How NPR, CPI exposed hundreds of polluters, government inaction & you can too

NPR and The Center for Public Integrity have taken partnerships, interactive journalism and database reporting to new heights in their just released investigation, “Poisoned Places.” The project uncovers 464 industrial polluters nationwide that the EPA placed on a sort of secret “watch list.”

The EPA didn’t want the list made public out of fear it would appear to be a sort of “Most Wanted” list. The list shows that the government recognizes the level of chronic pollution in hundreds of communities yet does not seriously enforce laws to address it.

In one case, an entire town is covered in a sort of black mist until citizens, not the government, force action.

CPI Senior Reporter Jim Morris read about the list in an EPA Inspector General’s report last spring. In June, CPI and NPR joined forces and filed a FOIA request. In late August, the team got the most recent data and began plowing through it.

They created interactive maps, searchable lists, radio reports, video reports, still photographs and deeply personal stories about people who live in the shadows of big polluters that pump toxins into the sky year after year.

They even reached out to people to help monitor emissions where they live by showing them how to form their own “bucket brigade.”

I asked them about the project and how they produced it. Below is the edited Q&A.

Al Tompkins: Is there anything to the government’s notions that a) releasing the list could tip off the polluters that they are being watched and b) that putting them on the list might make them seem worse than they are?

Jim Morris:

a) There’s no question that some facilities on the list are under civil or criminal investigation, though the EPA would not disclose which ones. It withheld from its FOIA response the reasons any of the facilities were on the list, claiming an exemption that allows the government to avoid disclosing law enforcement methods.

b) There may be relatively minor violators on the list. But CPI’s own analysis showed that 95 percent of the facilities on the September list were classified as “high priority violators” of the Clean Air Act. The EPA defines a high priority violation as “the most serious level of violation noted in EPA databases.”

As other journalists look at this list, what should they do with the information once they see the name of a local company near them? How do they get smarter before approaching the company?

Morris: Journalists should use the watch list as a starting point only. To learn more about the enforcement history of a facility, they should do an air data search in the EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database. There they can find information on violations, fines, estimated emissions, etc. A caveat: ECHO may not include all violations and penalties. If a reporter is interested in a particular plant, he or she should contact the pertinent state environmental agency and regional EPA office to get a complete enforcement history. Journalists also should check reported emissions numbers in ECHO against those in the Toxics Release Inventory. Finally, they should do a basic legal and clip search, looking for criminal enforcement actions, civil lawsuits, health studies, etc.

Howard Berkes, NPR: A number of companies told us they were not aware of the Watch List or did not know why they would be on it. Some said they had been informed that they were under increased scrutiny but claimed they could not get EPA to explain why. So, Jim’s point is a good one. Check other data sources before contacting the companies. It sounds daunting but these data sources are searchable by company and location.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR environmental correspondent: The watch list could be helpful to reporters around the country because it could tip them off when facilities have been known violators of the Clean Air Act for 9 months without state or federal regulators formally starting an enforcement action. This could be a good source of leads for stories. Most plants get on the list because regulators believe they need urgent clean-up of their air pollution.

As we’ve learned, it can be difficult to learn the ins and outs of how a plant is violating (if it is) and what the government’s response has been to date. But the watch list is a good start because once a plant pops on the list it means the federal government will be giving extra scrutiny to the plant.

Regional EPA offices can be good sources of information, as can local and state environment agencies. Environmental groups might know about details about some facilities.

To make this list, wouldn’t it be reasonable to think that the companies have been at this for a long time? They didn’t just start polluting this summer, did they? How did they get so off the charts?

Morris: To get on the watch list, a facility is supposed to have committed a Clean Air Act violation and had no state or federal enforcement action taken against it within 270 days (nine months) of the date the violation was noted by authorities. As discussed above, the vast majority on the September list are considered high priority violators, suggesting enforcers believe they are problem facilities. Our research found nearly 300 high priority violators that have held that status for at least a decade.

About 383 of the polluters on the list are power plants, refineries, chemical plants and other industrial facilities. Doesn’t somebody already monitor them pretty closely?

Morris: State and federal regulators are supposed to monitor these facilities and, indeed, a number of them have paid large fines and been forced to install significant pollution controls over the years. But complex operations like oil refineries and chemical plants have many sources of emissions and can be hard to regulate, especially when state budgets are shrinking. And smaller plants aren’t always on regulators’ radar.

How did you go about making this story more than a “dancing document” story? You have interactives, video, audio, stills. Why do so much multimedia?

Keith Epstein, CPI managing editor: While it’s rather popular these days to throw all the digital razzle-dazzle one can at a project, this was work that merited multiple platforms and approaches because of how it enhances the work and makes it more compelling and useful.

Users can start learning the health risks in their neighborhood. People who are worried about the air — and complacency of regulators — can learn how to test it themselves. The spreadsheet of a secret EPA list that discloses just how much isn’t being done nationally is something that can be analyzed for local connections, and a way to include responses from scores of companies. Mini-documentaries and radio broadcasts convey voices and emotions of the people affected in a way that print cannot. Compelling narratives and the hard stuff of investigative findings are presented in a complementary, meaningful way.

Readers/users/listeners/viewers/other journalists can feel not only enticed and grasp a deeper understanding of the connection between government failure and their lives in communities, they can feel engaged, and that, should they wish, there are ways of being more informed and taking action.

This is, after all, the promise of digital work. And it’s important to note that we reached for all that without sacrificing or shortchanging the tools, requirements and standards of substantive investigative journalism itself. There is depth to this, not window-dressing flash, and our goals ultimately were simple and similar to what investigative reporters have always wanted to do: tell the world what they’ve discovered in clear, compelling, meaningful human terms that might reach hearts and minds.

Morris; Emma Schwartz, CPI videographer; and Elizabeth Lucas, CPI data reporter: This series is ultimately about how polluted air impacts people in communities across the country. We wanted to find a way to better engage and connect with people — the photos, video and audio help paint a portrait of who is struggling with toxic air and what these places really look like.  Additionally, the map is intended to give users a tool that would help them begin exploring air pollution in and around their own neighborhoods without having to dig through EPA data on their own. There are thousands of plants with permits to pollute, and citizens have a right to know what health risks they may be facing.

Howard Berkes, NPR: Audio adds power to these stories. Hearing the anxiety of the people struggling with pollution — the tone in the voices of the regulators and the explanations of the company — is a far different experience than reading their words. Radio also forces a narrative storytelling style that can help these stories come alive in ways that complement nicely the greater factual detail possible in text, the rich imagery of photographs (you MUST check out the photos of NPR photojournalist of David Gilkey — they are stunning) and the explanatory possibilities of video.

We also have powerful video from NPR videographer John Poole which allows viewers to hear in a nonnarrated, personal way what it’s like to live in Tonawanda, New York, as neighbors to a company that was under reporting its benzene emissions for years.

The interactive map personalizes the stories so that every listener, reader and viewer, with just a few mouse clicks, can hone in on how this situation affects them where they live.

They’re all elements in a package that provides greater depth, meaning and proximity. And it all, in total, makes it very difficult for regulators or companies to deny or ignore the findings.

I teach in my classes that interactive multimedia journalism’s potential is not in how it dazzles us or even how it can hold readers on the page for greatly increased “time spent on site,” a metric that webmasters and advertisers are beginning to love. The real power of this kind of work is that it allows the user to drill down on issues important to them.

It allows the user to decide what they want to learn and how long they want to spend exploring the issue. It provides transparency in the process used to collect and report the story.

This work does those things; the CPI/NPR team have shown us the value of great partners sharing expertise to fix our planet.

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