Published — December 24, 2018

Our top environment investigations this year

Could it happen again? Concerns now center on dangers beneath the surface. Documents reveal thousands of unplugged wells have been abandoned - and could leak.This was the scene on April 21, 2010, as the Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned. Gerald Herbert/Associated Press


The impacts of U.S. environmental policy don’t end at American borders.

That became even more evident through our Blowout series, which explores the U.S. fossil-fuel export boom and its climate, public health, economic and social impacts.

We also vigilantly monitored the actions of the Environmental Protection Agency, including how the agency bent towards industry needs, and the legacy former administrator Scott Pruitt left behind after his resignation.

More of our top stories from 2018: 

Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble

In the fall of 2017, the International Energy Agency issued a report declaring “the era of oil is not over” and predicting an unprecedented surge in overseas shipments of crude oil and liquefied natural gas.

Initial research by the Center for Public Integrity’s environment team in early 2018 suggested a wave of drilling and infrastructure-building already was under way, notably in the Permian Basin of Texas and New Mexico and along the Texas Gulf Coast. By spring, a four-way consortium — the Center, along with the Texas Tribune, the Associated Press and Newsy — formed to chronicle the effects of the boom, from Texas to Asia. 

Explore the Series

As disease-bearing ticks head north, weak government response threatens public health

Across the United States, tick- and mosquito-borne diseases, some potentially lethal, are emerging in places and volumes not previously seen. Climate change almost certainly is to blame, according to a 2016 report by 13 federal agencies that warned of intensifying heat, storms, air pollution and infectious diseases. Last year, a coalition of 24 academic and government groups tried to track climate-related health hazards worldwide. It found them “far worse than previously understood,” jeopardizing half a century of public-health gains.

Yet in Maine, Gov. Paul LePage — a conservative Republican who has questioned global-warming science  — won’t acknowledge the phenomenon. His administration has suppressed state plans and vetoed legislation aimed at limiting the damage, former government officials say. They say state employees, including at the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, have been told not to discuss climate change.

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Our investigation into methylene chloride

paint strippers

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in May that it would “shortly” finish its proposed rule about certain widely available paint strippers — those containing a chemical called methylene chloride — and send it to the White House office that must sign off before new regulation is enacted.

Now, seven months later, the EPA won’t say when it anticipates taking that step or if it is still contemplating a ban on retail sales. The agency would only say that it is “currently evaluating the proposal … to determine the appropriate regulation.”

Since a ban was first proposed on methylene chloride paint removers in January 2017, at least four people have died using the products to strip paint or other coatings. In enclosed areas such as bathrooms, the fumes build up, putting workers and consumers at risk of death by asphyxiation. The chemical can also trigger heart attacks.

A 2015 investigation by the Center for Public Integrity, cited by the EPA in its proposed rule, found at least 56 deaths in the United States since 1980 that were linked to methylene chloride.

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Most of the EPA’s pollution estimates are unreliable. So why is everyone still using them?

Los Angeles, pictured here, along with Long Beach and Riverside, Calif. remain a metropolitan area with one of the highest levels of ozone pollution in the U.S. Nick Ut/AP

Engineer Jim Southerland was hired by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency 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. 

By the time Southerland left the EPA in 1996, he was “frustrated and ticked off,” he says, 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,” says 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.

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Scott Pruitt is out, but the direction of the EPA isn’t likely to change

Scott Pruitt, the embattled head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, resigned in July after a tenure marked by ethics scandals and rollbacks of regulations meant to protect the public.

It seems unlikely that Pruitt’s departure will change the policy direction of the agency. Senior EPA officials hired under Pruitt, some of whom are former industry lobbyists, have a history of advocating for many of the same regulatory rollbacks he executed. That includes Andrew Wheeler, now acting head of the EPA. Coal giant Murray Energy Corporation is one of his previous clients.

“Within the Agency Scott has done an outstanding job, and I will always be thankful to him for this,” Trump said in his tweets, adding: “I have no doubt that Andy will continue on with our great and lasting EPA agenda.”

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See also: What Scott Pruitt’s been doing while you weren’t looking

For the EPA, ‘reform’ means giving industry what it wants

A 2013 explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people and injured 260, nearly 10 percent of the town. LM Otero/AP

First came the smoke. The explosion hit 20 minutes later — so massive it killed 15, injured 260, damaged or destroyed 150 buildings, shattered glass a mile out and set trees ablaze. Under stadium lights, the West, Texas, high school football field, home of the Trojans, was transformed into a makeshift triage center.

The 2013 disaster in West, a town of just 2,800, began with a fire at the local fertilizer plant, highlighting safety gaps at thousands of facilities nationwide that use or store high-risk chemicals. It took the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nearly four years after that to issue a rule intended to prevent such accidents — a move strenuously opposed by industry groups such as the American Petroleum Institute.

Just a week after the rule was issued, Donald Trump was sworn in as president. Businesses tried again, asking for a delay of the requirements. This time, they got what they asked for.

The EPA has granted more than a few private-sector wishes under the guise of regulatory reform. Roughly 62 percent of the agency’s “deregulatory” actions completed in Administrator Scott Pruitt’s first year and 85 percent of its planned initiatives match up with specific industry requests, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis. These changes targeted requirements ranging from air-pollution limits for oil and gas operations to water-pollution restrictions on coal-fired power plants.

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Eight years after Deepwater Horizon, is another disaster waiting to happen?

Within seconds, a bright, white flash erupted on the lower deck of West Delta 105 E, an oil-production platform positioned a dozen miles off the Louisiana coast. Disoriented, one crewmember found himself 10 feet away from where he had been working before he blacked out. Another likened the impact to a sledgehammer blow to his head. A third told investigators he felt like he’d been hit by an 18-wheeler, his hard hat, glasses and earplugs knocked off in the blast.

For a fourth, death came instantly. Jerrel “Bubba” Hancock, a 24-year-old father of two, was the closest to the hatch of a large metal tank when flammable vapors ignited, unleashing a fireball the afternoon of Nov. 20, 2014. He died of blunt-force trauma to the head and chest.

Hancock’s death during a maintenance job could have been avoided, federal investigators concluded in late 2016. Safety lapses leading up to the accident were laid bare in a 73-page report by the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE), a little-known agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior responsible for policing the sprawling offshore industry. It was the sort of comprehensive post-mortem for which BSEE had been designed.

But the agency has faced crippling challenges on several fronts, from staffing to its ability to hold companies accountable. Born in the wake of 2010’s Deepwater Horizon explosion — which killed 11 workers and dumped millions of barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico — BSEE has struggled to implement safety regulations that are now under threat of being rolled back. The agency’s team of roughly 130 inspectors is responsible for conducting 20,000 inspections annually across 2,000-plus facilities from the Gulf to the Alaska coast. Its annual budget of $204 million is about a third of the cost of the sunken Deepwater rig.

Under the Trump administration, the fate of the small bureau — and its roughly 800 employees — is also in doubt. As the White House and the Interior Department pursue “energy dominance,” opening more federal lands and waters to drilling than ever before, BSEE’s status — along with the safety reforms that helped empower it — has become increasingly tenuous. Concerns over the agency’s potential demise have swirled on Capitol Hill for months, buoyed by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s calls for deregulation, restructuring and his controversial pick to lead BSEE: Louisiana native and longtime oil-industry ally Scott Angelle, who has pledged to take the bureau “from an era of isolation to an era of cooperation.”

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Big Oil’s black mark on California’s climate record

Jonas Jungblut

Today, most of the easily accessible oil reserves in California are gone. To get at the tar-like crude that remains, operators have become increasingly reliant on unconventional extraction methods. Roughly 75 percent of the oil pulled from the ground every day in the state is produced with techniques such as cyclic steaming. And yet, seven years after Taylor’s death, DOGGR has yet to make any significant changes to its regulations governing underground injection.

“For decades California’s primary oil and gas regulator — DOGGR — has been asleep at the wheel as the oil industry has run rampant with expansion and dangerous extraction techniques all over the state,” says Hollin Kretzmann, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. “When it finally came to light in recent years that nobody is effectively regulating this industry, rather than take any sort of meaningful action DOGGR has dragged its feet.”

Now, conflicts over injection are boiling over in communities across California—not just in the oil industry’s stronghold of Kern County. People in Santa Barbara, Ventura, and San Luis Obispo counties, fed up with state regulators, are turning to ballot initiatives and lawsuits to block injection and protect their groundwater.

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Congress snuck dozens of tax breaks into the budget deal. Here’s where they went.

“Tax extenders” are overlooked, underpublicized and painfully arcane, known by a name that doesn’t even make sense — they should be called “tax cut extenders,” because extending the duration of temporary tax cuts is what they do.

In practice, tax extenders are legislative favors, often slipped into folds of federal bills notable for funding bigger-ticket items — such as military programs, disaster relief, infrastructure overhauls.

And despite President Donald Trump’s promise to drain the Washington “swamp,” elected officials and lobbyists conceived a new round of extenders, where they became law inside the bloat of last month’s 652-page budget bill with little public input.

Center for Public Integrity investigation of more than 30 of these provisions reveals they benefit narrow special interests that know how to work the system — from race horse owners to StarKist tuna canners to connoisseurs of two-wheeled electric vehicles.

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