Inside Win: A Non-Profit Site Wins a Pulitzer for Its Environmental Reporting

A scrappy indie website from Brooklyn wins a Pulitzer for its dogged reporting on a forgotten oil spill.

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It was understandably lost in the shuffle of the horrific bombings at the Boston Marathon, but the Pulitzer prizes were announced yesterday afternoon. As usual, mainstream organizations like the New York Times cleaned up—but the prize for national reporting went to a low-profile, non-profit website: Brooklyn-based InsideClimate News. Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer won for a multi-part investigative series on the Enbridge pipeline oil spill in July 2010—the first major spill of bitumen-diluted Canadian oil, similar to the sort that would be carried by the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, on U.S. soil.

Here’s the beginning of the first story in the award-winning series:


(PHOTOS: Exclusive Photos: The Oil Spill Spreads)

An acrid stench had already enveloped John LaForge’s five-bedroom house when he opened the door just after 6 a.m. on July 26, 2010. By the time the building contractor hurried the few feet to the refuge of his Dodge Ram pickup, his throat was stinging and his head was throbbing.

LaForge was at work excavating a basement when his wife called a couple of hours later. The odor had become even more sickening, Lorraine told him. And a fire truck was parked in front of their house, where Talmadge Creek rippled toward the Kalamazoo River.

LaForge headed home. By the time he arrived, the stink was so intense that he could barely keep his breakfast down.

Something else was wrong, too.

Water from the usually tame creek had inundated his yard, the way it often did after heavy rains. But this time a black goo coated swaths of his golf course-green grass. It stopped just 10 feet from the metal cap that marked his drinking water well. Walking on the tarry mess was like stepping on chewing gum.

LaForge said he was stooped over the creek, looking for the source of the gunk, when two men in a white truck marked Enbridge pulled up just before 10 a.m. One rushed to LaForge’s open front door and disappeared inside with an air-monitoring instrument.

The man emerged less than a minute later, and uttered the words that still haunt LaForge today: It’s not safe to be here. You’re going to have to leave your house. Now.

John and Lorraine LaForge, their grown daughter and one of the three grandchildren living with them at the time piled into the pickup and their minivan as fast as they could, given Lorraine’s health problems. They didn’t pause to grab toys for the baby or extra clothes for the two children at preschool. They didn’t even lock up the house.

Within a half hour, they had checked into two rooms at a Holiday Inn Express, which the family of six would call home for the next 61 days.

Their lives had been turned upside down by the first major spill of Canadiandiluted bitumen in a U.S. river. Diluted bitumen is the same type of oil that could someday be carried by the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. If that project is approved, the section that runs through Nebraska will cross the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water for eight states as well as 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation water.

“People don’t realize how your life can change overnight,” LaForge told an InsideClimate News reporter as they drove slowly past his empty house in November 2011. “It has been devastating.”

You can and should read the rest here. The series has obvious resonance with the fate of the Keystone pipeline still up in the air. Environmentalists insist that any spill of the heavier oil that would be carried by the Keystone pipeline would be more damaging to the environment and human health than a conventional oil spill. Certainly the damage wrought by the Enbridge pipeline spill, doggedly investigated by InsideClimate News, would seem to bear that fear out. Nor is the slow reaction to the spill by Enbridge and by government officials exactly reassuring.

The Enbridge spill never received the attention it deserved from the mainstream media, in part because it unfolded at the end of July 2010, just as the much larger BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was finishing up. Maybe it was spill fatigue, but that gave InsideClimate—which has just seven full-time reporters and is funded by organizations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund—an opportunity to go big. The site richly deserves its prize, and their great work offers hope that even as the fortunes of the mainstream media wax and wane—ahem—good journalism will always be with us.

MORE: State Dept: Build the Keystone Pipeline or Not, the Oil Sands Crude Will Flow