By Jamie Smith Hopkins
Disasters are stressful. Our warming world keeps adding fuel to the fires — and floods and hurricanes, among other calamities. What can be done about the trauma that follows?
The Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and our partners in newsrooms around the country have been reporting on this for months. We've learned a lot by asking experts: people who've lived through disasters and the professionals who study this or provide hands-on help. More than 230 shared their experiences in our detailed survey, and we interviewed dozens of additional people.
Be aware. It might seem simplistic, but you're one step ahead if you know that surviving a disaster and dealing with the long aftermath can be hard on mental health. Keep an eye out for symptoms, not just obvious ones like constant worrying or feeling short-tempered, but also trouble sleeping (or oversleeping), overeating (or lack of appetite) and heavy drinking. Remember that kids can feel the impact, too, and that might show up as acting out or trouble in school.
You might notice effects right away. Or they might take a while to surface. Either way, it's normal — and it can linger. Hilton Kelley, whose community of Port Arthur, Texas, was heavily affected by 2017's Hurricane Harvey, sums it up: "It will be years before we get out of this."
Seek support. Most people who took our survey didn't get mental-health services after their disaster experience. Some couldn't afford therapy or other assistance. Some thought they didn't need it, though the emotional challenges a portion of them reported made us wonder if support could have made the hard times more bearable. Some free avenues to try:
- The Crisis Counseling Assistance and Training Program. States with a qualifying major disaster can tap a federal grant to offer emotional support to residents, usually available for up to a year. You can talk to a counselor by phone or potentially a video-conferencing platform (and pre-COVID, you could meet in person). Counselors won't keep case files on you, and you can access the help multiple times while the program is running. Counselors will try to connect you with local mental-health services if you want more assistance and might also refer you to other sorts of help, such as disaster aid. Most states are running this program amid the pandemic, but you can call the Federal Emergency Management Agency (800-621-FEMA) to find out how to access it.
- The federal Disaster Distress Helpline. It's available round the clock for calls (800-985-5990) and texts (instructions here) in English and Spanish. Counselors offer coping advice and can make referrals to other services.
- General mental-health helplines. Those include ones run by the National Alliance on Mental Illness and local affiliates, the Crisis Text Line and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
- Your community. Family, friends, your pastor or other religious leaders, your child's school counselor, neighbors, co-workers — support can come from a variety of places. Other disaster survivors, for instance: They know what you're going through in a way that no one else can.
Our investigation found that many survivors never hear about or receive help from the federal crisis counseling program, the country's main response to the mental-health consequences of disasters. As extreme weather worsens, that puts more pressure on other forms of assistance.
"We don't have enough mental-health providers in all of the country to manage huge, large-scale disasters — nor will people use them," said Dr. Joshua C. Morganstein, assistant director of the Center for the Study of Traumatic Stress at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences. "That is why communities and organizations become so important."
Offer help. Some disaster survivors found solace as they assisted others, one way to get some control back in a situation primed to make people feel powerless.
"It helped me to keep my sanity," said Kelley, a restauranteur whose family's post-disaster efforts included cooking gumbo for people in the community.
Solemi Hernandez, a Florida resident whose employer shuttered after Hurricane Irma in 2017 and who searched for weeks for a new job, saw personal benefits from volunteer work. "Losing myself in service to others … is a way I became stable and not as depressed," she said.
Take action. Identifying a problem that caused or worsened the disaster's impacts — and then pressing for fixes — is a key way some survivors bolstered their wellbeing.
Hernandez, a regional coordinator for the Citizens' Climate Lobby, presses for action on global warming, a force multiplier for disasters. Her advice to survivors: "Use that trauma. Turn that trauma and that suffering into being politically active."
Kathleen Sullivan, who lives west of Chicago, doggedly advocated for stormwater-control measures in her city's flood-prone neighborhoods, including hers. Twice her house flooded; two more times she had close calls. It took years, but showing up at city council meetings, organizing with other residents and not letting elected officials ignore the problem got results. It was also a powerful coping mechanism.
"We met all these awesome people we wouldn't have met," said Sullivan, who linked up with Higher Ground, a national flood-survivor group. "And we can sleep now — mostly — when it rains."
Kevin McKinney's neighborhood in Richwood, Texas, south of Houston, weathered Hurricane Harvey. The devastating flood, he said, came four days later. He and hundreds of other neighbors organized, then sued a nearby city whose floodwater diversion efforts, they allege, damaged their homes. That complaint is pending.
"I didn't know which way to turn, I didn't know which way to go. Then you know what? I got it together, and then I got mad," he said. "Not only did I get mad, but 500 other people around here got mad."
As disasters hit with more frequency, communities also face questions about how to organize help in the aftermath. Areas with fewer resources need more support to recover. But too often, studies show, they get less of it instead. Dr. Octavio N. Martinez Jr., executive director of the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Texas, wants to see that change.
"We ought to have a disaster response strategic plan designed to prioritize the ZIP codes that we know are going to end up suffering the most and are going to have the most difficulty in recuperating," he said.
Prepare for next time. Almost all the survivors we surveyed were concerned more disasters will hit their community. We heard from a lot of people in regions struck by multiple wildfires, floods or hurricanes in the last decade, and some cope with that anxiety by getting prepared.
Kelley built a berm around his house to reduce flood risks. R.L. Miller, whose California community in Ventura County was burned by the Woolsey Fire in 2018, is diligent about clearing brush on her property.
Others are thinking of leaving — or they've already left. A handful of survey respondents said they moved out of their community at least in part to try to avoid another big hurricane, flood or fire.
Whether to stay or go is a fraught decision. It's one that more and more Americans will be forced to confront as climate change worsens — further increasing inequality. Dr. Irwin Redlener with Columbia University's National Center for Disaster Preparedness urges communities to get ahead of this.
"We have to prepare for more dramatic changes," he said. "Many places that may be habitable right now may become uninhabitable. … We're just at the beginning of the most serious consequences of unabated climate change."
Hernandez, who lives in Naples, on Florida's Gulf Coast, sees her climate action as one form of long-term prep work. Hurricane Irma, a wildfire in her county in May, local flooding from heavy rain, the increasingly unbearable temperatures in the summer: These are warnings of a future she wants to avert.
"I never thought about moving. I love this place," Hernandez said. "We can do something to save it."
This story originally appeared in The Center for Public Integrity and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Jamie Smith Hopkins
Home-improvement giant Lowe's is phasing out paint-removal products with methylene chloride, responding to petitions in the wake of deaths caused by the chemical.
The company's decision, announced Tuesday, will get the products off store shelves by the end of this year. As their fumes build up in bathrooms, basements and other enclosed areas, they can kill: A Center for Public Integrity investigation in 2015 found that more than 50 people died since 1980 using methylene chloride—often in paint strippers—for work or personal projects.
Since last year, at least four people have been found dead midway through projects in which they used such paint removers. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had been slow-walking a would-be ban, proposed shortly before President Donald Trump's inauguration. But earlier this month, the agency said it would push forward with a rule targeting the chemical, a turnaround after officials there came under pressure from members of Congress and survivors of recent victims.
Lowe's has faced pressure as well. Relatives of Drew Wynne, 31, who died in October while removing paint from a walk-in refrigerator at his South Carolina coffee business, joined with consumer and environmental groups to press the company to stop selling paint-stripper brands with methylene chloride. Wynne purchased his product from Lowe's, they said. The groups said more than 200,000 people signed petitions asking the company to take action.
Lowe's, which already sells some paint removers without methylene chloride, said it is working with suppliers to get more alternatives on the shelves.
"We care deeply about the health and safety of our customers, and great progress is being made in the development of safer and more effective alternatives," Mike McDermott, Lowe's chief customer officer, said in a prepared statement.
Lowe's said it also plans to stop selling paint removers with another chemical, N-Methylpyrrolidone, that has been linked to miscarriages and other harms to unborn children.
Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, an advocacy group that asked Lowe's more than a year ago to take both types of paint strippers off the shelves, said in a statement that the retailer is the first "to take action on this critical consumer and worker safety issue." The group urged other companies to follow suit.
"When facing federal inaction on vital issues facing the American public—some of which are matters of life or death—retailers have a responsibility and an opportunity to do right by their customers," Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families' Mike Schade said in a statement.
Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.
By Jamie Smith Hopkins
It might be surprising to learn that simply removing paint could be fatal, but the key ingredient in many paint-stripping products has felled dozens of people engaged in this run-of-the-mill task. In the waning days of the Obama administration, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed to largely ban paint strippers containing the chemical methylene chloride so they would no longer sit on store shelves, widely available for anyone to buy.
What's happened since should be no shock to close observers of the Trump administration's pattern of regulatory rollbacks. The EPA, after hearing from both Americans in support of a ban and companies opposed to it, pushed back its timeline for finishing the rule to an unspecified date, saying it needed more time to weigh the issue.
Consumer advocates fear the proposed rule has been effectively shelved, even as people continue to die while using methylene chloride paint strippers on bathtubs and other items—including at least three last year.
"There literally are bodies stacking up," said Erik Olson, who directs the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group. If the EPA won't act on a chemical that's undisputedly killing people, he said, "what are they going to act on?"
The NRDC is among the advocacy groups that plan to intensify their efforts to get these products off shelves another way—by ratcheting up pressure on home-improvement retailers such as Lowe's and the Home Depot to stop selling them. Lowe's said in an email to the Center for Public Integrity that it is working with suppliers on alternatives and is "committed" to nearly doubling the number of methylene chloride-free paint strippers it sells by the end of the year, to seven total.
A doctor who serves as a Maryland legislator, meanwhile, wants his state to institute the ban the EPA hasn't finalized. And California regulators are working on a proposed rule that would require manufacturers to look for safer alternatives to methylene chloride in paint strippers. (Some such options already are on the market but don't sell well, manufacturers say, because they don't work as quickly.)
Even if these efforts bear fruit, they represent a patchwork approach that Congress seemed intent on avoiding when it amended the Toxic Substances Control Act in 2016. That legislation gave the EPA clear authority to ban chemicals presenting an "unreasonable risk" to health or the environment.
Often, chemical harms are hard to grasp because they're not immediate. But methylene chloride, which research suggests carries risks of cancer and other long-term health problems, can also kill on the spot. It's been linked to more than 50 deaths in the U.S. since 1980, a 2015 Center for Public Integrity investigation found—among them a few consumers and a wide variety of workers on the job. Teenagers. A mother of four. A 62-year-old man. An Iraq War veteran.
Using the product in enclosed areas, where fumes build up, puts people at risk of asphyxiation because methylene chloride is an anesthetic at high doses—knocking victims out and stopping them from breathing. Because it turns into carbon monoxide in the body, it can also trigger heart attacks in smokers and people with certain health conditions.
"It's too toxic to use indoors," said Dr. Robert Harrison, an occupational medicine physician at the University of California, San Francisco.
Over the decades, methylene chloride—also called dichloromethane—has struck down people removing paint or other coatings in bathrooms, tanks, basements, even in a church baptismal pool. The public appears mostly unaware of the danger. Clerks in hardware stores didn't seem to know, a California agency found in a 2013 survey. But experts linked the chemical to deaths as far back as the 1940s. Criticism that the EPA hadn't done something began in the 1970s, in the agency's early years.
The proposal was years in the making. It came over the sustained objections of paint-stripper manufacturers and their trade groups, which argued that job losses would follow. In 2016, after the EPA's work on its proposed rule was well underway, the Halogenated Solvents Industry Alliance petitioned the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission to strengthen the products' warning labels—then argued last year that this obviated the need for sales restrictions on the "most efficient and cost-effective paint remover products."
"We certainly recognize that some people have been harmed when using methylene chloride without the appropriate safeguards, and we are committed to being a part of the solution," Faye Graul, executive director of the alliance, said at a recent legislative hearing in Maryland.
The group, speaking on behalf of methylene chloride manufacturers and users, also said in comments on EPA's proposed rule that the agency failed "to take into account the documented greater flammability risk posed by alternative products."
Benzyl alcohol, recommended by some state agencies as a safer option for paint stripping, poses what the National Fire Protection Association calls a "fairly insignificant" fire hazard. The EPA noted in its proposal that methylene chloride is often mixed with flammable solvents in paint strippers on the market.
The EPA also considered whether better instructions would be enough to render methylene chloride safe. But dozens of studies "found that consumers and professionals do not consistently pay attention to labels for hazardous substances," the agency said in its proposed rule, adding that proper safety precautions for methylene chloride are too complex for most users to successfully carry out.
In December, however, while trumpeting its deregulatory efforts, the EPA changed the categorization of its would-be ban from "Proposed Rule" to "Long-term Action." The agency said in an emailed statement last week that officials "felt that more time was needed to consider how best to analyze and address any risks from these chemicals."
In fact, the EPA has done that already—as part of its original proposal. Asked for an estimate on how long additional work on the rule would take and whether the agency still intended to finalize the proposal, the EPA did not respond.
Maryland Delegate Clarence Lam, a Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health physician with a specialty in public and occupational health, saw the EPA's handling of this chemical as a call to action. In February the Democrat sponsored a bill to ban methylene chloride paint strippers in his state. The legislation isn't going anywhere this legislative session, but he's hopeful about its chances next year.
"I didn't think further risk assessments needed to be done," Lam said. "This chemical probably should have been banned long ago."
Industry representatives testifying against his bill argued that a ban would be premature because the EPA is on the job. They pointed not to the languishing proposed restrictions but to a separate toxics review the agency is undertaking. Methylene chloride is one of the targeted chemicals.
But relying on that effort to get action on paint strippers could delay restrictions for years because it's an opportunity for the agency to retrace all the steps it already completed, said Liz Hitchcock, who heads Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, a group that works to get toxic substances out of products.
"In the absence of EPA taking action, we are urging—and definitely increasing our efforts to persuade—the largest home-improvement retailers to take action on their own," she said, and get "these dangerous products off their store shelves."
EPA Rule Change Would Expose Teenagers to Highly Toxic Chemicals https://t.co/wpwwgc2QkI @bpncamp @pesticideaction @PAN_UK— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1515883207.0
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Center for Public Integrity.
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By Rachel Leven
Engineer Jim Southerland was hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in 1971 to join the nascent war on air pollution. He came to relish the task, investigating orange clouds from an ammunition plant in Tennessee and taking air samples from strip mines in Wyoming. Among his proudest accomplishments: helping the agency develop a set of numbers called emission factors—values that enable regulators to estimate atmospheric discharges from power plants, oil refineries, chemical plants and other industrial operations.
By the time Southerland left the EPA in 1996, he was "frustrated and ticked off," he said, because the numbers he had helped develop were being misused. The original aim had been to paint a broad-brush picture of pollution. Instead, the numbers—meant to represent average emissions from industrial activities—were incorporated into permits stipulating how much pollution individual facilities could release. This happened despite EPA warnings that about half of these sites would discharge more than the models predicted. "These factors were not intended for permits," said Southerland, now retired and living in Cary, North Carolina.
The number of emission factors used by the EPA since Southerland's time has proliferated and stands at 22,693. The agency itself admits most are unreliable: It rates about 62 percent as "below average" or "poor." Nearly 22 percent aren't rated at all. About 17 percent earned grades of "average" or better, and only one in six has ever been updated. There is a slew of common problems, such as poor accounting for emissions from aging equipment.
The upshot: in some cases, major polluters are using flawed numbers to calculate emissions of substances such as benzene, a carcinogen, and methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Regulators at times are flying blind. The factors color everything we know about air quality and many of the decisions the EPA and state environmental agencies make, from risk assessment to rulemaking.
In an email, an EPA spokeswoman told the Center for Public Integrity that the agency has been working on the problem for a decade. "EPA believes it is important to develop emissions factors that are of high quality and reliable," she wrote.
Some experts, however, say the agency hasn't done enough. The unreliability of the numbers has been flagged over a period of decades by the EPA's own internal watchdog and other government auditors. "This is what tells you what's being put in the air and what you're breathing," said Eric Schaeffer, former head of civil enforcement at the EPA and now executive director of the Environmental Integrity Project, an advocacy group. "You don't want those numbers to be wrong."
Emission factors are based on company and EPA measurements as well as external studies. They are plugged into equations to estimate total emissions from industrial activities, such as the burning of coal in boilers.
As early as the 1950s, regulators in places like Los Angeles were using emission factors to try to pinpoint the origins of dangerous smog episodes. The numbers allowed them to avoid "time-consuming, expensive testing programs and extensive surveys of individual sources," according to a 1960 paper by the Los Angeles County Air Pollution Control District.
In 1965, the U.S. Public Health Service—which regulated air pollution at the time—released its first comprehensive list of factors, a document the agency would label "AP-42" in a 1968 update. The EPA, created two years later, kept revising the estimates as they became more widely used in emission inventories depicting pollution levels and sources around the country.
The EPA knew early on there were problems with the numbers. In 1989, for example, the Office of Technology Assessment—a now-defunct, nonpartisan science adviser to Congress—reported many U.S. metropolitan areas had not met their goals for controlling smog-forming ozone in part because of inaccurate emission inventories. In 1990 amendments to the Clean Air Act, Congress gave the agency six months to make sure all emissions contributing to ozone formation were assigned up-to-date, accurate factors, and directed the EPA to review the numbers every three years thereafter.
The EPA missed both deadlines. It has failed to do at least some of the three-year reviews. It claims to have created all the necessary ozone-related factors, but questions about their accuracy remain.
For decades, government watchdogs, including the EPA's Office of Inspector General, have pointed out deficiencies in the factors, which drive actions ranging from enforcement cases to the drafting of regulations. "We believe the status of emission factor development … is a significant weakness that impedes achievement of major air program goals," the IG wrote in a 1996 report. The EPA's dependence on industry studies because of funding constraints could result in factors that minimized pollution, it warned. The U.S. General Accounting Office—now the Government Accountability Office—reported in 2001 that polluters rely on the estimates even though "facilities' actual emissions can, and do, vary substantially from the published factors." The EPA's IG came back with a targeted reproach in 2014, questioning the validity of factors used to estimate methane emissions from some pipelines.
Still, there was little movement. Whereas emission factors are recognized as crucial tools in understanding air quality and underpinning inventories, they tend to be forgotten. "That foundation is buried to such an extent that it's not often appreciated," said David Mobley, who worked on emission factors in the 1990s. "The urgency is rarely there."
Test Case in Houston
Accurate pollution data matters. Consider what happened in the ozone-plagued city of Houston, a hub of oil refining and chemical manufacturing.
The city had been using emission inventories to guide its ozone-control strategy. Air monitoring by researchers in 2000 found levels of volatile organic compounds—highly reactive ozone precursors, such as benzene, known as VOCs—were 10 to 100 times higher than what had previously been estimated. The study—conducted by what was then the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the EPA and more than 40 other public, private and academic institutions—singled out as culprits VOCs such as ethylene, a flammable gas used mainly in the production of plastics.
Houston, it turned out, had focused on controlling the wrong emissions from the wrong sources to lower its ozone levels, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University. The city changed course, expanding VOC monitoring and developing rules to reduce emissions. Ozone production rates dropped by up to 50 percent in six years, Cohan and his colleagues found in a follow-up study. The study showed that reliance on emission factors alone is a bad idea, Cohan said. "We need scientists to measure these pollutants in the air to find out how much is really being emitted," he said.
The underestimation problem surfaced at individual facilities as well, including Shell's 1,500-acre petrochemical complex in the Houston suburb of Deer Park. A study begun by the City of Houston and the EPA in 2010 showed levels of benzene wafting from one Shell tank were 448 times higher than what the relevant emission factor had predicted. The discrepancy led to an EPA enforcement action; in a consent decree, Shell agreed to pay a $2.6 million fine and spend $115 million to control pollution from flaring—the burning of gas for economic or safety reasons—and other activities. Shell did not respond to requests for comment, but a spokeswoman told the Houston Chronicle in 2013 "the provisions of the settlement are consistent with Shell Deer Park's objectives and ongoing activities to reduce emissions at the site and upgrade our flaring infrastructure."
Despite the findings of these studies and others, the EPA didn't update emission factors for the U.S. refinery and petrochemical sector until 2015, seven years after Houston had petitioned the agency to do so and two years after it was sued by environmental justice groups.
Unreliable Methane Estimates
The low-balling of pollution isn't limited to toxic chemicals. Many emission factors used to estimate releases of methane—a potent greenhouse gas associated with oil and natural-gas development—are "far too low," said Robert Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University. Identifying how much methane these operations discharge can help scientists calculate the impact of natural gas—which in 2016 displaced coal as the nation's biggest source of electric power generation—on global warming. This is crucial to preventing "runaway climate change," Howarth said.
Much remains unknown. A 2015 study sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund found methane releases from oil and gas production and processing in the Barnett Shale Formation in northern Texas were 90 percent higher than what the EPA's Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions had estimated.
About a third of the factors used to estimate pipeline leaks and other natural-gas emissions in the most recent inventory, for 2015, are based on a 1996 study by the EPA and an industry group then known as the Gas Research Institute. The EPA's IG found in 2014 "there was significant uncertainty in the study data," meaning the EPA's assumptions on the amount of methane that spews from pipelines "may not be valid."
The harm caused by faulty estimates extends beyond oil and gas. An emission factor designed to estimate ammonia releases from poultry farms, for example, "is probably far too low" according to a report by the Environmental Integrity Project. These emissions contribute to problems like algae blooms, which can spread rapidly and kill marine life in waterways like the Chesapeake Bay.
'Pandora's Box of Problems'
The EPA, according to its spokeswoman, has begun executing a plan to improve the science that underlies emission factors and review the estimates more frequently. Among the changes: some companies now must report pollution data electronically to the agency.
The Trump administration proposed slashing the EPA's budget by 31 percent for fiscal year 2018, although Congress has so far extended existing funding levels through a series of short-term resolutions. Progress on emission factors will hinge on "available resources," the EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email, declining to specify a deadline for the project.
The agency said it does not intend to limit the use of emission factors to the purpose for which they were originally intended—to inform pollution inventories. That means, for example, that the numbers will still be used in permits.
Many in industry are fine with that. When the EPA asked in a 2009 Federal Register notice for suggestions on how to improve the system, companies from electric power generators to auto manufacturers argued for the status quo, saying emission factors were sometimes their only data option. Trade groups like the American Petroleum Institute and the American Chemistry Council argued their members should not be penalized if the EPA discovered a deficient factor had caused a permit to underestimate pollution. API said it worried that additional industry data supplied to the EPA to help it improve the numbers "could be misused for enforcement or other purposes." Neither group responded to requests for comment.
Public health advocates, on the other hand, want more. Some companies game the system to avoid EPA permitting fees and civil penalties, said Neil Carman, clean air director for the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club in Austin. "We don't know what the emissions really are," he said. "It's a real Pandora's box of problems."
Carman and other advocates say they understand emission factors will have to be used in some circumstances, and that some types of pollution can be estimated with reasonable accuracy. They also maintain, however, that air monitoring should be more widely deployed. "Where you can do direct monitoring of emissions, that should be required," said Schaeffer, of the Environmental Integrity Project.
Schaeffer faults the EPA for giving some companies an out. It allows operators of power plants, for example, to choose between using continuous monitoring to measure fine particles, or a combination of quarterly testing and emission factors. Some of these plants already have monitoring systems installed, Schaeffer said, but "it's easier to mask noncompliance using emission factors."
Shining a 'Bright Light' on Pollution
California's Bay Area Air Quality Management District changed its approach after studies showed leaks from oil refineries in the area—known as fugitive emissions—were likely underrepresented in emission factors. "We decided, based on that information, that we needed additional ways to better identify fugitive emissions and to shine a bright light on those fugitive emissions," said Eric Stevenson, the district's director of meteorology, measurement and rules.
In 2016, the district urged refineries to install "open path" monitoring systems—which use beams of light to detect the presence of gases like benzene—and make the data available to the public in real time. Chevron installed such a system on the perimeter of its refinery in Richmond, California, in 2013.
The company didn't respond to specific questions about the monitoring but said its focus "on running the refinery efficiently and investing in new technologies" has significantly reduced air pollution since the 1970s. Denny Larson, executive director of the Community Science Institute - CSI for Health and Justice, an environmental group that helps the public test for pollution, said the system in Richmond shows levels of chemicals in the air at a given moment and can alert residents to emission spikes that can trigger asthma attacks and other serious health problems.
"It's showing lots of pollution has been flying under the radar that's extremely toxic and problematic," Larson said. "We can prove what we've always known."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Center for Public Integrity.
By Rachel Leven
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ( EPA) Administrator Scott Pruitt doesn't hide his contempt for how the agency has been run, but does profess to care about one of its key programs: Superfund, which oversees the cleanup of the nation's worst toxic-waste sites. In April, he toured a site in East Chicago, Indiana, contaminated with lead and arsenic, and told residents, "We are going to get this right."
The following month, Pruitt—Oklahoma's attorney general before he joined the EPA—tapped one of his former donors, banker Albert "Kell" Kelly, to find ways to accelerate and improve Superfund cleanups. Kelly started by consulting career staff members —often-knowledgeable officials who work at the agency regardless of who holds the White House. But then Kelly closed off the process, conferring with Pruitt to produce a final plan that altered or excluded many of the staffers' suggestions. Gone, for example, was the idea that EPA officials be identified early on to lead discussions with communities on how contaminated land should be used after cleanup.
"We're missing a huge opportunity to do something new and different with Superfund," said one of two EPA employees who described the process to the Center for Public Integrity on the condition of anonymity.
What happened with Superfund is hardly an anomaly. Today's EPA is wracked with internal conflict and industry influence, and is struggling to fulfill its mission, according to more than two dozen current and former agency employees. A few dozen political appointees brought in under the Trump administration are driving policy. At least 16 of the 45 appointees worked for industries such as oil, coal and chemicals. Four of these people—and another 21—worked for, or donated to, politicians who have questioned established climate science, such as Pruitt and Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla).
Career staff members—lawyers, scientists, analysts—are largely being frozen out of decision-making, current and former agency employees said. These staffers rarely get face time with Pruitt and frequently receive top-down orders from political appointees with little room for debate. They must sometimes force their way into conversations about subjects in which they have expertise.
And that is a big mistake, said one of Pruitt's predecessors.
Career employees are "very dedicated to protecting human health and the environment, and they will change their ways of how they do that if they're convinced you really want to accomplish that aim," said Christine Todd Whitman, EPA administrator under President George W. Bush.
One such employee agreed. "I think it's the fact that we're not following regular procedures, we're not sure of what the legal justification is for some of the things they're asking us to do. We're just kind of being told, 'Do the opposite thing you did 18 months ago.' That's hard to swallow."
The EPA staffers who spoke to the Center for Public Integrity said the isolation of Pruitt's top staff from the rest of the agency limits the perspectives the administrator is exposed to before making decisions. Two appointment calendars, covering a six-month period beginning in March, show that Pruitt hears overwhelmingly from industry. He was scheduled to meet 154 times during the period with officials from companies such as ExxonMobil and trade associations such as the American Petroleum Institute, the oil industry's biggest lobby group. API was among at least 17 donors to Pruitt when he ran for state or federal office or led the Republican Attorneys General Association that have met with him as EPA administrator. Those same calendars indicate he saw only three groups representing environmental or public-health interests, though an EPA press release says he met with two others.
EPA spokeswoman Liz Bowman disputed claims that the roughly 15,000-person agency is riven with discord. Career employees are "vital" to the EPA's work and meet regularly with political appointees and the administrator, she said, citing ongoing deliberations on a water-pollution rule as an example. (Two career employees who spoke to the Center at Bowman's request confirmed that they routinely work with political appointees and did so on the water rule.)
"We talk to people throughout the regions, the states, the career staff and a variety of different perspectives prior to making decisions," Bowman said, adding in an email that "we follow the Administrative Procedure Act in our regulatory process, meaning taking into consideration comments submitted by ALL commenters, including environmental NGOs, the public, and other commenters."
For the public, much is at stake. Under Pruitt, who sued the EPA 14 times as Oklahoma's attorney general, the agency already has declined to ban a pesticide linked to neurological damage in children; frozen requirements to reduce water pollution from coal-fired power plants and opened the door to loosening limits on toxic coal waste. The EPA most recently proposed eliminating the Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration rule aimed at reducing carbon emissions in the power sector.
"These rules [being rolled back] aren't perfect by any stretch of the imagination. There are ways to improve things," said Gordon Binder, who served as chief of staff for then-EPA Administrator William Reilly under President George H.W. Bush. "But Pruitt's come in with a flyswatter and is slapping them down instead of laying out the problems with a rule and saying, 'How can we fix it?'"
Who's running the EPA?
There's a striking absence of high-level leadership at the EPA. Only one of 13 positions requiring Senate confirmation—Pruitt's—is filled. These positions—higher-ranking than those held by the 45 political appointees—include leaders of key agency offices that oversee air, water and other programs. Six people have been nominated for the 12 open slots and are awaiting confirmation (although two of them have joined the EPA in the meantime as senior advisers).
Most major decisions are made on the third floor of the William Jefferson Clinton South Building on Pennsylvania Avenue, where Pruitt and his handful of confidants have their offices. Among those who most prominently have Pruitt's ear: EPA Chief of Staff Ryan Jackson, who previously held the same position with Inhofe, and Samantha Dravis, who worked with Pruitt at the Republican Attorneys General Association and now leads the EPA's Office of Policy.
Dravis, widely seen as Pruitt's closest adviser, came to the agency with a background in law and politics but little environmental experience. That's a departure from her two immediate predecessors, who were already at the EPA when they were tapped to lead the policy office.
Jackson helped Inhofe negotiate major bipartisan deals in the Senate, such as the passage of federal chemical-policy reform. Still, emails released under the Freedom of Information Act to The New York Times show that Jackson directed career staff to deny a petition seeking to ban chlorpyrifos, a pesticide suspected of harming children's brains, directly contradicting the recommendations of EPA scientists.
Bowman said in an email that career staff were "instrumental" in drafting the denial. The former acting head of the EPA's chemicals office, a career employee who left the agency last month, told the Times she opposed the decision, even as she followed Jackson's instructions.
Other influential political appointees include Sarah Greenwalt, senior adviser to the Office of the Administrator, who worked for Pruitt when he was Oklahoma's attorney general; Bowman, head of public affairs, who came from the American Chemistry Council, a chemical-industry trade group; and Mandy Gunasekara, a senior policy adviser who worked on the Republican staff of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.
Nine career staff members told the Center for Public Integrity that their opinions seem to hold little weight. They are excluded from meetings, they said, and their advice on agency operations is often disregarded. Some believe this is because of the flurry of leaks that have come from inside the agency since Pruitt took office. Political appointees have lashed out at suspected leakers and relieved them of work assignments, even in the absence of proof, career employees said.
"They are terrified of career staff leaking," one said. "And once they get an idea in their head [about] someone, they won't change it."
Bowman said, "Those concerns have not been brought to our attention. And if they are we will do everything we can to address them."
Pruitt has broken with tradition by foregoing many introductory briefings with career staff designed to help new administrators set priorities, several current and former employees said. Instead, he's worked to roll back EPA rules, an effort that also diverges from common practice.
Political appointees are taking more of a hands-on role in tasks career employees previously would have handled. Take, for example, a recent notice announcing EPA plans to reconsider whether certain vehicle-emission standards for greenhouse gases were too strict. Career staff had drafted a concise version of the notice, but appointees expanded the number of vehicles affected by the review and made the Department of Transportation the lead agency on the decision, despite the EPA's legal obligations to control planet-warming emissions under the Clean Air Act.
"This was a much more major re-write" than would have happened under previous administrations, said an EPA employee familiar with the matter. "At least one plausible outcome of this process," the employee said, "is that the EPA would unilaterally abdicate its [legal] responsibility."
'Checking the box'
On the rare occasions when career employees are asked to brief Pruitt, he seems unwilling to change his anti-regulatory posture on major industry priorities, according to some career employees. Betsy Southerland, who headed an office within the EPA's water program until August, said her team met with Pruitt twice about a rule designed to limit wastewater discharges from power plants as he considered weakening parts of it.
The team told Pruitt that industry arguments against the rule already had been considered and found to be inaccurate. They offered more nuanced actions the administrator could take to address concerns expressed by the Small Business Administration, a separate federal agency; and the Utility Water Act Group, a lobbying organization. Pruitt was unmoved, she said. In August, the EPA announced it would reconsider key parts of the rule.
"You get the feeling that his mind was made up before we started the briefing process," Southerland said. "It looked like he was kind of checking the box to meet with us." The Times found similar behavior by Pruitt when the EPA declined to ban chlorpyrifos. Pruitt didn't follow agency scientists' advice, having "promised farming industry executives who wanted to keep using the pesticide that it is 'a new day and a new future,'" the Times reported.
These episodes could simply reflect inexperience—appointees struggling to figure out the agency they lead. They also could reflect pressure placed on the EPA by executive orders and presidential memoranda to act quickly on big-ticket issues like the Clean Power Plan.
But Pruitt's pro-industry bent has convinced some current and former employees that he and his like-minded advisers are aiming to destroy the EPA from the inside.
"Look, I think he does not support what the agency has been trying to do for 40 years," said William Ruckelshaus, EPA administrator under Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. "He wants to dismantle—not improve or reform—the regulatory system for protecting public health and the environment."
Reposted with permission from our media associate The Center for Public Integrity.
By Rachel Leven and Jamie Smith Hopkins
The international climate-fighting pact would create jobs, Google said. Leaving the deal known as the Paris accord would be bad for business, top executives from Bank of America and Coca-Cola argued. When President Donald Trump committed to yanking the U.S. out anyway, PayPal and Western Union countered "We are still in."
These corporate titans and at least 22 others were among those who sought to preserve the U.S.' role in the landmark Paris agreement ratified by about 160 countries. So why exactly would these 27 business powerhouses also support a GOP group that's fought to undo a key Obama-era domestic climate initiative?
The answer is, well, complicated. The overwhelming majority of these companies have no overt incentive to undermine the U.S. climate effort. One leading solar company, in fact, had a driving financial imperative to cheer it on. These companies' donations of more than $3 million to the Republican Attorneys General Association over the past three-and-a-half years speaks instead to the difficulties for corporations trying to navigate the political system in a country that's polarized—particularly on climate change.
The Obama-era Clean Power Plan provides a stark example. Starting in 2014, the group comprising many states' Republican attorneys general spoke out against this Obama-era rule aiming to reduce climate-changing carbon emissions in the U.S. power sector. Nearly all the Republican attorneys general sued in 2015, alongside fossil fuel groups, to quash the power plan. A few Democratic attorneys general did as well; the majority pushed back in court to try to save it.
In giving to the GOP group, many of the big businesses said they were simply following a time-honored corporate tradition of donating to both parties—though most of these companies donated more to the Republican group than its Democratic counterpart. And they nodded at the political reality: A business needs to engage with elected officials on both sides of the aisle to influence policy, they said.
"This is a function of our democratic system," Verizon subsidiary Oath said in a statement, speaking on behalf of one company on the list that it recently acquired, Yahoo.
But campaign finance experts countered that business officials can influence policy without writing a check to decision-makers like attorneys general—advocating their policy positions through lobbyists, for example. Because these businesses have said climate action is a priority, making political contributions that can work against that goal puts their reputations or even revenues at risk, these experts said.
"I don't doubt that their public statements about the Paris climate agreement are sincere but it matters that when it actually comes down to how they spend their money, they're giving to politicians that have almost the exact opposite goal," said Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice's Democracy Program, which advocates for campaign finance reform. "It doesn't mean that they're actually lying, but it does lead one to wonder how strong their commitment to fight global warming actually is."
Attorneys General and Climate Change
The job of state attorney general has in recent years become increasingly high-profile and partisan. The GOP group, also known as RAGA, and the competing Democratic Attorneys General Association didn't even exist until 1999 and 2002, respectively. Now, both are sharply focused on election fundraising to increase their parties' control of top state prosecutor jobs.
Attorneys general have flexed their muscles in a variety of ways, most recently when the Trump administration said it was partly threats of litigation from GOP AGs that caused the president to halt a program protecting from deportation certain immigrants brought to the country as children. A coalition of Democratic AGs then promptly sued.
But it's the domestic Clean Power Plan that has received an outsize share of energy from Republican attorneys general. RAGA has called the rule "unlawful" and a prime example of the federal Environmental Protection Agency exerting authority that it doesn't have to carry out a political agenda against fossil fuels. The GOP group has warned that it would kill jobs, raise electricity prices and put in jeopardy the power grid's reliability. (These arguments were disputed by the Obama administration).
RAGA, which did not respond to requests for comment, isn't the only Republican fundraising group whose elected officials have doubts about global warming or the necessity of combating it through federal action. But the attorneys general association has stood out for making the power plan specifically its Enemy No. 1. The victory that tops RAGA's list of accomplishments on its website: Convincing the U.S. Supreme Court in 2016 "to halt implementation of Obama's signature climate change initiative."
The Republican attorneys general were likely crucial in securing the Supreme Court decision to keep the rule from taking effect while a lower court considered its legality because they "gave the opposition to the plan a legitimacy it wouldn't otherwise have had," said Daniel Farber, a law professor with the University of California, Berkeley. That pause left the still-in-limbo plan more vulnerable to the new administration, which is now determining its next steps after Trump vowed to dismantle it.
"As we've seen with Obamacare," Farber said by email, referring to health care reform efforts, "once something has gone into effect, it becomes a lot harder to undo it."
These companies recently advocated for the U.S. to stay in an international climate change-fighting pact known as the Paris accord. Still, they donated from 2014 to 2017 to the Republican Attorneys General Association as it organized against the Clean Power Plan, the domestic effort to reduce the power sector's planet-warming emissions. Here's what these companies contributed to RAGA and its Democratic counterpart during that period. See the companies' comments here.
* Contributions for Dow Chemical and Corning each include a $15,000 donation by their former joint venture, Dow Corning, before it was reorganized
** Hewlett Packard split into two companies, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and HP on Nov. 1, 2015
Intended and Unintended Consequences
Some political contributors couldn't be happier. Though RAGA has said it reached its conclusion that the power plan was an unconstitutional overreach on its own, separate from political contributions, coal conglomerate Murray Energy was among those that donated to the group, then urged legal action, Bloomberg News reported.
The 27 companies that spoke out against leaving the Paris accord and then supported RAGA are another matter.
Only two pushed back in some way against the Obama administration Clean Power Plan fought by RAGA—Exxon Mobil, which panned it, and General Electric, which advocated for several changes while it was still a proposal. Far more were active on the other side, urging officials to support the rule—or even, in the case of Google and Microsoft, filing arguments in court to try to counteract the lawsuit by the attorneys general whose political group they'd helped fund.
The most striking example? SolarCity, the nation's largest residential solar-panel provider. Its investors were certain the Obama power plan would be good for business—and its absence was bad news. The company's stock nose-dived 26 percent the morning after the Supreme Court paused the rule.
Still, three months later, SolarCity donated $20,000 to RAGA, on top of the roughly $15,000 it donated to the group the year before.
Dues for "Membership"
So why did it do that? SolarCity declined to comment. Several others didn't respond, including Bank of America and Google. But other companies, such as PayPal, echoed a common theme: the need to support or work with candidates and organizations on both sides of the aisle that deal with issues central to their business.
During the timeframe that the 27 companies donated about $3.3 million to the Republican group, 23 of them collectively gave about $1.9 million to the parallel Democratic organization.
Some companies, including JPMorgan Chase, told the Center for Public Integrity that their contributions to RAGA are "dues" or that they are "members"—as if the political group with a mission of getting officials elected is no different than a trade association. Western Union said its membership in both attorneys general groups allows it to "properly educate" state prosecutors and support other initiatives in individual states.
Indeed, RAGA has pitched itself that way (and still does) to would-be contributors, laying out the "membership benefits"—access—for various amounts of money, according to internal documents obtained by The New York Times. The Democratic group has done the same, the newspaper reported in a 2014 investigation.
Sean Rankin, executive director of the Democratic Attorneys General Association, said the money flowing to its attorneys general isn't changing their stance on issues. But they see an existential need to catch up with their Republican counterparts' fundraising. The attorneys general for twenty states and the District of Columbia are Democrats, down from 32 in 2010.
Between 2014 and mid-2017 alone, RAGA raised nearly three times as much as the Democratic group from all sources.
"The money is significant," Rankin said. "It was money that played a role to put more Republican AGs into office."
For Coca-Cola, which gave just more than $200,000 to the Republican group and about $75,000 to the Democratic group between 2014 and mid-2017, political donations aren't earmarked to support all the policy positions held by recipients. "Our goal is not perfect philosophical alignment," the company said.
Intel, which gave $50,000 to the Republican group and $25,000 to its counterpart, was more direct.
"We recognize that it is impractical and unrealistic to expect that we or our stockholders and stakeholders will agree with every issue that a politician or trade association may support, particularly given our strategy of bipartisan giving," William Moss, a spokesman for Intel, wrote in an email.
Risks to the Bottom Line
But the implicit dilemma is that political spending is an action, even when companies split their contributions to the country's two major parties down the middle, said Ann Skeet, director of leadership ethics at Santa Clara University's Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.
"There's actually policy implications that go with the money that they spend," Skeet said.
The Conference Board, a business membership and research association, warns companies flat out in its corporate political activity handbook that that they "must be mindful of the risks" to their reputation or bottom line if they belong to trade groups opposing their positions on major issues. Bruce F. Freed, a co-author of that report—which cites climate change as a potent example of priority clash—said the same point is true of corporate political giving to any group. Freed is president of the Washington watchdog Center for Political Accountability.
Target, which is not one of the 27 companies on the Center for Public Integrity's list, could tell them a thing or two about PR problems. The company, which built a reputation for gay-friendly policies, faced boycotts in 2010 after contributing $150,000 to a super PAC backing a candidate who opposed gay marriage. The company apologized after initially saying the donation fit into Target's strategy of giving to pro-business candidates "on both sides of the aisle."
"There are real consequences," said Freed, "when there is a disconnect."
As many as 63 million people—nearly a fifth of the country—from rural central California to the boroughs of New York City, were exposed to potentially unsafe water more than once during the past decade, according to a News21 investigation of 680,000 water quality and monitoring violations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The findings highlight how six decades of industrial dumping, farming pollution and water plant and distribution pipe deterioration have taken a toll on local water systems. Those found to have problems cleaning their water typically took more than two years to fix these issues, with some only recently resolving decades-old violations of EPA standards and others still delivering tainted water, according to data from the agency's Safe Drinking Water Information System.
Many local water treatment plants, especially those in small, poor and minority communities, can't afford the equipment necessary to filter out contaminants. Those can include arsenic found naturally in rock, chemicals from factories and nitrates and fecal matter from farming. In addition, much of the country's aging distribution pipes delivering the water to millions of people are susceptible to lead contamination, leaks, breaks and bacterial growth.
Experts warn contamination in water can lead to cancer, gastrointestinal diseases and developmental delays in children.
The EPA estimates local water systems will need to invest $384 billion in the coming decades to keep water clean. The cost per person is more than twice as high in small communities as it is in large towns and cities. The EPA and water treatment industry consider the coming years a crucial period for American drinking water safety as pipes and treatment plants built in the mid-20th century reach the end of their useful lives.
"We're in this really stupid situation where, because of neglect of the infrastructure, we're spending our scarce resources on putting our fingers in the dike, if you will, taking care of these emergencies, but we're not doing anything to think about the future in terms of what we should be doing," said Jeffrey Griffiths, a former member of the Drinking Water Committee at the EPA's Science Advisory Board.
As water systems age, 63 percent of Americans are now concerned a "great deal" about drinking water pollution, according to a Gallup poll released in March that showed such worries at their highest level since 2001. Drinking water pollution has long been a top environmental concern for Americans—above air pollution and climate change, according to the same poll.
Find Out What's in Your Tap Water https://t.co/bplNCTr4WT @EndWaterPoverty @Waterkeeper— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1501113008.0
Many of the nation's largest city systems violated EPA safety standards during the past decade, potentially exposing tens of millions of people to dangerous contaminants. New York City's system, which serves 8.3 million people, failed standards meant to protect its water from viruses and bacteria two times during that period. The system still hasn't addressed its most recent violation from February for not building a cover for one of its water reservoirs, according to EPA records.
The problems extend to the country's large suburbs. Tacoma, Washington's, system failed to meet a federally mandated timeline for installing a treatment plant meant to kill the parasite cryptosporidium. Chris McMeen, deputy superintendent for the Seattle suburb's system, which serves 317,600 people, said the pathogen has never been found in dangerous levels in the city's water. The system was also cited for failing to test for dozens of chemicals during the past decade.
In Waukesha, Wisconsin, 18 miles west of Milwaukee, decades of radium contamination from the city's underground aquifer prompted officials to draft a proposal to draw water from Lake Michigan for its 71,000 residents. The Great Water Alliance, a $200 million project, is expected to be completed by 2023.
Thousands of rural towns have the most problems because communities often lack the expertise and resources to provide safe drinking water.
In several Southwestern states, 2 million people received groundwater tainted with arsenic, radium or fluoride from their local water systems, with many exposed to these chemicals for years before hundreds of small, low-income communities could afford to filter them out. Some still haven't cleaned up their water.
Contamination in rural areas from these naturally occurring chemicals, found in the bedrock of aquifers, made Texas, Oklahoma and California the top states for EPA drinking water quality violations during the past decade.
"Sometimes it's orange, sometimes it's green, sometimes it's brown," said Melissa Regeon, a lifelong resident of Brady, Texas, which is trying to secure money for water system upgrades to filter out the radium in its water. "You just never know. It looks horrible."
Small water systems in California's San Joaquin Valley have battled both farming pollution and natural contamination from arsenic for years. High levels of nitrate from farm runoff and groundwater rock are linked to low oxygen levels in babies and cancer. Those levels have been found in systems serving 317,000 people during the past decade in the valley, 10,000 square miles of concentrated farming in the state's center.
The crash of the coal mining industry in southern West Virginia has left hundreds of residents in charge of their own small water systems—some of which date to the Civil War. Residents in the mountains of Wyoming and Fayette counties say they are getting too old to maintain water treatment plants and pipes, and they lack funding to carry out proper treatment on the water, which comes from springs in old coal mines.
"What is pretty clear is that a lot of these small communities, especially in lower-income areas, have a real problem ensuring compliance or even treating the water," said Erik Olson, director of the health program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "A lot of these smaller communities, they don't even have the wherewithal to apply for available funding."
Drinking water quality is often dependent on the wealth and racial makeup of communities, according to News21's analysis. Small, poor communities and neglected urban areas are sometimes left to fend for themselves with little help from state and federal governments.
Contaminated water runs toward the Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for East Chicago, Ind. Michael M. Santiago / News21
In recent years, drinking water crises in minority communities, like Flint, Michigan, and East Chicago, Indiana, made national news when old pipes leached lead into the water of thousands for months before state and federal officials responded. In Texas, Corpus Christi's water system shut down for nearly four days in December because of a chemical spill at an asphalt plant, closing schools and businesses throughout the predominantly Hispanic city.
"These are not isolated incidences, the Flints of the world or the Corpus Christis or the East Chicagos," said Manuel Teodoro, a researcher at Texas A&M University who co-authored a report on the disproportionate effect of drinking water quality problems on poor minority communities.
"These incidents are getting media attention in a way that they didn't a few years ago, but the patterns that we see in the data suggest that problems with drinking water quality are not just randomly distributed in the population—that there is a systemic bias out there."
Many residents of Tallulah, Louisiana, where 77 percent of the population is black and 40 percent lives in poverty, have turned to bottled water as their crumbling utility failed to keep water free of toxic disinfectant byproducts. Systems serving thousands of others in predominantly black communities around the state have struggled to keep these carcinogens out of their taps.
Many Latinos along the U.S.-Mexico border who live in unincorporated low-income rural areas lack the resources to maintain their systems or don't have access to treated water.
Although the EPA sets minimum drinking water standards, almost all state governments are in charge of testing requirements and operator licensing, creating a maze of regulations and protections that differ from state to state.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found the EPA's database isn't complete, with some states incorrectly reporting or failing to report many violations. The EPA also hasn't created a rule for a new contaminant since 2000.
Millions of Americans are also exposed to suspect chemicals the EPA and state agencies don't regulate. Two of these chemicals, perfluorinated compounds PFOA and PFOS, remain unregulated after decades of use as an ingredient in firefighting foam, Teflon and other consumer products. These perfluorinated compounds have been linked to low birth weights in children, cancer and liver tissue damage, according to the EPA.
"America's drinking water remains among the safest in the world and protecting drinking water is EPA's top priority," an agency spokesperson said in a statement to News21. "More than 90 percent of the country's drinking water systems meet all of EPA's health-based drinking water standards every day throughout the year."
The EPA did not make any officials available for an interview.
While most Americans get their water from local utilities, the 15 million homes with private wells, especially in rural areas, are vulnerable to the same contamination issues but are not required to install treatment systems. The limited data available shows wells in many parts of the country draw groundwater containing dangerous levels of toxins from naturally occurring elements and man-made sources.
Small Systems, Big Problems
The majority of local water systems serve fewer than 5,000 people, accounting for a majority of the 97,800 instances when regulators cited water systems for having too many contaminants during the past decade.
For example, Wolfforth and Brady, two small communities in western and central Texas, received the most citations for water quality in the U.S.
Wolfforth, where the tallest structure is a blue and white water tower, racked up 362 violations in 10 years for arsenic and fluoride in its groundwater source. Since arsenic can cause cancer and fluoride can weaken bones, the contaminants required a rapid solution.
"There's a lot of angst about how much money we spent, and there was a tremendous amount of angst about how long it took," Newsom said. "It was just so long and so much money that we had tied up for so long."
Even though the system is running, the city will send water notices to residents until the system doesn't violate the arsenic standard for a full year. Many continue to buy bottled water instead of drinking from the tap.
"We need some more clean water," said Shreejana Malla, who co-owns a convenience store in Wolfforth with her husband. "So I would want them to, as soon as possible, to get the clean water. I don't feel comfortable taking a shower, but we've got to take a shower."
The city got a loan and raised water rates about 30 percent to pay for the upgrades, Newsom said.
Generally, systems rely on customers to pay for upgrades, presenting a challenge for small communities who have fewer people to charge for water. Areas without growth are often forced to choose between keeping up with maintenance costs or keeping water payments low. The EPA and state governments provide some grants and low-interest loans, but there isn't enough money available to meet most needs, and they often require complicated applications.
"The average person looks at (water) like electricity," said Alan Roberson, executive director of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. "They just want it to be there, and they want it to be at a fair price."
For instance, 260 miles southeast of Wolfforth is Brady, a city proudly known as the "Heart of Texas." The community is trying to secure funding from the state's Economically Distressed Areas Program for a $22 million water system project to get rid of the underground radium contaminating its drinking water. This fund only has $50 million left, and Brady is not the only city in contention for the money, leaving some concerned about the future of Brady's water if it doesn't receive part of the last allocation.
"If we don't get it this time and the state doesn't reauthorize that program, I don't know what we'll do," said Amy Greer, a sixth-generation farmer at the locally operated Winters Family Beef. "I really want our state legislators to know how terrible it is that they are not renewing a program that will help small rural communities face and tackle these kind of massive health and safety problems, and I'm just ashamed of them."
Despite funding uncertainty and mounting pressure from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state's drinking water authority, the city is determined to get clean water for its 5,400 residents.
"The answer is solving the water problem because EPA and TCEQ has placed a timeline on us," Mayor Tony Groves said. "If we don't do that, there's always the risk that they could come in and say, 'OK, you lose your water system, and we're gonna pay somebody to operate your water system better than you're operating it and you're gonna pay for it.'"
What's in the Water?
Bobby Kirby was nominated by his neighbors in Kanawha Falls, West Va. to be their water system treasurer. The job sometimes entails performing maintenance on the Civil War-era system, which sits in a wooded area on a mountain, about a half mile above the town and only accessible by a footpath.Rachael Konieczny / News21
While many communities with small systems, like Wolfforth and Brady, struggle to address contamination issues, thousands more of these communities aren't sure if their water is safe because their systems don't test properly or report the results.
In southern West Virginia coal country, a number of communities failed to test their water hundreds of times after the miners that operated them left when their camps shut down. Many of these systems are now run by the residents.
In Garwood, a 55-person Wyoming County town surrounded by coal mines, the community water system stopped testing in 2014.
"Everybody just up and quit," said lifelong resident Jessica Griffith, who drank untreated water from an old coal mine for nine months before learning it wasn't being tested. "There was no warning, no nothing. Nobody handed it over to anybody else."
The stay-at-home mom and her neighbors say maintenance seems like a full-time job, and they can only afford to patch up leaks and fix busted pipes.
"We've just been trying to keep the water flowing because we don't have the money to treat it," Griffith said. "We don't know how to treat it."
Two hours north, Kanawha Falls Community Water in Fayette County was cited for not testing or reporting more than 2,000 times in 10 years, the most in the country. No one is sure when the system stopped being maintained, but residents say they experience the consequences daily. Joe Underwood, who had skull surgery after a four-wheeler accident, said he showers with a cap after doctors told him the town's water gave him two infections near his brain.
"The old-style ways of getting water is not healthy," Underwood said. "And I'm meaning that for people that have serious injuries. I'm meaning that for little babies. I'm meaning that for anybody that has any kind of health problems."
The unincorporated community relies on volunteers like Bobby Kirby, nominated by his neighbors to be water system treasurer, to pour chlorine into the storage tanks to disinfect the water. After years of not testing and reporting, Kirby said the state threatened to arrest him for failing to turn in paperwork.
"They came here and said they was going to lock me up," he said. "Well, I told them, 'You can lock me up if you want to, but I don't own it. I'm just a property owner that wants water.'"
The West Virginia Infrastructure and Jobs Development Council, the agency responsible for improving infrastructure in the state, announced several projects to link communities like Kanawha Falls and Garwood to surrounding city water systems. Kanawha Falls' $1.8 million extension is scheduled to be completed by the end of the summer.
While some systems in West Virginia have no operators, other small systems throughout the country don't have the money to ensure full-time maintenance.
Scotts Mills, a city of 370 tucked away in the tree-lined foothills of northwest Oregon, cannot afford to hire a full-time staff for its water system and relies on local volunteers to step up.
"We rely on a neighbor complaining about an odor or something like that. We really don't have any staff to drive around and look," said Dick Bielenberg, the city councilman in charge of water. "If there's a water leak or something like that we'll take care of that, sometimes with volunteer labor, sometimes we'll hire an outside contractor, depends upon how big the project is."
Resident Jake Ehredt volunteered to be the water commissioner when he moved into community three years ago. However, Ehredt is also a full-time water system operator for the neighboring city of Molalla and said he can only spend an hour or two a day in Scotts Mills for routine checks. While he is away, residents with water problems are directed to call Bielenberg by a sticky note on the city hall door.
"One thing we have out here is contact with our elected officials. We know them," said Ron Hays, whose family has lived in and around Scotts Mills since 1899. "If the water main breaks, you know who to call."
Though surveys from the Oregon Health Authority showed the city's water system hasn't violated any safety standards, Bielenberg says the city needs a plan for at least the next 20 years should any problems arise.
"There's not a lot of money so you learn to get by and improvise," Ehredt said. "We are going to work on updating little small things."
According to the EPA, most of the $384 billion needed to keep the country's water systems safe should go toward upgrading pipes buried underground that distribute the water—out of sight and mind to most Americans until one of them bursts.
"The plants are visible. If EPA makes a regulation, and you have to comply with it, then the utility manager can go to the board and say, 'Hey, I have to do this, EPA is making me do it,' and then get the money to build the treatment improvements," said Roberson, of the Association of State Drinking Water Administrators. "It's a little harder, then, when you're talking about the pipes that are buried in the ground because you don't see the pipes. You don't know if you have a problem until you get a big leak or a big geyser comes out in the street."
Even if water service is not disrupted by a pipe break, millions of miles of lead pipes in the U.S. are at risk of leaching the toxic metal into drinking water without proper oversight from system operators. In Milwaukee, about 70,000 homes are connected to the city's water system with aging lead pipes, many of which run under low-income and African-American communities in the city's northside neighborhoods. Many residents fear this has contributed to the city's high rate of lead poisoning among children.
Pipes that leak or break can also introduce bacteria and chemicals from the surrounding soil after the water has already been treated.
Government officials acknowledge the daunting challenges ahead for water utilities. In the final months of the Obama administration, the EPA's Office of Water published a report highlighting aging infrastructure, unregulated contaminants and financial support for small and poor communities as top concerns for drinking water quality going forward.
"The actions proposed here go far beyond what EPA alone can do; all levels of government, utilities, the private sector and the public each have critical roles to play," the report said. "Utilities ultimately must take many of the critical actions needed to strengthen drinking water safety, and communities must be actively engaged in supporting these actions."
Industry groups are sounding the alarm about the bill coming due for water infrastructure as it enters a "replacement era."
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the U.S. a "D" grade for the quality of its drinking water systems based on an evaluation of their safety, condition, capacity and other criteria. Of the 25 states with individual grades, none scored higher than a "C+." Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alaska all received "D" level grades.
The American Water Works Association estimated water systems will need about $1 trillion in investment during the next 25 years just to maintain and expand water service. This price tag doesn't include the costs associated with getting rid of lead service lines or upgrading water treatment plants.
"A part of that, not all of it, but a part of it, is a lack of investment when it should have started earlier," Steve Via, American Water Works Association director of federal relations, said about the upgrades necessary in coming years.
News21 analyzed 680,000 violations from a 10-year period starting Jan. 1, 2007, in the EPA's Safe Drinking Water Information System. The database only contains active community water systems in U.S. states and tribal lands because they are the most likely to serve homes. The EPA data also shows how many people were affected by violations. The EPA has acknowledged this database might not reflect all violations that have occurred and some information may be incorrect.
The violations included two types: health-based violations and monitoring/reporting violations. Health-based violations are instances when water was found to be contaminated or not properly treated for contaminants. The story refers to these violations as water quality violations. Monitoring/reporting violations occur when a water system either fails to test for a contaminant or report its test result to the state and customers.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Natural Resources Defense Council.
By Kristen Lombardi and Jamie Smith Hopkins
They landed, one after another, in 2015: plans for nearly a dozen interstate pipelines to move natural gas beneath rivers, mountains and people's yards. Like spokes on a wheel, they'd spread from Appalachia to markets in every direction.
Together these new and expanded pipelines—comprising 2,500 miles of steel in all—would double the amount of gas that could flow out of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The cheap fuel will benefit consumers and manufacturers, the developers promise.
But some scientists warn that the rush to more fully tap the rich Marcellus and Utica shales is bad for a dangerously warming planet, extending the country's fossil-fuel habit by half a century. Industry consultants say there isn't even enough demand in the U.S. for all the gas that would come from this boost in production.
And yet, five of the 11 pipelines already have been approved. The rest await a decision from a federal regulator that almost never says no.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) is charged with making sure new gas pipelines are in the public interest and have minimal impact. This is no small matter. Companies given certificates to build by FERC gain a powerful tool: eminent domain, enabling them to proceed whether affected landowners cooperate or not.
Only twice in the past 30 years has FERC rejected a pipeline out of hundreds proposed, according to an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania, a public media partnership between WITF in Harrisburg and WHYY in Philadelphia. At best, FERC officials superficially probe projects' ramifications for the changing climate, despite persistent calls by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for deeper analyses. FERC's assessments of need are based largely on company filings. That's not likely to change with a pro-infrastructure president who can now fill four open seats on the five-member commission.
"They don't seem to pay any attention to opponents," said Tom Hadwin, a retired utility manager from Staunton, Virginia. He doubts FERC will be swayed by the flood of written comments, including his own, and studies critiquing the Atlantic Coast pipeline. It's the largest of the pending projects and would wind nearly 600 miles from West Virginia into his home state and North Carolina.
"FERC will issue the certificate," Hadwin said. "They always have."
FERC declined Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania requests to interview Cheryl A. LaFleur, its acting chairman, as well as senior officials. In response to written questions, the agency said it hasn't kept track of the number of projects it denies. It provided a brief statement offering little insight into its pipeline-approval process. FERC spokeswoman Mary O'Driscoll wrote that, as a quasi-judicial body, "we must be very careful about what we say."
In the statement, the agency said the Natural Gas Act of 1938 requires it to approve infrastructure projects that it finds would serve "the present or future public convenience and necessity." FERC wouldn't explain how it weighs competing interests; instead, it pointed to a 1999 policy outlining how it defers to market forces. That policy, still in effect, was influenced by, among others, Enron, the energy firm whose spectacular collapse in 2001 led to prosecutions and bankruptcy.
Former insiders defend the commission, describing its mandate as limited. Renewable-energy consultant Jon Wellinghoff, a FERC commissioner from 2006 to 2013, including nearly five years as its chairman, said the agency has little leeway for denying a pipeline. "It has to stay within the tracks," he said.
Donald F. Santa Jr., a former FERC commissioner who heads the pipeline industry's trade group, the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America, said the agency's low denial rate merely reflects the quality of the projects. They're so expensive to build that few make it off the drawing board into FERC applications.
"It's the envy of the world," Santa said, referring to the nation's pipeline network. "It is something that has enabled us to have remarkably competitive natural gas markets that have benefited consumers and the economy."
Two former directors of the FERC office overseeing pipelines say no project survives the vetting process without route alterations or other changes. On occasion, FERC has delayed or rescinded approval of projects that don't meet specific conditions. But at every turn, the agency's process favors pipeline companies, according to Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania interviews with more than 100 people, reviews of FERC records and analyses of nearly 500 pipeline cases.
Among the findings:
● It's hard to see where FERC ends and industry begins. Dozens of agency staff members have had to recuse themselves in recent years while negotiating jobs at energy firms. Most commissioners leave FERC to work for industry as well, in some cases lobbying their successors.
● Four of six major pending pipelines in the Appalachian basin were proposed by companies planning to sell pipeline capacity to utilities they own. Analysts who have scrutinized some of these cases say this new wave of self-dealing raises the risk of companies pursuing unneeded infrastructure that utility customers would end up paying for. FERC dismissed such concerns about two pipelines approved last year.
● The Obama-era EPA repeatedly asked FERC to scrutinize projects' climate impacts, saying in a rebuke in October that its failure to properly do so did not comply with a key environmental law.
● FERC delays appeals of its pipeline approvals for months while allowing companies to begin construction. In seven cases since 2015, gas already was flowing in the pipeline by the time opponents could challenge it in court.
In February, on his last day as a commissioner, former FERC Chairman Norman Bay recommended that the agency evaluate the cumulative effects of increased gas production in the Marcellus and Utica shales, mostly in Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio—an analysis environmentalists have advocated. Bay urged the agency to be more rigorous in its reviews.
"It is inefficient to build pipelines that may not be needed over the long term and that become stranded assets," wrote Bay, an Obama appointee.
But FERC has resisted making such reforms. Now, with FERC down to a single commissioner and temporarily without a quorum, President Donald Trump gets to reshape the agency. Among those he has tapped for the commission is a pro-gas utility regulator from Pennsylvania, Robert Powelson, who in March likened protests against pipelines to "jihad," later calling that "an inappropriate choice of words."
"We've got abundant supply," Powelson said at a gas-industry conference. "What we don't have is adequate pipeline infrastructure."
Close ties with industry
In the past few years, FERC has overseen what it says is one of the largest boosts in natural-gas pipeline capacity in American history. It issued certificates in 2015 for projects that collectively can carry 14.5 billion cubic feet of gas per day. The next year, it approved an additional 17.6 billion cubic feet.
Newly built pipe has helped move Appalachian gas to markets along the East Coast and in the Midwest, the agency says.
That, in essence, explains how FERC sees its role—dating to its birth in a decade marred by energy crises. In 1977, amid a natural-gas shortage and after an oil embargo by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, Congress created the agency and placed it within, yet independent of, the new U.S. Department of Energy. FERC's mission: "Reliable, Efficient and Sustainable Energy."
Proponents of the pipeline buildout argue that more American gas brings jobs to places sorely in need of them by fueling energy-hungry factories. And gas has bypassed higher-carbon coal as the dominant energy source in the U.S. But grassroots pushback is coming from both ends of the political spectrum, driven by concerns over the climate and individual property rights.
To such critics, FERC has come to epitomize a captured regulator.
Records obtained by the Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania through Freedom of Information Act requests reveal an exceptionally cozy relationship between regulator and regulated. Emails and official calendars from mid-2010 through 2016 show a steady march of industry representatives before commissioners. Large energy companies—Kinder Morgan, Dominion Energy, Energy Transfer Partners, Duke Energy—scheduled at least 93 meetings with FERC officials during those 6 ½ years. Trade groups like Edison Electric Institute and American Gas Association wooed commissioners and staff with invitations to executive dinners and after-hours parties. Former commissioners-turned-lobbyists, such as INGAA's Santa, called on their successors.
By contrast, records show, FERC commissioners met with environmental and public-interest groups 17 times over this period.
In many ways, FERC operates like a one-way street: Commissioners may come to it from legislative or regulatory bodies, but almost always leave for industry. Eighty percent of the 35 former commissioners have spent at least part of their post-FERC careers at energy companies or law firms, trade groups and consultancies representing them. Many have ties to natural gas through work or positions on corporate boards.
There's a similar pattern among FERC's rank and file. Since 2012, staff members have submitted more than 50 requests to recuse themselves from regulatory work while seeking jobs at energy firms or consulting groups hired by the industry, agency documents show.
Some who have left FERC return to do the bidding of their new employers. In email exchanges in 2016, one woman who now works for Edison Electric Institute called on her former co-workers multiple times—seeking materials for an email blast, for instance, or inviting FERC commissioners to EEI events.
"Are you ready for the protestors??" she wrote in one email to her former colleagues. "Too bad you guys can't move the open mtg like last year. They just keep sucking!"
Many critics see an inherent industry bias at FERC: Its budget is fully covered by fees collected from regulated companies. Last year, a Pennsylvania environmental group sued FERC over this funding mechanism, alleging it creates "a perverse incentive" for the agency to build pipelines. The lawsuit is on appeal after a federal court dismissed it in March, noting that Congress ultimately sets FERC's budget.
This is the agency's approval process: Take proposals as they come, see if the pipeline has long-term customer contracts, gather public feedback, try to keep local impacts to a minimum and assure basic safety standards.
J. Mark Robinson, an industry consultant, worked at FERC from 1978 to 2009, heading the office overseeing gas pipelines in his final years there. Interstate transmission lines often never go forward, he said, but FERC's results speak for themselves. Pipelines get built; people get energy.
Pipeline companies, for their part, say the review process is exacting. Bruce McKay, senior energy policy director at Dominion, majority owner and operator of the Atlantic Coast pipeline, said the companies behind the proposal have submitted 100,000 pages of documentation to FERC and made 300 route adjustments to avoid ecologically sensitive areas at the agency's request.
"They're not there to do our bidding," McKay said of FERC.
It doesn't seem that way to Chad Oba, a mental-health counselor from Buckingham County, Virginia. There the Atlantic Coast developers plan to build a massive compressor station where engines would throb to keep gas moving. Oba attended a FERC meeting on the project in 2015, driving nearly an hour with as many neighbors as she could to testify. They didn't want an industrial complex in their rural area, already crisscrossed by four gas pipelines. They questioned its siting amid a largely poor, African-American community founded by freed slaves.
"I thought, 'Surely, these things will be considered,'" said Oba, of the anti-pipeline group Friends of Buckingham. But FERC has backed the location. The agency has never held a hearing in her county, despite requests from her group and a county commissioner.
"They've treated Buckingham very badly," she said.
Such sentiments may not be what Charles B. Curtis, FERC's first chairman, envisioned in 1979, when he wrote in congressional testimony that "we must create public confidence … and demonstrate that regulation can work effectively to promote the public interest." At the time, he was looking to fund a congressionally mandated Office of Public Participation at FERC.
That never happened. Members of Congress couldn't agree on funding for the office that year. The Center for Public Integrity and StateImpact Pennsylvania found no evidence that FERC tried to launch the office again, despite congressional requests and a formal petition to do so.
Those seeking to challenge a pipeline frequently run into roadblocks. Before mounting a case in court, opponents must first appeal to FERC, which, by law, has 30 days to act. Yet records show commissioners routinely fulfill this obligation by granting themselves more time to issue a final ruling, leaving the challengers in limbo. Meanwhile, FERC allows pipeline companies to move ahead. By the time opponents get to court, construction can be well underway—or finished.
Ryan Talbott, an environmental lawyer at Appalachian Mountain Advocates, said he's seen this pattern play out in every pipeline case he's fought—more than a dozen so far. Last year, he set out to analyze FERC's record on pipeline appeals. He found that commissioners take, on average, eight months to deliberate—then deny the appeals. A lawsuit filed against FERC seeks to have this practice declared unconstitutional.
The agency declined to comment.
FERC's methods have fueled a grassroots campaign against it. Pipeline opponents have protested outside its Washington, D.C., headquarters since 2014. Some have gone on hunger strikes, interrupted commission meetings or picketed commissioners' houses. Last year, 182 groups in 35 states called for congressional hearings into "the many ways communities are being harmed by FERC."
Current and former officials consider the protests misplaced. Comprehensive energy regulation isn't within FERC's purview, they say; those who want changes should talk to Congress.
FERC opponents have done that, to no avail. But William Penniman, a retired lawyer who represented pipeline firms before FERC and is now active with the Sierra Club's Virginia chapter, said the agency already has the authority to do more, yet chooses not to.
"Climate change, stranded assets, the construction bubble—they are not coming to grips with that," he said.
Pressing FERC on climate
Gas-company executives often pitch their fuel to FERC as a long-term necessity for the country, filling in for renewable energy sources when the sun fades or the wind lags, powering industrial furnaces, heating homes. Companies propose new pipelines meant to last 50 years or more, presenting them as climate-friendly.
Environmentalists disagree, however, and are pushing FERC to dig deeper. Each additional gas pipeline, they warn, will make it easier to delay no-carbon alternatives and could lock in even worse effects of global warming.
Natural gas burns cleaner than coal, giving off about half the planet-heating carbon dioxide and a fraction of the toxic air emissions. Yet to avoid the worst of the heat waves, droughts, floods and other consequences of climate change, the Obama White House said the U.S. needed to cut greenhouse-gas emissions by at least 80 percent below 2005 levels no later than 2050. That's all emissions from all sources, not just electricity and heating. And it's 33 years from now, less than the lifetime of a pipeline.
Indeed, some advocates have calculated that new pipelines in the Appalachian basin would yield enough greenhouse-gas emissions from natural gas alone to surpass that goal.
That's because the primary component of natural gas—methane—is a short-lived yet powerful greenhouse gas also contributing to climate change. Methane wafts into the atmosphere during every stage in the gas supply chain: Wells, processing facilities, pipelines and compressor stations all leak. Some vent methane by design.
The EPA has pegged the national rate at which methane escapes from oil and gas drilling sites at between one and two percent, based on industry estimates. Some independent research suggests that may be accurate.
But Robert Howarth, an environmental biology professor at Cornell University, estimates that methane emissions produced by shale gas from wellhead to delivery could add up to a 12-percent leak rate—causing substantially more warming in the short term than coal. Howarth sees the rapid rise in gas development as a contributor to the recent spike in global temperatures, including record-breaking heat waves in 2015 and 2016.
"The buildout of pipelines," he said, "is a true climate disaster."
Despite prodding from the EPA since 2013, FERC hasn't taken a comprehensive look at the climate effects of gas projects before approving them. The agency only began estimating greenhouse-gas emissions from the burning of gas last year, and not in all cases. The total emissions for five pipelines, all pending: 170 million metric tons per year combined, the warming equivalent of 50 coal plants.
FERC refused to comment on its climate reviews, citing unspecified litigation. The Obama EPA contended that FERC has a duty to evaluate a pipeline proposal's climate impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. EPA officials said so in a pointed letter to FERC in October, after yet another pipeline review failed to estimate production or end-use emissions, calling the absence of these calculations "very concerning."
The EPA says productive discussions have taken place since. But FERC has yet to evaluate greenhouse gas emissions for pipelines as thoroughly as its counterpart urged.
It also doesn't delve into whether electric utilities seeking gas for future plants could handle demand another way, such as energy efficiency and renewables. Such alternatives, FERC said in its reviews, would not fulfil the purpose of the project—"to transport natural gas."
It boils down to a dispute about how far FERC can or should go.
"FERC has no legislative authority whatsoever to look at climate impacts," said Wellinghoff, one of the only former commissioners with a renewable-energy background. "I would have loved to have had that authority at FERC, but I didn't."
Still, people keep pressing FERC to act. Last year, the Sierra Club and other groups sued the agency over its failure to calculate greenhouse-gas emissions from the since-built Sabal Trail pipeline, which runs from Alabama into Georgia and Florida. At a D.C. appellate court hearing in April, judges asked a FERC lawyer why the agency hadn't done so.
The lawyer said FERC had determined the project wouldn't meaningfully contribute to climate change. Judge Judith W. Rogers said it wasn't possible to know that without doing the calculations.
"FERC said, 'We're just not going to do anything,'" she said.
In the 1990s, FERC posed this question: Was its pipeline-approval process working well? One company argued that the agency needed "to shift its focus away from command-and-control regulation towards policies that increasingly rely on market forces."
That company was Enron. In 1999, its free-market views influenced FERC's policy on how it would weigh projects. Years later, a New Jersey man fighting a pipeline that would run 167 feet from his daughter's bedroom read the historical document with outrage and disbelief.
"You might have heard of Enron," said Mike Spille, a software engineer trying to fend off the PennEast project, planned in Pennsylvania and his state. "It was a big giant bubble company that exploded and lots of people went to jail. Companies like Enron are the ones that set this FERC policy, and it's part of the reason why it's so bad."
For the agency, customer contracts for pipelines are "strong evidence" of what the market wants. Since 1999, it has never denied a project that had them. The two it rejected did not.
Pipeline company executives believe this makes sense. No developer would sink potentially billions of dollars into an unnecessary project, they say. No utility or other gas shipper would pay millions of dollars for unneeded capacity.
But relying on contracts to judge need can be problematic. The Appalachian pipelines illustrate that.
First off, some of them are getting eminent-domain authority to take gas out of the country—there simply isn't enough domestic demand, analysts say, which is something FERC does not consider.
Three new or pending Appalachian pipelines have space set aside for gas going to Canada. Another played up its proximity to Dominion's nearly complete export terminal in Maryland. Even projects pitched as purely domestic might not end up that way—pipelines interconnect.
Beyond that, many of these pipeline contracts have an incestuous quality. Companies are building them for their own subsidiaries—mostly electric or gas utilities and gas producers. It's as if one hand wrote the contract and the other signed it.
Industry experts say this trend increases the risk of overbuilding. One reason is that interstate pipelines are more profitable than power plants and other infrastructure that utilities erect for themselves.
"It's a nice way to make money," said Greg Lander of Skipping Stone, a gas- and electric-industry consulting firm. "The market need isn't there."
Lander's firm, hired by an environmental group to examine PennEast, found no economic justification for the pipeline, which will mostly serve utilities and other firms owned by the developers. The New Jersey agency representing utility customers is also skeptical.
"NJ Rate Counsel is concerned that … the 'need' for the Project appears to be driven more by the search for higher returns on investment than any actual deficiency in gas supply," the agency wrote to FERC last year.
It urged FERC to examine whether the contracts reflected true demand. FERC didn't. Instead, it gave the pipeline a preliminary thumbs-up, the last step before approval.
PennEast spokeswoman Patricia Kornick said the project would improve reliability and ease price fluctuations. Companies signed up "because they recognize the need for an abundant, reliable, clean energy source," she wrote in an email.
Het Shah, who leads natural gas market research at Bloomberg New Energy Finance, a consulting firm, said the Appalachian boom isn't just about new pipelines, but also older ones turning flow around to push gas out of the region. It's "definitely an overbuild," he said, but he sees a strategy driving it—exports.
International markets could help Appalachian producers battered by low prices. But it makes landowners along pipeline routes livid. They don't see how it's in the public "convenience and necessity" to seize private property in America so firms can make money selling gas outside the country.
That's what people told FERC about Northern Access 2016, a Pennsylvania-to-New York pipeline that would feed much of its gas to Canadian markets. The commissioners said in February that this was a matter for the Energy Department—not noting that the other agency automatically approves exports to Canada.
The point, FERC said, was that all the capacity had been contracted. It approved the pipeline.
The fight on the ground
The policy debates around pipelines can seem far away to those living in isolated communities in west-central Virginia, the epicenter of opposition to the Atlantic Coast project. Residents who don't consider themselves environmentalists don "NO PIPELINE" T-shirts and hats and routinely show up at opposition rallies.
In Virginia, as in many places on proposed construction routes, the threat of eminent domain fuels this fight. Landowners say they object to the idea that companies can take private property—seizing permanent pathways, 75 feet wide or more—for corporate gain. They say the one-time payments they're offered don't make up for what they're losing.
These landowners include Becci Harmon, a drug-and-alcohol program officer from Swoope, whose house sits within 50 feet of the Atlantic Coast route; she fears the one-acre plot on which she's lived for 26 years will turn into a gutter after the pipeline wipes out her trees, garden and septic system. Richard Averitt, an entrepreneur from Nellysford, believes it will jeopardize his plan to develop an "eco-friendly" resort after it cuts the wooded, 100-acre site in half.
"This pipeline in particular is so egregious. It's 95 percent virgin land," Averitt said. "It's land privately owned or in the public trust."
Atlantic Coast became an issue in Virginia's recent gubernatorial primary, but Dominion and Duke say supporters outnumber opponents. The companies point to recent polling by an energy industry group that includes Dominion among its members. Its survey shows that 55 percent of residents back the project while 30 percent oppose it. They also cite a letter, signed by 16 state lawmakers from Virginia, North Carolina and West Virginia, urging FERC officials to approve the pipeline. Last month, a New York watchdog group released a report revealing that five of the signatories are top recipients of either Dominion's or Duke's political contributions.
Supporters writing op-eds distributed by the companies include landowner Ward Burton. He was impressed that Dominion altered the project's route to avoid crossing a creek twice and a forest once on the 565 acres in Blackstone, Virginia, owned by his wildlife foundation.
Unions are eager to see the pipeline move ahead. "We're going to put people to work," said Matthew Yonka, president of the Virginia State Building & Construction Trades Council.
Still, there can be localized problems. The Rover pipeline, which runs from Pennsylvania to Michigan, racked up more than $900,000 in proposed penalties from Ohio regulators after FERC approved it in February. Officials say its owner, Energy Transfer Partners, kept spilling drilling fluid into wetlands, ponds and streams—including, in one case, several million gallons of a clay mixture tinged with petroleum.
Energy Transfer's Alexis Daniel said the company considers land restoration "a top priority" and is working to resolve the matter. Craig W. Butler, who heads the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, said the company claimed the state has no authority to penalize it. He's grateful FERC intervened: It's halted certain drilling work on the pipeline while investigating the damage.
Some states, less impressed with FERC's process, have pushed back. New York regulators denied necessary water permits for two pipelines, the Constitution last year and Northern Access in April. Both projects are on hold as the developers wait for a federal appeals court to decide whether the denials can stand. In its most recent permit rejection, the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation said "FERC disregarded the Department's concerns." Based on its experiences with gas pipeline construction, the state agency predicted "significant degradation of water quality in stream after stream."
U.S. Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman, a Democrat from New Jersey, wants to see reforms earlier in the process—when FERC is still deliberating. Pressed by residents upset about PennEast, she sponsored legislation in May that would require evidentiary hearings in contested cases and regular, big-picture reviews of need.
Absent a state veto or major changes at FERC, there's little a landowner can do to stop the construction juggernaut, as Jeb Bell learned. He and his brother didn't want the Sabal Trail pipeline burrowing beneath their tree farm in Mitchell County, Georgia, so the company took them to court twice—first to get permission to survey the land and then to build on it. Sabal Trail, largely owned by Enbridge, won each time. It also fought off the Bells' counterclaim contending the company had trespassed on their land.
Then the company won the right to collect legal fees from the Bells—$47,258 in all.
Enbridge spokeswoman Andrea Grover said by email that Sabal Trail is entitled to the money because it had offered to settle the "baseless" trespass claim; the brothers turned it down.
Bell, a state-park manager, has no idea how he'll pay if his appeal fails. He can't imagine a multibillion-dollar company needing his money. What it wanted, he's sure, was to send a warning to other landowners: Don't even try to stop pipelines. They always win.
Marie Cusick of StateImpact Pennsylvania contributed to this story.
By Jie Jenny Zou
Jennifer Merritt's first-graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Pryor, Oklahoma, were in for a treat. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, the students gathered in late November for story time with two special guests: state Rep. Tom Gann and state Sen. Marty Quinn.
Dressed in suits, the Republican lawmakers read aloud from "Petro Pete's Big Bad Dream," a parable in which a Bob the Builder lookalike awakens to find his toothbrush, hardhat and even the tires on his bike missing. Abandoned by the school bus, Pete walks to Petroville Elementary in his pajamas.
State Rep. Tom Gann and State Sen. Marty Quinn read aloud to first graders at Jefferson Elementary School in Pryor, OklahomaOklahoma Energy Resources Board
"It sounds like you are missing all of your petroleum by-products today!" his teacher, Mrs. Rigwell, exclaims, extolling oil's benefits to Pete and fellow students like Sammy Shale. Before long, Pete decides that "having no petroleum is like a nightmare!"
The tale is the latest in an illustrated series by the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board, a state agency funded by oil and gas producers. The board has spent upwards of $40 million over the past two decades on K-12 education with a pro-industry bent, including hundreds of pages of curricula, a speaker series and an afterschool program—all at no cost to educators.
A similar program in Ohio shows teachers how to "frack" Twinkies using straws to pump for cream and advises on the curriculum for a charter school that revolves around shale drilling. A national program whose sponsors include BP and Shell claims it's too soon to tell if the earth is heating up, but "a little warming might be a good thing."
Decades of documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity reveal a tightly woven network of organizations that works in concert with the oil and gas industry to paint a rosy picture of fossil fuels in America's classrooms. Led by advertising and public-relations strategists, the groups have long plied the tools of their trade on impressionable children and teachers desperate for resources.
Proponents of programs like the one in Oklahoma say they help the oil and gas industry replenish its aging workforce by stirring early interest in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. But some experts question the educational value and ethics of lessons touting an industry that plays a central role in climate change and air pollution.
Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, likened industry-sponsored curricula that ignore climate science to advertising. "You're exploiting that trusted relationship between the student and the teacher," he said. Leiserowitz—whose research has focused on how culture, politics and psychology impact public perception of the environment—said fossil-fuel companies have a stake in perpetuating a message of oil dependency.
As early as the 1940s, the industry's largest and most powerful lobby group targeted K-12 schools as a key element of its fledgling marketing strategy. By the 1960s, the American Petroleum Institute was looking to shake its reputation as a "monopoly which reaped excessive profits" and set out to cultivate a network of "thought leaders" that included educators, journalists, politicians and even clergy, according to an organizational history copyrighted by API in 1990.
The idea caught on. Hundreds of oil-and-gas-centric lesson plans are now available at the click of a mouse. The programs occupy a gray area between corporate sponsorship and promotion at a time when climate science has increasingly come under siege at the highest levels of government. On June 1, President Donald Trump, flanked by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator—and former Oklahoma attorney general—Scott Pruitt, announced that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate agreement.
"Teachers are taking their cues from the political situation around them," said Glenn Branch of the National Center for Science Education, a nonprofit that advocates for climate-change and evolution education. He pointed to a survey that found teachers in Republican counties and states are less likely to teach the scientific consensus on global warming—regardless of the educator's politics. "Teachers live in local communities, they're sensitive to the needs and desires of the people paying their paychecks."
Branch's group supports wide-scale adoption of Next Generation Science Standards, a joint effort by states and educational organizations to revamp K-12 science that has met with political backlash since the standards were published in 2013. Oklahoma is among a dozen states that have opted for watered-down versions, sometimes omitting provisions on evolution and the anthropogenic causes of global warming. Along with Colorado, Kansas and Montana, Oklahoma legislators have also championed bills requiring that educators teach "both sides" of those scientific concepts.
By Elizabeth Hernandez and Eric Chaney
Up close, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the U.S. isn't as big as you'd expect it to be. From most angles, you can't even see it until you're right on top of it.
But hit the right gap in the rolling hills of north-central Alabama, and the James H. Miller Jr. Electric Generating Plant looms large even from miles away. Nestled on about 800 acres on the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, the plant is one of Alabama Power's coal-burning workhorses, putting out enough electricity to power about a million homes. It virtually never stops running—and never stops producing carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.
As the view shifts, so does public opinion.
From certain angles, the plant is a pollution-belching monster harming both the environment and the health of communities. Change your perspective a bit, and Miller is a source of good-paying jobs, a means to raise a family in an area where economic opportunities are thin.
Paul Dollar, 75, who has lived just a few hundred yards from the plant property for more than 30 years, sees Miller both ways. On one hand, there's dust and noise: "This thing I believe is getting my health and it's bothering me." On the other, Dollar and his daughter Tammy can name a dozen friends, relatives and neighbors who work for the plant, its contractors, or in one of the related service industries.
"To their credit, Alabama Power is a good corporate citizen. They provide good jobs. They do a lot in the community for charity and such," said Scotty Colson, a lawyer in Birmingham, 16 miles southeast of the plant. But "you don't get the impression that [pollution] is a high priority. They're pretty much OK with shifting the cost onto people who have a problem with what their byproduct is."
Alabama Power is a subsidiary of the Southern Company, which owns 11 utilities in nine states. Southern has spent nearly $12 billion on pollution controls at its plants since 1990 and "is committed to comply with all environmental laws and regulations," spokesman Terrell McCollum wrote in a statement for this article.
But Colson, a clean-air advocate, said those costs have been passed on to customers—both directly on their utility bills and indirectly through impacts on health and climate.
"They start putting the onus on everybody else," he said, "when in fact they have spent quite a lot with lobbying to fight regulations and delay regulations." Southern spent more than all but a dozen other U.S. companies on federal lobbying during the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics—nearly $14 million.
Colson has lived in the Birmingham area for all of his 58 years and fought asthma for most of them. Miller's discharges of greenhouse gases and noxious substances have taken a toll, he said, not only on the environment but also on his lungs.
"You rationalize it by saying, 'I'm taking care of my family first,'" he said. "You rationalize it by saying, 'Oh, it really doesn't do any harm.' That's your basic climate denial and science denial, which is epidemic in some areas here."
But the science doesn't lie. Researchers around the world have repeatedly offered proof that climate change is happening and that humans are causing it.
Colson, at least, has no doubts.
"You can question the science," he said, "but you can't question the reality of my lungs."
In 2016, average global temperatures hit record highs for the third year in a row, according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Most of the warming since the late 19th century has happened since the early 1980s, the agencies said.
Miller was the nation's biggest emitter of planet-warming gases in 2015, releasing more than 19 million metric tons—the equivalent of about four million passenger vehicles driven for a year. U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) data show that Miller has been one of the top three greenhouse gas-producing U.S. facilities—not just power plants—since federal tracking began in 2010.
But that doesn't seem to bother its owner.
"That's kind of old news," Alabama Power spokesman Michael Sznajderman said. "It's jostled for that No. 1, No. 2, No. 3 spot for years."
Southern CEO Tom Fanning told CNBC there wasn't proof that carbon dioxide is the key driver of climate change—contradicting the overwhelming scientific evidence.
Birmingham attorney Scotty Colson, who has asthma, said Alabama Power provides good jobs—but also air pollutants that affect the climate and, he said, his lungs.
"Is climate change happening? Certainly. It's been happening for millennia. That's not the issue, OK?" he said.
Birmingham attorney Scotty Colson, who has asthma, said Alabama Power provides good jobs—but also air pollutants that affect the climate and, he said, his lungs.Eric Chaney/weather.com
Though the Miller plant tops the greenhouse-gas list, many large facilities in the U.S.—particularly coal-fired power plants—are also outsize emitters. The 100 industrial sites giving off the most climate-altering gases together make up hardly more than one percent of the facilities reporting to the EPA, but account for nearly a third of those discharges. Toxic air emissions are also heavily concentrated, according to a 2016 Center for Public Integrity investigation in partnership with weather.com.
Miller, for its part, halved toxic releases from its stacks between 2010 and 2015, following many years of far higher levels, EPA data show. The steep plunge came after Alabama Power installed pollution controls to comply with federal regulations. These technologies, like scrubbers and ozone-combating machinery, reduce sulfur dioxide, fine particles and other contaminants associated with coal-burning, Sznajderman said.
Still, some of Miller's remaining emissions can damage the lungs and, research suggests, increase the risk of heart attack and stroke. The nitrogen oxides coming from Miller, tracked separately by the EPA, are a key ingredient in ground-level ozone, or smog, that's particularly hard on some people. This county, Jefferson, received an "F" grade from the American Lung Association for its ozone levels.
"That is probably my main trigger for asthma issues," Colson said. "I kind of connected the dots … Days when the ozone is high are the days that I feel really bad."
It used to be the steel mills, pumping out brownish "air you could chew," that cost him days at school and basketball games with his friends. As the mills cleaned up or closed and the sky turned blue again, Colson still noticed a burning sensation when he would breathe.
Miller, he believes, is the primary culprit. The plant was fouling the air all those years, he said, "but you basically didn't notice that because it was part of an even worse pollution problem.
Data analysis by Jamie Smith Hopkins. Graphic by Rebecca Pollock.Download the rest of the data here.
Southern is one of the biggest greenhouse-gas emitters in the country—its plants collectively pumped out more than 100 million metric tons in 2015, EPA data show.
Companywide, greenhouse-gas emissions in 2015 were about 25 percent lower than they were a decade earlier, according to Southern spokesman McCollum. "This reduction was achieved without federal mandates, while delivering to customers the benefits of a more diverse generating fleet," he wrote.
The problem with climate change is that greenhouse gases sent into the atmosphere today lock in big costs later. A report from online real estate site Zillow said almost 1.9 million homes worth $882 billion combined "are at risk of being underwater by 2100."
Add relocation costs for those affected and the loss of tourism dollars in coastal communities, and numbers soar into the trillions—for just a fraction of the damage that experts fear global warming will cause.
Alabama Power's Sznajderman said Southern is "certainly cognizant of climate change and those carbon issues, and we're doing some of the leading research in that area." Indeed, it operates the National Carbon Capture Center—a complex near Wilsonville, Alabama, aimed at finding ways to sequester carbon dioxide from coal-fired power plants—for the U.S. Department of Energy.
But none of the technologies is ready for deployment at Miller, Sznajderman said. Southern's Kemper plant in Mississippi, an effort to gasify coal and capture about two-thirds of the carbon, is more than $4 billion over budget.
Southern also is over budget on a project in Georgia, an expansion of the Alvin W. Vogtle nuclear plant that the company is promoting as a solution for moving away from carbon-based "dirty" energy sources like coal.
Two new power generating units were originally scheduled to be completed by 2016 and 2017, at a cost of $14 billion, but more recent estimates put the project about three years behind with a final price tag of $21 billion.
Construction is only about 43 percent complete, and David McKinney, Georgia Power's vice president of nuclear development, has said the company is assessing the costs of abandoning the project altogether. Georgians are angry about having to foot the bill.
The Miller power plant is a key employer in a rural area. Eric Chaney/weather.com
Fighting the Clean Power Plan
For now, the federal government doesn't pose a threat to Miller's place atop the greenhouse-gas list. In March, President Donald Trump ordered the EPA to scrap its Clean Power Plan, an Obama administration carbon-cutting initiative. On June 1, Trump announced America's withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement.
Trump's promises to decrease regulations and support the coal industry play well here. He didn't win Jefferson County, home of Birmingham, but in three of the counties near the plant, more than 80 percent of voters chose him.
In February 2016, while Barack Obama was president, representatives of Southern decried the Clean Power Plan as an example of the "EPA's overreaching mandates." The U.S. Supreme Court's stay on the rule that month was "the right decision for customers" and went a long way toward "preserving states' authority," Southern said. Alabama Power took an active role in the fight, joining those suing to stop the plan.
Alabama's then-attorney general, Luther Strange, called the stay a tremendous victory over "an unprecedented and illegal EPA rule. … The Obama administration's EPA rule would shutter coal-fired power plants around the country, including in Alabama, while killing jobs and raising power bills for hard-working families."
The state did not join the EPA in its years-long legal battle, largely during the George W. Bush administration, to get Alabama Power to add environmental controls to power plants. The federal agency and the company settled claims related to the Miller plant in 2006."
'Biggest employer around'
Miller represents a steady source of jobs in the rural swath of northwestern Jefferson County.
"Alabama Power is the biggest employer around," Tammy Dollar said. "Everybody needs a job, and there's so many down there."
Day in and day out, the parking lot is packed with cars, and the Dollars can rattle off a host of relatives who earn a living there: an in-law who drove a coal train, a distant cousin who works as a security guard, a first cousin who's "way up there now."
According to Alabama Power, salaries at the plant range from around $36,000 to about $120,000 a year, or about $74,000 on average. The company's Sznajderman said Miller employs around 365 people but can have as many as 1,500 contractors on site during planned maintenance outages. The plant pays about $12 million a year in property taxes.
It's not an easy place to live beside—Paul Dollar isn't the only neighbor to say that. "I've called them. I've tried to ask them to buy me out," he said. "They say, 'Oh, we'll let you know. We're gonna let you know.' And I said, 'Are you waiting on me to die?'"
Sznajderman said Alabama Power has no record of an inquiry from Dollar but "we plan to follow up with him."
His complaints aside, Dollar said the plant's benefits are important—worth the coal dust on his car and racket that sometimes makes it impossible to sleep.
"Even if I could, I wouldn't shut it down because that's jobs for people," he said. "I'm not trying to put people out of business. I don't want to stop progress or people living, you know. If I had anything to do with that, if I had the power to shut it down: No, huh uh, I'd build more. I would let the plant go on giving people jobs and let it keep moving."
Nationally, however, the outlook isn't good. Pressured by low natural gas prices, coal lost its spot as the top fuel for electricity generation in 2016, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Coal's share fell from about 42 percent in 2011 to 30 percent last year, the EIA reported.
Virtue and vice
There's a stubbornness ingrained in the Scots-Irish ancestry of many of the people in this area, Colson said. This translates into fierce loyalty to the community and the Miller plant.
"That loyalty is a virtue," Colson said, "but that loyalty, in the face of reality, becomes a vice."
Nearly 70 percent of the people in Jefferson County believe in climate change, a 2016 Yale University study found, but only half believe it's caused mostly by human activities.
Around 65 percent think global warming will "harm future generations" at least a moderate amount, but only 39 percent believe it will "harm me personally" to that extent.
There are many barriers to overcome. People here first must believe that climate change is real. Then they must believe that it's harmful, that Miller is contributing to it and that they can do something about it.
That is, as Colson put it, one "tough row to hoe."
In the case of Paul and Tammy Dollar, it's not that they're unconcerned about the plant's contribution to climate change—it's that the consequences seem too far down the road.
Ask them about global warming and they'll launch into a story about coal dust on their cars or a neighbor who's ill. That's real. It's there, to be touched and smelled and inhaled.
Paul Dollar, 75, has lived just a few hundred yards from the plant for over 30 years. Eric Chaney/weather.com
The unhealthy gases, chemicals and metals Miller pumps into the air are on the decline. But its greenhouse-gas emissions haven't fallen nearly as much. It puts out about one million more metric tons of greenhouse gases than the No. 2 facility in the nation, the Scherer power plant in Georgia, owned partly by Southern.
What lies ahead for power production in the South remains a question, particularly in Miller's corner of Alabama. Michael Hansen, executive director of Gasp, a Birmingham-based environmental group, fears his state isn't poised to move in a climate-friendly direction.
"It's a struggle to figure out how to talk about these issues when so many—not just voters but also politicians and leaders—deny science," he said. "People don't even realize the force of greenhouse gases around them. We're going to need all the help we can get here."
But Colson has hope.
"There has been change—it does get better," he said. "So when people say, 'Oh, you're just stubborn,' or 'You're crazy to keep trying to see positive change in Alabama,' I say, 'Well, I might be crazy, but I've seen it.' It does not come at a precipitous speed, but it does come with due diligence."
By Jamie Smith Hopkins
To see one of the country's largest coal-fired power plants, head northwest from this Ohio River city. Or east, because there's another in the region. In fact, nearly every direction you go will take you to a coal plant—seven within 30 miles.
Collectively, they pump out millions of pounds of toxic air pollution. They throw off greenhouse gases on par with Hong Kong or Sweden.
Industrial air pollution—bad for people's health, bad for the planet—is strikingly concentrated in America among a small number of facilities like those in southwest Indiana, according to a 9-month Center for Public Integrity investigation.
The Center for Public Integrity, which merged two federal datasets to create an unprecedented picture of air emissions, found that a third of the toxic air releases in 2014 from power plants, factories and other facilities came from just 100 complexes out of more than 20,000 reporting to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). A third of the greenhouse-gas emissions reported by industrial sites came from just 100, too. Some academics have a name for them: super polluters.
Twenty-two sites appeared on both lists. They include ExxonMobil's massive refinery and petrochemical complex in Baytown, Texas, and a slew of coal-fired power plants, from FirstEnergy's Harrison in West Virginia to Conemaugh in Pennsylvania, owned by companies including NRG Energy and PSEG. Four are in a single region—southwest Indiana. Together, owners of these 22 sites reported profits in excess of $58 billion in 2014.
WOW: 20 Attorneys General Launch #Climate Fraud Investigation of #Exxon https://t.co/MB0JdliTxT @greenpeaceusa @350 https://t.co/oTgEk9HIV6— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1459344921.0
Thomas O. McGarity, a law professor and regulatory scholar at the University of Texas at Austin, said the Center for Public Integrity's findings show that "a lot of the problem is isolated, and what we need to do is focus in on these plants."
The EPA says it's doing that. In a written statement, the agency said its sustained emphasis on the electric power sector has led to "dramatically" lower emissions from power plants since 1990—"while the U.S. economy has continued to grow"—and it is working to get further improvements.
But not all the states are on board. Indiana is one of 27 suing the EPA over its Clean Power Plan, which would require reductions in climate-altering greenhouse-gas pollution from electric utilities. Indiana is also among the states that tried to block a federal rule to reduce emissions of dangerous metals and acid gases from coal- and oil-fired power plants. Its governor, Mike Pence—Donald Trump's running mate—is a pro-coal, climate change skeptic who says the costs of shifting to cleaner energy sources are too high.
Maintaining the status quo has costs as well: bad air that threatens health and fuels global warming. More toxic pollution from utility coal plants was sent into the air within 30 miles of Evansville than around any other mid-sized or large American city in 2014, a Center for Public Integrity analysis shows. That same 30-mile radius accounted for the most greenhouse gases released by U.S. coal plants that year around any city.
Across the country, the top 100 facilities releasing greenhouse gases—almost all of them coal plants—collectively added more than a billion metric tons to the atmosphere in 2014. That's the equivalent of a year's worth of such emissions from 219 million passenger vehicles—nearly twice as many as the total number registered nationwide.
The top 100 for toxic air emissions vented more than 270 million pounds of chemicals in 2014. The vast majority of these chemicals have known health risks, according to the EPA; they can target the lungs, the brain or other organs, and some can affect the development of children born and unborn.
Eight of the super polluters have closed. The rest, including all four in Indiana, still operate.
Tina Dearing, 48, from Huntingburg, Indiana, was unexpectedly widowed in March when her 57-year-old husband died of a heart attack. Coronary artery disease, the death certificate says. Two months later, researchers published the results of a 10-year study that showed why previous investigations kept finding shorter lifespans in areas with poorer air quality: pollution appears to accelerate harmful deposits in the arteries that cause nearly all heart attacks and most strokes.
Dearing's family lives northeast of Evansville in a community within 30 miles of two of Indiana's largest coal plants. She knows a variety of factors can play a role in an early death, but believes dirty air contributed in her husband's case.
"The air quality stinks," she said.
The Center for Public Integrity, which relied on the EPA's most recent final Toxics Release Inventory data to track total chemical releases, found that the people who live within three miles of the top 100 polluters are in some ways a cross-section of America: spread across half the states, all races, young and old, in a wide range of income brackets.
But more of them are poor or African-American than the country as a whole, data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows. For instance, nearly 90 percent of the thousands living within three miles of ExxonMobil's refinery and chemical plant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, are black and about a third are below the poverty line. The complex, which ExxonMobil said has reduced total emissions over 40 percent since 1990, released more than 2.6 million pounds of chemicals to the air in 2014, including hydrogen cyanide—which can cause headaches, confusion and nausea—and known carcinogens such as benzene.
Mary B. Collins with the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry and two other researchers found similar disparities in a sophisticated analysis this year, writing that "there exists a class of hyper-polluters—the worst-of-the-worst—that disproportionately expose communities of color and low income populations to chemical releases."
While people nearby are the most affected, these facilities can degrade air far afield. Almost all the states with top toxic-air emitters send a significant amount of pollution to downwind states, according to EPA analyses—in some cases reaching people hundreds of miles away.
Some of the companies that own the nation's biggest polluters say their emissions break no rules and are simply a reflection of a facility's size. Others point out that they've ratcheted down releases in recent years, including after 2014. FirstEnergy said it has shuttered coal plants accounting for more than 5,000 megawatts of power generation since 2012.
NRG, which owns or co-owns several coal plants on the top-100 lists, said its toxic air emissions are falling, including a sharp drop in mercury in 2015 to comply with new federal regulations, and it has set aggressive climate goals—a 50-percent cut in greenhouse gases by 2030, 90 percent by 2050—that would mean a major overhaul in the way it makes power.
Whole Foods Teams Up With SolarCity, NRG to Install Solar on 100 Stores https://t.co/fMSS2dQi8G @LatestSolarNews @SolarPowerWorld— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1457649056.0
"Things can't continue on the same path as they have for decades," Bruno Sarda, NRG's chief sustainability officer, said of businesses worldwide. "More and more of our new revenue is coming from much lower-carbon sources."
But coal is far from dead in America. And the tug-of-war over the future of electric power generation will affect everyone, some more than others. The influential utility industry. Blue-collar energy workers, from coal miners to solar panel installers. Neighbors of coal plants. Electricity customers. People suffering from the lengthening pollen season, dangerous heat waves, devastating floods and other effects of global warming.
To watch this unfold, come to one of the biggest coal-burning states, a place with no renewable energy requirements. No mandatory energy efficiency targets to cut back on unnecessary, money-wasting usage. No contingency plan for climate change repercussions, which so worried local university researchers that a group of them sent a letter to the governor last fall pleading with him to call on their expertise—a letter that went unanswered.
Come to Indiana.
Living and Dying in Evansville
Kavon Cooper's asthma, his mother says, "was a constant battle." If he spent too much time outside in Evansville, he needed medicine to breathe. If he went to a friend's house, he never knew if he'd have to go home in a hurry. Sometimes his asthma attacks were so bad that he ended up in the hospital. So he stayed inside as much as possible with the windows closed, playing video games, dreaming of testing them for a living someday.
For all that, the 12-year-old seemed to be getting better. It was a shock when he collapsed and died at home last year, lying in the hallway by the bathroom as his nebulizer ran in his bedroom. The coroner ruled that he'd suffered an acute asthma attack.
His mother, Kris Dasch, 47, couldn't understand what had happened. The only explanation she got was that pollen had spiked.
So had air pollution. But no one had told her that.
Levels of toxic specks called fine particles—typically formed by emissions from power plants, vehicles and factories—leapt up 20 micrograms per cubic meter the previous day, according to the air monitor less than a half-mile from the family's home. They began to ease overnight, then jumped another 9 micrograms shortly before his death. Levels of sulfur dioxide, another common power plant pollutant, also rapidly increased at the same time that morning.
These are conditions that research suggests can trigger a severe, even deadly, lung reaction. No one had told Dasch that, either. No doctor had ever discussed air quality with her, other than the effects of pollen.
Dr. Carrie A. Redlich, director of the Yale Occupational and Environmental Medicine Program, suspects that's almost always the case. Many physicians don't think about the connection between air pollution and health, Redlich said. They might not know, for example, that research suggests tainted air and allergens such as pollen work like a one-two punch—together, the reaction is worse.
That both spiked in the lead-up to Kavon's death makes them sound to Redlich like contributing factors. "That is an important interaction," she said.
Kris Dasch and son Kameron Edmonds, 19, look at photos of her younger son and his brother, Kavon Cooper.Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity
Now that air quality is on her mind, Dasch makes connections that didn't stick out before. How well Kavon did on the rare occasions he took a trip outside the region. How a neighbor mentioned that her son's asthma didn't bother him as much when they lived in Arizona. How "there's a lot of illness, a lot of sickness in this area."
Vanderburgh County, which includes Evansville, has lower life expectancy compared with peer counties across the country and a higher rate of adults reporting fair-to-poor health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Community Health Status Indicators. Some key influencers—poverty, unemployment and obesity—are actually better here than in most peer counties. What's counterbalancing it are higher rates of smoking and air pollution.
Researchers already knew that poor air quality impairs children's lung development, but studies in the past few years have also suggested multiple in utero complications such as autism spectrum disorder, found a possible connection with childhood psychiatric conditions and linked exposure to damage that can trigger neurological problems in old age. In 2013, the World Health Organization declared that air pollution causes cancer. Inflammation kicked off by the pollutants seems to be the common denominator.
"You add air pollution together with a lot of smokers, you are adding a lot of disease, premature death and costs that the state of Indiana incurs," said Dr. Stephen Jay, a pulmonologist and emeritus professor of public health at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis who has pressed for a shift to clean energy.
Lori Salma, a preschool teacher from Evansville, says she is struck by the number of young children using lung medication. She and her 14-year-old son both have asthma, and there are days "when I feel winded after being outside for longer than 15 minutes."
She's frustrated that for all they've done in their house to try to reduce flare-ups—no carpets, no curtains, no pets and, of course, no smoking—"there's nothing we can do to control the air that we breathe."
Tina Dearing said her late husband, Vincent, would come home to Huntingburg from business trips and complain that inhaling the local air felt like someone standing on his chest. Her oldest daughter had trouble breathing as an infant. And she wonders whether the air contributed to her daughter's daughter, now 2, being born so small—not preterm, but just 5 1/2 pounds. (Research suggests that air pollution can decrease birth weight.)
"That's why we limit our time outside," Dearing said.
Tina Dearing, 48, with 8-year-old daughter Maleah. Dearing believes air pollution contributed to her husband's fatal heart attack and has affected her family's health.Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity
Rose Hoffman and her family lived in a community near Dearing's for years before moving in 2012 to Champaign, Illinois. Air quality was not the reason—in fact, when she occasionally heard bad news about it, "I didn't want to believe it because we enjoyed living there so very much." But what happened after they left, she said, "was stunning."
Her nighttime wheezing stopped. Her youngest daughter no longer coughs at bedtime. The awful migraines besetting two of her children went away almost entirely and hers eased. Her husband, a doctor, saw his asthma symptoms improve.
Hoffman, 45, had assumed genetics, or being the child of smokers, explained her severe lung damage following a bout with pneumonia in Indiana — her doctors had no idea why it happened. Now, she can't help but think that air could have played a role in that, too.
The State of the Air
Southwest Indiana doesn't look like an industry stronghold. Evansville, population 120,000, is the biggest city by far amid the rippling farmland. Rural Kentucky is just across the Ohio River, while the state capital of Indianapolis—and the massive steelmaking complexes in northern Indiana—are hours and a world away.
But this is coal country, where the state's 6,500 mining jobs are concentrated. Six coal plants operate here: Gibson, Rockport, Petersburg, Warrick, A.B. Brown and F.B. Culley, all but one within 30 miles of Evansville, which is also near two coal plants in Kentucky. A large piece of southwest Indiana power travels on transmission lines to be used elsewhere because the plants make more than 40 percent of the state's electricity in an area with just 6 percent of its people.
Eric Devlin / weather.com
They also make a disproportionate share of the pollution. The plants accounted for a quarter of Indiana air emissions reported to the EPA's toxics inventory in 2014, a remarkable concentration in the most manufacturing-intensive state in the nation. Within the seven most southwestern counties here, three-quarters of the air pollution recorded in the inventory came from the six coal plants. And that doesn't count the effects of the Kentucky plants.
Ask Mark Maassel about the air and he'll recount the billions of dollars in environmental controls his members have installed over the last decade, some required by federal rules, some by EPA enforcement actions. He's president of the Indiana Energy Association, a trade group for investor-owned utilities, and he sees "very significant changes and improvements in the environment of the state."
Power plants' sulfur dioxide emissions dropped 64 percent statewide between 2000 and 2014, he said. Nitrogen dioxide, which harms the lungs and contributes to ozone, often called smog, fell 69 percent, he said. As some coal plants shut down, carbon dioxide—which warms the atmosphere—also declined.
That's meant cleaner air. Evansville-area concentrations of fine particles dropped nearly 30 percent over the past decade, EPA monitoring figures show.
But the air here is still worse than in most of the country.
Vanderburgh County had higher levels of fine particles than nearly 90 percent of the U.S. counties with air monitors from 2013 to 2015, EPA records of average annual concentrations show. Vanderburgh was nearly on par with Manhattan, even though that New York City borough has nine times as many people and a lot more particle-spewing vehicles.
"The good news is, as of today, the entire monitoring network within the southwest Indiana area does demonstrate compliance," said Scott Deloney, air programs branch chief at the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
The bad news: The standard for particles is based on total amount, but research is finding they aren't equally unhealthy. The most toxic ones, a 2015 study by 11 researchers in the U.S. and Canada suggested, come from burning coal.
What's more, researchers keep finding harm from fine particles at levels below the standard, which the EPA is reviewing to determine if it's still appropriate. A new study led by a Johns Hopkins University researcher that focused on Boston—with markedly better particle levels than Evansville—found an association between that air pollutant and intrauterine inflammation, a key risk factor for premature birth.
In March, a New York University study estimated the share of premature births that can be attributed to fine particles. Indiana was second-highest in the country.
Premature birth can have lifelong consequences for children and is the biggest cause of infant mortality—a challenge for Indiana, tied for ninth-worst on infant death among U.S. states. Some studies have specifically linked air pollution to infant death rates.
Dr. Edward McCabe, chief medical officer at the infant-focused March of Dimes, says the evidence of pregnancy harms is now substantial enough that action—not simply further study—is required: "We need to do something about it."
But Indiana officials, focused on more widely understood risk factors such as smoking, which the state has high rates of, haven't delved into pollution as a possible contributor. A 2014 state report aimed at improving infant survival rates didn't mention air quality at all.
Asked about it, Indiana State Department of Health spokeswoman Jennifer O'Malley said by email that "outdoor air quality is beyond the scope of ISDH and was not a consideration" in its infant-mortality work. She referred questions to the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, which said it has no public-health specialists on staff.
Dr. Norma Kreilein, a pediatrician in southwest Indiana who has tried to draw attention to environmental-health problems she sees in the region, is fed up with the state.
"They've refused to connect pollution to public health," Kreilein said.
A spokeswoman for Pence did not answer questions about the matter or anything else for this story, except for one asking for his perspective on coal.
"This abundant Hoosier resource supports over 26,000 Hoosier jobs and has historically provided Indiana's economy with competitive electricity prices," the spokeswoman, Kara Brooks, said by email. "Unfortunately, President Obama's Clean Power Plan will drive up electricity prices, threaten electricity reliability, and put coal miners out of work. That is bad for Indiana and bad for America."
Fine particles—toxic specks that research has linked to a variety of ills, including shorter lifespans—aren't evenly concentrated across the country. Most of the country, colored in gray in the map above, does not have monitoring data for particles.Eric Devlin / weather.com
As Pence himself put it last year, Indiana is a "proud pro-coal state," and its energy use reflects that. It relies on coal for 75 percent of its electricity, at a time when the national average has fallen to 33 percent.
Pence gave up his shot at re-election this fall to run with Trump in the presidential election. The Democrat in the governor's race? A former coal lobbyist.
Pence's popular Republican predecessor also was pro-coal, and supported a coal-gasification power plant project that went way over budget. But former Gov. Mitch Daniels' administration also started a mandatory energy efficiency program to cut back on waste and crafted rules to allow more people to go solar.
The efficiency program is gone now, replaced with a law that sets no reduction targets for utilities and has saved less energy, according to the Midwest Energy Efficiency Alliance. State lawmakers tried last year to allow utilities to raise costs for customers with solar panels, stepping back only after they were flooded with complaints—solar advocates fear another attempt will come. And then there's Indiana's challenge with other states to the Clean Power Plan, now under a U.S. Supreme Court stay as a lower court considers the arguments.
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That hasn't kept change from happening, because national forces pressuring coal—cheap natural gas, falling costs for renewables, federal pollution rules—are here, too. As recently as 2009, more than 90 percent of Indiana's electricity was coal-fired.
But if a complete energy transformation is inevitable, as some in Indiana assume, getting there quickly is not. There's so much farther to go here than in most places.
Just a handful of states get a larger share of their electricity from coal, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration figures, and none is as populous as Indiana. The only place that burns more tons of coal for power is Texas, which makes four times the electricity and gets a lot of it from natural gas.
Indiana made 16 percent of its electricity from natural gas last year. That fuel's unhealthy air emissions when burned are sharply lower than coal's. (Natural-gas power plants aren't tracked by the Toxics Release Inventory, which exempts certain operations from otherwise fairly broad coverage.) Gas plants also release 40 to 50 percent less greenhouse gases than equally sized coal plants, though that doesn't include potent methane leaks before the fuel arrives on site.
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Then there's wind and solar, which account for about 5 percent of Indiana's electricity. Because of its lopsided energy profile, Indiana gets bigger health and environmental benefits from new wind turbines than any other state, and among the biggest from new solar panels, according to a 2013 study by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. A 2015 study led by a Stanford University researcher suggested that Indiana would save money by switching to renewables for all its energy needs.
But if Indiana's rate of change over the last 10 years continues, power plants here will burn coal for decades to come.
"It will be a gradual thing," predicted A. David Stippler, Indiana's utility consumer counselor. "Hopefully a prudent, well-thought-out transition."
The Pollution Field Trip
From the back seat of a car, John Blair offered up acerbic commentary on the biggest air polluters of southwest Indiana. To your left, Duke Energy's Gibson power plant and its coal-ash ponds. To your right, the little neighborhood where Duke provided bottled water to residents—later connecting them to a town water system—after the coal ash contaminated their wells.
John Blair, head of Valley Watch in Evansville, gazes at the F.B. Culley power plant.Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity
Blair is a 69-year-old photographer with a 1978 Pulitzer Prize, but what he's known for now is his work as volunteer head of a small environmental group in Evansville called Valley Watch. In decades of agitating for cleaner air and water, he's often pressed the power plants—and their regulators—to do better.
The first stop on Blair's tour was Gibson, the fourth-largest coal plant in the country by capacity. Located 25 miles northwest of Evansville, it released 2.9 million pounds of air pollutants in 2014, according to the toxics inventory—much of that the lung irritant sulfuric acid, which the EPA says contributes to the formation of fine particles. Lead, arsenic and mercury, all neurotoxins, added up to a collective 1,000 pounds that year as well. And Gibson released more greenhouse gases than all but three other sites—not just power plants—nationwide.
"A godawful place," Blair said, "that should be shut down."
Duke Energy's Gibson power plant in southwest Indiana is the state's largest.Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity
Duke spokeswoman Angeline Protogere said the company has "significantly reduced emissions" at Gibson, installing more than $1 billion in environmental controls there over the past 20 years. Some of that was negotiated in a 2014 settlement after the EPA said it found violations. Toxics Release Inventory air emissions at Gibson have shrunk by three-quarters since 2006, including a 19 percent drop between 2014 and 2015, Protogere said. Greenhouse gas emissions dropped by a third over the last decade as power generation also fell.
Duke operates its plants "within EPA and state regulatory limits that are designed to protect public health and the environment," she said.
After Gibson came a stop at plants in Kentucky. Then back over the Ohio River into Indiana to see the looming, 1,038-foot stack at Rockport, tied for 10th-largest coal plant in the country.
Owner American Electric Power (AEP) was sued in 1999 by the EPA, environmental groups and eight states (Indiana not among them) over its emissions at coal plants. As part of the 2007 settlement, in which AEP did not admit any violations, the company was to have installed pollution controls on one Rockport unit by 2017 and on the other by 2019. But a 2013 rework of the settlement allowed the company to push that off another eight to nine years—in the meantime installing less expensive, less effective controls—in exchange for retiring units at coal plants outside the region.
AEP spokeswoman Tammy Ridout said by email that Rockport "is among the most efficient power plants in the world, which means it uses less coal, and has fewer emissions, for each kilowatt of electricity generated." AEP, she added, has spent "hundreds of millions of dollars to reduce the emissions and environmental impact of the Rockport Plant," including controls to cut mercury releases by about 80 percent.
Rockport, like Gibson, is on both of the Center for Public Integrity's top 100 lists, but neither is the region's biggest producer of air pollution tracked by the Toxics Release Inventory. That distinction goes to the AES Corp.'s Petersburg power plant, 40 miles northeast of Evansville, which reported sending more chemicals into the air in 2014 than all but eight other sites nationwide. It's also 35th for greenhouse gases. AES, hit with EPA violation notices for Petersburg in February and last year, said in a statement that it recently installed $450 million in pollution controls there, and "we comply with all environmental regulations."
Blair's tour ended seven miles southeast of Evansville. There, the Warrick power plant run by Alcoa sits near F.B. Culley, one of two coal plants owned by the locally based Vectren Corp., which also co-owns part of Warrick. Vectren says its fleet is among the best controlled in the Midwest. Alcoa, whose complex is the fourth in southwest Indiana to make both top 100 lists, said it closed its smelter there in March and is running its power plant less now as a result.
Blair paused at a cemetery overlooking the smokestacks.
"You know," he'd said earlier in the trip, "we're subsidizing the coal industry big time with our health."
'Incredibly Powerful' Utilities
Indiana utilities have influenced the state's power mix beyond building coal plants in the first place. They gave a thumbs-up to ending mandatory state energy-efficiency targets, calling the program "very costly" for customers despite consumer-advocate support. They pressed for extra solar charges, contending that rooftop-solar customers shift costs to everyone else because they aren't paying their fair share. (Some of the independent research on this national debate is in agreement; much of it is not.)
The Indiana Energy Association says the state doesn't need mandatory energy efficiency or renewable energy targets—now common across the country—because its members are making so much progress voluntarily. Indiana ranked 42nd on the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy's most recent state scorecard. It ranked 24th last year for the share of electricity generated with wind or solar, far outstripped by top states—half of them in the Midwest.
Unless a state's regulatory structure accounts for it, energy efficiency dampens utility revenues. So does customer-generated power. Some of Indiana's utilities, including Evansville-based Vectren, specifically warn investors that these options are a financial threat.
Consumer groups think the utilities—not the coal companies—make the most effective advocates for Indiana's energy status quo.
"They've always been an incredibly powerful voice in the General Assembly," said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, and "they've drug their feet on any type of movement away from coal."
Electric utilities are among the largest corporate contributors to state elections in Indiana. They spent nearly 100 times as much as pro-environment groups in the past five years, and far more than mining companies, according to National Institute on Money in State Politics data.
Their state lobbying, which totals hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, includes spreading freebies around to legislators: dinners at McCormick & Schmick's, cocktails at Moe & Johnny's, rounds of golf, tickets to Indiana Pacers and Indianapolis Colts games. Utilities are also the biggest donors to a state foundation that covers costs of economic-development travel for the governor.
Among the top recipients of their contributions and gifts is state Rep. Heath VanNatter, vice chair of the House Utilities and Energy Committee. He voted for the solar bill utilities wanted. He put forth the amendment that ultimately killed the energy-efficiency program. VanNatter, a Republican who represents an area north of Indianapolis, did not respond to requests for comment.
The utilities say the transition away from coal is best handled at a measured pace. They're increasing their use of alternatives, but a post-coal Indiana is a "long, long ways into the future," said Maassel, president of the Indiana Energy Association, which opposes the EPA's Clean Power Plan.
"In anything, generally speaking, the faster you do it, the more expensive it becomes," he said.
Maassel said more than 730,000 Indiana households have after-tax incomes under $30,000 and pay a sizable chunk of that for energy, so utilities are mindful of the cost of change.
"The existing facilities many times enjoy an economic advantage because they've been paid for to some level, and upgrading them with additional [pollution] controls … makes sense," Maassel said.
This reasoning galls Kerwin Olson. He's executive director of the Citizens Action Coalition, an Indianapolis consumer and environmental advocacy organization that often clashes with utilities. Olson contends that the most cost-effective option is to stop using coal sooner, not later.
Kerwin Olson and colleague Jennifer Washburn in Olson's office at Citizens Action Coalition in Indianapolis. The group is battling for a faster shift to clean energy in Indiana.Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity
He's not talking about health and climate costs, though research suggests they make the true price of coal much higher. He means people's actual utility bills.
"If you're a utility company with a guaranteed rate of return and the more you spend, the more you make, you're going to choose the most expensive option," he said. "That's why we continue to rely almost exclusively on coal."
Olson said that while coal-plant pollution controls were once the cheapest option, that's no longer the case. Efficiency and wind aren't only cleaner but are also less expensive than coal, he said, while utility-scale solar is on par.
That's clearly the case for new construction. Comparing piecemeal coal-plant retrofits to the alternatives is trickier, but David Schlissel with the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, which advocates for reduced dependence on fossil fuels, said many coal plants are uneconomic even without additional controls.
Cheaper electricity from gas and renewables prevents them from selling as much to the grid as they once did. In states such as Indiana where utilities own the plants, he said, ratepayers take the hit.
Utility analyst Paul Patterson said power companies aren't necessarily wedded to coal—some are moving aggressively on renewables. But it's an industry that craves stability, said Patterson, with New York-based Glenrock Associates.
And in states that have staked out pro-coal positions, he said, "there may be a whole variety of political issues" at play. AEP tells investors in its most recent annual report that it wants to rely more on natural gas, energy efficiency and renewables "where there is regulatory support."
'Beyond Coal' in Coal Country
In southwest Indiana, a future without coal would unpredictably reorder industries and people's lives. Most of the state's 6,500 mining jobs are here. They're a small piece of the region's employment—about 2 percent—but their reach is widened by the truck drivers, suppliers and others whose jobs depend on coal. Mining—like utilities—also provides some of the best-paying work. Property taxes from the power plant owners boost small-town budgets.
At the United Mine Workers of America's old union hall in Boonville, 30 minutes from Evansville, a half-dozen retired coal miners gathered in June to talk about their anxieties—in particular their frustration that Congress had yet to vote on health and pension benefits endangered in the wake of coal-company bankruptcies. Some of the politicians loudly proclaiming themselves pro-coal are not beloved here.
All of these men worked at a Boonville surface mine that supplied a local coal plant and shut down in 1998, its closure blamed in part on the Clean Air Act amendments of 1990. Marvin Bruner, who worked there 31 years, had to retire early and accept a smaller pension. Randal Underhill had to travel all over on construction jobs for power plants, living out of motels. David Hadley had to work in Indianapolis during the week and come home to his family on weekends.
Marvin Bruner (center) talks to Wilber "Bud" Groeninger (left) and Bil Musgrave about the now-closed southwest Indiana coal mine where they worked for years.Jamie Smith Hopkins / Center for Public Integrity
But in this group, opinions of air-pollution regulation are nuanced. They've seen coal companies open new mines in the area since the Clean Air Act amendments—non-union ones. Bil Musgrave, 60, who contracted a rare bile-duct cancer he links to working amid hazardous waste dumped in the Boonville mine, is a Sierra Club member.
He feels the tension between the benefits and problems coal brings. You can't be a miner without it, and yet Musgrave knows it's burned to make far more electricity than his region needs. The Toxics Release Inventory figures for a nearby coal plant, he said, show "an enormous amount of pollution."
Hadley, co-chair of the United Mine Workers' Indiana political action committee and a former state utility regulatory commissioner, wishes the industry had pushed full speed ahead on clean-technology innovations 15 years ago. What if carbon capture were economically viable and widely used today? What good does switching to natural gas do, he says, if it doesn't solve the carbon problem?
Hadley fears coal's window of opportunity is all but closed. That would leave transition away from it as the only option—"a transition with consequences."
Wendy Bredhold, a local Sierra Club representative, is a former Evansville city councilwoman who thinks about economic consequences, too. As the nation increasingly turns to renewables and big companies demand them, what will that mean for local growth prospects? Wouldn't coal workers do better, she says, if state officials helped people with the transition instead of fighting it?
The Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign has notched successes across the country, preventing new plants from opening and convincing regulators that old plants weren't cost effective and should close. An Indianapolis coal plant it targeted switched to natural gas this year.
Now the group is campaigning in Evansville, trying to do this work in an area where, as Bredhold puts it, "coal runs generations deep." An Evansville event the Sierra Club organized this month drew 100 people but also attracted angry Facebook comments.
Bredhold sees health problems and the accelerating effects of climate change, and doesn't think she can afford to fail.
"We can't wait until these plants just can't run anymore," she said. "I want this transition to be as easy as it can be for my community, but it's one that has to happen."
The Cessna four-seater raced down a runway in Fort Meade, Maryland, loaded with equipment to measure ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide and greenhouse gases. For more than two decades, the Maryland Department of the Environment has tracked where pollutants come from. Agency scientists and university researchers have worked together to prove that other states routinely send unwanted contributions their way.
Xinrong Ren, a research scientist at the University of Maryland (left); Russ Dickerson, a University of Maryland professor (center); and pilot Nizar Bechara walk by a plane to be used in a July pollution-tracking flight for the Maryland Department of the Environment.Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity
This isn't academic. Pollution drifting over state lines complicates local efforts to clean the air.
Indiana—280 miles from Maryland at its nearest point—is one of the culprits, according to both Maryland and EPA analyses.
Closer states have a bigger impact on Maryland, but the reach of Indiana's pollutants is impressive. An EPA analysis for a 2011 rule to reduce power-plant emissions that exacerbate interstate problems with fine particles and ozone showed Indiana significantly contributing to air pollution in 11 states as far northeast as Connecticut. Only Kentucky topped that, at 12.
Traveling pollution is why nine East Coast states petitioned the EPA in 2013 to make nine other states—Indiana among them—do more on ozone. That petition is pending; some officials told the EPA this year that they plan to sue to force a decision.
Indiana and the other targeted states, in a 2014 letter to the EPA, said they've made "tremendous progress" on air quality and the petition's arguments are out of date.
Dave Foerter, executive director of the Ozone Transport Commission, which advises the EPA on interstate smog problems, said meteorological conditions made for better years in 2013 and 2014. But generally, the wind blows Midwestern pollution to the Northeast, and that problem continues, he said.
"Indiana tends to throw emissions a long way," Foerter said.
That's less likely to come from its cars than its power plants, because the plants' smokestacks give pollutants the height they need to travel, according to Maryland regulators. New York, analyzing 2015 power plant releases, discovered that Indiana put out four times as much nitrogen oxides—a key ozone ingredient—for every megawatt-hour of electricity as New York did.
The Maryland Department of the Environment's Tad Aburn isn't suggesting car-heavy Maryland doesn't make its own pollution. It does, affecting three other states, according to the EPA's analysis. But Maryland's power-plant rules are stricter than federal ones, and Aburn says the agency's detective work shows the air improves when states work together.
"We need to do more," he said.
The Climate In Indiana
Climate change, like air pollution, requires group efforts to combat. But in Indiana—where industrial greenhouse gas emissions are second only to Texas in the U.S. and exceed those from Israel, Greece and 185 other countries—the official position is inertia.
Pence once called climate change a "myth" and now positions himself as a skeptic: "I think the science is very mixed on the subject," he told MSNBC in 2009, an assertion he repeated until he said on the campaign trail this week that human activities have "some impact" on climate. Not only is his state suing over the Clean Power Plan, but he also vowed that Indiana won't strategize to reduce greenhouse gases even if the rule does take effect. He's an enthusiastic supporter of the American Legislative Exchange Council, a group of companies and conservative lawmakers—popular in the Indiana state house—that has encouraged anti-climate initiatives.
Polling shows more than half of Hoosiers say climate change is indeed happening, though, and that includes some local officials. Jim Brainard, a Republican from the Indianapolis suburb of Carmel, is among the Indiana mayors who see economic opportunities in the shifting energy landscape and are taking action in their cities.
But a variety of Indiana residents think statewide efforts are crucial, and they're pressing officials to do something. What's driving them is the knowledge that the science isn't mixed on whether the world is warming, whether humans are largely to blame and whether that's bad for us. The major point of debate among scientists now is just how bad it will be.
Last fall Gabriel Filippelli coordinated a letter, signed by 23 Indiana academics, that urged Pence to draw on the educators' in-state expertise on climate and its impacts. It recommended a plan for "mitigation and adaptation strategies … to protect energy and transportation infrastructure, the health of the public and economic development."
"It actually wasn't intended to be political, but rather, 'You have a lot of resources right here in Indiana, in your back yard, people who are expert in this and can give you better advice than maybe you're receiving,'" said Filippelli, a professor of earth sciences at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
He said he got "zero" response from the Pence administration, which also did not answer the Center for Public Integrity's questions about the matter.
Anita Wylie is trying a different tack. She's suing.
Wylie, an attorney who once worked for the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, is asking a trial court in Indianapolis to make the state develop a climate action plan. It's something two-thirds of states now have, and it's what the academics' letter meant by mitigation and adaptation strategies.
A Pence spokeswoman did not respond to a question about the lawsuit, but the state argued in a motion to dismiss the case that it is not required to write a climate plan.
Wylie, now retired, says she is pursuing the lawsuit for her young grandsons and in memory of her father, a meteorologist deeply concerned about climate change.
"Indiana's my state," she said. "I'm embarrassstroed by the positions that the government's taken."
Hopkins reported this story with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Fellowship, programs of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.
Center for Public Integrity news developer Chris Zubak-Skees contributed to this story. Reposted with permission from our media associate The Center for Public Integrity.