From national to European:
Scaling a cross-border collaboration towards wider publication

Scaling up a national incident to a European-wide level? The Forever Pollution project is a case study of cross-border collaboration where different phases and set-ups have extended an investigation to a much bigger scale than initially planned. Even though pollution occurs at the local level, the EU is the overall regulatory body. In February 2023, major changes in the EU chemicals regulations were on the way. At the heart of this change: to ban the entire PFAS family at once. The timing of the publication was meant to bring the topic to the public attention across the whole EU at this crucial moment. While the core team consisted of five journalists in five different countries, the scaling effort brought publication up to over 25 journalists in 12 countries.

Summarised by Brigitte Alfter and Sarah Pilz, 23rd of February 2023, updated in March 2024.

The starting point: Reporting on national level

The Forever Pollution Project had its roots in national reporting on PFAS pollution in the Netherlands and Belgium. Over months, the investigation was developed into a cross-border collaboration with the aim to produce a first-of-its-kind map of the “forever pollution” in Europe.

In the Netherlands it was already known for some years that pollution occurred around one production site, when a big PFAS scandal broke out just across the border in Belgium: around another production factory, this time in Flanders, heavy PFAS contamination was unveiled. For the Dutch investigative reporter, Tim Luimes (The Investigative Desk), this prompted the question: How many more such cases are potentially going under the radar across Europe, like the Flemish case did for years? 

In October 2021, at the European Cross-Border Journalism Programme, organised by the Toepfer Stiftung and Arena for Journalism in Europe, the idea of investigating PFAS across Europe further materialized, as Tim Luimes met Gianluca Liva (Radar Magazine, Italy), who knew about yet another massive PFAS scandal in Europe: the decades long pollution by the a production factory in northern Italy.

The core team

Eventually, Tim initiated the Forever Pollution Project together with his colleagues Stéphane Horel (Le Monde, France) and Tomas Vanheste (The Investigative Desk) with whom he had worked previously on tobacco lobbying. All were interested in a cross-border approach on PFAS pollution. In April 2022, the Forever Pollution Project kicked off with Tim Luimes and Tomas Vanheste (The Investigative Desk, for the Netherlands and Belgium), Gianluca Liva (Radar Magazine, Italy), Stéphane Horel (Le Monde, France) and Sarah Pilz (NDR/WDR/SZ, Germany).

Throughout the research on the national situation of PFAS in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Italy and Germany, it became clear that the PFAS pollution was everywhere in Europe. As the team started to collect more and more data from various countries, they developed a methodology to map the PFAS pollution across Europe. The number of countries implicated in the forever pollution increased. The load of data collected from scientific publications and institutes, various databases, and through press requests and FOIAs to environmental authorities in all 27 member states across Europe made it clear: the  team needed to expand.

Expansion from five to 12 countries

Not only the load of data indicated the need for a larger team to deal with data and to publish on a national level. The timing was also right, as the EU prepared an overhaul of the regulation in the field. Following the purpose of enlightening the public for a genuinely European discussion, the information about the status quo needed to be shared with audiences not only in the five countries of the initiating team but as far as possible.

At that moment, Arena for Journalism, a European journalism non-profit facilitating networking among journalists, was asked to step in as a partner to enable a wider cross-border collaboration.

Building upon Arena’s extensive contacts to journalists across Europe via not least the Arena Food & Water Network, in the autumn of 2022 the Arena Networks’ team – Brigitte Alfter and Sarah Pilz – set out to find suitable journalists who could join the Forever Pollution Project. At that time the publication date was set to February 23rd 2023, hence the criteria of finding suitable journalist partners included the following:

  • Expertise in the field of covering the environment and ideally also PFAS
  • Time to commit to a cross-border collaboration within the timeline
  • Affiliation with a medium that would secure publication and allocate time to the journalist to work on the story.

Tracing such new team members is a matter of trust, good network contacts and time. Some journalists were already in the Arena Networks – maybe because they’d been speakers at the Dataharvest conferences or otherwise shown interest. Tracing colleagues beyond the immediate network is typically a country-by-country or language-by-language effort.

The core team of the Forever Pollution Project had estimated the available data and decided which countries would be most relevant to focus on. From this list, Brigitte and Sarah reached out to contacts, talked, read publications and talked some more until they had traced dedicated and competent colleagues. Seven new partners from Greece, Spain, Switzerland, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Finland, and the UK joined the Forever Pollution Project.

From there, the following steps were taken:

  • Agreement: A non-disclosure agreement was signed including among other issues the date of publication and the shared text all team members obliged themselves to refer to.
  • Infrastructure & coordination: Arena provided access to its secure digital work space for document sharing (based upon open source NextCloud software/Arena Collaborative Desk). Further, chat communication via Signal groups was coordinated by Sarah Pilz. Sarah also coordinated a series of online meetings introducing the incoming team members to the practicalities of the collaboration, meetings with core team members introducing the data gathering methodology, the available data, the work plan and so forth.
  • Content: The scientific methodology expert of the core team, Stéphane Horel, prepared a description of the methodology and country specific “Do It Yourself Kits” including data sets, data biographies and the like, and incoming team members got access to their respective national data.

The onboarding of the new team members happened just before the Christmas 2022 holidays and were followed by intense weeks of work, where both the core team and the larger team were working directly towards publication.

Towards publication

Ahead of publication, legal questions were – obviously – addressed on national level according to each country’s laws. The data team at Le Monde worked tirelessly and prepared versions of the map that could be adapted to the various legal requirements – showing or not showing selected categories of the sites traced by the collaboration, including showing or not showing company names. The full map is made available by Le Monde.

The timeline for publication was agreed to be starting from the 23rd of February and either synchronous at the same day or over a short timeline. The purpose was to avoid too much work pressure for the knowledge sharing from the core team. However, after some discussion old and new team members agreed to start publishing on the same date but allow publication over some time. Also, in the initial agreement, all team members pledge to update each other on national publications and to share short, English language summaries to keep a news momentum across countries.

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