than 20 million electronic records, with which he built a database describing a compelling “pattern of pollution and lack of enforcement that jeopardizes the nationâ€™s water and health.” The series catalyzed an effort to overhaul the Clean Water Act.
In a rare move, the Oakes Award judges have also named two recipients of certificates of merit to reporters Kristin Lombardi of the Center for Public Integrity and Kelly Kennedy of Military Times for the work they undertook in the small-to-medium size category, which included a Web-only project, to uncover systemic neglect in protecting people from environmental hazards.
Lombardi was recognized for her Web publication “The Hidden Cost of ‘Clean Coal,'” (http://www.publicintegrity.org/investigations/longwall) which detailed how longwall mining, which yielded 176 million tons of coal in 2007, can have brutal social and environmental consequences. Kennedy was recognized for courage in breaking news and for following up with a compelling series of more than two dozen stories about the health threats to troops who are exposed to war-zone burn pits.
“We are quite excited that we have four superb projects this year to demonstrate how important and relevant reporting on the environment is to someone’s health and well being,” said Arlene Morgan, the school’s associate dean for prizes and programs. A panel of journalists and scientists, under the direction of Lisa Redd, director of the Oakes Award, selected the finalists from among the approximately 80 newspaper, magazine and Web sites submitted for the prize. This year marks the first time, according to Redd, that an online entry receives recognition.
The Oakes award honors the career of the late John B. Oakes, a New York Times editor who was a pioneer in environmental journalism and creator of the Times Op-Ed page. The first place prize comes with a $5,000 honorarium; the second with a $1000 award. Certificates of merit each carry a $500 honorarium. The winners will accept their awards and serve on a panel discussing their work at the Oakes Award luncheon on March 30 at the Journalism School.