EDITOR’S NOTE: Read an interview with ProPublica’s editors about how to submit a successful pitch to the Local Reporting Network.

When writing his style of investigative stories, Max Blau considers narrative first. His signature pieces are longform stories that a reader won’t often find on the front page of newspapers — deep, winding journeys that center on a person whose experience reveals a broader pattern of wrongdoing.

ProPublica reporter Max Blau

Max Blau

The Atlanta-based reporter, originally from Chicago, typically focuses on health and environmental stories affecting communities in the South. He finds people who have faced barriers within the healthcare system, or harm at the hands of a system, corporation or government: “Most of the time, I’m thinking of stories from someone I’ve met in a single place and then trying to widen it out,” Blau says.

This was exactly the type of “bread and butter” story he pursued through ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network (LRN), in partnership with Georgia Health News, throughout 2020 and 2021. Blau chipped away at an investigative story that revealed how a Georgia energy behemoth sought to avoid cleaning up toxins from America’s largest coal-fired power plant. The yearlong project drew on legwork Blau had done for previous stories, and culminated in the March 2021 publication of “The Coal Plant Next Door.

The story was a testament to Blau’s persistence: He applied three times to ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network before breaking through on his fourth try. And there was a bonus: In April 2021, a month after the project ran, Blau was hired full-time as a reporter in ProPublica’s South bureau.

Before he joined ProPublica, Blau combined stints as a freelancer — his work has appeared in local, regional and national outlets like Stat, Stateline, The Atlantic, Politico Magazine, The New York Times and others — with full-time stretches at publications including CNN, Atlanta Magazine and Creative Loafing.

“I wanted to keep reporting where I lived,” Blau says. “I figured I would always have to be a freelancer to keep doing that, or move to then report from afar about the region — which never really made sense to me.”

Only a sliver of ProPublica’s LRN projects have been produced by freelancers. Most are powered by staff writers within a partner newsroom. Storyboard spoke with Blau to illuminate the steps Blau took to earn a green light. Our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, is followed by an annotation of Blau’s application for the coal plant project, including selected story proposals and a cover letter.

Did you have investigative reporting experience before this partnership?
I think there’s a narrow way that many of us think about investigative journalism. But a lot of wrongdoing or barriers to people having healthier, happier communities is not always something illegal, but might be a pattern of long-term neglect. Or there’s a culture of large corporations profiting off some group of people. There’s not necessarily someone who’s going to get fired, because nothing illegal happened, but the practice itself has moral implications.

Over the years,I’ve done traditional stories that have gone on A1 of a city daily. An early example is that in the summer after Ferguson, I created a database of officer-involved police killings over a five-year period,  across 55 police agencies, in the five core counties of metro Atlanta. I started doing that kind of traditional investigative work in 2014 or 2015. Then there’s a story I did for The Bitter Southerner about a family who, 50 years after Dr. King’s assassination, lived on the same street where he lived at the time of his death. The matriarch of this family was caring for 10 people in a two-bedroom house the size of a 900-square-foot apartment.

From an investigative perspective, that story was not about a single thing the government had done wrong, but the consequences of different systems. I was looking at why, and how, this family moved through a community that at one point had been the largest open-air drug market in the Southeast. And why, in a city that claims to be the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement, you can have a family living in this kind of poverty with Atlanta’s Fortune 500 companies based a mile or two away. I don’t know if I would consider that a “traditionally ProPublica” investigation, but I would consider it investigative in nature even though it’s telling the story about this one family moving through the world.

I think the best of my work today merges those two different kinds of investigations together.

At the time that you submitted a proposal to the LRN, what was your relationship with Georgia Health News (GHN) and the editors there? Was GHN a recurring client for you, like an anchor gig?
GHN is a tiny publication with one full-time editor, Andy Miller, who writes as well. He was a longtime Atlanta Journal-Constitution (AJC) hospital reporter until the AJC started cutting its health care team. In 2012, I was new to hospital reporting and writing my first true health care story — a 10,000-word series about a public hospital in Atlanta that had almost gone bankrupt and was on its way back toward financial viability. I called Andy to interview him for that piece. He was very generous with his time and walked me through things.

From that point on, we stayed in touch. There’s a small community of health care journalists based in Atlanta, and whenever I published a health care piece, he would send me a note. I worked with him for the first time after becoming a freelancer. We’d chat about story ideas and, in 2017, made plans to work on a series with another reporter, about obstacles facing physicians born outside the U.S. who basically have to restart their medical education to be certified in the U.S. — even as Georgia has provider shortages.

That led to us working together on and off. When I had health care stories that seemed right for him, I pitched him, but it was not an anchor gig. Before I had reached out to Andy about the ProPublica fellowship, I had reported another story in 2019 in Juliette, Georgia, which ended up being a collaboration between Grist and Georgia Health News. I had gathered different threads and potential leads that were investigative in nature, but because I had a limited budget, I wasn’t quite able to pull all the threads I wanted to or compile the records I needed for a ProPublica pitch.

How did you approach pre-reporting legwork in order to suss out whether there was something meaty enough there to become a full-blown investigation?
I had the benefit of not getting accepted the first three times I applied to the LRN. For anyone who’s pitching LRN currently or in the future, you have to reverse-engineer it and look at things from the ProPublica side. Let’s say you are a criminal justice reporter in Kansas City, for example. You have to do a bit of research: What makes this place unique enough that Kansas City is going to be the place where ProPublica is going to do its story about sheriffs exploiting their powers?

Then you have to do your homework to see what kind of work ProPublica has done on a topic. That’s not unlike doing research for any national publication in which you’re trying to pitch a deeply local story with national resonance.

One point that was stressed to me when I applied previously was that it wasn’t enough simply to say, “I think there’s an investigative story here.: You had to do legwork — whether that’s publishing other stories on this topic, or maybe gathering records. If ProPublica was going to give you a year’s salary and place that bet on you, this was not going to be some fishing expedition where you didn’t know how it’s going to work out. You can’t predict how an investigation may turn out. But there has to be work already done to indicate that you’re serious about this — and that if you keep going, there’s a good chance you will be able to do the story you’re proposing in the year that you have.

Finally, ProPublica doesn’t want to be replicating work other newsrooms are doing or competing against publications for the same story. ProPublica’s model, as a local reporting network, is about trying to fill in some of the coverage gaps that have emerged over the years as local newsroom jobs have been cut.

What advice would you give to freelancers with an idea that could be a strong fit for the LRN, but who may not have an established relationship with a local newsroom and don’t know where to find that institutional support? Often, applying for grants and fellowships as a freelancer can feel like a catch-22: You need an editor’s letter of approval to get the grant, but grant support can help do the work needed to land the commission.
Go to the people you know and have the best relationships with. Freelancing is this combination of wanting to consistently work with new editors who excite you, versus mixing in ones who you would get a beer or coffee with and chat through story ideas. You should see if the local editors you have good relationships with are interested in doing the kind of work that ProPublica does. You need to have confidence that this person is going to have your back. You want to know that you two get along well enough to have trust both ways throughout that year. Before you look at the money or feasibility, find the people who you would trust with the most important stories of your career.

What surprised you most about working with LRN?
One of the things I loved most, and that I found surprising, was that while ProPublica is very clear on what works for them, the organization is very much focused on being equal partners with the local newsroom. Yes, ProPublica needs X Y Z things, but the process is driven by questions like, “How is this going to serve GHN and its partners? How is this going to have the highest degree of local impact?” Then they put the full weight of the ProPublica institution and machine behind that goal.

The annotation:Storyboard’s questions are in red; Blau’s responses in blue. To read the story without annotations, click the ‘Hide all annotations’ button, which you’ll find just below the social media buttons in the top right-hand menu or the individual gray boxes throughout the text, or at the top of your mobile device.

COVER LETTER

Dear ProPublica team:

In the spring of 2018, I traveled to Juliette, Ga., to see if there was any truth to the whispers I’d heard about its groundwater. For years, I had heard stories of how people living near America’s largest coal-fired plant worried that heavy metals found in coal ash had seeped into their aquifers. But there were few clear answers, or evidence to back up those claims. But then, a local riverkeeper tested

the drinking wells of a few dozen homes, and discovered troubling levels of hexavalent chromium, the carcinogen Erin Brockovich found in Southern California.

I reported on this effort in a story that published with Georgia Health News and Grist in early 2020. Now residents want more answers – action, even – from one of the nation’s largest utilities. Why did you choose to structure the lede of your cover letter this way? About a decade ago, I worked as an editor at Paste magazine, and was on the other side of the application process. The cover letters that stood out to me were the ones that told a compelling story. I’ve since tried to incorporate that in my own cover letters, given how it can stand out in a pile of dry cover letters.

As I spent eight months reporting in Juliette, I stumbled upon thousands of pages of evidence, along with the stories of residents, that showed how Georgia Power had taken clear steps to minimize the appearance of risk in order to continue disposing of coal ash more cheaply and without regard to its neighbors.

This did not surprise me. As a journalist who has covered Georgia Power on and off for years, I’ve seen the utility use its power, money, and influence to advance the interest of shareholders instead of its neighbors statewide. Few have dug deep into the company’s obscure practices, from massive data dumps or complex permit filing. I believe the story of coal ash – which Juliette residents fear has killed or caused life-altering cancers – is one of the most important in this central Georgia town just north of Macon. And it’s also one with statewide resonance given other coal ash ponds, or the fact that every customer foots the bill for its practices. My Grist-Georgia Health News story from January 2020 has only scratched the surface, and I hope to get more resources to dig in deeper in the way that could lead to reforms for Georgians near Macon and beyond. And I’m hoping that ProPublica, in partnership with Georgia Health News, can help make this happen. Structurally and flow-wise, what was your thinking for where to place the graf where you start to describe your relevant experience and expertise? I saw this as an opportunity to emphasize my subject expertise and relevant experience. And after opening with a narrative anecdote about how I first came to report in Juliette, I wanted editors to know I had done my homework, but only had reached the tip of the iceberg of what could be done in a yearlong reporting project.

I believe I’m qualified to do so. Over the past eight years, my reporting has been published in national outlets including the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, The Atlantic, and the Boston Globe. The best of my stories blend vivid narrative – earning awards and recognition on sites like Longform – and original investigative reporting. These pieces have shined light on the practices that led to metro Atlanta’s officer-involved shootings, revealed the barriers to addiction treatment in the epicenter of the opioid crisis, reported about the failures of private jail medical companies, and shed light on a scandal tied to one the world’s largest car manufacturers. As far as energy and environmental reporting goes, I have dug deep on Georgia Power’s costly and controversial nuclear power plant, the consequences of intensifying hurricanes impacting south Georgia farmers, and other topics. Here, you sprinkle in where you’ve been published, awards or accolades you’ve earned, big projects you’ve undertaken of an analogous scope, and the subject matter expertise you’ve developed along the way. What’s the “secret sauce” for how you typically think about highlighting your experience, when applying for opportunities like this? How do you strike that balance — and as a freelancer, why is it so especially important to market your credentials intentionally? I think it’s important to keep asking yourself: What can I say here that’s different? I looked for ways to be additive beyond the resume. So I called out my investigative experience on complex subjects and my relevant clips on utilities and the environment. In addition, they needed to know that while I’d written for major national outlets, I wasn’t proposing to parachute into a rural community for the first time.

Few of Georgia’s newsrooms have the capability to sustain this sort of investigative journalism. Most have scaled back or cut their environmental and health care budgets outright. Personally, I am interested in working with Georgia Health News because it would allow me to work again with Andy Miller, a longtime health reporter with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution who now oversees GHN. It’d be a privilege to reunite with him on a story of local and national importance. I like the conversational tone that you strike here. I think most journalists err on the side of formality with cover letters. In doing so, they forget that the cover letter, first and foremost, is a writing sample. I wanted my writing sample to convey who I was, and where I wanted to go.

Thanks for taking the time to consider our project. If you have any questions, please reach out to me at 224-436-2120, or at maxcblau@gmail.com.

Best,

Max Blau

 

LOCAL REPORTING NETWORK 2020 PROPOSAL:

How Georgia’s largest utility used its power, money, and influence to cheaply dispose of toxic coal waste and downplay the health risks to its neighbors.

Here in the headline, you reveal both the actor (the utility) and the repercussions of their wrongdoing upfront. Why did you choose to do this? I believe the best Local Reporting Network stories clearly define harm, an unequal power balance, and a lack of accountability. When I imagined ProPublica editors sitting down to discuss applications, I wanted them to know the actor and the actions from the very start. By doing so, I could set the stage for everything that followed.

 

The residents of Juliette, Georgia, are no longer taking chances. Tony urged his neighbors to test the water in their wells. Andrea purchased bottled water for her family to drink. Jim* sold his home to move someplace safer. (Jim is a pseudonym to protect that person’s identity.) Why did you pick three characters, or examples, to draw on? I wanted ProPublica editors to know that this was a problem affecting more than just one individual. With three residents, I could hint at the scope of this problem, and touch on the nuanced ways their lives were being upended.

They all had several things in common: Their tap water contained unsafe levels of heavy metals including hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen that Erin Brockovich had found in the wells of Southern California families. They lived next door to America’s largest coal plant. And after years of living there, they were confronting what they feared to be an environmental crisis caused by disposal practices that threatened their health and the future of their town. Why was it important for you to spell out the stakes really clearly, and urgently, right away in this first graf? The first time I pitched a project to LRN, in the fall of 2017, I was one of 239 applicants. The coal ash pitch was my fourth proposal. With that in mind, I knew the stakes needed to be clear from the very first paragraph. So I decided to establish the power imbalance of a small community and a giant company in order to set up a very complicated problem in a clear and concise manner. If I proved successful, I could grab a reader’s attention.

The Robert W. Scherer Power Plant, which is powerful enough to light up more than half of Georgia’s 3.7 million households, produces an ungodly amount of waste. When the plant generates power, it leaves behind a toxic byproduct called coal ash. If ingested, it can cause long-term and life-threatening injuries, like ulcers, liver and kidney failure, and cancer.

For decades, Georgia Power, a subsidiary of the nation’s second-largest energy provider, Southern Company, ignored the risks of its lower-cost disposal practices. It dumped coal ash into giant pits in the ground, mixed it with water, and stored it in ponds collectively large enough to hold roughly 4,700 Olympic-sized swimming pools of contents. Here, you made pretty damning statements, notably without attribution. Did you trust that the reader would assume you’d done your homework and take your word for it? Also, that comparison to Olympic pools is fantastic — it really brings to life the sheer scale of all this. I had the benefit of having recently published a 4,000-word feature about Georgia Power’s practices in Juliette. That piece had gone through a magazine-style fact-checking process with Grist. It had plenty of attributions, and required me to reach out to the company for comment. I didn’t want to bog down the narrative this early in the proposal.  But in a pool, the cement barrier keeps water from spilling out. Here, no protective lining existed between the waste and the land underneath, and environmental experts now argue that the ash has seeped into the area’s aquifer. Juliette is far enough from the two closest cities with municipal water systems, Macon and Forsyth, that nearly all of its residents rely on wells that draw up groundwater. Georgia Power has denied that it’s caused any health risks — even though its own data has detected heavy metals in the water — claiming it might be naturally occurring or pollution from another source. Did they deny this to you personally during your pre-reporting, and where did you access this data? Again, what was the strategy behind keeping these assertions brief and less specific? Looking back, my Georgia Health News-Grist feature served as “pre-reporting” for my ProPublica proposal. Because I had spent months reporting on this topic, I felt confident in this material and I wanted that to show throughout my pitch. I also felt that, beyond selling an investigative story, I needed to sell myself as a narrative writer. I was betting that if I got ProPublica editors interested in my voice and my vision for this project, I could show my work in a subsequent stage of the application process.

Over the past eight months, I’ve spent time reporting in Juliette, getting to know residents and citizen advocates as they grapple with the realities of the contamination long suspected and now confirmed by one of the state’s top riverkeeper organizations. Structurally, why did you feel like this was the right place to step back and insert yourself? I figured, by this point, the editors would have similar questions to the ones you had in the last paragraph. I needed to establish my credentials and commitment to this proposal. But I figured ProPublica wouldn’t care who I was if they didn’t care about Juliette residents first.  This reporting culminated in a recent collaboration published by Grist and Georgia Health News, which broke the news about the presence of hexavalent chromium and was followed by the introduction of a new bill at the state capitol that, if passed, would force utilities like Georgia Power to dispose of coal ash in a lined facility to prevent waste from seeping into the groundwater. But as I reported that feature, I discovered new tips, data, and records that, if I had the time and resources to investigate, could reveal how Georgia Power has shaped rules, skirted regulations, and operated in a way that prioritizes profits over people’s health. This paragraph is fantastic. It really spells out the potential impact and what you’re seeking to do. Before each Local Reporting Network application deadline, ProPublica allows journalists to submit ideas ahead of time for a round of feedback. During the prior application cycle, I had sent a preliminary version of this pitch to one of ProPublica’s editors, Charlie Ornstein, who replied. “Right now, it seems like a narrative profile…I think for someone like us to be interested, you’d have to bring your own findings. Does this make sense? Seems worth exploring.” I decided to hold off on submitting this project until the following application cycle. Without Charlie’s advice, I don’t think this paragraph would have laid out the potential impact as clearly.

With ProPublica’s support, we believe our stories can force Georgia Power — and the officials who regulate the utility giant — to change its approach to storing this waste in ways that may jeopardize the health of its neighbors in Juliette and other Georgia communities that are home to coal ash ponds.

Reporting on Georgia Power’s handling of coal ash could not be more timely and relevant. As the U.S. Environmental Agency rolls back regulations passed during the Obama era, states are playing a greater role in how utilities must handle the legacy waste of a generation past. For Plant Scherer’s ponds and others statewide, Georgia’s regulators this year are weighing whether to let the utility leave coal ash in its current unlined ponds forever or to force the company to move it into a place that posed fewer health risks to residents. As Georgia Power reckons with the costs of coal ash, it’s asked utility regulators to increase electricity bill rates so that Georgians will pick up the tab instead of shareholders, even though much of that waste was produced as the company overprojected its energy needs for Georgia and instead sold energy to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and other states. (Georgia residents, including those in Juliette, are dealing with more waste because a Georgia-based company had regional ambitions.) Why did you choose to zoom out and place the “why this matters now, and here” graf at this particular juncture of the proposal? How were you thinking about the overall momentum of your copy as you put it together? After establishing the investigative stakes, my reporting credentials on the topic, and the goals of this project, I needed to convince ProPublica that Georgia was the best place to tell a story about coal ash. I knew that the organization had not yet worked on an Local Reporting Network project based in Georgia. From my past research of LRN stories and my previous applications, I knew that ProPublica valued timeliness and news relevancy, as well as telling stories that avoided turning Georgia into “one of X states” experiencing a problem.

But at a time when utilities in neighboring states are excavating coal ash from unlined ponds and placing it in lined landfills, Georgia Power has avoided accepting full responsibility of its waste and the costly clean-up that’s necessary to protect communities like Juliette. Not only has the company exploited a cash-strapped state environmental agency, its lobbying army has killed nearly every proposed coal ash regulation introduced in the state capitol. You do a really nice job at clearly laying out who the power players are. The best ProPublica stories are about winners and losers, the powerful and the powerless. I was hoping they might see a potential ProPublica story in my proposal.

Between 2014 and 2019, Georgia Power contributed nearly $2 million to state lawmakers, including top leadership in the Republican party, as well as Democrats. When one Republican lawmaker tried to pass a bill to protect local water supplies from coal ash, it was killed by the House Speaker’s allies. When a Democratic lawmaker sought to make coal ash landfill fees the same price as ones for household garbage, the head of the influential natural resources committee killed her amendment. The two influential lawmakers had received routine donations from the utility. It’s worth noting that state lawmakers ended up passing this bill around the time my LRN project was chosen, so this part of the story changed.  One veteran lobbyist, who’s worked inside the state capitol since before Scherer’s construction in the ‘70s, described the story of coal ash in Georgia as “a long and sordid tale of greed, corruption, [and] undue political influence.” By this paragraph, the proposal is quite long. Was there a target word count you were working with, and how did you think about making sure your reader stayed engaged all the way through? I was OK with it being long if it wasn’t repetitive. When I was a freelancer, I tailored the length of my pitch to fit the scope of the story or of the series. Because I was asking ProPublica to invest in me for a full year, I needed to be comprehensive.

Georgia Power has a massive PR machine that has touted the company as an environmental steward of the state’s waters. Many of Georgia’s manmade lakes, including Lake Juliette, where people fish and kayak, are owned by the company. The lakes are used primarily as a water supply to cool its plants. It’s used this apparatus to push a message that it’s acted responsibly on all things coal ash cleanup. But the company’s influence has effectively turned Georgia into the nation’s dumping ground for coal ash. Other states from North Carolina to Tennessee to Puerto Rico have shipped their coal ash to landfills in the Macon area as well as other parts of the state. With few exceptions, waste produced by Georgia Power and its fellow utilities in neighboring states is often stored in low-income communities (white and black, Republican and Democratic ones) that lack the political capital to fight back. I like how you really effectively convey why this local context matters against the national backdrop. This goes back to convincing ProPublica editors, most of whom have never lived in Georgia, why Georgia matters. At the same point, I was hoping the choice details of Georgia Power’s presence here might showcase my deep knowledge of the company’s influence throughout the state.

Our reporting can have a lasting impact. Georgia has lost the vast majority of its full-time healthcare and environmental reporters due to budget cuts at local newspapers like the Telegraph in Macon, Ga. Georgia Health News, an INN member that covers health and environmental issues statewide, has remained a rare bright spot. (In recent years GHN’s founder, Andy Miller, one of Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s former healthcare reporters, has published bombshell investigations about environmental issues about ethylene oxide and lead in metro Atlanta.) Fewer people than ever before are writing about issues like coal ash, and the health consequences of groundwater contamination. While there are occasional coal ash reports in Georgia, most are political reporters who cover daily press releases or town hall meetings, with little investigative reporting on the power company’s practices related to coal ash and its health or environmental consequences. We believe that our reporting will show central Georgians how unsafe coal ash disposal techniques have posed a potential hazard to their health, inform the rest of the state how the issue is a problem facing all Georgians (who pay for it with their electric bills), and force lawmakers to revisit an issue they’ve largely neglected in the past. Georgia Health News is small but has an outsized track record of forcing powerful lawmakers to call for state reforms on environmental health issues. And I believe, with ProPublica’s help, we can continue that tradition.

For Georgia Health News’s ProPublica Local Reporting Fellowship series, we propose the following stories, as well as others that may develop during the year’s worth of reporting. I have broken these up into three tiers of stories. Tier One are stories for which we have already gathered much of the materials (records, data, etc.) to execute the stories. Tier Two are stories in which we’ve gathered some of the materials needed to produce the stories but have a clear plan of obtaining the rest of the reporting over the yearlong fellowship. Finally, Tier Three stores are ones that are guided by credible sources but require further reporting to determine if they will lead to a publishable investigation. Where did you come up with this idea for a tiering system? And did you know in advance that you needed this level of specificity for story pitches? Earlier, I mentioned that ProPublica offers feedback to reporters ahead of the application deadlines. When I took up ProPublica on that offer during this cycle, I was able to speak with Henri Cauvin, a senior editor who had reviewed my application. He had suggested the idea of creating tiers to give a clearer sense of my reporting plan and the feasibility of executing on each of the story ideas. (Ultimately, COVID-19 had other plans for an ongoing series. I ended up publishing a longform feature that included many of the smaller story ideas.)

For tier three, I would report these out as I was actively working on the Tier One and Two stories. I submitted 10 story ideas like the ones below. I’ve included three of them here — I’m still reporting out some of the other ones!

Tier One: The U.S. EPA warned Georgia Power about the health risks of storing coal ash in unlined pits. The utility did so anyway in a community that relied on private wells for drinking water. In the ‘80s, federal environmental officials cautioned Georgia Power of the potential long-term consequences of storing coal ash in unlined pits. In one EPA report, researchers warned the coal industry that ash storied unlined ponds may “continue to leach,” creating the concern for the “potential for waste leachate to cause groundwater contamination.” But the subsidiary of Southern Company, one of the nation’s largest utilities, did so anyway. In doing so, Georgia Power doubled down on a storage method that was cheaper in the short term, even as scientific consensus grew around the health risks surrounding coal ash’s potential carcinogens. Now, the utility is reckoning with consequences of its past decisions — consequences that have alarmed the residents of Juliette, Ga.

Tier Two: Residents have long feared that Plant Scherer’s pollution has spawned high rates of cancer. A prominent Georgia politician will take up their legal fight against Georgia Power. In 2013, after years of whispers about Plant Scherer’s pollution causing people to get sick, about 100 residents filed a series of class-action lawsuits against Georgia Power and the plant’s minority owners claiming the utility had knowingly released toxins contained in coal ash into Juliette’s air and groundwater. The lawsuit contended the utility’s actions caused a “loss of potable water supply and increased risk of diseases.” But the suit lost steam, and was ultimately dismissed without prejudice, due to a lack of funding to build a case against the utility. Now, attorney Stacey Evans, a state lawmaker who ran to be Georgia’s governor in 2018, is building a case against Georgia Power that is set to allege the company’s coal ash contained hexavalent chromium — the carcinogen Erin Brockovich found in southern California drinking wells — has harmed the health of Juliette residents. Evans isn’t just any attorney, though, picking up cases for the sake of political expediency. The last big case she took on was a whistleblower case against Davita, the nation’s largest dialysis provider, which was forced to settle for $495 million, one of the largest Medicare fraud recoveries ever.

Tier Three: Georgia’s utility regulators set favorable rates that have enriched Georgia Power’s executives and shareholders. Those elected officials are now forcing ratepayers to pay for the costs of Georgia Power’s past mistakes. Decades ago, Georgia Power chose a cheap route in dumping its coal ash in unlined ponds. In recent rate hearings, it convinced utility regulators that the public should now foot the bill for its coal ash cleanup efforts. Rate hearings occasionally get covered by local media. But rarely is the relationship between Georgia Power and the five members of the Public Service Commission discussed. Or why the PSC acts passively and with great deference to Georgia Power’s requests. And I think this is worth further scrutiny in terms of how they influence decisions that impact people from Juliette as well as everywhere else in the state. Even if you don’t live next to a coal ash pond, you’re still picking up the tab with your monthly electric bill, one that’s inflated by the costs of a for-profit company selling power to other states. While this right now is a story about a captive regulatory body, I think it’s worth digging into it while reporting the other stories to follow the money contributed by Georgia Power to these elected officials. (There is no full-time reporter in Georgia devoted to this body anymore, so I think spending a portion of the year keeping an eye on the body, particularly with some members up for re-election in 2020, is worth doing.)

 

Max Blau’s journey to land a ProPublica grant, and then a staff reporting position

  • Late 2012: I first interviewed Andy Miller at GHN for a Creative Loafing story about Grady Memorial Hospital.
  • January 2017: I left CNN to become a freelancer, starting with a one-year contract with STAT.
  • Fall 2017: I pitched my first LRN proposal on evictions in metro Atlanta. My proposal made it to the final round of interviews, but was not chosen. (In early 2019, I used this proposal’s reporting for a shorter freelance assignment for Stateline.)
  • December 2017: I learned that STAT would not be extending my contract due to changes in their areas of coverage. I began working with a variety of publications and constantly pitching outlets for assignments.
  • Early 2018: Andy Miller and I chatted about a bunch of story ideas. We settled on reporting a collaborative series about foreign-born physicians in Georgia.
  • Spring 2018: I visited Juliette for the first time with a source.
  • Fall 2018: I pitched my second LRN proposal on privatized medical care in Georgia jails. It didn’t get accepted. I repackaged the proposal to land grant funding, which allowed me to report out this story.
  • May 2019: I met with Charlie Ornstein at an Association of Health Care Journalists conference to get a better sense about what works and doesn’t work for pitching LRN.
  • June – early August 2019: I met with advocates to learn about coal ash, and met the first set of families in Juliette.
  • August 2019: I wrote up a pitch focused on the Altamaha Riverkeeper’s work in Juliette. It was commissioned by the Telegraph, the daily newspaper in Macon, and Grist.
  • September 2019: I pitched my third LRN proposal on Georgia’s controversial child abuse registry. For the third time, my proposal didn’t get accepted.
  • September – December 2019: I continued reporting on Juliette for the Telegraph/Grist assignment.
  • December 2019: McClatchy, which owns the Telegraph, laid off my editors. I pulled the story from the Telegraph. I asked Andy if GHN would consider being the local partner for the story in place of the Telegraph. He agreed.
  • January 8, 2020: Charlie reached out to me saying they’ve opened LRN up for 3 more reporters in a specific set of cities and regions.
  • January 13, 2020: My Grist-GHN story was published.
  • Mid-January 2020: I worked on my Georgia Power-Juliette LRN proposal with Andy.
  • January 27, 2020: I sent the proposal to Charlie to take ProPublica up on their feedback offer. One of their editors, Henri Cauvin, discussed it with me over the phone. I retooled the application based on his suggestions.
  • January 30, 2020: Andy and I submitted our LRN application.
  • February 2020: I had interviews with ProPublica editors.
  • Early March 2020: Charlie informed us that we were chosen to participate in LRN.
  • April 1, 2020 – March 31, 2021: LRN year culminates with the publication of “The Coal Plant Next Door.”
  • April 5, 2021: I joined ProPublica’s South bureau full-time.

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Carly Stern is a freelance reporter based in San Francisco who covers housing, disability policy, urban life and economic inequality.

Further Reading