• Tara Rocque, assistant director of the Interdisciplinary Environmental Clinic Washington University School of Law
  • Steve Vockrodt, investigative editor, NPR Midwest Newsroom
  • Shalina Chatlani, local investigations fellow, The New York Times 
  • Allison Kite, environmental reporter, Missouri Independent/Kansas Reflector 
  • Kristofor Husted, senior content editor, NPR Midwest Newsroom (moderator)

By Aaron Bolton 

Reporters looking into whether companies should be held accountable for not following the law should always start with a basic question: Was a law actually broken, or was the issue that occurred technically legal but just seemed wrong?

Tara Rocque encouraged reporters to follow the data, whether that’s requesting pollution permit reporting documents from mining companies or lead contamination reports from their state. 

She listed several sources that can help reporters decipher complex environmental laws to see if the data they found indicates a law or regulation may have been violated, including:

  • The EPA website sections on the Clean Water Act and other major federal laws. 
  • The Permit Writer’s Handbook
  • State and federal permits that lay out the pollution limits for companies
  • Law libraries

She also encouraged reporters to lean on experts to help them understand the law. 

Reporter Allison Kite’s presentation on reporting on high lead levels in Midwestern states was a good example of how reporters can use the information. She walked through her process of finding out not only who was impacted but how she used Census data to show that race and income played a major role in who was unable to mitigate lead in their drinking water. 

Steve Vockrodt talked about a story on toxic chemicals that had seeped into Springfield, Mo.’s water supply from a local site owned by Litton Systems, a former defense contractor. Vockrodt used the story to illustrate how reporters can dig up documents on private companies, which aren’t legally obligated to release much information. 

He explained how a reporter was able to identify Litton’s interactions with the federal government and the documents that relationship produced, from cleanup agreements to pollution reporting requirements. Court records related to the clean-up also helped tell the story of how Litton knew the toxins from its property were contaminating local water supplies and didn’t do anything to clean them up. 

Shalina Chatlani, formerly of the New Orleans Gulf States Newsroom, focused on how environmental health stories can intersect with mental health. Her story showed how black farmers in New Iberia, La., were affected by companies and white farmers stealing land or restricting land access. The story provided great insight into the mental health impacts families struggled with, including suicidality, as they fought to keep their land. It served as a great reminder to think holistically when reporting on environmental health issues. 

Aaron Bolton is the northwest Montana and statewide health care reporter for Montana Public Radio.