💧 Your Weekly Pitch: How An EPA Loophole Leaves Tribal Reservations Without Water
The choice is water or survival. And for Native American tribes, it’s not always the same thing.
Written by @alexc_journals, a journalist who’s been sitting on this story for a year.
A 5 minute read
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So this week we're collabing with Mallory Carra, who publishes one of our favorite resources for local journalists—West Coast Media Jobs.
Using their journalism jobs board, you can pitch great stories to great national and local gigs with your name on 'em.
Plus, keep an eye out for our July pitch recap, which will combine pitches with the perfect west coast jobs. That way, you can apply with a stellar idea already in your pocket, courtesy of WCMJ.
Note: We were directed to this story by a single anonymous source at the EPA in early 2020. Consequently, some of the numbers stated by our source may be outdated or policies may be updated. Additionally, this pitch has also yet to be verified by a second source.
While we firmly still believe this pitch is worth investigating, do your own due diligence when pursuing this story.
The EPA has no mandatory water quality standards for Indian reservations.
Think about that.
That means hundreds of thousands of people in America—not with something gone horribly wrong, not with a broken pipeline that needs cleaning—simply have zero water standards at all.
This is their baseline.
While Indian reservations ostensibly could have water quality standards (WQS), the vast majority simply don’t. And the EPA, the agency designed to enforce those standards, is the same agency that neglects those basic human rights on tribal land; simply because there is no one to enforce the rules otherwise.
Here’s how an odd system of power, incentives, and fear has led to the systemic development of the wild west of water in Indian Nations across America.
THE BEST PITCH
The Guiding Question
How are there no water quality standards on reservations?
In the US, the EPA administers and reviews water quality for states under the Clean Water Act. Typically, any federally recognized tribe can be treated as a state (TAS). When a tribe gets TAS status, they can then submit WQS plans just like a state so that they can manage their own water supply for necessary activities like fishing, local agriculture, etc.
But of the ~573 tribes in America, less than 50 have actually submitted plans and gotten basic water quality standards approved, according to sources at the EPA we spoke to in early 2020.
For the rest of them, there is no federal water quality standard that applies across the board for everyone; America simply does not have one.
So instead, tribes at times just hope that bordering states—who control the water going into the reservation—have water quality that’s good enough.
Unfortunately. That doesn’t always happen.
States are not a fan of higher than normal standards.
Higher water quality standards for the reservation (which is usually more dependent on land resources for survival) mean the state must maintain a much higher baseline of quality than it normally would. That impacts how they have to regulate manufacturing industries that dump waste into water supplies on the border—think oil, paper manufacturing, plastics, or paint.
This direct conflict of interests has become glaringly apparent in multiple cases across Idaho, Montana, and in the recent Washington case with the Makah Tribe. They are suing the EPA with the full support of 29 other tribes and Governor Inslee.
This makes it one of the few times water quality issues have become so severe that tribes sought out legal recourse.
But most of the time, they avoid it either because they don’t have the resources to start a federal legal battle, or because they fear a genuine existential crisis of political and physical retribution from neighboring states.
It’s a system that has turned legal action into gambling. Tribes normally aren’t looking for state action on their reservations. Because if they need an intervention, they have to take the risk that their neighboring state will make a frightening case to a judge—that the state is so heavily involved in controlling the maintenance of the reservation, that they are thus are entitled to the resources of the land… meaning the possible disestablishment of the entire reservation and tribe.
Why This Story is Worth Pursuing
The consequences of this system create a chilling culture of fear; one in which the EPA recognized required updates to the Clean Water Act, which to their credit, they’re doing.
Yet as of now, that fear continues to exist. And fear means tribes sometimes won’t even try to apply for the WQS their people actively need; leaving them at the whim of an EPA that can’t, and won’t, enforce a national standard, and leaving entire Indian Nations in legal limbo—constantly paralyzed by the fear that if they decry their water crisis, they may end up inciting an entirely new existential one.
What We Don't Have Answers To
This pitch packs a punch specifically because it investigates a systemic practice and response by the U.S. government and native tribes. Confirming the extent of that practice is what could make this an award-winning investigation. That being said, bolstering this story with multiple sources confirming the practice would be a necessity for this story to withstand public (and newsroom) scrutiny.
The News Peg
The lawsuits against the EPA just made their latest breakthrough in a multiyear battle. Even the EPA announced it’s making an effort to change the rules to give more authority and sway to tribes. While these suits and legislative changes develop, it gives any reporter a timeline with which they could peg their investigation.
Diverse Sources Worth Interviewing
This is a story that requires a current or former employee who worked at the EPA, and ideally someone who worked on tribal environmental protections. It’s unlikely anyone currently there will speak with a reporter without the thumbs up from the agency, so it may be worth sending EPA a request for an interview.
Timothy J. Greene, Sr., Chairman of the Makah Tribal Council and someone who can speak directly on the recent case against the EPA.
Speak with the water quality lab at the Skokomish tribe in the pacific northwest. Since they’re one of the tribes that actually run their own water treatment programs, they can speak to the necessity of higher quality water standards versus state norms.
PUBLICATIONS TO PITCH TO
While The Fuller Project is known for its heavy-hitting reporting on gender and women’s issues, it’s also home to robust investigations on climate and the environment. Considering the focus on minority communities in this pitch, you can definitely straddle their areas of interest and expertise.
Submit pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Guardian U.S., Environment
The Guardian is one of investigative journalism’s heaviest hitters and could provide resources to help investigate something as large and intimidating as the EPA.
Contact Ankita Rao at email@example.com to spin this pitch as a climate change story.
Vice News Canada, Tipping Point
Tipping Point, which is VICE's climate justice series, highlights mostly human-led features and allows pitches from anywhere in the world.
Submit pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org
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