Jim Steinberg, Rachel Luna and Paul W. Penzella won the 2014 Special DFMie for Watchdog Journalism for their project on continued contamination of drinking water in Hinkley, Calif.
The San Bernardino Sun project, Hinkley: A ghost town in the making, did not initially win any of the 30 2014 DFMie categories in judging March 7-8 in New York. But it was a finalist in three categories: investigative/enterprise, specialized news coverage and public service. As judges wrapped up their considerations in the final two categories, both of which the Hinkley project nearly won, they insisted that the Sun’s work should win something.
The judges recommended that Digital First Media award the project a special DFMie. Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady agreed to award the trio a Special DFMie for Watchdog Journalism.
Here’s the nomination for public service:
In the movie, justice prevailed.
Seventeen years ago, the residents of a small unincorporated town in the rural high desert of Southern California took on energy giant PG&E. And they won.
PG&E did poison their groundwater, and families suffered grievously. A judge ordered PG&E to pay one of the largest financial penalties ever levied in a civil lawsuit. An arrogant corporation was forced to take responsibility, and the residents of Hinkley resumed their lives, triumphant in a way that makes for great cinema. Indeed, the case was made famous in the 2000 film “Erin Brockovich.”
Unfortunately, the people of Hinkley did not live happily ever after.
In the ensuing years, the toxic plume of groundwater under the remote community grew larger, not smaller, and the town itself continued to suffer. Despite ground-breaking remediation techniques and the arguable mitigation of the environmental danger, Hinkley is dying. Property values have plummeted, and the ability to earn a living is practically non-existent. Last spring, the town’s only school closed.
Brockovich herself has a difficult time comprehending what has happened in the years since she played a pivotal role in making PG&E accountable to the people of Hinkley. “I walked away assuming that everything was OK,” she said. “I feel duped, ashamed and really sad for the people of Hinkley.”
In what we believe to be the most comprehensive, lucid reporting ever produced on Hinkley, the environmental disaster and its aftermath, reporter Jim Steinberg spent six months interviewing residents, experts, government officials and utility representatives to understand how Hinkley has come to such a bad end. Along the way he exhaustively sifted through thousands of pages of documents.
In dozens of images and videos, photojournalist Rachel Luna captured the despair and desolation that has come to characterize the community. Visual journalist Paul Penzella independently researched, reported and produced digital and print interactives and maps that illustrated publicly for the first time the scope of both the growth of the plume as well as PG&E’s management tactics, which include the purchase of acres and acres of land in and around Hinkley.
Ultimately,The Sun published a penetrating package of stories, photographs and information graphics explaining not just what happened, but a deeper look at the science behind the attempted clean-up, the dangers of chromium-6, the depth of the community’s pain and, most importantly, the individual stories of residents.
The work was widely praised. Even PG&E said it was the most thorough and balanced reporting it had seen done on the topic.
For their work bringing to light the ongoing tragedy of one of California’s most infamous environmental disasters, The Sun is proud to nominate Steinberg, Luna and Penzella for the DFMie in Public Service.
A multimillion-dollar lawsuit and big-budget film “Erin Brockovich” in 2000 brought national attention to the plight of residents in the heavily polluted small town of Hinkley, Calif. Most assumed justice had been served. The San Bernardino Sun reminds us all that real Hollywood endings are rare, and that the problems of Hinkley residents are far from over. Beautifully written and photographed, this project is a sterling example of watchdog journalism at its very best.
This is one of five DFMies for the Los Angeles News Group.
About Jim Steinberg
Steinberg is the regional environment, health and military writer for the Los Angeles News Group, based at San Bernardino Sun.
Previously he was business editor at The Sun and the Corpus Christi-Caller Times. He also worked as a business writer at The Miami News and San Antonio Light. He covered city hall for El Paso Herald-Post and Midland Reporter-Telegram and was a police reporter for the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson.
He developed and taught a course in interviewing techniques at the North Miami Beach campus of Florida International University.
Steinberg has BA and MA degrees from the University of Arizona.
About Rachel Luna
Luna has been a multimedia journalist with the San Bernardino Sun for two years. She originally joined DFM in 2010 as a freelance photographer at the San Gabriel Valley Tribune and soon joined the staff as a weeklies reporter. She worked there for a year before moving east to cover the Inland Empire.
She graduated from Azusa Pacific University in 2010 with a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Studies. It was there, while working as a photo editor for the university’s newspaper, that she discovered a love for photojournalism.
Her most compelling and challenging assignment was visually reporting the tragic story of Hinkley. “Ironically, I was watching the movie ‘Erin Brockovich’ a few days before I was asked to take on the project with reporter Jim Steinberg,” Luna said. “With the movie fresh in my mind, it was disturbing to learn that nearly 20 years later Hinkley residents were still being poisoned by a growing contaminated groundwater plume. ... It was hard to watch as pollution overpowered the residents of Hinkley, but I was committed to visually unveiling the grim reality of what happened to the small desert town and its residents through photos and videos.”
About Paul W. Penzella
Penzella is a graphic design professional with 17 years of newsroom experience as a visual journalist specializing in illustration, data visualization, logo, web/print design, and UX/art+design for iPad apps.
His career in visual journalism began at Investor’s Business Daily, a national business newspaper in 1993, where he produced informational graphics and illustrations based on Bloomberg data and other various business resources.
Penzella joined the Press-Telegram in 1996 as a senior graphic designer where he became a one-man art department working on several award winning projects. In 2004, he came to the Daily Breeze and continued to be a productive member of the newsroom.
For the past couple of years Penzella has provided graphics support for most of LANG’s Southern California properties including the Daily News, Press-Telegram, Daily Breeze and San Bernardino Sun.