The California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting, in partnership with the Chico Enterprise-Record, has won a top journalism award for “A Burning Issue,” an in-depth project exploring the politics, science and health consequences of wood stove smoke pollution.
The award was announced by the Association of Health Care Journalists for its community newspaper division. The special news project focused on Butte County, about 90 miles north of Sacramento.
To compile the four-day series, reporters -- four from the Enterprise-Record and lead project writer Deborah Schoch (pictured right) from the center -- pored over research and interviewed dozens of physicians, scientists and other experts in the county, California and nationwide to understand how wood smoke was affecting people’s health. They talked to officials in other California air quality jurisdictions and in other states where wood stove restrictions were in effect. They discussed the issue with numerous members of the Butte County business and agricultural communities, and interviewed more than 30 other local residents about their views of wood smoke and health.
During the winter, Butte County suffers from a number of bad air quality days that can have serious health consequences for the elderly and those with respiratory conditions, including children with asthma. In a county with a long history of dependence on stoves as a source of heat and a bountiful supply of inexpensive wood, the relationship of stove use and health is a sensitive issue.
The center and the Enterprise-Record agreed to partner after an editor at the paper said he’d wanted to take on the controversial, complex issue for some time but did not have the editorial resources to do so. The center provided those resources in the form of a project reporter and editor.
Out of the reporting came larger revelations. Primarily, that out-of-state jurisdictions had been able to obtain substantial federal money to help communities transition to safe, EPA-approved stoves -- but that the California’s energy agency, by declaring wood stoves an air quality issue and not an energy conservation source, had denied California communities such funds. Reporters also found that the state Energy Commission has sponsored a “Cash for Appliance” program that helps residents trade up to more energy-efficient washers or refrigerators but denied its use to purchase more efficient wood stoves. Meanwhile, over the past decade the local air district received several million dollars, mostly from the state, to replace old diesel engines in farm equipment with cleaner-burning ones. But in winter, wood smoke outranks diesel fumes as a pollutant.
“We’re proud of the work that Deborah and editor Richard Kipling did on this project,” said David Westphal, the center’s editor-in-chief. “But we’re just as proud of the terrific journalism produced by the intrepid journalists at Chico. They served their readers very, very well.”
The award, which will be presented at the annual AHCJ convention in April, was given for the best non-deadline project among papers under 150,000 in circulation.
California HealthCare Foundation Center for Health Reporting takes aim at the most fundamental health-care issues facing Californians. The USC Annenberg-based center is funded by the California HealthCare Foundation, with a three-year, $3.285 million grant.