info 04.11.16

Why the Pulitzer Prizes Matter

This year is the centennial for the Pulitzer Prizes, this year's winners to be announced on April 18. Here is a perfect example of why they matter:

In 2012, three reporters at Brooklyn's InsideClimate News, a non-partisan nonprofit that covers energy and the environment, wrote a number of articles on oil pipelines, including a three-part series, plus epilogue, headlined The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of.

Two years earlier, a pipeline operated by the Canadian company Enbridge—a pipeline with a history of corrosion problems—spilled over a million gallons of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

And it wasn't just any oil: what residents weren't told by the company was that the oil was diluted bitumen, known as dilbit. Bitumen is the thickest, heaviest oil carried in pipelines and it is too thick to flow without dilution. Dilution means the addition of chemicals, generally including a heaping dose of the carcinogenic benzene.

The risks of dilbit spilled into a river were not, and are still not, well known. Since heavy dilbit sinks down to the river bed in clumps, the cleanup techniques were also not well known—this was the first spill of dilbit in the United States—so the process was devised on a wing and a prayer, and the prayer part is arguable. Enbridge would not reveal what exactly spilled from the pipeline they operated into the Kalamazoo, though elevated benzene levels were frequently detected after the pipe failed.

Dilbit may not be your idea of a good time. The InsideClimate series is a long read but, we promise you, worth every minute. The three reporters who did this exceptional job of reporting, Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer, won the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting.

If you read that series, you certainly looked at a headline in the Wall Street Journal last Monday, TransCanada Shuts Parts of Keystone Pipeline for Week, about a leak in South Dakota, with a far different understanding of what was being said and what was not.

As with the Kalamazoo spill, there were bland assurances of containment and little environmental impact. In covering the South Dakota spill, neither the Wall Street Journal nor the Times, both of which have won their fair share of Pulitzers over the years, never included the word dilbit (or diluted bitumen), nor reporting on what other toxins were flowing in that pipe. For that, you had to go the Vancouver blog Desmog.

At a time when the phrase mainstream media is often used to express contempt, when a candidate like Donald Trump promises to change libel laws to make it easier to sue news organizations, let's celebrate the Pulitzers, which can shine a light on the good and essential work of InsideClimate News and other independent journalism.

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