I am a freelance investigative journalist who combines data journalism with on-the-ground reporting to write about the impact of extractive industries around the world. The portfolio I am submitting contains stories published over the last year from South Africa and across the U.S. These pieces reveal malfeasance at the hands of government officials and multinational corporations alike. The stories cover a range of aspects of extractive industries, including coal mine cleanup, water pollution from gold and other metals mines, methane emissions that help fuel a warming climate, the use of bankruptcy law to avoid environmental liability and political influence purchased by the oil and gas industry.
Generally speaking, my reporting attempts to answer questions about who should bear the environmental, health, social and localized economic costs of resource extraction. In writing about issues as contentious as climate change or the development versus conservation debate, I rely heavily on data to help my copy rise above the polarized fray. This often means building datasets on the costs of cleanup obligations. In other stories, this data work has become an effort to catalogue the climate change implications of insufficient coal mine cleanup or the jobs lost to long-idled mines. In the specific stories included in this portfolio, I show how a sitting governor eschews cleanup at coal mines he still owns, how a former governor drained an environmental cleanup fund, how British investors took the money and ran from its operations in the Global South and how insufficient extractive infrastructure cleanup helps fuels a warming climate.
I report, write and shoot photographs almost exclusively for nonprofit newsrooms, so the portfolio I am submitting includes stories originally published in the Center for Public Integrity, Energy News Network, Climate Home News and the Oxpeckers Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism. The goal of this reporting was to reach both influential government networks as well as a broader general audience that faces the downstream impacts of extractive industries. Numerous top outlets, including the Associated Press for example, republished these stories throughout the year, solidly achieving the second audience engagement goal. The targeted reach of my nonprofit partners achieved the first by placing the stories in front of governors, senators, career federal regulators and South Africa’s Parliament.
What makes this project innovative?
Operating as a freelance investigative journalist for the past few years, I have faced additional hurdles that included needing to build my projects from the ground up. My responsibilities -- those that would not exist for a traditional reporter in a newsroom full-time -- included earning my own grant funding, working without the safety net of a full-time employer, writing copy that could go to print with minimal editing and producing many of my own multimedia elements. Perhaps most importantly, this meant I needed to be proficient in both data work as well as reporting physically from mining-affected communities, public meetings and inside mines. And my focus area, the environmental impacts and unintended economic consequences of extractive industries, does not have many of us combining data work with human interest reporting on an international level. Over the past few years, my stories have been the first by a journalist to try to chronicle the cleanup and closure costs of mining infrastructure, mine-by-mine and permit-by-permit. The actual tools I used, such as Microsoft Excel, were by no means innovative, but my methodology was where I got ahead of the curve. This included highlighting national impacts beginning with a specific mine and building out data state-by-state or, in South Africa’s case, province-by-province. This led to scoops, such as the stories on the governors of West Virginia and Ohio, as well as impact, such as sudden interest displayed by federal or national regulators in the U.S. and South Africa.
What was the impact of your project? How did you measure it?
All these stories were originally published in nonprofit news outlets, meaning much of the audience reach came via the partnerships and co-publications I secured. The stories I am submitting in this portfolio were picked up with great success. Titles that republished these stories included, but were not limited to the following: the Associated Press, Mother Jones, High Country News, HuffPost, Grist, Governing, South Africa’s Business Day, the Billings Gazette, the Helena Independent Record, the Missoulian and several other local U.S. titles. These also led to radio spots in stations in both countries. The Climate Home News story about West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice idling his coal mines was part of a larger investigative series that increased Climate Home News’ monthly average readership from the U.S. by more than 25 percent. The average time on page for that story was very strong, at higher than 3:15. The story was also featured in the energy newsletters of both The Washington Post as well as Morning Consult, two publications read by the powers that be in Washington, D.C. The Energy News Network story about former Gov. John Kasich pulling money out of Ohio’s coal mine cleanup fund was named among the “best of nonprofit news” for 2018 by the Institute for Nonprofit News. It led the Sierra Club to bring an official complaint to the federal Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement calling for an investigation. After I scooped the story, local newspapers began writing articles and editorials about the issue. Ohio’s new governor recently announced that the $5 million would be returned to the cleanup fund. The South African investigation into the liquidation, extreme environmental degradation and subsequent asset stripping at a gold mine in the Johannesburg suburbs was part of my ongoing coverage on the topic that resulted in Parliament launching an investigation into the situation. In their resulting report, the committee directly cited my reporting, saying it “prompted the parliamentary committee to step in.” Most recently, my investigation into insufficient environmental cleanup funds for the Center for Public Integrity well surpassed 6,000 shares on Facebook and was shared on Twitter by Sen. Tom Udall, Chelsea Clinton and other influential political figures. As for metrics that are already available, the Billings Gazette, the largest newspaper in Montana and one of the titles that republished the story, noted that the story’s time on page was twice the paper’s average.
Source and methodology
National data on methane emissions from the country’s coal mines came from the Mine Safety and Health Administration, as did employment numbers in the mine idling investigation. That data, however, needed to be matched with a Virginia Department of Mines Minerals and Energy database of idled permits. That married dataset was then compared to similar datasets received through public records requests submitted to the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. Records for the story about former Gov. John Kasich pulling money away from the state’s coal mine cleanup fund came from the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and the Ohio Reclamation Forfeiture Fund’s advisory board. The story on cleanup bonds for American coal mines was sourced from the Office of Surface Mining Reclamation and Enforcement and several dozen state agencies across the country, while the even less transparent hardrock cleanup funds were analyzed through data provided by civil society researchers, in addition to state data. The South African investigation relied on Department of Mineral Resources data compared to company-level information revealed in court documents. All told, the data I used relied on several dozen public records requests filed under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, the South African Promotion of Access to Information Act and several dozen states’ sunshine laws. The vast majority of this data came from government sources and, therefore, was already as verified as it could be. In the story from Ohio, I attended a public meeting where a regulator made a statement that the data I had pulled from the state was one of the most “accurate and comprehensive spreadsheets in the country.” It showed that the state faced a funding shortfall to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. In the case of hardrock bonding data, only some of the data came from state governments, while broad, national numbers came from researchers commissioned by NGOs. I verified their work as best as possible by having multiple conversations with them about their methodologies, by confirming with a former higher up in the EPA that the researchers’ work had been of a high enough quality to be used as EPA data, and by being very clear in my story as to where the data originated.
I largely stuck to the basics in organizing, cleaning and analyzing this data. I housed all this data in Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, in part because that was often the format in which government agencies sent me data and in part because I needed my data clean and ready to share with partner publications. Excel also allowed me to compare and combine various states’ datasets via functions such as VLOOKUP. I completed more sophisticated calculations using DB Browser for SQLite. Data cleaning took place either in Excel or in OpenRefine, depending on the nature of the specific story’s data. In lieu of more advanced coding to scrape data, I actually found success -- at least in the story’s submitted with this portfolio -- in having extended conversations with state and federal employees who managed their agency’s or department’s data. These discussions allowed me to determine what information the department held and how far it could go. In these instances, the database administrators were often -- usually, but not always -- happy to organize and pull the data themselves to speed up my records requests and avoid more time-consuming asks. That is how I operated with the Mine Safety and Health Administration, for example, who put together a personalized database of employment figures when I created a list of mine IDs that helped direct my request for them. I also believe that transparency in my own work is of the utmost importance. For that reason, I make the vast majority of the data I use public when I publish investigations. Examples from the stories I am submitting in this portfolio include downloadable DocumentCloud links to spreadsheets I created, embedded graphs and charts containing the data, and links to government websites where readers can download or request full datasets.