Los Angeles Times reporter wins Risser Prize for environmental journalism

Judy Pasternak

Judy Pasternak

A reporter in the Los Angeles Times' Washington, D.C., bureau has won the 2007 James V. Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism.

Judy Pasternak won the $3,000 prize for her four-part series "Blighted Homeland," which revealed how the U.S. government took uranium from Navajo land to build its nuclear arsenal during the Cold War and then abandoned the Navajo people when they began to die.

A team from the Sacramento Bee also was recognized with a special citation for a series about the California capital's vulnerability to flooding because of levee problems. "Tempting Fate" was written by Bee staff writers Matt Weiser, Deb Kollars and Carrie Peyton Dahlberg.

Stanford's John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists and Bill Lane Center for the Study of the North American West co-sponsor the prize, which will be formally awarded during the Society of Environmental Journalists' annual conference. This year's conference will be held Sept. 5-9 at Stanford.

Pasternak's four-part series, published in November 2006, was the result of two years of reporting about how the mining of uranium left behind waste that sickened generations of Navajos on Navajo Nation land in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. One of the judges characterized the series as "great writing, great history and investigative work; overall, a great story that hasn't been told."

Pasternak has worked for the Los Angeles Times for 23 years. In recent years her work has been honored by the Overseas Press Club, the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism and the Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting.

The Sacramento Bee stories on the region's vulnerability to flooding were published over several months in 2005 and early 2006. The stories detailed how Sacramento, which sits at the confluence of two major rivers, faces the gravest flood risk of any metropolitan region in the country yet has lower levels of protection than its counterparts, including pre-Katrina New Orleans.

Both entries can be read at the Risser Prize website: http://risserprize.stanford.edu/.

The prize is given in honor of James V. Risser, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and director emeritus of the Knight Fellowships program.

Judges of this year's contest were:

  • Jon Christensen, research fellow, Center for Environmental Science and Policy, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University;
  • Raul Ramirez, executive director, news and public affairs, KQED Public Radio, San Francisco;
  • Paul Rogers, environmental writer, San Jose Mercury News;
  • Jerd Smith, reporter, Rocky Mountain News, winner, 2005 Risser Prize; and
  • Steven Webster, retired senior marine biologist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Established in 2005, the Risser Prize is open to print, broadcast and online journalists writing about environmental issues in western regions of Canada, Mexico and the United States. The prize was established in recognition of Risser's outstanding journalism career and his leadership of the John S. Knight Fellowships for Professional Journalists from 1985 until his retirement in 2000. Risser is a former Washington bureau chief of the Des Moines Register, and he wrote frequently and incisively about environmental issues. He has had a particular interest in those issues as they affected the western United States.

In judging the awards, preference is given to stories about environmental issues that are distinctively western. The judges placed a premium on stories that explained complicated situations, stories that exposed undiscovered or covered-up problems and stories with ramifications beyond the immediate dimensions of the issue being covered.