POLLUTION SOLUTION: Innovative Analysis, Partnerships Track Toxics near Nation's Schools

By Morrison, Blake; Heath, Brad | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

POLLUTION SOLUTION: Innovative Analysis, Partnerships Track Toxics near Nation's Schools


Morrison, Blake, Heath, Brad, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


When we began working on "The Smokestack Effect" in early March 2008, we started with two questions: How dangerous is the air our children are breathing at school? And is the government doing enough to protect them?

Morrison, part of USA Today's projects unit, had been looking at environmental issues and became curious about the impact of industrial pollution on children, who are as much as 10 times more susceptible than adults to the dangers of toxic chemicals.

Nine months later, beginning in early December, Morrison and database reporter Brad Heath produced a series of stories and an interactive database that has prompted a sweeping response from coast to coast, on the local, state and national levels:

* Hundreds of media outlets localized our stories or used the database to report on schools in their area.

* One advocacy group tracked about 8,000 letters to Congress from parents and others in response to our stories.

* School districts from California to North Carolina called in regulators to begin long-term air monitoring after seeing the results of air samples taken by USA Today.

* State environmental officials in Iowa, Ohio and Pennsylvania launched inquiries for the first time into whether industrial chemicals tainted air outside schools.

* And President Barack Obama's choice to run the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, promised swift and specific action that the agency had never before taken. She pledged to deploy regulators within 30 days to check air quality around hundreds of schools indentified in our series.

"USA Today did what investigative journalists do," Jackson told a U.S. Senate committee in January, "which is to find a problem that needs answers."

During months of reporting, we learned a number of lessons - about pitching the project, about data and their limitations and potential, about work-arounds, about ways to stretch budgets that transcended the particulars of this series. Some are basic; others seem especially relevant as newsrooms contract but still look for ways to do ambitious journalism.

The pitch

Morrison sent top editors a 12-page proposal in March. It began with the questions and contained a description of the project, a synopsis of what already had been reported on the subject and a vision of how USA Today could break new ground.

Morrison knew about the EPA's Toxic Release Inventory program, or TRI, which requires the nation's largest industries to tell the public about the amount and types of chemicals they emit. Then he came across a computer simulation developed by the EPA called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators, or RSEI. It uses air dispersion modeling and weights the dangers of each chemical to give meaning to the TRI data. A public version is available on the Web at www.epa.gov. The EPA has built several different models, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. We chose RSEI because it is the agency's most up-to-date way to track industrial pollution. To do what we envisioned, however, we needed the raw data.

Morrison discovered that researchers at the University of Massachusetts Amherst had spent several years getting that data from the EPA. Joined by Heath, we explained to the researchers that we wanted to use the raw data to examine the impact of industrial pollution on schools across the nation. The microdata would enable us to use pollution emissions reports, which are submitted to the EPA as part of the TRI program, to assess the predicted concentrations of hundreds of chemicals in any square kilometer in the country.

Simultaneously, we began gathering data to map the locations of almost 128,000 public, private and parochial schools. We obtained the locations of most of the schools from the U.S. Department of Education's Common Core of Data. But because those data were two years out of date, we supplemented them with lists of schools we collected from more than two dozen state education agencies and information gleaned from newletters we purchased through an organization that monitored school construction. …

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