Columbia Presents 2007 Oakes Awards

Winners cover radioactive pollution, coastal erosion, and melting ice caps

For the second year in a row, the Los Angeles Times carried home the annual John B. Oakes Award for environmental reporting, this time sharing the prize with the New Orleans Times Picayune. Harper’s won in the magazine category.

Both newspapers won for deeply reported and multifaceted print series buttressed by hefty multimedia packages. The Times Picayune story, about crisis-level erosion (abetted by human industry) threatening southeast Louisiana, features an especially impressive interactive map, which charts the path of the rapidly receding coastline. According to its creator, Dan Swenson, one of his motivations for creating such a detailed and navigable graphic was that most current maps show an erroneously healthy-looking coast that hasn’t existed since the 1930s.

“After is was published, we got hundreds of requests from universities and schools for copies,” he told a small audience at Columbia University last night, where the winners gathered for a panel discussion and reception.

Bob Marshall, who helped write the three-day, three-part series with Mark Schleifstein and Matt Brown, was also there. Marshall said he has been watching and reporting on the encroaching sea just forty miles from New Orleans for twenty-five years. The story package, headlined “Last Chance: The Fight to Save a Disappearing Coast,” ran last March. It has boosted awareness among residents of New Orleans and other readers, Marshall told the audience, but when it comes to the poor federal and state management and conservation practices, “nothing much has changed.”

For the LA Times, Judy Pasternak followed in the footsteps of her colleagues Ken Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling, who won the Oakes Award last year for their series on Earth’s “Altered Oceans.” Pasternak turned her attention to land-specifically the Utah-Arizona border, where latent and residual impacts of uranium mining during the cold war are creating health problems on the Navajo reservation there. Pasternak’s four-part series, “Blighted Homeland,” ran in November. It is an impressive investigation of cancer-inducing radioactive exposure, stemming from the mines, which the government and health authorities overlooked, ignored, and misdiagnosed for nearly half a century. With the growing price of uranium and renewed interest in mining, she reported, the threat continues. Unlike on the Gulf coast, however, things are changing on Navajo land.

“I received more than a thousand e-mails after the series was published,” Pasternak, who worked on the story for the better part of two years, told the crowd last night. Moreover, the package led one of the former lead prosecutors of Enron to represent the Navajo in their pursuit of getting the toxic mess cleaned up and getting paid for related health costs, she said. And Representative Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, has begun a Congressional inquiry into the impact of uranium mining on the reservation.

McKenzie Funk took the magazine prize for an article in the September issue of Harper’s headlined, “Cold Rush: The Coming fight for the Melting North.” Among the myriad articles that appeared last fall about the unprecedented loss of summertime Arctic sea ice and what that means to the suite of northern nations eager to one day take advantage of an open northwest passage, Funk’s was perhaps the best. His account of Canada’s “sovereignty operations” (apparently the most ambitious in the world and designed to protect the country’s claim to the important shipping route) takes him to a remote military out post and onboard one of the patrol boats. The story is masterful, in a Cervantes-like way, because it balances a situation that at times seems very serious or very silly; as one of the Oakes Award judges noted, Funk penned the tale “with a style that is both authoritative and good natured.” The lead, depicting one of the military’s many quixotic drills, was so good that it bears reprinting:

On the first full day of the sovereignty operation, the captain slowed the frigate and we took out the machine guns and sprayed the Northwest Passage with bullets. It felt pretty good. It was foggy, and the unpolluted water boiled as we polluted it with lead. There was no life we could see, and few waves. The wind was cold, the Arctic Ocean a drab green. There wasn’t any ice. But if there had been ice, we would have shot it…

When they finished, they kicked the shells into the sea. There were journalists on board, and the Arctic was warming, and the Canadians-a peaceful people, a people who take immense pride in their own decency-were trying their hardest to seem violent, dangerous, prepared. They were baring their teeth.”

The awards honor John B. Oakes, who worked for The New York Times as a columnist (pioneering, in particular, a column about the environment), editorial writer, editor, editorial page editor, and creator of the op-ed page. All three of last night’s Oakes Award-winning articles deserve a look, not only because they are exceptional pieces of environmental reporting, but because they tell stories that are far, far from over.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.