“I was hoping at the beginning that I’d stumble upon this body of epidemiological research that would show a correlation between pharmaceuticals in the drinking water and people. There was nothing like that,” said Donn, “and there may be nothing like that for years. But it turned out that there was a small body of research, much of it unpublished, on the impact of pharmaceuticals at very low environmental concentrations on human cells. Only a very narrow group of scientists was aware of this research. So, part of the challenge was persuading scientists to share unpublished research – and as the science reporters here know, that’s not so easy because scientific publications frown on it.”

Many of the AP’s member newspapers ran the series—but, having received the stories in advance, often added their own articles attesting to the safety of local water. The investigative team’s hard work paid off, however.

“If anybody in this room is wondering about the impact of environmental journalism and whether it should be supported, within hours of our story there were callings for a Senate hearing [which occurred in April 2008],” Mendoza said. “And within week of our story we had Barbara Boxer saying to the EPA, the Associated Press did your work. Why are telling us what’s in our water? Why aren’t you telling us what’s in our water?”

The Journal Sentinel’s series about lax chemical oversight is also having an effect, albeit less directly. In February, Kissinger reported that House of Representatives held the first of several hearings “intended to overhaul the nation’s laws overseeing toxic chemicals.”

This year, the Oakes Award received a record ninety-five applicants from about eighty news newspapers and magazines, according to Arlene Morgan, the prize’s director and a dean at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism.

“We really look at this project as recognizing uniqueness in the field,” she said. “The ‘Chemical Fallout’ series really broke new ground and brought us to deeper level of understanding, and so did the ‘PharmaWater.’”

The Oakes judges did not award a prize in the magazine category, however—a first since the prize moved to Columbia from the Natural Resources Defense Council in 2005. Next year, Morgan said, the school will begin accepting entries from online-only publications.

Curtis Brainard is the editor of The Observatory, CJR's online critique of science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.