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Tipsheet points to hot environmental stories

SHOWCASE | July 26, 2004

A tipsheet from the Society of Environmental Journalists exposes government attempts to keep important environmental information secret – and calls attention to great watchdog reporting.

By Dan Froomkin



Getting a hot tip is one of the great joys of the journalism business.


Every two weeks or so, environmental journalists get something in their e-mail that’s almost as good. They get a "WatchDog" tipsheet about environmental news that the government is trying to keep – or make – secret. It's a terrific source for stories.


Joseph A. Davis, who has been writing about the environment for 28 years, writes the tipsheet for the Society of Environmental Journalists. It goes out by e-mail to about 1,800 subscribers and is available on the sej.org Web site, where you can also sign up for the e-mails.


Watchdog journalism can mean a lot of things. But for the purposes of Davis’s tipsheet, it's purely about the First Amendment and freedom of information.


"The watchdog barks and even bites sometimes, but it only bites the leg of violators of the First Amendment or freedom of information," Davis says.


The need is particularly pressing now, in the wake of two historical events that have contributed to a massive erosion of public disclosure: The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the current pro-business orientation of the executive and legislative branches.


Immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the government started trying to remove from the public domain a lot of information about potentially dangerous things – like hazardous chemical sites and oil pipelines. But the very things that are dangerous enough that terrorists could conceivably use them to kill lots of people are also the things the public deserves to know about if they are in their backyards.


Only the other day, as Davis reported in this WatchDog item, the Department of Homeland Security stuck a proposal in the Federal Register that would allow it to keep secret part or all of some Environmental Impact Statements on its actions.


Davis writes: "If finalized, the proposal would carve a major loophole in the 34-year-old law which is the keystone of much modern environmental law — the National Environmental Policy Act. NEPA required that the federal government publicly disclose the environmental impacts of major federal actions before they are taken."


And the presidentially-appointed Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates and oversees energy industries "in the economic and environmental interest of the American public," has become a receptive audience for the pro-secrecy arguments of the increasingly sophisticated energy and energy-trading industries.


Part of what the tipsheet does is serve as a clearinghouse and canary-in-the-coalmine for attempts to increase government secrecy that have been spotted by Davis and others.


Another mission is to highlight the best examples of reporting that have defied or vanquished  secrecy – both to give them recognition and to inspire others to emulate them.


"Success, for me, is when we do a story and somebody else in the mainstream press picks it up and applies it in their local area," Davis says.


The stories most likely to get picked up have these things in common:

  • There’s a news peg, often a decision point.
  • There’s an easily localizable angle.
  • There’s "a little opportunity for mischief" – i.e., exposing something outrageous.
  • It effects people’s lives. ("Or, as I sometimes say, is this going to kill my baby?")

 "Success is also when some agency or bureaucracy stops in their tracks and says: ‘Wait, I thought no one was watching.’"


Davis pokes around the Internet and chases down tips from friends and colleagues. "I know where the bodies are buried and I’ve seen them buried for decades," he says. "Every so often I get back to the gravesite, and by God there’s fresh dirt."


Dam safety and pipeline safety, for instance, are two areas where the government is consistently trying to hide information about dangers to the public.


Ever since his very first tip sheet in February, 2003, Davis has been writing a lot about FERC and its policies restricting press and public access to "Critical Energy Infrastructure Information."


And as an example of great watchdog journalism, Davis points to the Mobile (Ala.) Register’s ongoing coverage of the attempts by two energy companies –ExxonMobil and Cheniere – to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities along Mobile Bay.


The stories, by Ben Raines and Bill Finch, have two themes: The extent of the risks posed by LNG  shipments; and the efforts by federal officials to minimize LNG hazards.


Davis says that he doesn’t find his tipsheet’s focus on secrecy to be very limiting at all – because defying secrecy is common to a lot of the best journalism. "I think that with any story worth doing," he says, "there’s been a struggle to discover something."

Terrorism Fears Thwart Journalist's Reporting
An article by Joseph A. Davis in the Summer 2004 Nieman Reports. (PDF)

Government Studies Vanish From Reporters’ View
Bill Finch, the Mobile Register’s environment editor, describes his paper's LNG coverage in the Summer 2004 Nieman Reports. (PDF)

WatchDog TipSheet
Read the tipsheets or sign up to get them by e-mail.

LNG: Analyzing Risk
Ongoing coverage from the Mobile (Ala.) Register.

Society of Environmental Journalists

June 14 Federal Register
DHS proposal to make secret part or all of some Environmental Impact Statements on its actions.

The NiemanWatchdog.org website is no longer being updated. Watchdog stories have a new home in Nieman Reports.