SELC announces winners of the 2019 Reed Environmental Writing Awards

Stories span from the Chesapeake Bay to Alabama

Sunrise at Colonial Beach, Virginia.  (© Mary Lynne Wolfe)

The Southern Environmental Law Center has announced the winners of the 2019 Phillip D. Reed Environmental Writing Awards, to be presented during this year’s Virginia Festival of the Book.

Author Earl Swift will receive the Reed Award in the nonfiction Book category for Chesapeake Requiem: A Year with the Watermen of Vanishing Tangier Island. John Archibald and Kyle Whitmire of the Alabama Media Group will receive the Reed Award in the Journalism category for their coverage of a public corruption scandal aimed at shielding companies from the expense of cleaning up pollution in disadvantaged neighborhoods in the North Birmingham area.

Earl Swift will be the featured speaker for the Reed Award presentation, scheduled for 4 p.m.  Friday, March 22, at SELC’s headquarters on the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville. The event is free and open to the public.

Swift’s book is an intimate and empathetic portrait of a community in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay that is rapidly losing ground to the waters around it. Hit by a one-two punch of rising water and subsiding land, Tangier is experiencing a rate of sea-level rise that is among the highest in the world. Yet, its people are reluctant to blame climate change for their predicament.

While living among the island’s fewer than 500 residents, Swift gained the trust of local citizens and developed a keen understanding of their way of life and the difficulties they face. These include not only the bay’s steady encroachment, but also the challenges of pursuing the island’s chief source of income, the Chesapeake Bay blue crab. By looking closely and compassionately at this truly unique place in America, Swift sheds light on larger political and cultural forces being felt throughout the nation today.

In a series of op-eds and news analyses published last summer, Archibald and Whitmire followed a conspiracy trial involving a state lawmaker who admitted to taking bribe money in exchange for fighting a proposal by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to expand the cleanup of industrial pollution in and around his Birmingham-area district. Under EPA’s plan, these struggling communities would be added to the Superfund’s National Priorities List of the nation’s most polluted sites. This could require companies such as ABC Coke, a subsidiary of the Drummond Company, to pay tens of millions of dollars for the removal of arsenic and other contaminants from the soil around homes, schools, churches, and businesses, as well as in parks and playgrounds.

The case led to the conviction of a Drummond Company vice president and a member of one of Alabama’s most prominent law firms, Balch & Bingham, on charges related to bribing the state legislator. The reporters point out, however, that the tentacles of the conspiracy extend to many other corporate executives, high-level government officials and community leaders, and that the trial laid bare a “shadow government” in Alabama “run by the elites at the expense of the powerless.”

SELC’s Reed Environmental Writing Award is named for the late Phillip D. Reed, a distinguished attorney, a committed environmental advocate, and a founding trustee of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

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