Amy Choate-Nielsen

A Deseret News reporter has won a prestigious national award for her investigative reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists.

Reporter Amy Choate-Nielsen won the the 2011 Sigma Delta Chi Award for a three-part series that explored the legacy of toxic waste left behind by Utah mines and the past, present and future of families who now live on sites that were contaminated by that work. The honor is for excellence in journalism in the investigative reporting division for papers with a daily circulation between 50,001 to 100,000.

Only one reporter in the country is honored in each division and circulation category. "The awards recognize the best in professional journalism in categories covering print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online and research," the SPJ website says.

This is the fifth time the Deseret News has won a Sigma Delta Chi honor.

The first story in Choate-Nielsen's series was "Danger below: Cancer cluster raises questions about legacy of toxic waste." The story raised the question whether toxic soil caused multiple cases of cancer in a West Jordan, Utah, neighborhood.

"To better understand how residents in Utah live with a legacy of environmental abuse from industries that were largely unregulated until the 1970s, the Deseret News, for the past four months, studied three sites that warranted EPA intervention: the Kennecott South Zone, which includes South Jordan, West Jordan, Herriman and unincorporated Salt Lake County; the Kennecott North Zone, which includes Magna; and Eureka Mills, which takes in the town of Eureka," Choate-Nielsen wrote.

"Each location gives an insight into how toxic land in America, and especially the West, is cleaned. In Eureka, residents say the mass cleanup of high levels of lead in their soil was unnecessary. In Magna, some residents are embroiled in a present-day battle against Kennecott's plans to expand, which will shape the future of their town. In West Jordan, residents still question whether their soil, which was replaced 20 years ago, is safe."

The second story was titled, "The danger down below: In tiny town of Eureka, legacy of environmental abuse is lasting, and uncertain."

"At one time," Choate-Nielsen wrote, "Eureka was a bustling town with prosperous gold and silver mines and a population of almost 4,000 in 1920. Ninety years later, the population has dwindled to 800 and the mines have all closed, leaving behind their legacy — and tons of tailings with lead and arsenic scattered across every hillside, lawn and playground. The EPA has since tackled the contamination by adding Eureka to its list of most polluted sites in America and declared its soil clean, but the town's lingering resentment of EPA's involvement, a disconnect between the cleaning process and long-term health studies and a less-than permanent solution are representative of a growing problem with Superfund sites across the country. The Superfund program — established to repair America's toxic landscapes and manage human exposure — might itself need to be fixed, experts say, or it will leave its own sordid legacy."

The third story, "In shadow of one of world's largest mines, Magna fights for its future."

"If a major earthquake were to hit Magna today," Choate-Nielsen wrote, "the south tailings pond, which dates back to 1906, could break free of its boundaries and spill across state Route 201. (Steve) Norcross worries his family will be in danger if it makes the pond even bigger on an unstable base. He also worries the company might one day lapse in maintenance of the ponds as it did in the 1980s, and the oppressive dust storms might return."

The award ceremony is scheduled July 20 at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C.

The Deseret News staff won a Sigma Delta Chi award in 2000 for deadline reporting for coverage of the LDS Family History Library shootings.

Lois M. Collins also won that year for feature writing for her series, "Generations of Tears," her report on four generations of a Utah family ravaged by Huntington's, a degenerative neurological disease.

In 2004, Doug Robinson won a Sigma Delta Chi honor for general column writing.

In 2006, Collins and Elaine Jarvik were honored for feature writing for the story, "Still Lisa."