The AP's two-month, 50-state investigation revealed thousands of instances of regulators granting environmental waivers to oil and gas companies, government facilities and other operations in the middle of the pandemic, a finding that could have nationwide implications for public health.
When the Trump administration announced it was waiving enforcement of environmental protections because of the pandemic, public health officials told AP that it would be difficult to determine the impact. The federal government wasn’t keeping a record of the industries and government agencies taking advantage of the rollback. A former administrator with the Environmental Protection Agency called it President Donald Trump’s “license to pollute.”
Enter five determined, experienced AP reporters from around the country: John Flesher, Ellen Knickmeyer, Cathy Bussewitz, Matthew Brown and Michael Casey. They embarked on a two-month long, brute force effort wresting loose the data from state regulators on the public health and environmental waivers they had approved since the administration announced its clemency on March 26.
AP reached out to all 50 states citing open-records laws; all but New York reported data, but in differing ways and with varying levels of detail. The team spent weeks analyzing the data, finding that waivers were granted in more than 3,000 cases, representing the overwhelming majority of requests citing the outbreak. They spoke to experts to discuss the potential impact, and legislators and residents to talk about the implications for public health. A couple in New Mexico wept as they told Bussewitz and Knickmeyer about being unable to get regulators’ help when hisses and noxious gases signaled a possible threat from a leak in the oil and gas fields during COVID.
The team reached out to all 50 states, then spent weeks analyzing the data.
The EPA said its temporary rollback didn’t authorize any increased pollution. But environmentalists and public health experts were less sanguine. “The harm from this policy is already done,” said Cynthia Giles, former EPA assistant administrator under the Obama administration.
The work was impressive. AP made it one of its top stories, promoting extended and abridged versions. The piece received many hundreds of tweets and plaudits.
“Great reporting!” wrote Giles, the ex-EPA official. “Thank you for devoting the time to make this story. Incredibly important that people know what is going on and that EPA isn't allowed to sweep it under the rug.” Joe Goffman, head of the Harvard Environmental and Energy Law Program, was one of many other public figures to thank the AP team on Twitter for its report.
Politico highlighted the story as one of its “Muck Reads,” while The Denver Post, The News & Observer in Raleigh, North Carolina, and other member newspapers ran the report on their front pages.
For deep reporting and painstaking analysis to document the potential consequences of relaxed environmental regulation, the team of Knickmeyer, Bussewitz, Flesher, Brown and Casey wins this week’s Best of the States award.