Category Archives: ProPublica

‘A threat multiplier’: The hidden factors contributing to New York City’s coronavirus disparities

Earlier this month, the New York City health department released a map showing confirmed COVID-19 cases by zip code. The highest case counts were concentrated in lower-income neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. The same week, the city released preliminary data highlighting higher rates of death among black and Latino New Yorkers.

Environmental advocates say that hazardous environmental conditions have contributed substantially to the coronavirus outbreak’s severity in New York City’s low-income communities of color.

The city’s data shows that a higher volume of cases are concentrated in neighborhoods with more environmental health hazards, according to Rachel Spector, director of the environmental justice program at New York Lawyers for the Public Interest, a nonprofit civil rights law firm. Major arterial highways, waste transfer facilities, power plants, and other polluting infrastructure create daily air quality challenges for residents of these neighborhoods — challenges that can take a cumulative toll on residents’ health, leading them to become more vulnerable in the face of a respiratory illness.

Three zip codes in Queens, for instance, have seen roughly 30 documented COVID-19 cases per thousand residents, which is double the citywide average. These neighborhoods — among them Astoria Heights, East Elmhurst, and Jackson Heights — are criss crossed by traffic-clogged highways like Interstate 278 and the Grand Central Parkway. Nearby sources of fine particulate matter — or PM 2.5, a pollutant particularly harmful to respiratory health — include LaGuardia Airport and several of the city’s power plants.

“It’s a classic environmental justice issue,” Spector told Grist. “You have a concentration of polluting infrastructure located in black and brown communities that are often high-poverty neighborhoods — people living in poor and crowded housing conditions, who continue to work and take public transportation because many of them are low-wage essential workers. So they’re disproportionately and continuously exposed.”

The coronavirus is not the only thing they’re exposed to, Spector added. Many of these communities disproportionately experience underlying health conditions as a result of years of chronic exposure to air pollution. The South Bronx, a predominantly low-income neighborhood of color, sees an annual average of 11 to 13 micrograms per cubic meter of fine particulate matter, compared to the World Health Organization’s air quality guideline of 10. The same area sees the city’s highest rate of emergency care visits for asthma as well as respiratory hospitalizations. It has also been among the neighborhoods hardest hit by COVID-19.

“The coronavirus is exposing the inequities that have been around for so long in our society,” Spector said.

The link between coronavirus deaths and pollution exposure is coming into focus. Earlier this month, Harvard researchers released a nationwide study that links long-term exposure to air pollution to increases in the exposed area’s COVID-19 death rate. They found that every additional microgram of PM 2.5 per cubic meter is associated with a 15 percent increase in the death rate from COVID-19.

Nevertheless, the EPA announced last week that it will not tighten or change the nation’s ambient air quality standards. Democratic lawmakers subsequently sent a letter to EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler criticizing the decision. The senators cited evidence that air pollution in the form of fine particulate matter is detrimental to human health and could increase COVID-19 vulnerability, using New York City as an example.

Spector says that the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus — parts of Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx — also face acute challenges posed by particulate matter pollution. Although levels of PM 2.5 across the city aren’t as bad as those in areas near large-scale oil, gas, and chemical infrastructure, the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screening and mapping tool indicates that these New York City neighborhoods still have higher risks of cancer and respiratory illnesses from inhaling diesel emissions — conditions that could make them more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 complications.

Priya Mulgaonkar, a resiliency planner for the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, co-wrote a 2016 report that analyzes the impact of truck traffic on the city’s air quality and the communities that host waste transfer facilities. One of the report’s key findings is that commercial waste trucks accounted for a significant amount of truck traffic, worsening the air quality of nearby communities, particularly in the South Bronx. These same communities ended up being among the hardest hit by COVID-19.

“The disparities for COVID-19 really mirror the disparities that New York City’s environmental justice communities have faced for decades,” Mulgaonkar told Grist. “Similarly to climate change, COVID-19 is really acting as a threat multiplier: exacerbating a lot of these inequalities that are due to environmental racism in New York City.”


‘A threat multiplier’: The hidden factors contributing to New York City’s coronavirus disparities

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How vulnerable is your community to coronavirus? These new maps reveal a familiar pattern.

The predominantly black and low-income communities living near the back-to-back petrochemical refineries of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have long suffered compromised immune systems and high rates of disease. Now, the state’s fast-growing COVID-19 outbreak is poised to hit them especially hard.

Yet behind the veil of the pandemic, last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a temporary policy — with no end date specified — to suspend its enforcement of key environmental regulations, allowing industries like Louisiana’s petrochemical giants to make their own determinations as to whether or not they are complying with requirements to monitor pollution levels. Ironically, as the EPA relaxes its rules for polluters, the link between long-term exposure to environmental hazards and the most severe outcomes of coronavirus infections is starting to come into focus.

Jvion, a healthcare data firm, has collaborated with Microsoft to launch a new COVID-19 community vulnerability map to identify the populations most vulnerable to severe complications following a coronavirus outbreak. The interactive map aggregates socioeconomic and environmental factors, such as lack of access to transportation, exposure to toxins, unemployment, and mortality rate. According to the map, these factors make certain “cancer alley” communities particularly vulnerable.

“Our most heavily weighted and frequent determining risk factor was air quality, though that doesn’t mean that it’s the most predictive factor,” said John Showalter, chief product officer for Jvion. “There’s definitely a biologic rationale that environmental health hazards that lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions would then lead people with those conditions to do poorly during a COVID-19 outbreak.”


Jvion used machine learning to analyze block-level data from the U.S. Census to help identify “environmental health hazard” as one key socioeconomic factor that makes a population more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, based on the health effects of polluted air, contaminated water, and extreme heat. They also factored in how chronic exposure to outdoor air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, can increase the risk of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and cardiovascular disease — preexisting conditions that physicians say can make the novel coronavirus more severe and fatal.

A side-by-side comparison of Jvion’s vulnerability map with the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen (EJScreen) suggests a stark correlation between a community’s proximity to industrial facilities and its projected risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

Jvion labels Harris County, Texas, as having a high vulnerability for COVID-19 — and a key socioeconomic influencer for that determination is its “above average environmental health hazard.” A new analysis from the University of Texas Health Science Center echoes Jvion’s map: The report shows where risk factors for severe COVID-19 outcomes (mostly preexisting health conditions) are distributed across Harris County to determine which neighborhoods are most at-risk of hospitalization and intensive care for COVID-19. Cross-referencing the EJScreen, it becomes clear that the Harris County map highlights communities in close proximity to industrial facilities and those at a higher risk of cancer from breathing airborne toxins.

“There’s a familiar pattern in these maps, and it’s a pattern that you see in mobility rates and mortality rates, race and ethnicity demographics, as well as the distribution of industry in our country,” said Corey Williams, the research and policy director for Air Alliance Houston. “All those things overlap to a great extent, so there is a correlation, but it’s difficult to prove causation.”

Philadelphia has seen a rapid uptick in coronavirus cases, and its pockets of vulnerability have similar characteristics to Houston’s. Jvion’s map shows that the predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry are considered to have an “extremely high” vulnerability risk for COVID-19 due to environmental hazards, elevated unemployment rates, and low incomes. The EJScreen shows that the areas are close to major highways with heavy traffic, wastewater plants, and industrial facilities.

It’s clear that the novel coronavirus is already compounding underlying systemic inequities in communities with more people of color, poverty, migrants, and those without access to resources like medical care. These maps can help ensure that government response and medical capacity in these at-risk populations can meet the needs of those likely to be severely ill from the virus, including those living near heavy industry and fossil fuel infrastructure.

In a letter submitted to the EPA last week, environmental groups demanded to know why polluting facilities are now excused from complying with environmental regulations, even as their operations continue relatively unfettered. “What is the basis for presuming that the pandemic means companies can no longer comply with environmental rules while they continue to operate and process all other forms of corporate ‘paperwork’?” the memo asked.

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How vulnerable is your community to coronavirus? These new maps reveal a familiar pattern.

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Paris Fashion Week meets the Paris Agreement on the Balenciaga runway

Balenciaga launched its fall 2020 collection on a flooded runway with images of fiery blazes and rushing waves projected across the ceiling. The first few rows of seats were empty because they were almost entirely underwater, and models strutted through the swampy raised stage in drapey oversized raincoats, Matrix-like full-length black leather jackets, and bodysuits that look straight out of the Black Panther wardrobe trailer, complete with knee and shoulder pads. One model was styled as a walking mace, his jacket flanked with sharp spikes.

Yes, the brand best-known for sock shoes, an ugly-cool take on the dad sneaker, and platform Crocs put climate change front and center in its Paris Fashion Week show on Sunday.

Estrop / Getty Images

Estrop / Getty Images

Clearly, the fire and brimstone vibe was intended as a warning about the catastrophe to come if we do not stem the rising tide of carbon emissions. Demna Gvasalia, Balenciaga’s creative director, hasn’t given any interviews about the show, but the outfits seem to imagine a world where rising seas, bursts of flames, and other environmental assaults are commonplace concerns and where protection from the elements is literally built into the fabric of our lives.

Estrop / Getty Images

Estrop / Getty Images

While I think it’s pretty cool any time the rich and famous are shaken out of their distorted version of reality and confronted with the signs of our times, the implications of Balenciaga’s show are complicated. First of all, it’s debatable whether shoving the apocalypse narrative in people’s faces is really all that helpful if you’re trying to make a case for climate action. Second, and far less debatable, the fashion industry is a disaster for the planet.

Data on the fashion industry’s footprint is not perfect, since brands have only recently begun measuring it, but here’s what we know: The industry uses exorbitant amounts of water, potentially as much as 2 percent of all freshwater use globally, in addition to being a major source of water pollution. It creates an extraordinary amount of waste, both in making the clothes and in creating a culture where people throw millions of tons of clothing into the trash every year. It contributes to deforestation, because common materials like rayon and viscose are made with wood pulp. And finally, the industry is believed to be responsible for a whopping 10 percent of global carbon emissions.

Anyhoo. If Balenciaga wants to warn people about climate catastrophe, I would hope the company is doing more than designing our future fire- and flood-proof uniforms. So is it?

Turns out, yes. Balenciaga’s parent company, Kering, is one of the more forward-thinking in the biz. In 2016, Kering set a goal of reducing its emissions intensity across most of its business by 50 percent by 2025, a goal which it’s currently on track to achieve, according to documents filed with the Carbon Disclosure Project. (Intensity, in this case, means the amount emitted per dollar of profit, so as the company grows, it will become more carbon efficient.) Kering was also the first ~luxury~ company to have its emissions targets approved by the Science Based Targets Initiative, a program that helps companies align their business with the Paris Agreement.

The company’s operations are powered by 100 percent renewable energy in seven out of the more than 20 countries where it does business. It is in the process of eliminating hazardous chemicals in its supply chains and works with other major international brands to do the same. Kering also forbids the use of leather linked to deforestation in the Amazon.

While its approach isn’t perfect — the company offsets some of its emissions through reforestation projects under the United Nations’ REDD program, which ProPublica exposed to be deeply flawed — I have to admit, I’m pretty impressed by the depth and breadth of what Kering has done so far. It takes a lot of time and money for an international fashion superpower to look up and down all of its supply chains and figure out what, exactly, its impact on the planet is every year.

So while I don’t think the end times are nigh, as was implied on the runway, golf claps for Balenciaga for talking about climate change, and for putting its money where its mouth is.

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Paris Fashion Week meets the Paris Agreement on the Balenciaga runway

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Trump State of the Union’s brief environmental interlude: more oil, more trees

The reality TV president delivered a reality TV State of the Union Tuesday night. Over the course of 80 sometimes raucous minutes, he awarded a school voucher to a Philadelphia 4th grader, had the first lady present conservative shock jock Rush Limbaugh with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and reunited a military servicemember with his family.

Along the way, he ticked off a checklist of statistics, claims, and promises designed to galvanize his colleagues on the right side of the aisle. The most prominent parts of the speech touted the strong economy, celebrated the administration’s crackdown on immigration, and decried an alleged Democratic attempt to engineer a socialist takeover of healthcare.

One phrase that didn’t pass the president’s lips — to nobody’s surprise — was climate change.

Trump devoted just a few seconds of his address to energy and environmental issues: first by celebrating the massive oil and gas boom that has made the U.S. a net exporter of oil, and later by reiterating his commitment to joining an international initiative to plant one trillion trees worldwide.

The president took credit for the recent increase in domestic fossil fuel production, suggesting that it was his administration’s “bold regulatory reduction campaign” that made the U.S. the top producer of oil and natural gas in the world. But the U.S. actually reached that milestone under the Obama administration. Thanks to the explosion in fracking beginning in 2008, the U.S. became the top producer of natural gas in 2009 and of oil in 2013, according to the Energy Information Administration.

The president then went further, claiming that the boom has made the U.S. “energy independent” — ignoring the fact that the country is still subject to the global oil market, and that turbulence in the Middle East and elsewhere has the ability to affect gas prices in the U.S.

The dramatic increase in stateside oil and gas extraction has also generated environmental and public health consequences that went unacknowledged in Tuesday’s address. Though U.S. emissions likely fell by about two percent last year, those reductions are nowhere close to the cuts required to meet the targets set under the international Paris Agreement, which scientists say are essential to avoiding the most catastrophic effects of climate change. Research also suggests that increased pollution from the oil and gas boom could reverse that fragile progress.

Energy and environment have never been a point of emphasis in Trump’s State of the Union addresses. In 2018, the president devoted just two brief sentences to energy independence, focusing instead on immigration and tax cuts. Last year, too, energy and environmental policies were largely absent from his speech, save the passing mention of “an American energy revolution.”

The Trump administration’s decision to join the World Economic Forum’s initiative to plant one trillion trees worldwide is likely too little, too late. For one, if the U.S. is to compensate for all its 2019 emissions, it would need to plant trees on 371 million acres. That’s double the size of Texas.

Successful reforestation programs have also been hard to implement. Last year, Turkey planted 11 million trees, but according to reports from the country’s agriculture and forestry trade union, the vast majority of the saplings inspected died within just a few months. Trees also take decades to reach their full carbon-combating potential. Trees planted today may not reach full growth for 40 years or more — and that’s assuming they survive disease, wildfires, and droughts.

Then there’s the challenge of accurately monitoring and calculating the amount of carbon dioxide that the trees are pulling out of the air. Reporting by ProPublica and other research has found that many programs have grossly overestimated the emissions reductions from reforestation.

In fact, scientists have suggested that when it comes to climate change, conserving current trees is more helpful than planting new ones. Given that the Trump administration expanded logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest just a few months ago, one might be tempted to rip up Trump’s speech in frustration — if House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had not already done precisely that at the end of the address.

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Trump State of the Union’s brief environmental interlude: more oil, more trees

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After Standing Rock, protesting pipelines can get you a decade in prison and $100K in fines

Cherri Foytlin and her fellow protestors spent much of last summer suspended 35-feet in the air in “sky pods” tied to cypress trees. They were hoping to block the Bayou Bridge Pipeline from running through their part of Louisiana.

At the time, Energy Transfer Partners was building the pipeline to move oil between Texas and St. James Parish in southern Louisiana, crisscrossing through the Atchafalaya Basin, one of the largest swamps in the country. Foytlin and others with the group L’Eau Est La Vie (“Water Is Life”) set up wooden platforms between trees along the proposed path of the pipeline. The construction crew couldn’t build the pipeline with a protestor dangling above.

Though the protesters were on private land with the landowner’s permission, some were eventually arrested by St. Martin’s Parish Sheriff’s deputies in mid August. The pipeline was completed in March, yet Foytlin could still face up to five years in prison and $1,000 in fines.

That’s because Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed HB 727 into law last spring, making trespassing on “critical infrastructure” property a much more serious crime than garden-variety trespassing. What was once a misdemeanor is now a felony. The law takes a broad view of what’s “critical”: pipelines, natural gas plants, and other facilities, as well as property on a proposed pipeline route, even if the pipeline isn’t there yet.

Foytlin is one of at least 16 people in Louisiana who’ve been arrested and charged with felonies under the new law, according to Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, who’s representing Foytlin. All of them were jailed and had to post bonds, some as high as $20,000 to get out. The district attorney hasn’t officially charged any of them yet, Quigley said.

“These are people saying let’s make sure we have something left for future generations in the most beautiful swamp in the world,” Foytlin said. “And for that we were charged with felonies, we were beaten, we were stepped on, I was choked.” To her, the law allows the state to jail people for unpopular political views. (Messages left with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office weren’t returned.)

The effort to punish pipeline protestors has spread across states with ample oil and gas reserves in the last two years and, in some cases, has garnered bipartisan support. Besides Louisiana, four other states — Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa — have enacted similar laws after protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline generated national attention and inspired a wave of civil disobedience.

Just last week in Texas, House lawmakers passed a bill that makes interfering with some oil and gas operations makes interfering with operations at oil and gas facilities a third-degree felony — on par with indecent exposure to a child.

Lawmakers in at least seven other states, including Minnesota, Kentucky, and Illinois, are considering similar legislation.

All these efforts have garnered broad support from the oil and gas industry. And many of the bills bear a startling resemblance to model legislation being pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch Brothers.

They have a lot in common. For starters, they heighten penalties for damaging oil and gas infrastructure and for trespassing with the intent to disrupt operations. Some mete out punishments of up to 10 years in prison and $100,000 in fines. Others would penalize organizations that “aid” protesters, making environmental groups liable for the actions of their members.

“This law is unnecessary,” said Elly Page, an attorney with International Center for Not for-Profit Law, a group that has been tracking this legislation around the country. “Trespass is already a criminal offense under the law. Damaging private property is already a criminal offense. These create really egregious penalties for conduct that’s already penalized.”

The forces behind the scenes

By the beginning of 2017, hundreds of protesters at Standing Rock had spent months clashing with law enforcement and private security guards hired by the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners. Videos of law enforcement blasting protesters with water cannons had gone viral, and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe filed suit to block the pipeline. Inspired by those protests, a coalition of Native American and environmental activists in Oklahoma announced they planned to stop construction of the Diamond Pipeline, which would carry oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to Tennessee.

That February, a Republican member of Oklahoma’s state House, Representative Mark McBride sponsored a bill raising penalties for trespassers on property with oil and gas infrastructure and holding any “person or entity that compensates or remunerates a person for trespassing” liable. McBride said at the time that the idea for the bill came from protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. When asked how he would define “compensates,” he punted, saying it “would be for the courts to decide.”

Gov. Mary Fallin signed McBride’s bill into law three months later, along with another piece of legislation that created penalties for protesting near facilities considered “critical infrastructure.” Protesters in Oklahoma can now face a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, and organizations that “compensate” them are liable for up to $1 million.

That caught the attention of ALEC. The influential group takes corporate money and drafts ready-made legislation for lobbyists and lawmakers. It has been behind the effort to exempt Big Oil from having to disclose chemicals in fracking fluids and pushed so-called ag-gag laws, which stymie undercover investigations of agricultural operations.

At a national conference organized by ALEC in December 2017, the group’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture task force proposed a model bill titled the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” A few months later, ALEC’s board signed off on the bill, and it soon appeared on the organization’s website. Bills with similar language then began cropping up in state legislatures.

In March 2018, then-Louisiana State Representative Major Thibaut, a Democrat, introduced HB 727, the one that landed Foytlin in jail. That same month, Wyoming and Minnesota passed similar legislation which was later vetoed by their governors.

Oil and gas lobbyists have also been backing legislation penalizing protestors. In state after state, representatives for Big Oil were an overwhelming majority of those testifying and registering as lobbyists in support of the proposals.

This January, a lobbyist working with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers wrote to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant’s policy advisor promoting legislation “to provide for criminal penalties for those who wilfully and illegally trespass, disrupt, destroy” oil and gas facilities. The lobbyist noted in his email that he was “expecting a bill from Chairman [Angela] Cockerham and Chairman [Sally] Doty,” two members of the state’s legislature representing each side of the aisle. Doty and Cockerham introduced bills that fit his description in the Mississippi House and Senate that week.

The second wave

Environmental advocates who’ve been tracking these anti-protest bills say 2019 has ushered in a second wave of them. And ALEC appears to be cheering them on. In February, as a cold snap gripped the Midwest and Northeast, ALEC’s Grant Kidwell sent an email to members of the group’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force noting that Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, and Wyoming had introduced legislation with similar language to their model bill. “The frigid temperatures brought by the polar vortex this week serve as a reminder of the important [sic] of energy infrastructure,” he wrote. “Thankfully, states have recognized the important [sic] of critical infrastructure and are moving to protect it.”

[Copies of the ALEC newsletter and emails by lobbyists were obtained by Documented, a watchdog group that tracks corporate influence on public policy, and provided to Grist.]

Texas has seen a handful of prominent pipeline fights in recent years, including ones opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline near the Texas-Mexico border and the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline. Environmental groups and landowners are currently trying to stop construction of the Permian Highway pipeline, a 430-mile conduit to move natural gas from West Texas to the Gulf Coast.

The legislation could have a chilling effect on private landowners who’ve played a large role in fighting pipelines in Texas, said Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, an advocacy group for independent farmers.

Valero has been building a pipeline through McGeary’s 165-acre farm in central Texas. A few weeks ago, McGeary, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said she found a swastika painted on the pipeline on her property. Suspecting that members of the construction crew were involved, she locked the gates to her farm and demanded that Valero send new workers. McGeary said Valero responded by threatening to sue for up to $500,000 in damages for interfering with construction. (Valero did not respond to a request for comment.)

“This was a horrible experience for us as it was,” she said. “We look at this legislation and they could’ve been threatening to have the sheriff come and pursue us for third degree felonies — for locking the gate for a weekend. It’s an incredible overreach.”

Environmental advocates see a key difference between the states that considered such bills last year and this year. In 2018, the vast majority were Republican-controlled and had significant oil and gas resources. Now the effort is spreading to states run mostly by Democrats, like Illinois, and devoid of large oil and gas deposits, like Kentucky. Illinois, for instance, is considering a bill that would make trespassing on critical infrastructure property a Class 4 felony, in line with obstruction of justice, criminal sexual abuse, and parental kidnapping.

‘Damn it, we’re going to go all in.’

Activists and First Amendment advocates are fighting back. In South Dakota, after Governor Kristi Noem championed bills that prohibit “riot-boosting” and enable the government to collect damages from protesters, the Oglala Sioux Tribe told her she’s “not welcome” on their reservation.

“These are our lands and our water,” the tribe’s president, Julian Bear Runner, wrote in a letter to Noem. “If you do not honor this directive … we will have no choice but to banish you.”

The ACLU has also filed suit challenging South Dakota’s new law on behalf of a handful of environmental and indigenous rights groups. Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the ACLU, pointed to one provision that allows the government to collect damages from protesters and use the money to cover the expenses of law enforcement.

“Meaning, essentially, if you protest the pipeline and are held liable under this law, you have to pay damages, and you are in fact funding this thing that you protested,” Eidelman said.

Quigley, the law professor representing Foytlin, said he plans on challenging Louisiana’s law as unconstitutional in federal court. “The law infringes on the First Amendment right to protest by being so vague that it can be used in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner as it was [with Foytlin],” he said.

For her part, Foytlin says such laws won’t deter her or other advocates from protesting pipelines. In fact, they might backfire.

“People will continue to go to prison.” she said. “They think that by upping the punishment they’re going to keep people from protesting, but what will happen is we’re going to do things that are more worth getting the felony. Because now if we’re going to jail, then damn it, we’re going to go all in.”

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After Standing Rock, protesting pipelines can get you a decade in prison and $100K in fines

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They worked in sweltering heat for Exxon, Shell and Walmart. They didn’t get paid a dime.

This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

A nationally renowned drug rehab program in Texas and Louisiana has sent patients struggling with addiction to work for free for some of the biggest companies in America, likely in violation of federal labor law.

The Cenikor Foundation has dispatched tens of thousands of patients to work without pay at more than 300 for-profit companies over the years. In the name of rehabilitation, patients have moved boxes in a sweltering warehouse for Walmart, built an oil platform for Shell, and worked at an Exxon refinery along the Mississippi River.

“It’s like the closest thing to slavery,” said Logan Tullier, a former Cenikor participant who worked 10 hours per day at oil refineries, laying steel rebar in 115 degree-heat. “We were making them all the money.”

Cenikor’s success is built on a simple idea: that work helps people recover from addiction. All participants have to do is surrender their pay to cover the costs of the two-year program.

But the constant work leaves little time for counseling or treatment, transforming the rehab into little more than a cheap and expendable labor pool for private companies, an investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting has found.

At some job sites, participants lacked proper supervision, safety equipment and training, leading to routine injuries. Over the last decade, nearly two dozen Cenikor workers have been seriously injured or maimed on the job, according to hundreds of pages of lawsuits, workers’ compensation records, and interviews with former staff. One worker died from his on-the-job injuries in 1995.

Labor experts say Cenikor’s entire business model might be illegal under federal labor law. The Fair Labor Standards Act requires all employees to be paid minimum wage and overtime.

“They have to look at a different way to run their business operation other than merely absconding with the workers’ wages,” Michael Hancock, a former Department of Labor official, said when presented with Reveal’s findings. “They’re being preyed upon.”

An ongoing Reveal investigation has exposed how many drug rehabs across America have become little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Patients have slaughtered chickens on speeding assembly lines in Oklahoma and cared for residents at assisted living facilities in North Carolina.

Among these programs, Cenikor stands out. It has a long history of accolades from sitting lawmakers and judges and even former President Ronald Reagan. Last year, the Texas-based nonprofit earned more than $7 million from work contracts alone, making it one of the largest and most lucrative work-based rehabs in the country.

Bill Bailey, who as Cenikor’s chief executive officer earned more than $400,000 in 2017, repeatedly declined requests for comment. But in a statement, Cenikor officials said the work provides “a career path for clients to be hired by companies who traditionally do not hire those with felony convictions, allowing them to return to a life of being a responsible, contributing member of society.” They said they follow all state and federal laws.

Many Cenikor participants work for a network of subcontractors that then dispatch them to the major companies.

Walmart said it found Cenikor’s labor arrangement troubling and pledged to investigate.

“Our expectations are that all of our vendors follow both the applicable laws and regulations as well as our standards for suppliers,” Walmart said in a statement.

Exxon declined to answer specific questions, but in a statement said the company “contractually requires all of our suppliers to comply with all applicable environmental, health, safety, and labor laws for themselves and their subcontractors.”

Cenikor sent participants to work at an Exxon refinery in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Julie Dermansky / Reveal

Shell did not respond to requests for comment.

Many participants said Cenikor saved their lives and equipped them for success. After 18 months in the program, participants can become eligible to receive wages and graduate with jobs, a car and the tools to build a promising life. But fewer than 8 percent of people who enter Cenikor make it to graduation, according to the program’s own numbers, and therefore never receive a paying job.

“It was just a money racket,” said former Cenikor patient Alester Williams, who checked himself in to Cenikor for help quitting alcohol and cocaine. “That place was all about manipulation and greed.”

Cenikor patients and staff said work came before everything else. Staff routinely canceled doctors’ and legal appointments in favor of sending patients to work, records show. Working up to 80 hours per week left little time for counseling, therapy, or sleep.

Like many participants, Ethan Ewers was ordered to complete Cenikor by a Texas judge after failing a drug test while on probation. Once he arrived, he said he worked 43 days straight in a sweltering warehouse unloading cargo containers for Walmart. One day in 2016, when he was bone tired and on the brink of relapsing, he finally snapped.

“I said, ‘You need to give me a day off because I can’t do this anymore,’ ” Ewers told Cenikor brass. “It was absolutely ridiculous.”

Multiple former staff members told Reveal that counselors routinely falsified counseling records to make it appear as though patients received more counseling than they did. During busy work seasons, some received no counseling at all.

Peggy Billeaudeau, who was the clinical director at Cenikor’s Baton Rouge facility from 2015 to 2016, said she got so fed up with the excessive work that she and her staff launched their own investigation. They pored over patient timesheets and painstakingly entered the hours into a spreadsheet. Billeaudeau discovered that many Cenikor patients were working 80-hour weeks and rarely received counseling.

She presented the evidence to top Cenikor officials at a staff meeting. “It was kind of like, ‘Peggy, don’t touch that with a 10-foot pole,’ ” she recalled. “It was about the money. Get the money.”

Some rehab staff have a financial incentive to work participants harder and longer, according to interviews. Former vocational services managers, who secured outside job contracts, said the more money they brought in, the larger their bonuses.

Cenikor managers had a compelling sales pitch. They promised companies cheap workers who were drug tested and always on time. Cenikor would pay for transportation and cover the costs of insurance.

“We tended to charge less than the temp agencies because of the demographics,” said Stephanie Collins, a former vocational services manager. “We were competitive.”

Patients, meanwhile, make nothing. They are told that their paychecks will be used to offset the cost of the program. Federal labor law allows Cenikor to deduct the costs of food, lodging, and certain other expenses. But according to interviews and records obtained by Reveal, Cenikor typically brings in far more money from work contracts than it spends on patients.

Food stamps cover meal costs for all Cenikor participants, and in Louisiana, many are signed up for Medicaid to pay for counseling and medical care. Internal financial ledgers from the program’s Baton Rouge facility show that in 2016 and 2017, Cenikor’s job contracts regularly delivered more than twice as much money as its daily operating expenses.

At minimum, labor experts say this means Cenikor patients should see at least some of the pay from their work.

“I can’t fathom this being legitimate,” said John Meek, a former Department of Labor wage and hour investigator. “That math is just against it.”

Despite its reliance on work, Cenikor frequently has skimped on providing safety training or giving participants basic protective gear, such as steel-toed boots and harnesses.

In 2016, David Dupuis and other Cenikor participants went to work for a company cleaning up flooded homes filled with black mold and raw sewage. While regular employees got protective equipment such as masks and boots, Dupuis said Cenikor workers got nothing.

“They didn’t give us any protective equipment at all,” he recalled, adding that workers frequently caught staph infections. “It was extremely hazardous.”

In 2018, Cenikor sent Matthew Oates to a private residence in Baton Rouge to trim trees without a safety harness, helmet, or rope. As he teetered on a ladder 20 feet in the air, Oates lost his balance and tumbled from the tree. The fall broke his back.

“You’re wondering if you’re going to be crippled, you know, you’re going to be in pain for the rest of your life,” Oates said. “You know, what’s going to happen to me? Am I going to be able to work again?”

Oates said his back still causes him severe pain and he regularly sees a chiropractor.

Cenikor has been warned repeatedly to make sure participants are safe on the job. After a Cenikor worker plummeted from an unstable platform and died in an office supply warehouse in 1995, federal labor officials told Cenikor that ensuring patient safety was paramount.

“Cenikor officials should take more of (an) active role in providing quality training” and “recognize hazards associated with the job,” officials with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration wrote. But injuries have continued to rack up.

In recent years, a Cenikor worker crushed his hands in an industrial press, another worker fell off scaffolding and shattered his knee at a chemical plant, and at least two workers broke their backs.

In Texas, Cenikor is not required to report on-the-job injuries to rehab regulators. But when officials with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission learned about the injuries from Reveal, a spokeswoman said the agency was “concerned about any injuries sustained to clients” and planned to investigate further.

A sign at the entrance to the Cenikor Foundation, a private, not-for-profit behavioral health facility, is pictured in Deer Park, Texas. Julie Dermansky / Reveal

In Louisiana, state law requires Cenikor to report injuries, but Cenikor has not submitted a single injury report to the Louisiana Department of Health in the last three years, even though Reveal uncovered numerous injuries during that time. Licensing officials said they would investigate the injuries if a patient complained about them.

The federal Department of Labor had the opportunity to crack down on Cenikor’s labor abuses more than 20 years ago. In 1994, Cenikor participant Loren Simonis graduated from the program and immediately filed a complaint with the wage and hour office, alleging violations of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Under federal law, workers are entitled to minimum wage and overtime for their work. The Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that working for free in a nonprofit — even one with a rehabilitative purpose — was a violation of federal labor law. Cenikor can deduct the cost of room and board, but it cannot keep all of participants’ wages, former labor officials told Reveal.

But the Department of Labor declined to investigate Simonis’ complaint, according to records obtained by Reveal. Simonis got tired of waiting and filed a lawsuit against Cenikor, claiming unpaid wages. He eventually settled for an undisclosed sum.

Labor officials declined to comment on the department’s 1994 decision and refused to answer questions about whether investigators would look into Cenikor for wage violations. A department spokesman said the agency “takes all complaints of worker safety and health hazards and violations seriously.”

Today, Simonis lives in Oregon with his wife and kids and runs his own screen-printing shop.

“I’ve turned my life around,” he said. “I don’t think Cenikor had anything to do with it.”

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They worked in sweltering heat for Exxon, Shell and Walmart. They didn’t get paid a dime.

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Will Congress leave the Colorado River high and dry?

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Imagine this grim scenario: The drought that has plagued the Colorado River over the past two decades continues into 2021. The water level in Lake Mead drops precipitously, hitting the 1,075 feet mark — a critical threshold that triggers mandatory water restrictions — and then plunges further. The seven Western states that rely on the beleaguered river are forced to reduce the amount of water they draw, threatening water supplies for Phoenix, Las Vegas and other cities and forcing farmers to let thousands of acres lie fallow. Hydropower production at Hoover and Glen Canyon dams becomes impossible.

That may sound far-fetched, but it’s the picture representatives of the seven Colorado River basin states recently painted of what lies ahead if Congress didn’t authorize a drought plan the states put together for the river soon.

“The urgency is real because our system is stressed by warmer temperatures,” Colorado’s lead water official, James Eklund, told the House Natural Resources Committee last week. “When water resources are stressed in any river basin, our environments and people in poverty bear a disproportionate amount of the pain,” he said. “We really need you to, in order for us to control our own destiny, act now.”

It’s no exaggeration to say that the Colorado River is the lifeblood of the American West, a source of water for 40 million people and 5.5 million acres of farmland. But the river has been under enormous stress. Among the many problems: a long-running drought, ballooning demand for water as cities in the West grow, poor policies that incentivize water waste, bad underlying data that led water managers to believe the river held more water than it did, and, of course, warming temperatures.

After months of negotiations, the seven Colorado River basin states settled on a drought plan they can live with last month. Now, they’re asking Congress authorize the federal government to implement the plan. Senator Martha McSally and Congressman Raúl Grijalva, both from Arizona, introduced legislation on Tuesday to do just that.

Here’s a look at what’s at stake as well as other potential land mines that lie ahead.

So, how’d we get here?

To understand why the Colorado River is in the sorry state that it is today, you have to go back to 1922 when a compact was signed by the seven states — Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Wyoming — that share the Colorado River’s water. At the time, the states believed that roughly 18 million acre-feet flowed through the Colorado. (One acre-feet is the amount of water needed to flood a one-acre field with a foot of water. It’s about 325,000 gallons.)

But that was based on surveys collected during an extremely wet period in the river’s history. More recent studies show that its river’s annual flow is about 15 million acre-feet. Since the states divvied up the water based on information gathered in an exceptionally wet year, states have rights to more water than is available in the river. It’s like promising 18 slices of pie when you only have 15.

This “structural deficit,” as it’s called, is a major underlying issue in managing the river. Add it to the fact that cities in the West have grown dramatically in the last few decades and that farmers dependent on the Colorado are growing thirsty crops like cotton and alfalfa in the desert, and you can see why there’s just not enough water to keep everybody happy.

What about climate change?

It’s making the situation worse. More than half of the decrease in water in the river is a result of warming temperatures, according to recent research. The snowpack in the Rockies that feeds the river has been dwindling, and rising temperatures mean more water evaporates from the river. The Bureau of Reclamation, the federal agency that manages water in the West, projects that as the planet continues to warm and demand for water increases, the imbalance between the water available and human need will grow to 3.2 million acre-feet by 2060. That’s more than all the water allocated to Arizona from the river at the moment.

So how does the drought plan help?

Lake Mead is a critical reservoir on the Colorado River that has the capacity to store the entire flow of the river for two years. If levels at Lake Mead sink to 1,075 feet, it will automatically trigger cuts to water use. Water managers have called this mandatory restriction “draconian” because it follows a set of laws that primarily cut off water users with newer water rights. There’ll be little room for compromise or trade offs. Lake Mead currently sits at 1,090 feet, and the Bureau of Reclamation has estimated that there is more than a 50 percent chance there will be a shortage in the lake in 2020.

The states are now trying to avoid that situation by voluntarily agreeing to use less water. California, Arizona and Nevada have agreed to decrease the amount they pull from the river by 400,000 to 600,000 acre-feet every year depending on how low water levels get at Lake Mead. An international treaty between the U.S. and Mexico also requires the U.S. to deliver 1.5 million acre-feet of water to Mexico. A separate agreement has been reached with Mexico to conserve water.

All this talk of compromise is at odds with the oft-repeated maxim in the water world that whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting over. Researchers expect that as climate change strains water availability, conflict over shared water resources will increase.

But at the Congressional hearings last week, lawmakers and state water managers emphasized collaboration. “There was a point in time when the Colorado River was the most litigated river in the world,” said John Entsminger, general manager of the Southern Nevada Water Authority. “Since the 1990s, we’ve been a model on how you can come together as a region.”

That’s all fine and dandy. What could go wrong though?

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Well, there’s one key player that’s not on board with the current plan. Imperial Irrigation District is a powerful interest in California politics. It’s one of the biggest irrigation districts in the country and the river’s largest single user. In January, the district upset the states’ drought plan when it demanded $400 million in state and federal funds for rehabilitation work in the Salton Sea — California’s biggest lake — in exchange for its commitment to cut water use. The Salton Sea has shrunk dramatically in recent years exposing a contaminated lake bed and threatening nearby communities with toxic dust.

Though the district had the support of powerful politicians, including Senator Dianne Feinstein, other water users in the state balked at the demand. In February, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, which supplies water to Los Angeles, stepped up and agreed to contribute IID’s share. That left IID with no role to play in the drought plan.

IID has issued strongly-worded statements claiming the Salton Sea issue is the “proving ground” for the drought plan and that by sidestepping the issue, water users on the Colorado are “just fooling themselves or have other agendas.” Representatives for the irrigation district were reportedly on Capitol Hill lobbying lawmakers last week.

What happens next?

The seven Colorado River states have set a deadline of April 22 for Congress to pass legislation signing off on their drought plan. What happens if they don’t? Mexico wouldn’t have to cut its water use in 2020 as promised.

In a press release, Patrick Tyrrell, Wyoming’s state engineer, said that the drought plan is an “indispensable bridge” until the states negotiate a longer-term solution. “With these plans, we have direction,” he said. “Without them, we face an uncertain future and increased risks.”

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Will Congress leave the Colorado River high and dry?

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Trump is considering a fervent climate denier to lead a White House panel assessing climate change risk


Trump is considering a fervent climate denier to lead a White House panel assessing climate change risk

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The EPA hired GOP oppo firm because it was sick of ‘fake news’

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This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

When Mother Jones first reported in December 2017 that the Environmental Protection Agency had hired a hyperpartisan GOP opposition research firm known for its aggressive tactics to handle the agency’s news-clipping work, the politically appointed flacks in the agency’s press office insisted the decision was about saving money and that the hiring had been handled through normal procurement channels. As we reported Thursday, we now know that was not the case. Internal emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act show that political appointees in the EPA press office demanded that career staff push through the hiring of Definers Public Affairs — best known for its work for Republican campaigns and recently for its role as Facebook’s attack dog on Capitol Hill, which included attempts to smear George Soros for his critiques of the social-media network.

Now, thanks to another batch of internal emails, we have even more evidence that the motivation for hiring Definers came from the top agency political appointees who were ticked off at the old service because it was collecting too many news clips that portrayed then-EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt negatively.

News clipping services are used by public relations offices both inside and out of the government to help keep track of the wide constellation of media outlets that might be talking about a topic of interest. The product they create — usually a roundup of headlines or excerpts — is an internal document designed to keep those inside the agency informed about press coverage. Liz Purchia, a press staffer in Obama’s EPA, noted that “cherry-picking the clips so you only saw the good ones” isn’t typically done, because it “doesn’t give you a realistic picture.” The collection of clippings is not usually publicly distributed.

But according to the new batch of emails, also obtained through FOIA, top EPA political staff were sick of the previous news clipping service’s propensity to include headlines that tended to make the controversial new appointee, who brought to the EPA a Rolodex of industry connections, look bad.

“Is it necessary to include all the negative headlines that go out to everyone?” complained Samantha Dravis, the agency’s associate administrator for policy, in a March 17, 2017, email to John Konkus, who now leads the EPA’s press office. “I could care less what Al Gore thinks about Scott Pruitt’s position — why is that news?? Who puts this together?”

Dravis, who previously had worked as general counsel for the Republican Attorney General’s Association, which Pruitt had run before coming to Washington, was objecting to the inclusion of a link to a PBS News Hour interview with former Vice President Al Gore from the night before, in a daily news roundup.

Konkus, who had previously worked at Republican consulting firm Jamestown Associates, replied that he agreed and that this was an ongoing problem with the news clipping service at the time, a Virginia-based company called Bulletin Intelligence that had provided news clip roundups to the EPA and a number of other federal agencies for several years.

“We had them on the phone about a week ago complaining about the tilt and they said they would change,” he wrote. “They haven’t.”

Don Benton, a White House senior adviser to the EPA, forwarded the whole chain of complaints to his counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security, a political operative named Frank Wuco. A former military consultant, Wuco once created an alter-ego Islamic terrorist character that he featured in videos and as a host for radio shows in which he warned of the danger of Islamic extremism. Benton told Wuco that a scientist had told him that Bulletin Intelligence disseminates “fake news” and suggested Wuco “look into it.” The email was sent to Wuco’s private email address. Wuco’s reply, if any, was not included in the FOIA materials.

Neither Wuco nor Benton replied to a request for comment on the email exchange.

This was early in the Trump administration, but the aggressive and overtly partisan strategy eventually carried over into the EPA’s public operations. The EPA generated even more negative headlines for itself by blocking reporters from events, trying to plant negative stories about EPA reporters in conservative outlets, scripting interviews with Fox News, and calling reporters names, like when then-spokesperson Jahan Wilcox called a reporter a “piece of trash.” The EPA’s spending on Pruitt’s travel, his security, and his soundproof phone booth were already under scrutiny when the EPA approved a contract with Definers.

Charles Tiefer, a professor of contract law at the University of Baltimore, told Mother Jones: One of the main reasons that we have a corps of career government contract personnel is to keep the political people away from giving the taxpayer money out to political cronies.”

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The EPA hired GOP oppo firm because it was sick of ‘fake news’

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Lisa Murkowski’s new plan for the Arctic gets a little help from … Santa Claus?

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Ho ho ho! It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas … for industries that stand to benefit from a melting Arctic. Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski, a Republican, introduced something called the Arctic Policy Act last week, and she’s getting a boost from Old Saint Nick.

The bill is a new and improved version of the Arctic Research and Policy Act of 1984, which the senator says needs updating to keep up with the changing Arctic. It’s not lost on anyone that vanishing ice means more economic opportunities for Alaska. And Murkowski has been fighting hard to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling. Thanks to President Trump, that dream could soon become reality.

As part of the senator’s new bill, the president would appoint nine members to the Arctic Research Commission. Seven of those members would be indigenous residents and researchers, and two would be industry representatives. (Looks like this is one list you can get on whether you’re naughty or nice.)

Speaking of Christmas, Murkowski tried to highlight the opportunities for Arctic commerce by invoking the holiday spirit. “I think Santa had this figured out a long time ago,” she said during a Senate floor speech. “Even Santa understood the geo-strategic position of the Arctic.”

Baby, it’s warm outside! Especially in the Arctic, which is warming at a rate double the rest of the planet.

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Lisa Murkowski’s new plan for the Arctic gets a little help from … Santa Claus?

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