A USA Today investigation which found that the air outside thousands of schools across the country could be at least twice as toxic as the air in nearby neighborhoods—and sometimes ten times higher—has won the 2009 John B. Oakes Award for excellence in environmental journalism.

The special report, “The Smokestack Effect: Toxic Air and America’s Schools,” comprised a series of articles, the first of which appeared in December 2008, as well as an outstanding Web site that allows readers to search for information about schools in their area, or peruse the most polluted schools in each state.

Judges for the Oakes Award, which is administered by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, applauded USA Today reporters Blake Morrison and Brad Heath for a “commitment to the public good, that even government agencies entrusted with protecting the health of children—the most vulnerable among us—had failed to demonstrate.”

“By yoking the locations of private and pubic schools around the country with an EPA model for tracking toxic chemicals, the reporters identified hundreds of schools where children seemed to be at risk,” said the judges’ citation. “As a result, the EPA and local environmental agencies began to do what they should have been doing for years: paying attention to the environment in which our children live and learn.”

“The Smokestack Effect” also won the 2009 Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment, which is administered by the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting, and the 2009 Philip Meyer Journalism Award, which is administered by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) and recognizes the best journalism done using social science research methods.

Second place in the Oakes Award contest went to The New York Times for ‘Toxic Waters,” a multimedia investigative series that critically examined the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act. The Oakes judges praised reporter Charles Duhigg for chronicling “the failures of the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act, that federal and state agencies had been ignoring.” Duhigg’s extensive research—according to Columbia’s press release (pdf), he interviewed more than 350 sources and filed 500 Freedom of Information Act—allowed him to build a computerized database that chronicled the “pattern of pollution and lack of enforcement that jeopardizes the nation’s water and health.”

The Oakes judges also cited Kristen Lombardi, of the Center for Public Integrity, and Kelly Kennedy, of Military Times, for meritorious work on the topics of longwall mining and health threats faced by troops in war zones, respectively.

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