Inside Story: Small-Market Reporter Unmasks Race Gap in Pollution Response
The response to a recent air pollution crisis by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency laid bare an ongoing — and toxic — racial and class divide. That’s what reporter Sharon Lerner of The Intercept found in her coverage of the uneven government reaction to similar problems in an affluent Chicago suburb and a rural African-American town in Louisiana.
Her project, “A Tale of Two Toxic Cities: The EPA's Bungled Response to an Air Pollution Crisis Exposes a Toxic Racial Divide,” won Lerner an honorable mention for outstanding investigative reporting in a small market in the Society of Environmental Journalists’ 2019 Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment. Judges said, “The broader implications for this story strongly resonate for the whole county, particularly the hundred-plus census tracts that are at risk.”
Lerner, who has previously won several other SEJ reporting awards, shared her experience of the project with SEJournal Online. Here is the conversation.
SEJournal: How did you get your winning story idea?
Sharon Lerner: I had already reported on air pollution in St. John, Louisiana, that I identified through EPA's National Air Toxics Assessment, which puts cancer risk based on industrial air pollution in each census tract into a number that represents the risk per million people. There had been very little action taken in response to the news of the risk in St. John, which I reported almost two years before. Yet I noticed that when a community in Illinois was facing a similar air pollution issue, the response from EPA and local officials was relatively swift, even though their cancer risk was far less than the one faced in Louisiana.
SEJournal: What was the biggest challenge in reporting the pieces and how did you solve that challenge?
Lerner: I had some records of phone calls and meetings between industry and EPA about the assessments of the three chemicals, but could rarely find out what exactly was said at them. Also, it was tricky to document the faster and more meaningful response that the community in Illinois received without seeming to pit one community against another, which I didn't want to do. My hope was to expose the injustice while being clear that no one should have to live with elevated cancer risk. Also, I wanted to — and did — report this story without flying. (Because of climate change, I am trying to keep air travel to a minimum.) I had already been to St. John for my previous story and would up-stream some community meetings and do Skype and phone interviews.
So often it's impossible to definitively
show racism — it's something that happens
behind the scenes or in difficult-to-quantify treatment.
SEJournal: What most surprised you about your findings?
Lerner: That so few chemicals were responsible for almost all of the elevated cancer risk. As I was looking into this, it dawned on me that there were more than 100 census tracts facing this elevated cancer risk from air pollution and in all but one case it was from just three air pollutants. For each of these chemicals, which had been assessed by the EPA's IRIS program, industry was working behind the scenes to prevent the assessments from being turned into regulation. I was also struck by the fact that, when you map out the affected census tracts, there aren't a huge number of affected areas or facilities that are responsible — so it should be an easily fixable problem. And I was surprised that the EPA had no response when I asked them to explain why these communities got differential treatment.
SEJournal: How did you decide to tell the story and why?
Lerner: So often it's impossible to definitively show racism — it's something that happens behind the scenes or in difficult-to-quantify treatment. In this case, the danger these communities faced was measurable — and had in fact been measured by the EPA. The racial and income disparities were also plainly apparent from census numbers. And so were the differences in response the two communities received. I knew all about what was going on in St. John from having been down there and keeping up with members of the community. Once I read some of the coverage of the outrage and response in Willowbrook, it seemed important to draw the comparison.
SEJournal: What would you do differently now, if anything, in reporting or telling the story and why?
Lerner: I might report on more of the 109 communities with elevated cancer risks from air pollution as well. I simply didn't have the time to include them in this story.
SEJournal: What lessons have you learned from your story?
Lerner: I've learned how helpful EPA data can be in telling stories — something I've learned before, so maybe I should say I remembered it. There is so much available on their website if you have the time and patience to try to navigate it.
Don't let the fact that it's impossible to tie one
individual's health issues to a specific chemical
prevent you from including real people's stories.
SEJournal: What practical advice would you give to other reporters pursuing similar projects, including any specific techniques or tools you used and could tell us more about?
Lerner: Don't let the fact that it's impossible to tie one individual's health issues to a specific chemical prevent you from including real people's stories. I find it's best to acknowledge that impossibility up front and then let the reader hear about people's experiences and judge for themselves. In this story, for instance, there were people whose symptoms cleared up after they moved from houses near the polluting plant. There were several people in a small town near a polluting facility who had the same very rare illness that has been linked to air pollution. And there's science that links diseases to exposures that people getting the exposures wind up having. So even if you can't definitively say why any one person gets sick, you can show the links — and show why it's reasonable to suspect that the health problems are linked to the exposures.
SEJournal: Is there anything else you would like to share about this story or environmental journalism?
Lerner: It's been gratifying to see people in the affected communities use this story to push to get limits put on their local polluters.
[Editor’s Note: See a 2018 Inside Story on Lerner’s award-winning feature story profiling an environmental scientist and advocate jailed by federal prosecutors.]
Sharon Lerner is an investigative reporter for The Intercept, covering health and the environment. Her Intercept series, “The Teflon Toxin,” was a finalist for a National Magazine Award. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Nation and The Washington Post, among other publications, and she has received awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the American Public Health Association, the Park Center for Independent Media, the Women & Politics Institute and the Newswomen's Club of New York. She is a proud SEJ member.
* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 5, No. 26. 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.