“We began this project wanting to learn more about the New River. The river flows from Mexicali across the border into California, and it’s long been filled with sewage and toxic pollutants.
Zoë and I wanted to understand why this river remains so badly polluted, and how it’s affecting people who live nearby.
We went door-to-door interviewing people in a neighborhood next to the river. Many people told us the river is making them sick. The stench gives them headaches, and they avoid going outside.
As we investigated further, we realized that this river is one piece of a larger story – about a border city that has grown rapidly into an industrial center for maquiladoras, and about air pollution that is so severe it’s killing people.
We collected data from Mexico and California, examining the levels of air pollution as well as government health statistics. We found a very high rate of people dying from respiratory illnesses. And the statistics show those deaths are on the rise.
As we continued with our reporting, we focused on interviewing people who are affected by the pollution on both sides of the border.
Next to one factory, we met an 11-year-old boy, Luis Raudel Arámbula, who avoids going outside to keep his asthma under control. We met Michelle Dugan, whose sister died of an asthma attack when she was 16.
An asthma doctor told us that with such high levels of air pollution in Mexicali, children are ‘condemned to be sick.’
These were stories of environmental injustice, and we knew these stories were critically important to tell. At a time when there was a great deal of talk in Washington about a migration crisis and building a wall, people in communities on the border were telling us about their real concerns, things like: Will today be another day with hazardous air pollution?
And what can be done to prevent our kids from having asthma attacks?
Investigating the system of oversight, we found that Mexican environmental regulators have the power to issue big fines to polluting factories, but they’ve been failing to act.
We collaborated with a team of colleagues in analyzing the data, producing graphics, and designing the project.
The series has made an impact. Soon after it was published, California’s air board decided to dedicate a staff member to the border region.
In Mexicali, they’ve been installing more air monitors to track pollution.
In Congress and the California Legislature, there have been new efforts to secure funding to clean up the New River.
We’re pleased to see our journalism making a difference by helping to spark change.”
Read more about this year’s Oakes winners and finalists: https://journalism.columbia.edu/2019-Oakes-Award-insideclimatenews