Climate, health top our 2021 coverage

children learning outdoors with teacher The Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center in Bentonville, Arkansas, eliminated or significantly reduced exposures to six major classes of chemicals when its new campus opened in 2019. (Sadie Oldebeken / Helen R. Walton Children's Enrichment Center)

By Lynne Perri

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Our environmental and health coverage continued in 2021, a year in which our reporters were in the field with new partners to bring you stories from water problems in Louisiana to nursing-home shortages in Maine. One of our last stories of 2021 was an in-depth look at why childhood cancer cases have climbed, despite fewer deaths and better treatment. We found many experts who blame toxins in the environment and bemoan the lack of funding for drug development focused on children.

Our coverage areas varied but inevitably circled back to accountability — were legislators and policymakers doing their jobs? Were they transparent about their decisions? Were their actions influenced by lobbyists over the last several years the reason the health-care system was crippled during the second year of the pandemic? 

A few highlights:

  • Louisiana is losing and mismanaging its most precious commodity, water. This was a five-part series in which written and audio stories appeared on our website and those of stations WWNO New Orleans and WRKO Baton Rouge. Or you can listen to reporter Tegan Wendland, who produced this six-minute overview for NPR.
  • Iowa’s toxic brew, co-published with Public Health Watch, looked at the convergence of two rivers in Des Moines, Iowa, a bullseye illustrating the connection between climate change and toxins in drinking water. Legislation and litigation haven’t worked. So the Des Moines Water Works is getting into the farming business.
  • Pollution meets politics in Port Arthur, Texas, co-published with Public Health Watch. We reported that the 86-year-old Oxbow plant there emits as much lung-damaging sulfur dioxide as it did before the Clean Air Act was passed 51 years ago, and the impact of that pollution is mostly on those who live within three miles of the plant. Of the 2,600 people who do, 98 percent are people of color and 62 percent have incomes of $53,000 or less for a family of four; those closest to Oxbow suffer disproportionately from respiratory illness.  We’ll continue to report on the Oxbow plant, and also are working on stories related to other toxins released routinely into the air in Texas.

We produced three deep dives into the nursing-home crisis in 2021:

  • How Ohio became the state with the most nursing assistant shortages during the pandemic. Co-reported with Eye on Ohio.
  • What happened in Maine, where nursing homes faced ongoing staff shortages — a problem that predated the pandemic. Co-reported with the Maine Monitor. 
  • How industry lobbying kept wages low and staffs smaller in nursing homes nationwide. Co-reported with Investigate Midwest.

We looked at hospital care in a co-production with FRONTLINE and NPR, The Healthcare Divide. The program examined the market forces and uneven government support that are deepening the divide, with profits at some hospitals booming, while many safety-net hospitals that serve the poor struggle to stay afloat. 

We continued The Accountability Project, which cuts across data silos and gives journalists and the public a simple way to search huge volumes of public data about people and organizations. So far, we’ve acquired, standardized and uploaded hundreds of databases, accounting for more than 1.4 billion records. The data has been used by journalists across the country to identify patterns and draw connections between people and organizations.

And in our ongoing partnership with The Washington Post, in which graduate practicum students, and several IRW interns, contributed research, data analysis or reporting, we published:

IRW’s John Sullivan, also on the reporting team at the Post, led this partnership. He furthered his reporting on police by chronicling an endless cycle of outrage and reform among police departments nationwide.

You can expect continued coverage of water issues nationwide in 2022, as well as more on other environmental problems, proposed solutions and the ongoing frustration people feel who live without access to clean water and air.