By: Press Release | The Sidney Hillman Foundation
New York: The Sidney Hillman Foundation announced today that Erich Schwartzel and Julia Rendleman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette have won the September Sidney Award for “Fouled Waters,” a 3-month investigation into a mysterious blight on the water supply of a small Pennsylvania town surrounded by natural gas wells just 40 minutes north of Pittsburgh.
Three weeks after gas rigs started drilling nearby, also known as “fracking,” the water in Janet McIntyre’s house started to make her vomit. When she showered in it, she got rashes. The gas company, Rex Energy, and the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection tested the water, but reportedly found nothing to link contaminants in the water to the fracking.
That was two years ago, Janet and her neighbors have since learned to live without running water: showering outside, foregoing indoor toilets, and paying to fill storage tanks with water trucked in from outside.
Post-Gazette reporter Erich Schwartzel and photographer Julia Rendleman spent three months visiting the Woodlands, interviewing scientists testing the water and examining state policy on water well quality. The duo reported that Pennsylvania has the second-greatest number of private water wells in the country — and yet is one of only two states that do not regulate how such wells are built or maintained.
After the frontpage story ran, the state Public Utility Commission launched an investigation and a generous reader donated $3,000 to supply residents with water through the Christmas holidays.
While fracking has been widely covered, Schwartzel and Rendleman’s story put a human face on the issue that has been lacking. Rendleman got the idea when she was “on a routine fracking story,” covering “fracktivists” who were petitioning legislators. They complained that they were tired of coverage that depicted them as “people with signs complaining.” That is when one of the fracktivists mentioned that people were living without water in the Woodlands and relying on a church water drive.
“At the time I thought, great, I can get pictures of the water drive. But really in the end, the water drive was just the beginning of the story.”
The Sidney Hillman Foundation honors excellence in journalism in service of the common good. Judges are Rose Arce, Hendrik Hertzberg, Katrina vanden Heuvel, Harold Meyerson, Susan Meiselas, and Lindsay Beyerstein.
The Sidney Award is given once a month to an outstanding piece of socially conscious journalism, by the Sidney Hillman Foundation, which also awards the annual Hillman Prizes every spring. Winners of the Sidney receive a certificate designed by New Yorker cartoonist, Edward Sorel, a $500 honorarium and a bottle of union-made wine.