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Brad Heath: No clean air testing at schools

Dozens of public and private schools opened in recent years in areas where government records show students could be exposed to air tainted by high levels of industrial pollution. While environmental regulations typically require builders to examine the effect that a structure might have on the surrounding ecosystem, in most states, school officials are not required to consider the potential danger to students before they start building.

How did you get started? (tip, editor assignment, etc.) This was the last in a series of stories that focused on industrial air pollution outside the nation's schools. We noticed in working with our database that many of the schools where the air appeared to be worst - based on government models - also opened within the past few years. We wondered whether they even considered the risk. (Read the USA Today story)

What were the key sources? (people, documents, etc.) Like most of the other stories in our series, this one relied in large part on a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency computer model called Risk-Screening Environmental Indicators, which tries to track the path of industrial air pollution. We combined that model with the U.S. Education Department's database of public schools, which helped us identify schools that opened within the past four years. We also reviewed state regulations and spoke to experts who have studied siting rules.

What was the biggest roadblock you had to overcome?
The story focused extensively on a new school in Springdale, Ark. It was built in an area where the EPA model said the air likely contained high levels of chromium and nickel emitted by a nearby tool-making plant. The plant's owner didn't want to comment. We called and visited the Springdale plant, visited the company's headquarters in Washington and made repeated inquiries by phone and e-mail, all of which went unreturned. The company never commented for our story.

Do you have any advice for journalists working on a similar story?
Don't reinvent the wheel, especially when it comes to something as complex as comparing 50 states' school siting regulations. We found an assessment conducted by Rhode Island Legal Services under an EPA grant that thoroughly categorized each state's laws and guidelines. It was comprehensive and saved us weeks of work.

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