2023 Winner

Ghosts of Polluters Past

Entry type: Single project

Country/area: United States

Publishing organisation: Grist (main outlet), Voice of OC (publishing partner)

Organisation size: Small

Publication date: 2022-01-13

Language: English

Authors: Yvette Cabrera & Clayton Aldern


Yvette is a former senior staff writer at Grist, where she reported on the intersection of of justice, equity, and the environment. She is now a senior reporter at the Center for Public Integrity focused on inequality in economic and social well-being. She also serves as president for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.

Clayton Aldern is a senior data reporter at Grist working at the intersection of climate change and environmental degradation. His reporting and data visualization have appeared in a variety of outlets, including The Atlantic, The Economist, Logic, and on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Prize committee’s comments:

When Grist reporter Yvette Cabrera took more than 1,600 soil samples in Santa Ana , Calif., she found that more than half of them collected in the lowest-income areas contained contaminants considered  unsafe for children. The story of soil contamination and air pollution from nearby highways  in the Logan barrio could have stopped there. But Cabrera went further, using historical deed restrictions, zoning regulations and other archives to show how policies implemented throughout the industrial era created systematic discrimination against people of color, barring them from healthier neighborhoods and isolating them in the harmful pollution.

Project description:

Centuries of industrialization and racial inequities have shaped American cities. Minority communities have long found themselves segregated to areas zoned for the heaviest-impact industrial uses — and they’ve suffered, with high rates of cancer, asthma, and cognitive impairments.

In “Ghosts of Polluters Past,” Grist’s Yvette Cabrera and Clayton Aldern paint a poignant portrait of the Mexican-American Logan neighborhood of Santa Ana, California, and its residents’ multigenerational struggle to fight industrial pollution that blighted their livelihoods.

Impact reached:

Alongside calls from residents, the project, published in partnership with the nonprofit news site Voice of OC, prompted the Santa Ana city council to approve a plan in April that commits to comprehensively address lead contamination hazards. The work also provides a model for how enterprising journalists can uncover the hidden history of relic industrial sites and soil-lead contamination, making it accessible to residents and empowering them to take control of their environment. The series received the 2022 Breaking Barriers Award from the Institute for Nonprofit News, awarded annually for “reporting that brought new understanding to an issue affecting people who are historically underrepresented, disadvantaged or marginalized, resulting in impactful change.”

Techniques/technologies used:

“Ghosts of Polluters Past” and its partner story, “Toxic Churn,” combine original soil sample collection, innovative spatial data analysis, archival work, academic and scientific partnerships, and classic shoe leather reporting to produce a humanizing, yet data-forward look at the hidden threat of lead contamination in the soil of America’s cities.

Yvette Cabrera spent five years independently gathering and analyzing more than 1,600 soil samples, as well as combing through six decades of historical business directories and industrial siting and zoning data. Her richly detailed research and reporting, aided by Clayton Aldern’s data analysis and visualization, revealed that more than half of the samples she collected in the city’s poorest neighborhoods contained levels of lead that California considers unsafe for children. Through historical documents, she traced Santa Ana’s legacy of discriminatory policies (including racial covenants) that exposed areas such as Logan to freeway emissions and polluting industries. To convey the findings in question, the team conducted a series of spatial interpolations and regressions on Cabrera’s raw data, thereby generating ‘hot spots’ that lent themselves to a bold visual treatment.

In “Toxic Churn,” Cabrera and Aldern apply their findings, outlining how the toxic legacy of historical industry in urban neighborhoods has largely escaped regulatory scrutiny throughout the United States. Because of the way small industrial operations spread through urban areas during the 20th century without any oversight, many (perhaps most) city dwellers unknowingly live in neighborhoods burdened by toxic contaminants – like lead, arsenic, and cadmium – which remain in soil long after the businesses that dumped them are gone. Via temporal and spatial statistics, Cabrera and Aldern illustrate how official databases (like the EPA’s Toxics Release Inventory) represent drastic undercounts of this cumulative pollution.

Context about the project:

Santa Ana is a city of 335,000 people in Orange County, California. Its population is more than 75 percent Latino. It’s been nearly a century since the city zoned the already-established residential barrio of Logan for industrial use. As the neighborhood’s agricultural roots gave way to industry, products like petroleum, aviation gasoline, lead ore, heavy metals, chemicals, herbicides, and pesticides came and went on the Santa Fe and Southern Pacific railroad lines — but a part of them never left.

Today, the Logan census tract is identified as a “disadvantaged community” by the state Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental health screening tool because it’s among California’s most pollution-burdened areas. While generations of Mexican Americans battled the encroachment of industry in the Logan barrio and won several major victories, the neighborhood remains filled with scrap yards, recycling centers, auto repair shops, and other industrial and commercial businesses that continue to take their toll on the neighborhood.

As in other urban centers across the country throughout the 20th century, city leaders’ decisions transformed Santa Ana’s built environment, leaving a cumulative legacy of lead contamination in neighborhoods where Mexicans and Mexican Americans were forced by segregation, discrimination, and historical social norms to live during the first half of the 20th century — and where Latino residents continue to reside today.

What can other journalists learn from this project?

Yvette Cabrera has been reporting on Santa Ana’s lead contamination for more than five years, and over that time she has continuously dug deeper into both the community and the issues it faces. This project is a reflection of those years of cultivating deep source relationships with residents, nonprofits, and community leaders. Her pairing up with Grist data reporter Clayton Aldern allowed Cabrera to tell not just the human and justice story, but to use original empirical research to create a piece of journalism capable of influencing real change – which we saw by the city council’s response last year.

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