Focusing on the environment in 2020

Protests in Miami, Florida Protests over George Floyd's killing included one in Miami May 31, 2020, (Hanna Tverdokhib/

By Lynne Perri

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Over the course of 2020, the Investigative Reporting Workshop produced 20 investigations into subject areas we’ve focused on since we began publishing 11 years ago: Banking, immigration, health and the environment.

River water
Nearly 1 million people in small, disadvantaged California communities are divided from their neighbors by a lack of access to safe and affordable drinking water. (Lance M. Yamamoto)


Our environmental coverage grew and included two major projects on water use, one in California, where an unincorporated town has endured 12 years of having to use bottled water, and another in Florida, where the state’s largest freshwater lake continues to have high phosphorus levels, creating a growing algae problem.

Look for more major stories in 2021 on water problems and solutions being tried, even when the battle for change seems uphill. We will spend another 18 months looking at water issues in several states.


oil refinery
Kern Oil and Refining Co.’s facility in Bakersfield, Calif., faces legal and regulatory challenges as well as public backlash over toxic air emissions. (Jeremy P. Jacobs/E&E News)

We also published a multipart series throughout 2020 on toxic air, which threatens the health of those who live near oil refineries. 

Many people within one, three and five miles of refineries cope with elevated rates of high blood pressure, cancer, asthma, strokes, and heart, lung and kidney diseases, according to an analysis of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data by IRW, and such conditions are now exacerbated by the spread of COVID-19 during the pandemic. 

Several of these stories revealed how acute health problems more often affect communities of color, whether those residents are in Philadelphia or California’s Central Valley. The project has been a collaboration among IRW, E&E News and NBC News. The stories have taken readers to Philadelphia, Artesia, New Mexico, California’s Central Valley, Shreveport, Louisiana, and Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

An analysis of population and CDC data in the communities that surround U.S. refineries formed the foundation for the Toxic Zones series. It is the first such analysis of every U.S. facility by a news organization.  Data journalists at IRW spent months creating digital footprints for every U.S. refinery. From there, we aggregated census and health data for zones around each facility and compared those areas to the surrounding counties.

The impact of our reporting included:

  • The Philadelphia Inquirer and other regional media outlets followed up on our Jan. 16 story on the refinery’s dangerously high benzene levels.
  • Our story ran just ahead of a public auction to sell the 150-year-old refinery property. The story elevated a serious environmental and public health issue as the process played out in U.S. bankruptcy court. The winning bid went to a Chicago-based redevelopment firm that promised to remediate the layers and layers of environmental damage and redevelop the site into a logistics hub.
  • The New York Times Magazine ran a July 28 cover story about the refinery’s effect on the Grays Ferry neighborhood. It cited our reporting.


A combination picture shows plastics sorted inside baskets at a collecting site in Indonesia. (Willy Kurniawan / REUTERS)

Our partnership with PBS FRONTLINE’s Washington team, led by writer-director Rick Young, and with NPR, also tackled environmental concerns. The result, a one-hour program titled “Plastic Wars,” offered viewers a better understanding of what is recycled, what isn’t recycled and why. The producers traveled to Oregon, one of the first states to focus on recycling, and to Indonesia, where much of the recycling in the United States ends up.

Police shootings

Protest in Washington, D.C.
A Black Lives Matter protest in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 28, 2020. (Julian Leshay /

Closer to home, our reporters also covered unrest in the nation’ streets as thousands protested the use of force by police and the deaths of unarmed citizens in Minneapolis, Louisville, Philadelphia, Washington and other cities. 

IRW has supported The Washington Post’s ongoing coverage of fatal shootings by police. Fatal Force, which won the Post a Pulitzer in 2016, was a landmark project, creating and using a national database to illustrate how often and why the police shoot to kill. It has been continuously updated by Post staffers and by IRW interns, led by IRW’s John Sullivan, also a Post investigative reporter, who spearheads finding stories within that data. One in 2020 was a story about women who die at the hands of police, and another story explained that about 1,000 people are shot and killed every year by police, despite promises of reform by law-enforcement agencies nationwide.



In addition to building on core strengths in these subject areas — and focusing on accountability with each — IRW continued to build out The Accountability Project (TAP), a powerful way to search across public data sets to locate valuable information and see patterns or relationships. 

This is a free interface that journalists and researchers can use to acquire, organize and draw insights from the wealth of useful data sets that can illuminate wrongdoing, conflicts of interest and corruption. 

TAP has proven especially useful for reporters in small or local newsrooms who are strapped for time and resources. We have molded TAP to fit the needs of newsrooms. We’re able to add custom queries and queries based on geography. We can add data based on suggestions from fellow reporters about the types of data sets most useful to their reporting or public interest work. (For example, in recent months the TAP team focused on data sets ranging from PPP loans to hospital and nursing home data to help newsrooms across the country deepen local COVID-19 coverage.)

TAP will soon reach 1 billion public records, connecting hundreds of public data sets that were previously siloed.