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|Winter cloud of smoke over Keene, New Hampshire. Photo: Diana Kruzman. Click to enlarge.|
FEJ StoryLog: Grants Uncover Downside of Wood Stoves, Water Subsidy Impacts
By Diana Kruzman
On a frosty morning in November 2021, I found myself walking along a bridge overlooking the town of Keene, New Hampshire, gazing out at a blanket of smoke covering the houses below.
Keene, a picturesque college town nestled in a mountain valley in the southwestern corner of the state, is known for its strong winter inversion events — when a cold front traps warmer air beneath it, locking in particulate matter and preventing it from dissipating.
That’s bad news for the community of around 23,000 people, many of whom heat their homes with wood, releasing smoke and soot that stick around in a wintertime haze, affecting air quality in much the same way as a wildfire.
I was in Keene to report a story on the health and environmental effects of wood smoke for Undark, thanks to a grant from the Society of Environmental Journalists’ Fund for Environmental Journalism, or FEJ.
The grant allowed me to spend months diving deep into this topic, which I hadn’t seen covered comprehensively before, despite its outsize impact on health issues and premature deaths, and amid a national conversation over environmental justice and air quality standards.
How I reported this story
I first became interested in this topic in the fall of 2020, during my second year of journalism graduate school in a data journalism class. I had been reading about some of the health issues arising from large-scale biomass burning — including wood pellets burned to generate electricity — and saw mention of wood burning on a smaller scale to heat people’s homes.
I hadn’t realized that this source of energy was still
so pervasive, and on such a large scale — about
30 million people use wood as their primary or
secondary heat source in the United States.
My parents had sometimes talked about using a wood stove when they were growing up in Russia. But as a suburban kid from California, I hadn’t realized that this source of energy was still so pervasive, and on such a large scale — about 30 million people use wood as their primary or secondary heat source in the United States.
I then saw that a few states — including New York, where I was studying — offered programs to help switch out old wood stoves for newer, ideally cleaner ones. That introduced me to the idea that the particles released by older wood stoves are a problem, and that officials were trying to do something about that.
I sent out a Freedom of Information Law request for New York state data on how many wood stoves had been replaced and at what cost, not realizing at the time that this would become a much bigger project.
After graduating, I continued working on the story. I felt that I needed to dig deeper to learn what was happening at the national level and why states felt it was necessary to have special programs to replace wood stoves. What about old wood stoves was so harmful?
How the FEJ grant helped
After pitching the story to an editor at Undark in the summer of 2021, I applied for the FEJ grant and began working on it as a freelancer.
First, after reading a March 2021 report from the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Management that raised new questions about the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s certification program for wood stoves, I decided to look further into the state programs that were paying for certified stoves to try to determine how much was being spent and on which models.
I requested information from 10 states that had such programs, then reviewed the resulting data to sort out which wood stoves may not be as clean as they purported to be and how much states were spending on them — a time-consuming process I wouldn’t have been able to undertake without the financial support from the FEJ.
I also wanted to have a local perspective and understand who was using wood stoves and why. So thanks to the FEJ funding, I traveled to Keene. There, I witnessed the effects of wood smoke firsthand and spoke to residents who owned wood-burning appliances, as well as a local researcher who worked to monitor air quality in the town.
Public health and environmental agencies were
approaching it as an environmental justice issue,
since lower-income people often opt for using wood
for heating because other fuels are too expensive.
Finally, I wanted to learn more about the growing body of research on the health effects of wood smoke and air quality. Public health and environmental agencies were paying attention to the problem and approaching it as an environmental justice issue, since lower-income people often opt for using wood for heating because other fuels are too expensive.
I spent months interviewing officials, advocates, doctors and scientists. Having that time to devote helped me get at the deeper issues with wood stoves wouldn't have been possible without FEJ support.
Lessons learned and advice
After publication, I heard from many readers who felt passionately about this issue or had never heard about it before and now thought about it in a new way — exactly the kind of impact I hope to have with my reporting.
The FEJ provided the space to talk about this important issue, and I would advise anyone looking to do a similar story to apply for funding and make the case for why you deserve to take the time to dive into it deeply.
I also learned how reporting plans sometimes change as you go along — for example, I initially hoped to explore the environmental justice implications of wood-burning stoves in Ohio as well as Keene, but my reporting found that there was much more to research and confront this issue in Oregon and Washington, so I adjusted accordingly.
Finally, it’s good to begin with a specific story with main characters and locations to focus on, but don’t hesitate to change that if that’s where the story takes you.
Second FEJ grant
I’m fortunate to say that this also wasn’t my first FEJ grant. Last year, I won an FEJ grant to report for Undark on the impacts of “virtual water” exports on farmland and water resources in the southwestern United States.
For that project, I traveled to southern California and Arizona to witness how large alfalfa farms, some of them owned by big foreign corporations, are taking advantage of business-friendly water laws to draw on the region's scarce water resources, then sending their products abroad.
Like with the wood-stove story, the FEJ grant allowed the time needed to thoroughly report the story. I had to request data on land purchases by foreign companies from the Department of Agriculture and to calculate how many of these were being used for agriculture in the Southwest, showing how the practice is more widespread than just a few prominent cases.
These two grants certainly helped me build my body of work and develop further expertise in science and environmental reporting.
My advice for anyone looking to apply for an FEJ grant: Have a specific story in mind (not just an idea), with characters and an angle, but be flexible in case things change as you go about your research and reporting. Know what kinds of work others have done, and how yours stands out. Explore ways that you can incorporate data, multimedia or other ways to go deeper on a story with the funding provided by FEJ.
And if you're hesitant about applying or feel you may not have enough previous experience, do it anyway. Make the best case you can for why you deserve the grant. Don’t let being new stop you from pursuing a good story.
Diana Kruzman is a Midwest fellow at Grist, where she started in 2022 after working as a freelancer, focusing on the environment, religion and urbanism. She has written for Undark, Earther, The New York Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Vice and the GroundTruth Project, and has reported from Albania, India, Kyrgyzstan, Egypt and the United States.
Based in Ohio, she also is a current fellow with Religion News Service and the Religion and Environment Story Project. She graduated from the master's journalism program at New York University in 2021.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 7, No. 28. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.