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Pipelines, dams and pollution: How to investigation the environment in your community

By Lenore T. Adkins

Some of the most important stories about the environment lurk beyond the city limits, but reporters often overlook those narratives because they aren’t in urban settings, said a group of panelists who investigate the environment. 

"Agriculture is vastly under-covered," said Joseph Davis, editor of the WatchDog newsletter for the Society of Environmental Journalists.

The society hosted a panel at the 2015 IRE Conference and highlighted four areas of coverage for reporters to focus on:

  • Dam safety
  • Manure pollution from dairy farms, the people and animals it hurts and the powerful lobbyists in the dairy industry
  • Pipeline safety
  • Outdated formulas some states use that let corporations and others pollute waterways based on an estimate of how often people eat fish. The less people eat fish, the more pollution can be dumped into the water. These formulas were set decades ago and don’t reflect the spike in fish consumption, said panelist Robert McClure.

Through his reporting, McClure, who runs the nonprofit newsroom InvestigateWest, produced a series of stories that found poor Native Americans primarily eat fish from polluted waterways in the Pacific Northwest. In writing stories like this, don’t concentrate on averages, but focus on who is eating the fish, McClure said.

"(It’s) those poor people fishing in the local waterways that are the story to me," he said.

Davis said dam safety is a critical issue, pointing to dams that collapsed in Texas in recent weeks from heavy flooding. He said dams typically fail due to bad engineering, inadequate maintenance, neglect and rainstorms. 

Despite limited government data on dam safety, Davis highlighted tools journalists could use to bolster their reporting, including dam and related databases at

"If we’re trying to save lives, it might be better people know about unsafe dams and where to go when the alarm sounds," Davis said.

With pipeline coverage, it’s important to know the kinds of pipelines running through your community, what they carry and whether they are classified as hazardous, said panelist Naveena Sadasivam, an environmental reporter at InsideClimate News.

Keep in mind how often pipelines are inspected, who inspects them (the company who owns them or a regulatory agency), whether companies are directed to send data to state or federal regulators and whether state and federal regulators treat them equally, she said. 

There are 2.5 million miles of gas and liquid pipelines, so there’s a pipeline safety story near you, she said.

"When they’re operating and they’re operating safely, no one realizes that there are pipelines on the ground — you know, out of sight, out of mind," said Sadasivam, who has covered her share of pipeline explosions and breaks. "But when there is an incident, it can be catastrophic."

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