Melody Homesly, left, and Carnetta Galvin stand on a bridge that crosses Starkweather Creek near Galvins home of 16 years in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood of Madison, Wis., on Aug. 3, 2021. This photo was part of a photo essay that won an award from the Institute for Nonprofit News.
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Former Wisconsin Watch intern Isaac Wasserman’s photo essay and story of life along Madison’s Starkweather Creek — one of the most polluted waterways in Wisconsin — received an honorable mention in the 2022 Nonprofit News Awards Wednesday.

Wisconsin Watch photo intern Issac Wasserman photographs the Al-Mijaahid family for a story about lead pipes and drinking water on July 8, 2021 at their home in Milwaukee. His photo essay and story of life along Madison’s Starkweather Creek — one of the most polluted waterways in Wisconsin — received an honorable mention in the 2022 Nonprofit News Awards.

The awards, run by the Institute for Nonprofit News, recognize top journalism produced by the organization’s 400 members, all of them nonprofit, independent news outlets spread across the United States. Contributing to Wisconsin Watch’s entry were Deputy Managing Editor Jim Malewitz and Digital and Multimedia Director Coburn Dukehart. 

The entry was recognized in the Insight Award for Visual Journalism-Large Division. The winner of that category was PublicSource and its photographer, Quinn Glabicki, for his yearlong photo essay, The City of Prayer, which documented the struggles and triumphs of the industrial city of Clairton, Pennsylvania.

For Wasserman, a former Madison resident, the Starkweather Creek project was personal. He had grown up blocks away from the creek and was dismayed to learn that it was the most PFAS-contaminated body of water in the state. PFAS are so-called forever chemicals that are tied to numerous health problems. 

The state Department of Natural Resources has identified Truax Field Air National Guard Base and Dane County Regional Airport as known sources of PFAS in the creek. That’s due to the chemical-laced firefighting foam used on site. The DNR is continuing to investigate other potential sources of contamination.

From left, Truax neighborhood teenagers Mack Rimson, 18, Elijah Smith, 16, James Xiong, 15, and Pau Xiong, 19, stand on a storm drain near Starkweather Creek in Madison, Wis. The teens learned about the creek’s contamination by working with Maria Powell, executive director of the Midwest Environmental Justice Organization, a Madison-based nonprofit. Xiong recalls examining the creek when she was in elementary school.“We would walk to the creek to get samples — to see all the organisms grow. But there weren’t any organisms, because they were all dead,” she says. This photo was part of a photo essay that won an award from the Institute for Nonprofit News. Isaac Wasserman / Wisconsin Watch

Wasserman spent the summer of 2021 researching the health of the creek, the years-long efforts by local activists and environmentalists to draw attention to its condition, interviewing residents, and exploring what local politicians had done, or not done, to address the issue.

But most of the hard work by Wasserman was done by just watching and waiting by the creek, introducing himself to people who fished, swam and lived near the creek. Most of the residents told Wasserman they had no idea of the dangers lurking within.

About the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is a nonpartisan, independent nonprofit with offices at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and in Milwaukee at Marquette University. It was launched in 2009.

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