Almost a month before Pam Radtke Russell joined the staff of Engineering News-Record full time, we gave her one of the biggest assignments any editor or reporter at ENR gets: writing the Award of Excellence story.
This year’s winner was nominated by Russell’s predecessor, environment editor Pam McFarland, who is now attending graduate school at Johns Hopkins. Russell won the job and the high-profile story, which usually would not be assigned to a newcomer—but Russell is not one. She has been a freelance member of our team for a decade, contributing stories from her New Orleans base since 2007.
A week after her official start date in January, Pam was in Flint, Mich., meeting with AOE winner Marc Edwards and residents there. Lead leaching into drinking water had sickened residents, but their outcry got no action until the Virginia Tech professor and his research team stepped in (see Clean Water Warrior Wins 2017 ENR Award of Excellence).
The trip was an eye-opener on many levels. “I was struck by how much Flint resembled the midwestern city of South Bend, Indiana, where I grew up,” Russell says. Both have a beautiful town center and are proud of their heritage. But something obviously had gone wrong in Flint. For example, homes were abandoned and decayed. As one Flint resident told her, “The water crisis is not the major problem in Flint—it’s a symptom of decades of disinvestment,” not only in the city’s infrastructure but also in its people.
Russell related to the story on another level, as well. In 2012, she began covering energy and environmental legislation and regulation in Washington, D.C., including a stint living there. She understands Edwards’ frustration. For a decade, he argued for stronger lead and copper rules from the EPA—rules that could have prevented the Flint crisis. Russell, too, saw the extreme disconnect between the needs at the city and state levels and Washington’s inaction. She says writing this story underscored what Edwards has proven through his action in Flint—that change can occur despite stagnation at the federal level.
Reporting also took Russell, video producer and ENR Deputy Editor Tom Sawyer, and photographer Bruce Buckley to Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., and elsewhere for interviews with faculty, students and experts. “Very few people can be like Marc,” Russell says. “But like many students told me, ‘If I can achieve just a fraction of what he’s accomplished through his impact on people, I will consider myself successful.’ ”