Big Environmental Impacts on Small Communities Is Story That Must Be Told

June 26, 2019

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Environmental policies might originate in Washington, D.C., but their impacts ripple out into locales across the country, such as with radical shifts in policies around the leasing of federally owned land for fossil fuel extraction. Here, public lands near Morris Lake in Montana. Image: Department of Interior/Steven Janzen, Flickr Creative Commons. Click to enlarge.

Feature: Big Environmental Impacts on Small Communities Is Story That Must Be Told

By Eric Lipton

Too often, the story of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department is told by us environmental journalists via a lens that focuses mostly on the bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., as they write or rollback rules. 

Yes, there are a lot of important maneuvers that take place in the nation’s capital, as lawyers and lobbyists lean on top political appointees and the White House to steer policy changes that benefit their clients’ bottom lines, often at the public’s expense.

And the ethical stumbles of Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke, the former bosses at the EPA and Interior respectively, also demanded a big and competitive reporting push. This much-needed scrutiny is still underway of their successors, Andrew Wheeler and David Bernhardt.


The real environmental story is not in Washington. 

And that is good news for local newspaper, radio, TV and 

multimedia reporters covering the beat.


But the real environmental story is not in Washington. And that is good news for local newspaper, radio, TV and multimedia reporters covering the beat. 

The story that most resonates with readers/viewers/listeners is how these debates over air and water rules, or toxic chemicals and pesticides — and even the radical shifts in enforcement policies — impact their lives, every single day. 


PFAS contamination a case in point

Consider the debate over PFAS, short for poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances. This class of chemicals was once widely used in firefighting foams at military bases and in many other domestic products, like non-stick pans and waterproof jackets. 

The drinking water supply of as many as 16 million Americans in 33 states have been contaminated with these chemicals. PFAS “may affect growth, learning, and behavior of infants and older children; lower a woman's chance of getting pregnant; interfere with the body's natural hormones; increase cholesterol levels; affect the immune system; and increase the risk of cancer,” according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Pause and think about what a big deal that is. And how vital it is to share information broadly with the public about this slow-moving public health and environmental catastrophe.

Just check in on communities like Parchment, a city near Kalamazoo, Mich., or the Wilmington area of North Carolina, or Hoosick Falls, N.Y (may require subscription), or Willow Grove, Pa. (may require subscription), which is near where I grew up.

Each of these areas had PFAS contamination levels in drinking water that were so high local residents were told in recent years to temporarily stop drinking it or at least make sure they took special steps to filter it. 

The chemical has also been found in the bloodstream of most Americans. Here is a map prepared by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, that details communities nationwide where PFAS contamination is a problem. That, comrades, is a story list.

Yes, the EPA is in the middle of a debate in Washington, facing pressure from the Department of Defense, over just how tough of a standard should be set for what represents PFAS groundwater contamination.  And from Washington, we at The New York Times and others can and will write that story — and we have (may require subscription). 

But there is an even more compelling and urgent story in every one of these communities nationwide. You might be drinking it every day. Or your kids are drinking it, which is even worse. This is a topic that is anything but esoteric. 


Long list of high-impact local stories 

Giant consequences in real communities are the stories we must tell. 

That’s true, for example, with coal-burning power plants in certain states nationwide, including Texas, Utah and Arkansas. 

During the Obama administration, facilities in those states faced orders to upgrade emissions controls to reduce emissions of sulfur dioxide, a pollutant that causes respiratory ailments and in some circumstances cardiac conditions that cause premature death. Now, they aren’t. 

I went to Texas to write this story (may require subscription). But it could be told from many places in the United States.

So could the decision by the Interior Department to no longer require strict controls on methane flaring and venting on federal lands — allowing massive discharges in places like New Mexico and North Dakota. 

Or the decision by the EPA to disregard the advice of its own scientists, after pesticide lobbyists intervened. The agency rejected a plan to ban the particularly dangerous pesticide chlorpyrifos, which is used on dozens of crops in states nationwide, particularly in California. This has left the families of crop workers exposed to a pesticide that causes developmental disabilities in their children. 

Yes, we told that story too (may require subscription).

Then there is the ongoing evaluation by the EPA of 10 of the most toxic chemicals in wide use in the United States (may require subscription) — such as 1,4-dioxane and perchloroethylene. These may sound like hopelessly complicated substances, but they have very real, practical and hugely consequential uses. 

Perchloroethylene, nicknamed perc, is used in dry cleaning stores nationwide. The EPA has classified it as likely to be carcinogenic to humans, as it is associated with bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma and multiple myeloma. It is also a drinking-water contaminant. But it is still in use at your local dry cleaner. 

This is a big story in Washington (may require subscription). But it is a story in just about every community nationwide as well, enhanced with some discussion of the regulatory debate by which the dry cleaning industry is trying to block major new restrictions over how perc is used.

The list goes on. 


In large parts of the West, 

there are stories just about everywhere you turn, 

with radical shifts in leasing policy for government-owned lands 

or the millions of acres being auctioned off.


In large parts of the West, for instance, there are stories just about everywhere you turn.

Large chunks of states like Utah, Montana, Wyoming and Nevada are owned by the federal government, and radical shifts in leasing policy (may require subscription) related to how this land is being offered for lease for oil, gas or coal extraction (may require subscription) have created intense debates over the value of the jobs that can emerge from these choices versus the environmental harm that can be caused. 

Millions of acres of land are being auctioned off, sometimes for as little as (may require subscription) $1.50 an acre. Here is a list of these lease sales in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Eastern States, Idaho, Montana-Dakotas, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. Are one or more in your backyard too? Click and find out.


Agencies themselves provide key data

This is what makes the EPA and Interior such important beats, no matter where you are based — they are enormously relevant.

The EPA itself is a tremendous source of data that can help you dig into these topics. For instance, use the agency’s website to look up where power plants are located and exactly how much sulfur dioxide or nitrogen oxide or even mercury they discharge into your local air. Then craft a story about this national debate as it relates to local communities. 

Check out this dataset, or this one, and look up the communities you cover. There is also a super cool Google Earth Pro (free download) application that you can use to fly in and look at pollution sources of all types in any community in the United States. 

The EPA, via its ECHO system, also has an enormous amount of information and documents about notices of violation issued to local manufacturing companies or power plants over air or water pollution problems — data you can look up and ask questions about. 

For example, why has it been years since EPA issued a given notice of violation, but still taken no final enforcement action? The New York Times asked this about an incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio (may require subscription), using ECHO data. 

National and local environmental groups often gather this kind of data. Be sure to check whether their data collection process is rigorous and fair. This information can help inform your journalism, backing up anecdotal stories with hard data.

The story of the environment is everywhere. And it is best told not from inside the Beltway, but from out there in communities nationwide where the real impact of these policy choices is playing out. 

Go tell these stories. People are hungry for them. It is an essential public service. This is what journalism is all about.

Eric Lipton is an investigative reporter for The New York Times, based in Washington. He started at The Times in 1999 covering Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and then the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He is a three-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting, investigative reporting and as part of a team for foreign reporting. He previously worked at The Washington Post and The Hartford Courant.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 4, 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.

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