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    In 2003, Sen. John McCain declared the federal government’s ban on “soft money” —  the unlimited cash donors showered on national political parties —  a “victory for the people of America and democracy.”

    McCain was ecstatic: Legislation he championed to reduce the influence of money in politics had just withstood a Supreme Court challenge. And the Arizona Republican prevailed after having enlisted members of both parties in his crusade.

    But a new Center for Public Integrity analysis of campaign finance data indicates Democrats and Republicans alike are now aggressively trafficking in a new — and perfectly legal — kind of soft money, enabled by a 2014 Supreme Court decision, the latest in a series gutting major parts of McCain’s 2002 law.

    The new tactic is also changing political fundamentals.

    In a fundraising environment that had come to be dominated by super PACs— committees that may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money to advocate for or against specific candidates — it’s helping national political parties regain some relevancy after years of declining power. It’s also reviving an era when politicians were able to directly solicit six- and seven-figure checks from donors on behalf of the political parties, raising the specter of corruption and scandals that dogged politicos during the 1990s.

    Here’s how this shell game works: Top donors spent the 2016 election cycle legally writing six-figure checks to so-called joint fundraising committees — committees that can dole their contributions out to multiple allies, notably including state political parties.

    But rather than keep all the cash, the state parties have been quickly steering the money to the national parties, taking advantage of their ability to transfer unlimited cash to their national affiliates.

    The joint fundraising vehicles aren’t new, but the Supreme Court’s 2014 decision to eliminate some obscure but important campaign contribution limits in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission had the effect of supercharging them. The 2016 election provided a first, full glimpse at what the new legal landscape would mean in reality.

    The result: Parties are more aggressively and successfully courting a small number of deep-pocketed donors, giving the wealthy another way to exert their ever-growing influence over politics. And the national parties, which had lost their luster as deep-pocketed donors steered their money to other vehicles, are once again flush with burgeoning amounts of cash whose origins can be difficult to divine.

    Foes of McCain’s effort to restrict political giving welcome the changes. But nonpartisan watchdog groups aren’t happy. The situation is “effectively a form of legalized money laundering and it is something that we’ve seen on both sides,” says Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center.

    Working the system

    Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton took great advantage of this latter-day soft money system as they barreled toward Election Day, the Center for Public Integrity’s review shows.

    When, for example, Clinton’s main joint fundraising committee received a contribution, it divvied the money up among Clinton’s campaign committee, the Democratic National Committee and a gaggle of state-level Democratic party committees.

    State Democratic parties then often shifted the money they received from Clinton’s joint fundraising committee right to the Democratic National Committee, allowing the national committee to pocket significantly more cash than federal contribution limits would appear to allow.

    Republicans did the same, an even higher percentage of the time: Republican state parties shifted more than 90 percent of the dollars they received from the Trump Victory committee to the Republican National Committee.

    In the post-McCutcheon world, this fundraising tactic has vaulted joint fundraising committees out of obscurity and enshrined them as prominent players in federal politics.

    During the 2016 election cycle, for example, Clinton’s joint fundraising committee took in over $300 million more than Barack Obama’s did during the 2008 election cycle, when he was the Democratic nominee.

    The new reality has also pushed national parties to court — even more assertively than before — a small cohort of donors who can write them huge checks.

    During the 2016 election cycle, at least 1,700 donors each spread $127,000 or more among federal candidates, party committees and political action committees, the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of campaign finance data from the Center for Responsive Politics found. The $127,000 figure (adjusted to current dollars) is significant because it represents the so-called aggregate cap, or limit on the amount donors could give all federal candidates, political parties and political action committees combined, that was struck down by McCutcheon.

    Combined, that small universe of megadonors injected more than $500 million into federal-level elections in 2016, and slightly more than half of that money was in contributions that would not have been legally permitted before the McCutcheonv. FEC decision, when the aggregate caps were still in place.

    Some donors in previous cycles exceeded the limits, despite the law, but the change has funneled hundreds of millions of additional dollars into federal elections, much of it into party coffers. During the 2012 presidential election cycle, only about $16 million went over the limits.

    The total includes contributions to new accounts Congress created for the parties in December 2014, after the McCutcheon v. FEC decision. Those accounts can accept six-figure contributions, but the money is earmarked for restricted purposes such as convention costs or recount expenses.

    The RNC did not respond to requests for comment. The DNC “complied with all FEC requirements,” says spokesman Michael Tyler.

    But in a May 2016 email exchange among top Democratic party officials and their lawyers, released by WikiLeaks, they acknowledged that any formal agreement between state parties and the national party to transfer the money “would raise serious legal question for the DNC.” (The email was promptedby media coverage of some transfers.)

    Instead, the Democrats said, the party should stress there is “definitely no formal agreement or obligation” requiring the transfers, even though “in practice” state parties, the DNC and the Clinton campaign would move the money where “it will be the most useful.”

    How it works

    Contributions to Trump’s campaign machine by Julianna Holt, chairwoman of the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, show how the nation’s new soft money system works — and how it makes a mockery of campaign finance law.

    Holt wrote checks totaling $499,400 in 2016 to the Trump Victory Committee, Trump’s main joint fundraising committee benefitting his presidential campaign and Republicans writ large. Of Holt’s contribution, Trump’s own campaign received $5,400 — the legal maximum for a presidential committee.

    The Republican National Committee, meanwhile, received $284,000, split among its general account and several restricted accounts that fund specific projects, such as national conventions or election recounts.

    Finally, 20 state Republican parties reported receiving $10,000 each from Holt, via her original contribution to Trump’s joint fundraising committee.

    But of these 20 state parties, 18 of them held the money only briefly before transferring it to the RNC. The state parties did this by exploiting a law that allows them to transfer unlimited amounts of money to their national party committee cousins.  

    In the end, the transfers from the state parties meant the RNC pulled in an additional $180,000 from Holt. (Holt didn’t respond to an inquiry from the Center for Public Integrity about her contributions and how they were used.)

    Hundreds of other Trump Victory Committee donors had their big-dollar donations used in similar fashion. In all, state Republican parties transferred nearly every dollar they received from the Trump Victory Committee to the RNC — more than $27 million from the committee’s formation in May 2016 to the end of that year, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.

    One state party chairwoman, Terry Lathan of the Alabama Republican Party, said the RNC made it clear to her that the Trump Victory Fund would be sending her state party committee money — and she knew most of it would go to the RNC.

    “That was perfectly fine,” Lathan said. “We wanted to be team players to help in a presidential election year.”

    On the Democratic side, donors contributing to the Hillary Victory Fund — and thereby eventually filling the Democratic National Committee’s coffers with bonus cash — included Illinois venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker, media mogul Fred Eychaner and former Dreamworks SKG CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.

    Democratic state parties pocketed about one-fourth of the money they received from Clinton’s joint fundraising committee. But they sent the other three-fourths — at least $84 million — to the DNC.

    Seth Masket, chairman of the political science department of the University of Denver, notes that political parties have always found innovative ways of adapting their fundraising practices. Often, he says, “reforms are designed to kind of limit their ability to transfer around money or spend money on campaigns and usually parties are very skilled at finding new ways at getting that money to candidates who need them in competitive districts.”

    In an unusual move, the Hillary Victory Fund itself spent some proceeds on advertisements designed to boost Clinton’s campaign. This novel use of political money worried watchdogs who said it effectively violated federal campaign contribution limits by shifting Clinton’s own campaign costs onto groups funded by donors writing six-and-seven-figure checks. (By law, 2016 presidential campaign committees could only accept contributions of up to $2,700 per election, per person.)

    More than two dozen Democratic state parties did not respond to a request for comment from the Center for Public Integrity regarding their transfers to the DNC.

    ‘Like pinball’

    The 2016 election’s tangled web of soft money transfers makes following political money — often a daunting task even for election lawyers and political reporters — that much more difficult. And that makes it hard for voters to understand what interests are behind the political ads they’re seeing on television, or assess the full influence of a big donor.

    The dollars given to the joint fundraising committees ricocheted around “like pinball,” says Daniel Weiner, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, which advocates for campaign finance reform.   

    But other campaign finance lawyers noted that the transfers, while confusing, represent fundraising coordination between state and national parties — something that’s perfectly permissible and to be expected during the heat of an election season.

    Besides, as pro-deregulation campaign finance lawyer Jim Bopp notes, the national parties transfer money “to the states that matter” closer to Election Day, and those critical states then use the money locally.

    When Congress passed McCain’s 2002 law, it was responding to public backlash after a series of scandals that showed the growing influence of corporations, labor unions and big donors writing big checks. Now, campaign finance watchdogs say, the pre-2002 system is essentially back as a  result of McCutcheon v. FEC, the 2014 Supreme Court ruling that allowed wealthy Americans to contribute money to as many different federal candidates and political parties as they want. Previously, their overall contributions were capped each election cycle under the “aggregate limit” rule.

    The decision didn’t change the base limits that contributors can give to each candidate or political party, but essentially allows donors to give to more recipients than they could before McCutcheon v. FEC.

    Individuals had been prohibited from giving more than $48,600 combined to all federal candidates and more than $74,600 combined to all parties and political action committees. That meant that per election cycle, contributors weren’t allowed to give more than $123,200 (though campaign finance data suggests some contributors slipped past that limit).

    Campaign finance watchdogs warned before McCutcheon v. FEC was decided that it would create a loophole allowing donors to circumvent base contribution limits. The amounts of money involved likely will only grow as joint fundraising committees get bigger.

    But supporters of the aggregate limits said, among other things, that the limits prevented donors from circumventing base campaign contribution limits by giving money to other political committees that then transferred it, or used it to support a particular candidate. The Supreme Court found that argument to be insufficient and struck down the limits.

    Justice John Roberts wrote it was “divorced from reality” to think the resulting river of cash would be funneled to benefit a single candidate. There are enough legal safeguards in place without the aggregate limits, Roberts argued, to ensure that donors don’t violate the base limits. He also said there were strong First Amendment considerations arguing against the aggregate caps, writing, “The Government may no more restrict how many candidates or causes a donor may support than it may tell a newspaper how many candidates it may endorse.”

    What Roberts didn’t predict: The money would flow to the national political parties in amounts not seen since the heyday of soft money, when politicians such as McCain and George W. Bush were fighting over how to address it.

    There is one key difference between today’s system and the soft-money era, however: Now, the dollars must be used in accordance with federal regulations, as opposed to the nebulous “party building” activities the old, unlimited soft money contributions could be spent on.

    Supreme disagreement

    In a blistering dissent that he read from the bench, Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer said Roberts and the majority were making the wrong decision in McCutcheon v. FEC.

    The McCutcheon v. FEC ruling “creates a loophole that will allow a single individual to contribute millions of dollars to a political party or to a candidate’s campaign,” he wrote, adding that it “eviscerates our Nation’s campaign finance laws, leaving a remnant incapable of dealing with the grave problems of democratic legitimacy that those laws were intended to resolve.”

    Now, campaign finance watchdogs say, events have proven Roberts wrong and Breyer right.

    Even though the transfers are legal, the practice “drastically undermines the contribution limits, and opens the door wide for corruption to flow from deep-pocketed donors who can write huge checks to the party committees,” says Paul S. Ryan, vice president of Common Cause and formerly of the Campaign Legal Center.

    The joint fundraising committees will only grow in size in coming election cycles, as more state party committees join up, observers on both sides of the debate agree. Even though they don’t get to keep the money, the state parties have little incentive not to boost the national parties’ efforts. “The donors are not coming from the state party base,” Ryan points out. “It doesn’t cost them anything, it gains them favor and it helps their party.”

    But Bopp, a campaign finance lawyer who was part of the legal team involved in bringing the McCutcheon case, says the scenario taking place appears materially different than the one referenced in the McCutcheon v. FEC ruling. That’s because the cash is flowing to national parties, not a candidate.

    The point of campaign limits is to avoid corruption, he says, and parties aren’t public officials. “What is different is a particular donor can give to more state parties than those they were limited to in the past,” he says, which was “the whole purpose and point of the case.”

    There are some upsides to this brave new money era, political scientists allow—notably the rebuilding of political parties that had atrophied under the old rules. Parties, says Masket, exert “kind of a moderating influence on the system in that they channel most of their funds to the more centrist candidates in the more competitive district,” isolating extremists. Nonetheless, he says, the convoluted path traveled by the money “means declining accountability in the campaign finance system, which is problematic.”

    “I don’t like these kinds of politics, where money is just circulating in these circuitous ways,” adds Ray La Raja, a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

    Political operatives see the issue in more practical terms. Alabama businessman Shaun McCutcheon, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court case that overturned the limits, says that his primary motivation was allowing individual donors to give to as many candidates and political committees as they chose.

    But if the decision in the case that bears his name helps the political parties raise more money and compete with the super PACs that can raise unlimited amounts, he’s happy about that.

    “That’s a good thing in my opinion,” he says. “A million in the parties is worth a billion in the super PACs. The people in the parties … know how to get a lot more out of their money than some of these super PACs.”

    Chris Zubak-Skees and Iuliia Alieva contributed to this report.

    This article was co-published by Politico.

    Sen. John McCain, speaking in 2008 at a rally during his presidential campaign, was the driving force behind a law that banned unlimited "soft money" contributions to national political parties. But such money has recently made a comeback of sorts.Carrie Levinehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/carrie-levinehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/04/21048/comeback-legalized-money-laundering-party-politics

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    A leading government ethics group on Friday requested that the White House, Department of Justice and Office of Government Ethics investigate presidential strategist Stephen K. Bannon for using a private public relations executive to conduct official White House business.

    The complaint was prompted by a Center for Public Integrity investigation that detailed Bannon’s unorthodox arrangement with veteran Republican strategist Alexandra Preate — one that may violate federal laws.  

    It also comes less than a month after the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting launched #CitizenSleuth — a crowd-sourced investigation that is examining the detailed financial disclosures from more than 400 Trump administration officials, including Bannon.

    “Veteran Republican media strategist Alexandra Preate is providing professional services to the White House and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, yet is not employed by President Donald Trump’s administration or paid by the federal government,” wroteLawrence Noble and Brendan Fischer of the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan nonprofit based in Washington, D.C.

    The letter, sent today and addressed to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, Office of Government Ethics Acting Director David Apol and newly hired White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, asks the officials to “exercise the appropriate authority to investigate, prosecute, or make recommendations regarding potential violations of federal laws and regulations.”

    Representatives for Kelly, Sessions and Apol were not immediately available for comment.

    In its complaint, the Campaign Legal Center cites “several potential violations of federal law and regulations.”

    "If Bannon has accepted Preate’s provision of professional services to the government without any compensation, then Bannon is likely in violation of the Antideficiency Act," wrote Noble and Fischer, referring to a law which provides that government employees “may not accept voluntary services for [the] government.

    "Second, Preate appears to be providing services to the White House, but at other times, she also appears to be providing services to Bannon — indeed, Preate had been serving as spokeswoman for Bannon as far back as August 2016," Noble and Fischer continued. "Those duties may be intertwined.”

    Noble and Fischer added: “To the extent that Preate is providing services to Bannon (or other White House staffers) in his personal capacity, Bannon may be in violation of the executive branch gift rules.” These laws prohibit employees from soliciting or accepting a gift “because of the employee’s official position."

    Citing reporting from the Center for Public Integrity, Noble and Fischer noted that Preate’s "top client and a major source of her firm’s income is Breitbart News, which Bannon led until recently.

    It is unclear who, if anyone, is paying Preate for the public relations consulting services she provides to Bannon.

    In July, as the Center for Public Integrity was reporting a story about Bannon’s financial debts, Preate made 18 phone calls during three days on behalf of Bannon.

    The White House, Bannon and Preate all refused to answer questions about Preate.

    Preate has represented Rebekah Mercer, whose family is part-owner of Breitbart. She also has a long working relationship with Bannon, the former Breitbart CEO. Members of the Mercer family continue to co-own with Bannon at least two companies, according to Bannon’s most recent financial disclosure form: the production company Glittering Steel and the data firm Cambridge Analytica.

    "If Breitbart is subsidizing Preate’s work for its former CEO, or if the Mercer family is paying her to provide services to their longtime business associate, then Breitbart or the Mercers may be providing prohibited gifts to Bannon," Noble and Fischer wrote.

    This article was co-published by Reveal.

    President Donald Trump's Chief Strategist Steve Bannon attend a news conference with President Donald Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in the East Room at the White House on April 12, 2017, in Washington.Christina Wilkiehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/christina-wilkiehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/04/21052/campaign-legal-center-requests-investigation-steve-bannon

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    When the Federal Communications Commission went looking this year for experts to sit on an advisory committee regarding deployment of high-speed internet, Gary Carter thought he would be a logical choice.

    Carter works for the city of Santa Monica, California, where he oversees City Net, one of the oldest municipal-run networks in the nation. The network sells high-speed internet to local businesses, and uses the revenue in part to connect low-income neighborhoods.

    That experience seemed to be a good match for the proposed Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC), which FCC Chairman Ajit Pai created this year. One of the panel’s stated goals is to streamline city and state rules that might accelerate installation of high-speed internet. But one of the unstated goals, members say, is to make it easier for companies to build networks for the next generation wireless technology, called 5G. The advanced network, which promises faster speeds, will require that millions of small cells and towers be erected nationwide on city- and state-owned public property.

    The assignment seemed to call out for participation from city officials like Carter, since municipal officials approve where and what equipment telecommunications companies can place on public rights of way, poles and buildings.

    But the FCC didn’t choose Carter — or almost any of the other city or state government officials who applied. Sixty-four city and state officials were nominated for the panel, but the agency initially chose only two: Sam Liccardo, mayor of San Jose, California, and Kelleigh Cole from the Utah Governor’s Office, according to documents obtained by the Center for Public Integrity through a Freedom of Information Act request. Pai later appointed another city official, Andy Huckaba, a member of the Lenexa, Kansas, city council.

    Instead the FCC loaded the 30-member panel with corporate executives, trade groups and free-market scholars. More than three out of four seats on the BDAC are filled by business-friendly representatives from the biggest wireless and cable companies such as AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Sprint Corp., and TDS Telecom. Crown Castle International Corp., the nation’s largest wireless infrastructure company, and Southern Co., the nation’s second-largest utility firm, have representatives on the panel. Also appointed to the panel were broadband experts from conservative think tanks who have been critical of FCC regulations such as the International Center for Law and Economics and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

    The same lopsided ratio can be found on the BDAC’s four working groups that will propose changes to telecommunications policies that Pai views as barriers to broadband deployment. The municipal working group, with 24 members, is tasked with creating a model code for cities to follow that would expedite the deployment of cells and poles. The groups consist of BDAC members as well as additional people the FCC appointed, mostly from the telecommunications industry.

    The FCC says the makeup of the BDAC and its subgroups represents a diversity of views and those who best understand the issues. But local officials say their exclusion from the committee reflects a not-so-hidden agenda — one pushed by Pai himself with help from his allies in Big Telecom: to create a set of rules that lets the telecom more easily put their equipment in neighborhoods with far less local oversight.   

    “When I called [the FCC] to check on the status of the BDAC selection process [earlier this year] and identified myself as an employee from the City of Santa Monica, the gentleman on the phone laughed hysterically,” Carter said. “At first I didn’t get the joke. When I saw the appointees for the municipal working group — only three out of 24 positions were from local government — I got the joke.”

    The FCC had no comment other than to say they were made aware of the incident. But the interaction underscores what Liccardo now faces as one of the only city representatives on the committee.

    “It’s not lost on us that among the 30-odd members of the BDAC, only two represent local government,” Liccardo said. “We’ll see where things go in the weeks ahead, but it’s fair to say the footprints are in the snow.”

    Millions of cells

    The BDAC was formed in April and charged with making “recommendations to the Commission on how to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access,” including developing model codes for cities and states to approve broadband permits, and removing local and state regulatory barriers. The committee has held two meetings, one in April and another in July, with another one scheduled for this fall. It plans to submit its proposals by November to the FCC. The guidelines will be voluntary for cities, but the FCC may decide to include them in new rules that cities would be required to follow.

    At issue for the BDAC is the nationwide buildout of 5G, the new wireless technology that promises to provide faster speeds. It also requires millions of small cells and poles distributed mostly throughout cities and suburbs in rights of way, such as land next to city streets, highways and parks. Local permitting offices from Oyster Bay, New York, to Seattle, Washington, have been flooded with applications to deploy the cells and build new poles, slowing down the approval process and frustrating telecoms. Telecommunications firms and the companies building the wireless infrastructure want the FCC to pass recommendations that would force cities to shorten the permitting process and lower fees.

    When he announced his intention to form the BDAC, Pai, whom President Donald Trump appointed chairman in January, said he wanted the forum to balance city and industry views.

    The BDAC will be “forward-looking and fair, balancing the legitimate interests of municipalities with the ever-growing demands of the American public for better, faster, and cheaper broadband,” he said last year in a speech about closing the digital divide.

    Pai said at a press conference this month that the BDAC has diverse representation, but he mostly cited as examples representatives from the telecommunications industry: independent builders, network operators, and wireless, cable and satellite interests.

    “I wish we could accommodate everybody of course,”Pai said, “but that’s just not possible with a limited advisory committee that we’ve got.” 

    The Center for Public Integrity asked the FCC for interviews with agency officials who chose the BDAC members, but requests went unanswered. In an emailed statement sent later, Mark Wigfield, a spokesman for the FCC, said, “We believe the makeup of the BDAC reflects the diversity we sought.”

    Nick Degani, senior counsel to the FCC and Pai’s wireline legal advisor, told BDAC members at the July meeting that few city officials were chosen because they are the ones that need guidance — presumably not telecommunications companies.

    “To be frank, we didn’t want to choose someone from, say, a municipality that needs a blueprint, because they’re not going to be the ones to help design that blueprint,” Degani said. “It’s you guys [BDAC members who mostly represent the telecommunications industry] who have been working on this.”

    But with the committee’s lopsided industry representation, city and state officials say any regulatory change the BDAC proposes is likely to ignore local residents’ wishes. Concerns range from poles draped with bulky equipment that block scenic views and clutter neighborhoods – to serious safety risks.

    “There are reasons you have to get a permit if you want to dig up the side of the street,” said David Frasher, city manager of Hot Springs, Arkansas, who also was nominated — but turned down — for a seat on the BDAC.

    “The city needs to know if you’re going to block traffic or create a hazard to sidewalk users,” Frasher said. Maybe there’s a way to streamline those regulations, … but with only 10 percent city government representation, how helpful will the end product be?”

    The FCC also didn’t choose David Guttenberg, member of the Alaska state legislature. He said service providers writing local rules for internet deployment makes him fear for Alaskan residents, many of whom have such poor wireless service that they have trouble downloading emails.

    “They [telecommunications companies] are only going to look after their own self interests,” Guttenberg said. “Find me the guy that works for telecommunications on this committee that’s going to sign onto a plan telling their business to do something they don’t want to do. Find me that guy.”

    The National League of Cities, which represents more than 1,600 cities, met with FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn in May “to urge the Commission to increase the number and diversity of local officials on the BDAC to a level comparable with the number and diversity of industry officials.”

    Among other municipal officials nominated but not chosen for the BDAC: Bruce Patterson, technology director for Ammon, Idaho; Jack Belcher, chief information officer for Arlington, Virginia; Peter Collins, information technologies manager for Geneva, Illinois.

    The lack of municipal representation doesn’t surprise one telecommunications executive sitting on the BDAC, who told the Center for Public Integrity that the committee is “stacked” to fix the proposals to meet Pai’s anti-regulatory agenda.

    “It’s definitely stacked towards private enterprise,” said the executive, who requested anonymity due to fear of retaliation from FCC officials. “It’s nothing new. The FCC serves private enterprise.”

    BDAC members who didn’t return requests to comment included AT&T, Google, Southern Light LLC, the International Center for Law and Economics, and Christopher Yoo, a law and communications professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Yoo also is a member of the Board of Academic Advisors for the Free State Foundation, which for years has received support from large telecommunications trade groups such as NCTA - The Internet and Television Association, and CTIA, which represents U.S. wireless corporations, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s non-profit donations database.

    Officials with Crown Castle, Comcast, TDS Telecom, and Utah’s Cole, who serves as the BDAC vice chairman, declined to comment.

    Telecoms vs. cities

    At BDAC’s first meeting in April, Kelly McGriff, general counsel at Southern Light, which provides wireless infrastructure along the U.S. Gulf Coast and is now part of Uniti Group Inc., said broadband projects have been delayed by six months in some cities because municipal officials don’t understand the infrastructure they’re tasked with approving.

    Larry Thompson, CEO of the National Exchange Carrier Association, which includes more than 1,300 member telephone companies, said local permitting rules cost one of its members $700,000 to cover environmental, historical preservation and other reviews before expanding their network.

    “I see time and time again things like that happening where that money could’ve gone a long ways towards actually building the broadband network rather than the preliminary stuff leading up to the broadband network," Thompson said.

    City officials said they understand the need for the technology, pointing out that more than 500 municipalities operate their own broadband networks, including Carter’s Santa Monica. Officials also said the fees telecommunications companies pay are necessary for ongoing maintenance of the public property the cells and poles occupy.

    Some broadband companies concede that a lack of local government representation on the committee may present a problem.

    “We have a lot of groups who are concerned that they’re not at the table,” David Don, vice president of regulatory policy at Comcast, said at the BDAC’s July meeting. “And if they don’t feel included, not only are they outside throwing [darts] at this process, but then in the end it’s those groups that we want to adopt these model codes.”

    What Pai has done by loading up the panel with industry representatives is, in the end, “pretty standard in Washington,” said Sarah Treul, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.   “The FCC expects certain outcomes from this advisory committee.”

    Shireen Santosham, Chief Innovation Officer of the City of San Jose. Santosham is one of only two city officials on the BDAC, and critics say the committee is stacked in favor of the telecommunications industry.Blake Dodgehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/blake-dodgehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/11/21057/fcc-packs-broadband-advisory-group-big-telecom-firms-trade-groups

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    WOLFFORTH, Texas – 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 Environmental Protection Agency.

    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.

    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 National 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.

    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.

    The city of 4,400 is rapidly growing like much of suburban Texas, but City Manager Darrell Newsom said it still took time to find funding for the $8.5 million water treatment project.

    “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?

    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 says 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.”

    Replacement era

    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.

    Methodology

    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.

    Contaminated water runs toward the Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for East Chicago, Ind.Agnel Philiphttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/agnel-philipElizabeth Simshttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/elizabeth-simsJordan Houstonhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jordan-houstonRachel Koniecznyhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/rachel-koniecznyhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/14/21065/1-5-americans-drank-potentially-unsafe-water-during-past-decade

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    WOLFFORTH, Texas – 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 Environmental Protection Agency.

    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.

    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 National 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.

    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.

    The city of 4,400 is rapidly growing like much of suburban Texas, but City Manager Darrell Newsom said it still took time to find funding for the $8.5 million water treatment project.

    “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?

    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 says 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.”

    Replacement era

    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.

    Methodology

    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.

    Contaminated water runs toward the Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for East Chicago, Ind.Agnel Philiphttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/agnel-philipElizabeth Simshttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/elizabeth-simsJordan Houstonhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jordan-houstonRachel Koniecznyhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/rachel-koniecznyhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/14/21065/millions-consumed-potentially-unsafe-water-past-10-years

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Ceon Dubose Palmore got thirsty at school, an administrator had to escort the 15-year-old past trash-bag-covered fountains to a faucet two floors down.

    Like many schools across the country, her Washington, D.C. middle school discovered lead in its drinking water, making most fountains unsafe to drink. It took months to install filters sporadically around the school.

    Ceon rarely asked to get a drink from the working fountains since teachers didn’t want kids disrupting class time.

    “It made it a lot harder for kids,” Ceon said. “I also think it impacted me a lot because I have problems with hydration and stuff, so if I couldn’t drink water, it would distract me for the day. It would get me in a lot of trouble.”  

    While schools often struggle with the aftermath of finding lead in their drinking water, education advocates and health professionals agree that there’s an even costlier scenario: not knowing at all.

    A News21 analysis showed 44 states don’t require schools to check for lead, and the federal government doesn’t require it either. Thousands of schools scrambled to test after learning that lead had seeped into the public water supply and created a public health crisis in Flint, Michigan, but lead experts say the majority of schools across the country still don’t know what’s in their water.

    John Rumpler, senior attorney at Boston-based advocacy group Environment America, said Flint may have brought attention to the lead issue, but it didn’t necessarily hit home.

    “Most people thought this must be a problem somewhere else, in communities like Flint, but not necessarily where I get my water and certainly not where my kid goes to school,” he said. “It’s really important to educate the public about how widespread this problem is and how there’s likely a threat to their own children’s drinking water right where they live, whether it’s an urban community, a rural community or a suburban community.”

    The responsibility to test overwhelmingly falls on cash-strapped school districts, which  often don’t have the funds or incentive to make lead testing and remediation top priorities. In California, lawmakers trying to approve statewide mandatory lead testing have been met with strong opposition from some school districts that fear dealing with positive tests would cripple their bank balance.

    “There is an aversion to both the monetary cost of fixing the problem and also to the public relations cost of fixing the problem,” said Yanna Lambrinidou, a Virginia Tech researcher who has long studied lead in schools’ drinking water. “The idea that schools would have to disclose to parents that there’s lead flowing out of drinking water taps and have to deal with the alarm and outrage that naturally would come from that, and then the issues of distrust, and then parents and communities wanting to get more involved – all of these things are … a headache.”

    A widespread but unknown threat

    For centuries, workers used lead for plumbing because the metal was malleable enough to mold into pipes, yet hard enough to resist corroding and leaking over time. Once scientists and environmental experts discovered that lead leached from pipes transporting water, Congress banned the use of lead pipes in a a 1986 amendment to the Safe Drinking Water Act.

    However, Congress did not require schools to replace lead pipes, which means lots of school buildings still receive water from these fixtures. This is especially true in older, poorer neighborhoods, where replacing lead service lines means changing a city’s entire water infrastructure.

    Although schools constructed before 1986 are most at risk of contamination, even newer buildings face a lead threat because the amendment still allowed pipes to contain small traces of lead. Congress had defined “lead-free” as no more than 8 percent lead in pipes, but it didn’t narrow the definition again until 2014

    “Unless your school was built in the last three years, or unless all the plumbing was replaced in the last three years, there’s some risk that lead is getting into your children’s water,” Rumpler said. 

    For example, the Los Angeles Unified School District installed brass fixtures to replace old lead ones at 131 of its schools in the last decade. The new fixtures still contain traces of allowable lead that taint schools’ water supplies beyond the EPA’s safe limit, according to a report by Environment America.  District officials said they’re trying to replace  them.

    There’s no database that tracks how many schools voluntarily test, but thousands that have tested found lead in their pipes, according to results released by school districts nationwide in the last year. Eighty-three percent of 1,281 New York City public schools tested higher than the maximum level allowed by the EPA, while about half of Newark, New Jersey public schools found lead in their water.

    Lead can cause significant damage to children

    Lead, a powerful neurotoxin, is particularly harmful to children whose developing bodies absorb more of the contaminant than adults do. Numerous studies indicate that children exposed to high lead levels are more likely to perform worse academically and enter the criminal justice system. But even at low levels, exposure to lead over long periods of time can cause significant damage.

    Bruce Lanphear, a professor of health sciences at Simon Fraser University, has long studied the effect of low-level lead exposure in children. He said long-term effects of lead exposure include lowered IQ scores, antisocial behavior, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other learning disabilities.

    Although studies have drawn strong conclusions about the effects of lead in children, science can’t always make immediate connections between exposure and potential damage.

    When schools test high for lead, they often provide blood testing to children. However, because lead flows from blood into bones and joints within several weeks, blood tests don’t always detect the damage – especially since officials often conduct tests months after children have been exposed.

    A child who drinks lead-tainted water might not show elevated blood lead levels a month or two later, but the harm persists in his or her body, according to a report by Environment America.

    “You can have a kid that looks great and still has lead in their body,” said Dr. Morri E. Markowitz, pediatrician and director of the lead poisoning clinic at Montefiore Children’s Hospital in New York City. “Potentially, they’ve lost some IQ, but you can’t tell.”

    Although lead testing might not be a top priority for many schools, environmental experts warn that widespread exposure can have serious implications for entire towns and cities. Mustafa Ali, a founder of the EPA’s environmental justice program, said lead exposure can impose a “lifetime burden” on children of color and their communities not only from a public health perspective, but also economically and educationally.

    “In many instances, especially in our vulnerable communities, students already have all kinds of burdens that they’re dealing with, and then to add this additional burden from these toxic exposures is just crazy,” Ali said.

    States, federal government reluctant to address issue

    Although the EPA recommends schools and child care facilities test for lead, the federal agency is only responsible for ensuring public water systems are lead-free before the water reaches schools’ pipes.

    The result: Schools and child care facilities on public water systems are under no federal requirement to test their taps for lead. That means nearly 100,000 schools and half a million child care facilities aren’t regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, according to EPA data..

    “We have ended up with a regulation that has given us the false sense of security that somebody out there is actually protecting us from lead in drinking water without having the small-print information that not only is that regulation absurdly inadequate, but it also doesn’t cover schools at all,” Lambrinidou said of the Safe Drinking Water Act.

    Only six states – Illinois, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New York and Virginia – require schools to test for lead, according to a News21 analysis.

    Water quality advocates say states may be reluctant to introduce mandatory testing because they feel they shouldn’t have to bear the financial burden of responsibility.

    “It’s a game of passing the buck,” said Robert Bowcock, a water consultant to environmental advocate Erin Brockovich. “Schools want the districts to pay, districts want the state to pay, who in turn want someone else to pay.”

    It’s unlikely federal legislation will change any time soon. Two Democratic senators – Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Cory Booker of New Jersey – reintroduced legislation in June that would require schools nationwide to test for lead and would provide grants for schools to replace their outdated pipes. However, the Republican-controlled Congress has resisted efforts so far. Some Republican senators believe it sucks too much money from the federal budget.

    “Over 100 years, we’ve put this dangerous neurotoxicant into our public water delivery systems and now someone’s going to have to pay to get it out, and nobody really wants to do it,” Rumpler said.

    Schools ‘afraid’ to test for lead

    Although most states don’t require testing, some have introduced state-funded initiatives providing schools with free lead tests this year. The response has been mixed.

    In California, the State Water Board released data showing that as of July, only 11 percent of the 13,000 K-12 schools signed up for free testing after it was made available at the beginning of the year.

    School officials know that a positive lead test could result in weeks of construction work and a hefty bill – should they decide to address the issue properly.

    Students at a school in San Ysidro, a low-income area near the Mexican border, will start three weeks later than planned this fall. The district is replacing drinking fountains, sinks, pipes and faucets at three schools after discovering elevated lead levels. It will cost $24 million.

    “We had a bond that was passed by the local community and everything has been done within the confines of that,” said Julio Fonseca, superintendent of the San Ysidro School District. “It’s just a shame we allowed it to get to this point.”

    When California lawmakers introduced the proposal to mandate lead testing, they made adjustments after strong opposition from school districts. The latest bill, AB 746, would require schools to test and shut off the water if the tests find elevated lead levels. However, the schools wouldn’t have to replace the fixtures and faucets, a concession meant to reduce the opposition, said the bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher.

    “Mandatory testing is the first thing we need to address,” she said. “Just because it’s expensive to remediate, are we not going to let ourselves find out there’s lead in our schools?”

    Gonzalez Fletcher said that while the bill does not provide any long-term solutions, it’s an important first step. “One of the reasons we introduced this bill is because we know schools are afraid to know the extent of the problem – and that’s not good enough,” she said.

    When Arizona launched a statewide lead-screening program in January, it began as a sample of “high-risk” areas based on age of building, ZIP code and the number of young children served. The program became so popular, however, that every public school – more than 11,000 – has volunteered to test.

    The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality provides schools with free toolkits that include instructions, collection containers and prepaid shipping boxes to mail to local laboratories.

    “What we wanted to do was help schools and screen their water for them rather than putting some kind of burden on them where they would have to pay for the costs,” ADEQ director Misael Cabrera said. 

    Cabrera said 96 percent of the schools have passed the screening. Arizona doesn’t require schools to replace pipes if they test positive for lead. It doesn’t have a program to help schools financially if they do find lead, and it’s unclear how these schools will respond.

    School response to lead exposure varies

    When 30 public schools in Newark, New Jersey, found lead in their water in March 2016, Superintendent Christopher Cerf released the district’s annual lead testing results to the public. The district cut off every water source, called parents and local organizations to solicit bottled water donations, and vowed to install filters on its fountains.

    But it’s been a long process. One school, Weequahic High School, still has old filters. It has relied on water coolers for more than a year.

    The lead problems at some of the schools date to the 1990s, when the school district first tested its faucets.

    “I was not surprised as someone who was there when it was a problem 27 years ago,” said Kim Gaddy, a parent at Newark Public Schools. “I was more angry and disappointed that not only they didn’t catch it, but I also got comfortable thinking they were going to resolve or rectify the situation.”

    Community organizer Maria Lopez Nuñez, who works with the Ironbound Community Corp. in Newark, said she isn’t shocked by the slow remediation process either, given Newark’s demographic makeup. 

    “I'm sure if this happened in one of our richer suburbs, it would be an issue that would be immediately remediated, or the people there would have the resources to start the remediation process themselves,” Lopez Nuñez said. 

    The district has spent close to $1.5 million on testing and remediation to contain its most recent lead crisis, said school business administrator Valerie Wilson. But lead, a persistent contaminant in Newark’s century-old schools, will likely remain a part of its legacy.

    “We have determined what we want to do in terms of remediation to what I call an intermediate point where we’re not necessarily all the way there, but we can contain and ensure that all the time children have safe water, which is what’s most important to us,” Wilson said.

    Schools that can’t afford to replace lead plumbing and fixtures have to resort to replacing fountains with coolers dispensing bottled water.

    In Camden, New Jersey, the school district shut off its fountains in 2002 after the city found high levels of lead in its water. It spends about $100,000 every year on water coolers to supply clean drinking water to students.

    “This is an issue that’s been going on in this city since the ’70s when we realized as a society that lead was unsafe,” said Maita Soukup, a spokeswoman for Camden City School District. “It’s not a new issue. Our school district’s approach is over 15 years old. I think everyone is happy that the district invests in the water coolers. That means we don’t have to be overly worried.”

    In diverse school districts like Washington, D.C.’s, the response has been disparate between neighboring schools. When parents at a well-funded public school, Capitol Hill Montessori, learned from an education blogger in March 2016 that their school tested high for lead six months prior, they quickly met with school administrators and City Council members to find out why they weren’t notified and how the district planned on remediating the problem.

    Soon, the scope of the problem grew. D.C. public schools retested all its schools’ faucets for lead because of an “increase in attention around the issue,” said Michelle Lerner, a spokeswoman for D.C. public schools. The majority tested high.

    At Capitol Hill Montessori, parents said contractors installed new filters at all drinking water sources just weeks later. Teachers and parents donated bottled water to the school so that it’s available in every classroom.

    Parents at the school said their advocacy initiated the citywide response of testing and installing filters, but some education activists say it took a well-funded school to draw attention to an established lead problem in D.C. public schools.

    “It depends on who is actually whistleblower to make a story a story,” said LaTricea Adams, founder and president of Black Millennials for Flint. “It wasn't until a more affluent and less black and brown school made this call to action that we actually started to see D.C. respond.”

    For other schools across the District, the response hasn’t been as quick. In Sousa Middle School, contractors installed filters at some drinking water sources last year, while other fountains are still shut off. Students had limited access to clean drinking water because their schools didn’t provide them with bottled or filtered water.

    Samantha Davis, founder and executive director of the Black Swan Academy in Washington, D.C., said this disparate response stems from lack of outreach to schools she works with in the District’s poorest neighborhoods. Davis said parents at these schools are less likely to worry about water quality given the pile of other issues they must handle.

    “We would’ve loved to see students being supplied with bottled water,” Davis said. “We would’ve loved to see some community forums held to educate the families and community members about the impact of lead exposure, and those were steps that weren’t taken that I think should have been, and can still be taken.”

    Parents express concerns over lack of transparency, action

    In a working-class area of Washington, D.C., J.O. Wilson Elementary tested high for lead in January after initial tests found lead, so contractors installed filters at the school. The school alerted parents 10 days after the city received sampling results, and it took nine days to shut off lead-tainted faucets, according to a City Council report.

    After more than a year of flawed testing and faulty filters citywide, parents pushed the D.C. Council to introduce legislation requiring public schools to test water sources for lead, install filters and publish their annual lead testing results. The measure passed in July.

    “The push at D.C. Council from constituents and concerned parents is probably the only reason that this gained traction, and there’s movement in terms of improving the legislation and improving the approach,” said Charles Swartz, a parent at Payne Elementary School in D.C. 

    And sometimes, parents simply want to know whether their children can drink the water at school.

    A battery plant explosion in Maywood, a Los Angeles neighborhood, just over a year ago released high amounts of lead and magnesium into the community. Locals said the soil in their homes and schools tested positive for lead contamination, but the water hasn’t been tested at all. Tap water in the area varies from a cloudy, white color to a muddy brown.

    As a precaution, Lily Hernandez, a mother whose 6-year-old daughter attends Fishburn Elementary School, donates cases of water to the school monthly.

    “I feel safer because I’m supplying the water,” she said. “Trying to get something done is an ongoing battle. The parents are concerned, but our voices are often ignored.”

    At Alice Birney Elementary School in San Diego, school officials placed signs above fountains to warn children to avoid them.Elissa Nuñezhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/elissa-nu-ezAmy Molloyhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/amy-molloyhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/15/21076/schools-fail-lead-tests-while-many-states-don-t-require-testing-all

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    CASCO, Wis. – Lynda Cochart did not realize her water was contaminated with coliform bacteria until she contracted MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant skin infection. She believed it came from the water in her well in Casco, Wisconsin. “There’s no other way I could have gotten it,” she said.

    A year later, U.S. Department of Agriculture microbiologist Mark Borchardt tested her well while testing others in Kewaunee County. He found total coliform bacteria at levels too dangerous to drink. Cochart lives between two dairy farms with over 1,000 cows each. None of the bacteria Borchardt found came from human feces, she said, so the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus most likely came from cow manure. Borchardt told her to immediately stop drinking the water.

    “He said, ‘What I found in your well is what I expect to find in a Third World country,’” Cochart recalled. When she told him she still needed to shower with that water, Borchardt advised, “Then keep your eyes closed and your mouth shut.”

    In California’s San Joaquin Valley, which grows nearly one-quarter of the nation’s food, fertilizer and manure spread on farms’ fields and orchards have contributed to unsafe nitrate levels in drinking water sources. The News21 analysis of Environmental Protection Agency records of community water systems shows 491 instances of unsafe nitrate amounts in many of the region’s 663 community water systems over the past 10 years.

    Many farmworkers who live in these communities still have to pay for the contaminated water coming from the faucet, as well as buying bottled water to drink. But the farmers who employ them don’t agree with their concerns.

    “They say, ‘Why are you complaining? You have jobs? We are giving you jobs. You eat because of us,’ ” said Irma Medellin, who works with Latino farmworkers in Tulare County to clean up the drinking water. “They contaminate our water, and we, the poor, are paying for water as if we were rich. And we are not rich. But we are paying the price of contaminated water.”

    The News21 analysis shows that the drinking water of millions of Americans living in or near farming communities across the country is contaminated by dangerous amounts of nitrates and coliform bacteria from fertilizer and manure widely used in agriculture. Community water systems serving over 2 million people across the country were cited for excessive nitrate levels.

    While the 5,050 nitrate violations can largely be traced back to agricultural activity, the 22,971 total coliform violations could be from either human or animal feces. However, in heavily farmed areas, much of the coliform bacteria can be attributed to manure.

    Those records don’t cover the millions of private wells that many Americans use, which are left vulnerable to pollution of shallow groundwater in agricultural areas.

    A 2012 University of California, Davis, study attributed high nitrate levels in the San Joaquin Valley groundwater to crop and animal agriculture activities based on an analysis of land use and the amount of nitrogen entering the water. Farmers’ heavy use of fertilizers and manure on their crops account for most of the nitrate found in the studied area.

    An Iowa Geological Survey researcher found in 2004 that row crops, such as corn, cotton and soybeans, contributed the most to high nitrate levels in Iowa’s rivers. In 2007, U.S. Geological Survey researchers found that Iowa was one of nine Midwestern farming states that contributed over 75 percent of the nitrates that flow from the Mississippi River into the Gulf of Mexico. And a 2010 study by researchers from the University of Illinois and Cornell University found that the biggest contributors of excessive nitrate to the Mississippi River were in the Midwestern corn belt.

    People living farther away from agricultural areas also are vulnerable to farming pollution because contaminants can flow downstream in rivers and groundwater.

    In Wisconsin, the USDA’s Borchardt tracked manure runoff from a field to the tap water of a nearby home after the water ran brown. Three days later, genetic testing showed the same bacteria traveled 1,500 feet through groundwater to another home’s well.

    In 2016, the Columbus Division of Water issued a nitrate contamination warning not to drink the city’s water after heavy rain pushed fertilizer into a watershed 60 miles north of the Ohio city, the second nitrate advisory in two years.

    “They’re increasing,” said Kristy Meyer, who oversees the Ohio Environmental Council’s water programs as the managing director of natural resources. “Now you’re starting to see drinking water utilities spend a lot more money to be able to treat the water and keep their customers safe.”

    For example, Des Moines, Iowa, is surrounded by farms that grow the most corn, soybeans, eggs and hogs in the nation. Fertilizer and stored manure drain into the groundwater and flow into streams and rivers, leaving people to pay to treat their drinking water.

    The Des Moines Water Works, which serves half a million people in Iowa’s capital, draws most of its water from the Raccoon River and Des Moines River. The utility shelled out over $2 million from 2013 to 2015 to reduce nitrates to safe drinking standards, and will soon have to spend up to $183.5 million to build a new treatment facility.

    Des Moines Water Works sued three northern Iowa counties in 2015, accusing the 10 drainage districts in those counties of dumping nitrates into the Raccoon River without a federal permit. The river runs for 186 miles from Buena Vista County to the Des Moines River, south of downtown Des Moines. The drainage districts use “tile drainage,” which moves groundwater directly under the soil through underground pipes and into the river, turning saturated land into farmable land.

    The Iowa Supreme Court dismissed the case earlier this year because state law protects drainage districts from lawsuits. Though the drainage districts were not penalized, studies point to agricultural runoff as a major contributor of nitrates in the Raccoon River.

    Farming-contaminated drinking water poses serious health risks

    Two of the most prominent farming contaminants in water are nitrates and total coliform bacteria.

    Nitrate-related contamination comes from fertilizer for crops and manure. The body digests nitrates and turns it into nitrites, which inhibits red blood cells’ ability to carry oxygen. The EPA limits nitrate levels to prevent infants from contracting blue baby syndrome, a potentially fatal disorder that deprives infants of oxygen. Research indicates that long-term exposure may affect adults as well.

    For the past 20 years, National Cancer Institute researcher Mary Ward has been researching drinking water contaminants, focusing on nitrates and cancer risk. She followed a group of people in Iowa to do so. Though studies need to be repeated before drawing conclusions, she said her research suggests drinking water with high levels of nitrates increases the risk for gastrointestinal and urinary tract cancers.

    Tom Nolan, a hydrologist with the USGS, said in agriculturally intense areas, it’s fair to say the majority of nitrate pollution comes from agricultural sources.

    “That’s just because that’s where the sources are,” Nolan said. “In agricultural areas, there are higher applications of fertilizer … You can look at (nitrate) exceedance rates and they’re highest in shallow groundwater in agricultural areas.”

    Fertilizer and manure not only increase nitrates in drinking water sources, but also fuel algae blooms that make water unsafe to drink and harder to treat. Cyanobacteria grows in phosphorous-heavy waters, which is primarily caused by manure and fertilizer runoff. Also known as blue-green algae, cyanobacteria becomes problematic for drinking water systems in treatment facilities. During the sanitation process, water treatment facilities apply chemicals to kill the cyanobacteria. When the cell dies, it releases cyanotoxins, which can have health effects ranging from fever to pneumonia to death, according to the EPA.

    “The blue-green algae is not regulated. There’s no EPA requirement to test for it,” said Bill Stowe, the CEO and general manager of Des Moines Water Works. “We test for it because we know from our experience that it is an adverse risk that is unregulated now, but smaller communities don’t have the resources or knowledge to do that.”

    Beyond the problems cyanotoxins create, the chemicals that kill the algae react with organic material in the water and create disinfection byproducts (DBPs), which increase cancer risk. The News21 analysis showed that water systems across the U.S. were cited over 28,000 times in the last decade for exceeding the DBP legal limit, exposing over 25 million people to unsafe levels of DBPs.

    Cyanotoxins and cyanobacteria “are significant risks for us because we increase our use of chlorine,” Stowe said. “When you increase one, you increase the likelihood of creating carcinogens.”

    The other major source of water contamination from farming is total coliform bacteria from raw, untreated manure. When rain falls on recently fertilized fields, it pushes contaminants from the surface deeper into the soil, and eventually into groundwater. People can see and smell the brown water from their taps. But in the days before or after, water can continue to be contaminated even if the water runs clear.

    Drinking water with total coliform bacteria can cause gastrointestinal illnesses, which are linked to diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea and fever.

    The California Division of Drinking Water is supplying 20 communities in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley with bottled water because of nitrate or coliform bacteria pollution. According to the News21 analysis, the most nitrate citations in the United States over the past 10 years were recorded in Tulare County, which is in the valley. Though nitrates and bacteria are currently below the legal limit, the department still delivers water to them because of historic issues with contamination.

    Each resident of unincorporated community Tooleville in Tulare County receives half a gallon of water for drinking and cooking per day, delivered every month and paid for by the state. For many residents, it isn’t enough.

    One Tooleville resident, Esther Ceballos, buys extra cases of water for herself, her two children and her husband. She still pays $40 a month for tap water she does not use for drinking or cooking.

    Rosa Rubio, who lives next to Ceballos, relies on the bottled water delivery for herself, her husband and their four dogs. She said they’ve known their water was undrinkable since they first moved in, thanks to a neighbor who warned them. Sometimes, their tap water comes out white.

    “Even if they say it’s OK, we’re scared to use that water,” she said.

    Environmental regulation of agriculture is mostly voluntary

    On a still day in the northwest corner of Washington state, a brown, swirling pool burps methane as liquid manure shoots from a pipe propped up by a tractor. But when a breeze comes by, the smell of 1.5 million gallons of liquid cow manure hits the nose and then lingers in the back of the throat for hours.

    This is the manure lagoon on Terry Lenssen’s 710-cow dairy farm. Lenssen has only fallen into his manure lagoon once, accidentally backing a tractor into the pit. He’s steered clear of the lagoon ever since. “I smelled like shit for three days,” he laughed. “Must get into your pores or something.

    Thousands of dairy farmers around the United States store their cows’ manure like Lenssen does, in separate forms: liquid into a large pit, and the solids heaped into soft, dry mountains. Hog and chicken farmers also store vast amounts of manure to use later as fertilizer.

    Dairy farmers usually take the liquid manure and apply it to their fields where they grow corn and alfalfa to feed their cattle. But when a farmer applies too much manure for plants to absorb, the rest finds its way out. In addition to that, lagoons can spill over or spring a leak. In a 2013 report about the Lower Yakima Valley in Washington state, the EPA estimated one dairy’s lagoon leaked between 482,000 to 5.9 million gallons of liquid manure per year into the surrounding soil.

    The EPA started regulating what goes into federal waterways in the 1972 Clean Water Act amendments. Many industries must apply for National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System permits, which allow certain discharges into national waterways. But farming is exempt from the Clean Water Act, unless the EPA designates a farm as a concentrated animal feeding operation (CAFO).

    And many CAFOs have not applied for discharge permits. Although the number of CAFOs increased by 956 between 2011 and 2016 to a total of 19,496 in the United States, the number of discharge permits held by CAFOs has gone down 1,806 in the same five-year period.

    Lenssen has not registered as a CAFO yet. Washington state implemented a new CAFO permit in March, but both environmental groups and dairy organizations immediately filed appeals against the new regulations. In the meantime, Lenssen has a 2-inch-thick binder holding his voluntary nutrient management plan as a testament to his environmental responsibility.

    Nutrient management plans are intended to hold farmers accountable for what they apply and how much of it. States decide if they require these plans and how detailed they need to be. While some states, such as Maryland, require farmers to work with a certified professional to construct a nutrient management plan, others don’t require consultation with an engineer or nutrient management expert, and farmers can submit their own plans for approval.

    “Frankly, if I was to go and open a business today, I would need a business plan but also a permit of some kind,” said Meyer, of the Ohio Environmental Council. “Why shouldn’t one of the largest industries in the United States be required to have a permit?”

    The Natural Resources Conservation Service, an arm of the Department of Agriculture, works with farmers to craft nutrient management plans on a voluntary basis. Each region of the U.S. has different priorities in its plans. Groundwater varies by geographic location. Conditions in one region of a state may drastically differ from a neighboring region of the same state. Aquifers are underground sections of rock that water moves through, and the type and amount of rock, soil and gravel it contains vary by region. Porous rock, such as karst, allows surface water to move quickly into the aquifer below, making it more vulnerable to contamination.

    Farmers and those supported by farmers' money shape agricultural policy

    If an aquifer is contaminated, the private wells that draw water from it become contaminated too. Yakima County in Washington state, home to around 67 dairy farms, sits on aquifers the EPA determined to be contaminated by nitrates.

    Larry Fendell, a 60-year-old ex-farmer, regularly attends Lower Yakima Valley Groundwater Management Area (GWMA) meetings. Its board first met in 2012 to solve nitrate contamination problems in the Lower Yakima Valley groundwater, but Fendell has been fighting for stricter regulations of large dairy farms for 20 years.

    “And even if there are regulations, so many things are suggestions,” Fendell said. “Nutrient management plans are suggestions. There’s no teeth behind them. Everything is voluntary.”

    Dairyman Dan DeGroot represents the Yakima Dairy Foundation at GWMA meetings. He’s part of the advisory committee steering the research and planning to reduce nitrate concentration in groundwater. DeGroot said he defends himself from people who accuse dairy farms of being the biggest polluter of groundwater.

    “I said, ‘You know what, I care more about drinking water than any of you people in here,’” DeGroot said. “It’s of critical importance because I’ve got 3,500 animals, plus 35 people, plus seven in my family – all drinking this water. I care. A lot.”

    Though Yakima County is 49 percent Hispanic, the 22-person groundwater management board is all white, save for one Latino representing the Washington State Department of Health. It has not had an active Latino community representative since April. This leaves an already vulnerable community out of the discussion to remedy high nitrate levels, which significantly affect lower-income Latino farmworkers who rely on private wells.

    For over three decades, the American Farm Bureau Federation has pushed to exempt farming from environmental regulation. For example, fertilizer and manure are not regulated by the Clean Water Act because agricultural activities are considered “nonpoint source pollution,” which means it comes from many sources.

    In 2015, a federal judge ruled that over-applied manure could be regulated as waste after examining a case brought against a Washington dairy. The Washington State Dairy Federation, dairy organizations and farm publications opposed the ruling, but also cautioned dairy farms to exceed manure management expectations and prove that more environmental regulation was unnecessary.

    U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse, a well-to-do farmer and Republican congressman who represents farming-focused counties in Washington state, even filed a bill that would exempt fertilizer and animal manure from being regulated as solid waste entirely. Out of the $747,916 Newhouse received from political action committees between 2015 to 2016, 29 percent came from agriculture and food-related PACs.

    The American Farm Bureau alone spent almost $3.8 million in lobbying nationally in the 2016 election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The center also reported agribusiness organizations – which include farming, food production and stores – spent $127.5 million last year in lobbying the federal government.

    Local farming lobbyist Steve George joined a tour of a Washington dairy farm by dairymen Jason Sheehan and DeGroot for News21. George is secretary of the Yakima County Farm Bureau, has been active as a spokesman for the Washington State Dairy Federation and works as a dairy nutrition consultant.

    Keeping his arms crossed and his sunglasses on a furrowed brow, George occasionally interjected his thoughts into the conversation while following the dairy tour group closely, always making sure no one was alone with the reporters. Like other dairy operators News21 spoke with, George pointed to leaky septic systems as an underrepresented contributor of nitrate to drinking water sources, compared with farming.

    Yet according to the federal conservation service, manure from a dairy milking 200 cows produces as much nitrogen as is in the sewage from a community of 5,000 to 10,000 people.

    George and DeGroot criticized the terms “corporate” and “factory farming,” arguing the words are only used as fuel for environmental activists to attack farms.

    “What is factory farming?” DeGroot asked. “To me, I always considered that to be kind of a good thing, comparing me to a factory that is very organized, very smooth, efficient. That’s what it feels like to me.”

    News21 reporter Andrea Jaramillo contributed to this article.

    Juan Salas reconnects an irrigation line to its water source at L. E. Cooke Co. nursery in Visalia, Calif.Jackie Wanghttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jackie-wangNicole Tyauhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/nicole-tyauChelsea Rae Ybanezhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/chelsea-rae-ybanezhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/16/21085/farming-activity-contaminates-water-despite-best-practices

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    A Center for Public Integrity series detailing battles nationwide over air pollution, climate change and enforcement of environmental laws has garnered a major award from the Society of Environmental Journalists.

    The Carbon Wars project was awarded First Place/Outstanding Explanatory Reporting in the society's 2016-17 Awards for Reporting on the Environment. The project was the work of reporters Jamie Smith Hopkins and Jie Jenny Zou, news developer Chris Zubak-Skees and managing editor/environment Jim Morris. The award also recognizes journalists from weather.com and Al Jazeera English, who partnered with the Center on portions of the series. Part of the project also appeared in a variety of USA TODAY Network outlets.

    Contest judges called the series "gripping" and said "the storytelling throughout is an alluring mix of analytical and deeply human." Judges went on to say that "with each installment in the series, the reporters continue to push the conversation forward, offering new thoroughly reported examples of regulatory weaknesses and cases of damaging pollution." 

    The recognition marks the third time that the Center's environment team has won top honors in the SEJ contest since 2014.

    A second Center project, Science for Sale, won Honorable Mention in the 2016-17 contest's Kevin Carmody Award for Outstanding In-depth Reporting, Small Market.

    Other winners in the contest include Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting, The Oregonian, National Geographic, The Texas Observer and The Intercept.

    Winners will be honored at a lunch in October during SEJ's annual meeting in Pittsburgh.  

    The Tesoro oil refinery in Anacortes, Washington.The Center for Public Integrityhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/center-public-integrityhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/16/21104/center-wins-major-award-society-environmental-journalists

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    PHOENIX – In Ringwood, New Jersey, Ford Motor Co. dumped more than 35,000 tons of toxic paint sludge onto lands occupied for centuries by the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough Lenape tribe, poisoning groundwater with arsenic, lead and other harmful chemicals.

    Today, more than 43 years after the dumping ended, those toxins are still in the groundwater and threaten a reservoir providing drinking water to millions of residents of New Jersey.

    In Picher, Oklahoma, decades of lead and zinc mining left residents with an aquifer contaminated with lead and heavy metals. The flow of polluted mine water into streams, lakes and a large groundwater aquifer still poses a threat to drinking water for nearby communities nearly 60 years after mining stopped.

    In North Carolina, the state has told residents living near coal-fired power plants their water contains elevated levels of chromium-6 and other chemicals. While environmentalists, state government and utilities investigate the source of contamination, nearly 1,000 households rely on bottled water for drinking, cooking and brushing their teeth.

    “If we don't have water, we cannot live. So when you have companies coming into your neck of the woods, contaminating your water, what are we going to do?” said Tracey Edwards of Walnut Cove, North Carolina. “What are we going to do? We can't live like that.”

    While manufacturing, mining and waste disposal companies — and dozens of others —  provide millions of jobs, products and services to Americans, these industries are also among the country’s worst water polluters, based on a News21 analysis of the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, Discharge Monitoring Reports and Superfund data.

    Hundreds of these companies have been contaminating drinking water throughout the country for decades with everything from arsenic and lead, to mercury and chromium – most coming from improper dumping and waste disposal, according to EPA data.

    For example, Anaconda Aluminum in Montana produced manufacturing wastes that contaminated local water sources with lead and chromium, Gulf States Utilities in Louisiana discharged toxins into marshlands polluting waters with benzene and other chemicals, and the Conklin Dumps in New York leaked volatile organic chemicals into groundwater.

    The EPA regulates 94 chemicals in drinking water sources but doesn’t set standards for many others that could potentially be dangerous. A News21 analysis of EPA data shows that the drinking water of more than 244 million people contains contaminants that can be linked back to industrial practices and are not currently regulated.

    “They tell you one time to not drink your water, another time that it’s OK to drink your water,” said Laura Tench of Belmont, North Carolina. “Common sense tells you this is not right, we're not being told the truth.”

    It can take years, sometimes decades, to clean chemicals from polluted water, EPA records show.

    “I want my family to breathe some fresh air and drink some good water,” said Vivian Milligan, a resident of Ringwood, New Jersey. “I want to see our future generations have the time to grow up and not have to deal with young kids dying and sicknesses and illnesses.”

    Mining and smelting operations are responsible for contaminating water with heavy metals in almost every state in the nation. In northeast Oklahoma, where mountains of mining waste mark the landscape, the Tar Creek area near Picher is among the most contaminated places in the country. Decades of lead and zinc mining left a 40-square-mile area littered with piles of chat, mining remnants contaminated with lead and other heavy metals.

    When the mines shut down in the 1970s, the effects of the pollution were so devastating that residents of four towns had to be relocated.

    “The water was so contaminated it just came out solid red from the iron and stuff in the water,” said John Frazier, a former Picher, Oklahoma, resident. “If you go down to Tar Creek now, you seen that? That’s what the water looked like, our drinking water.”

    Water from a shallow aquifer began to run red with contaminants, first into a small waterway called Tar Creek and then out into surrounding streams and lakes that provide drinking water to communities in the area.

    “Tar Creek runs through Picher, Cardin, Commerce and then hits Miami before it runs into the Neosho River and on into the Grand Lake,” said Rebecca Jim, an environmental advocate. “I am a member of the Cherokee nation and that lake is my drinking water.”

    The EPA designated the area as a Superfund site and tried for nearly a decade to clean up contamination after high levels of lead were found in the blood of local children. After several land cave-ins at heavily mined areas, many residents in Picher and several other towns moved out with assistance from the EPA.

    Tim Kent, the environmental director for the Quapaw tribe, said the EPA tried to address the water contamination in the 1980s but “it was largely a failure.”

    “If it gets cleaned up, it’ll have to do it on its own and that will take 1,000 years,” Kent said. “EPA issued what they called a fund-waiver balance, which means this problem is so big, the groundwater, that it would break Superfund. So we cannot fix it.”

    The EPA did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Tar Creek.

    After disasters such as the 1978 Love Canal incident, when toxic waste bubbled up into a residential area in New York state, the dangers of industrial contamination became a national concern. In 1980, Congress passed the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund program, to try to clean up widespread contamination.

    The Superfund helps pay for cleanup when the companies responsible for the pollution won’t admit fault or can’t afford cleanup.

    “Love Canal, there was mostly chemical companies around there, they were dumping these wastes into landfills around the Buffalo area,” said Franklin Schwartz, a hydrogeologist at Ohio State University. “People started seeing these contaminants turn up everywhere, and then people realized how hazardous this was.”

    News21 analyzed every Superfund listing and found more than 1,700 proposed, current or former sites where industrial contamination reached ground or surface water. The EPA continues to monitor more than 90 percent of these sites to ensure the health of people and the environment.

    A 2013 study by the National Research Council attempted to determine the total number of sites in the country with groundwater pollution related to industry. By looking at Superfund and other monitoring programs such as the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the report documented a conservative estimate of more than 126,000 sites.

    “It’s probably higher than that. … 126,000 is a number that is probably low,” said Michael Kavanaugh, one of the study’s authors.

    Globe, Arizona, began as a copper-mining town more than a century ago. Groundwater pollution in the area dates back to the 1930s, and contaminants like iron, copper and lead were discovered in private wells almost 50 years ago.

    The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality placed the area on its list of contaminated sites in 1998. Treatment of contaminated groundwater has been ongoing since 1999 and is expected to continue for decades, according to the department.

    Jesse Henderson, a Wheatfields resident who worked in the mines for 19 years, called the water in the area “just terrible.”

    “Here, Globe, Claypool, Miami,” Henderson said, “I mean, people drink it and stuff. I still drink it every now and then but it can make you sick.”

    Across the country, in Albany, Georgia, three separate areas of groundwater are polluted with cyanide and chloroform from various industries. One of the contaminated areas came from a landfill on the Marine Corps’ Logistics Base. The U.S. Navy has taken responsibility for the base and is providing residents in the majority African-American town with an alternative water supply due to the health risks associated with the pollution.

    Politicians and researchers say industrial sites are more likely to be located near low-income and minority communities.

    “More heavily polluting industries were located near communities of color or minority communities or poor communities because they didn’t have the political clout to fight back and say, ‘We don’t want that here,’” said Christine Whitman, former head of the EPA. “These are people who don’t have any choices in where they can go.”

    Robin Saha, a researcher at the University of Montana, co-authored “Which Came First, People or Pollution?” to examine environmental inequality around industrial sites. The 2015 report, published in the science journal Environmental Research Letters, found a pattern of industrial polluters being located in low-income and minority communities across the country.

    Industries have learned to avoid conflicts with communities that have the resources to resist, Saha said.

    “It may be because of our racially segregated housing patterns,” he said. “Those poor communities of color are easier to target. Because of housing discrimination, African-Americans and Latinos are not able to move as freely. They may not be able to get loans, move or even want to because of discrimination in housing.”

    Income and race both play a factor, but the majority of studies show that race tends to be a more important and significant factor of where these polluters decide to establish themselves, Saha said.

    “This is real; we are human beings and this is really happening,” said Vivian Milligan of the Ramapough Lenape tribe in Ringwood. “We’re back here in these mountains and people tend to feel like, ‘Let them stay there, back in the corner and die off.’ But that’s not my plan. My plans are to stand up and try to get things done right.”

    The borough of Ringwood, New Jersey, is home to about 12,000 people, including the Turtle Clan of the Ramapough tribe. Nestled in the northern highlands of the state, the borough surrounds the Wanaque Reservoir, a source of drinking water for millions of people.

    In the 1960s and ’70s, Ford Motor Co. dumped toxic paint sludge into abandoned mine shafts it purchased from the borough. Because of lead and arsenic in the soil and groundwater, the EPA began monitoring the site in 1983. Today, contaminants from the site pose a risk to the nearby reservoir, according to a May 2017 environmental report.

    ”It’s certainly beholden upon Ford, who is the polluter here, and Andy Hobbs, who is supposedly the director of environmental quality for Ford, to do what they said they’re going to do and clean up this site,” said Bob Spiegel, who runs Edison Wetlands Association.

    While Ford has removed some of the paint sludge, more remains. When called for comment, Ford Director of Environmental Quality Andy Hobbs said, “I do not take calls from reporters.”

    The nonprofit Edison Wetlands Association conducts its own water testing throughout the state as part of its advocacy efforts. It recently found new contaminants in the Ringwood mines, causing additional concerns about the quality of water at the reservoir.

    “For the first time, they are concerned about 1,4-Dioxane (an industrial solvent) in the water because it’s being found in the surface water that’s entering the Wanaque reservoir and they have no viable way to treat the drinking water for 1,4-Dioxane,” Spiegel said.

    While illegal dumping can occur, the EPA monitors most industrial chemical releases into water sources through a permitting program.

    Between 2011 and 2015, companies dumped more than 14 billion pounds over permitted limits, according to a News21 analysis. Numbers are based on a calculation the EPA uses to compare the harmfulness of each chemical released.

    Dioxins, byproducts of incineration, are among the most released chemicals. They are known carcinogens, and exposure has been linked to health effects such as heart disease, diabetes and reproductive issues. Almost every living creature on Earth has been exposed to dioxins, according to the National Institutes of Health.

    Chemical companies released the most contaminants of all industries, according to EPA documents. Utilities, plastics and rubber manufacturers, mining companies, and petroleum and coal producers round out the top five.

    The now-defunct Diamond Alkali Co. in Newark, New Jersey, manufactured chemicals including those used to make Agent Orange. EPA investigations found that the chemicals produced at the company polluted the Passaic River, a drinking water source for millions of New Jersey residents.

    The Ohio River borders six states and provides drinking water to nearly 3 million people. Since 1987, various industries have dumped about 600 million pounds of toxic substances, including ammonia and nitrates into the river, according to EPA data.

    Most people in the U.S. get their drinking water from surface water, including rivers and lakes, that is treated by public water systems before it’s used. However, 15 percent of Americans consume untreated groundwater from private wells, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

    Because there is no EPA oversight of private wells, it’s possible for contaminants to leak into well water without the homeowners’ knowledge.

    Chemicals like arsenic and boron were found in private wells in the town of Pines, Indiana, after coal ash from a nearby Northern Indiana Public Service Corp. (NIPSCO) coal-fired power plant polluted groundwater.

    Cathi Murray, president of a local advocacy group, said some residents were hooked up to municipal water after the contamination was discovered, but others were not. NIPSCO has been providing bottled water to residents since 2001, according to Murray.

    “For our town, the coal ash pollution will never go away because it’s in a partially unlined landfill that sits in a swamp that is attached to our aquifer,” she said. “There will always be groundwater contamination from the coal ash in this area.”

    Coal ash, a byproduct of coal burning, is often stored in large pits in the ground called impoundments. According to the EPA, more than 1,000 of these impoundments can be found in communities across the country.

    In North Carolina, the state department of environmental quality sent letters in 2015 to residents living near coal-fired power plants telling them their private well water had high levels of contaminants such as chromium-6 and was unsafe to use for drinking or cooking. More than 900 of these households have been relying on bottled water for more than two years.

    Debbie Baker, a Belmont resident, also received a personal call from state toxicologist Kenneth Rudo. He advised her not to use her well water, and told her he “wouldn’t even give my dogs or animals this water.”

    “Vanadium, hexavalent chromium ... and that's when I was like, I knew that this coal ash was not good,” Baker said.

    Residents were later told their water was safe to drink based on the state standard for total chromium, but many still are unconvinced.

    Neither the state nor the EPA sets specific standards for chromium-6, but it is known to cause cancer, according to the National Institutes of Health. From 2013 to 2015, the EPA reported more than 234 million people had higher levels of the chemical in their water than the agency recommends.

    Baker and her husband, Jack, moved into their home near a Duke Energy steam station 21 years ago. She believes the water contamination is coming from coal ash buried near the power plant, though Debra Watts, from the North Carolina Division of Water Resources, said they are still working to determine the source of the chemicals.

    Duke Energy has been providing bottled water to residents living near its power plants for over two years, but company spokeswoman Paige Sheehan said the contaminants are not coming from coal ash.

    “It is tough when you’ve got developing science,” said Cathy Cralle Jones, an attorney representing some residents. “As an environmental lawyer I can tell you, I run into this a lot of times, when you see what looks to be a cause and effect and you feel in your heart of hearts that there is one, that this exposure is causing this result, but the science hasn’t caught up.”

    After a string of hospitalizations for respiratory-related illnesses, Baker’s husband, Jack, was diagnosed with a lung disease that doctors said could have been caused by his environment. He died in June 2008. Now, Baker wakes up alone, walks to the kitchen, and grabs a bottle of Dasani from one of the many cases stacked around her home to make her coffee.

    “I always thought maybe it had something to do with the coal ash ponds,” said Baker. “I started doing my research. ... I'll be honest with you, I think the coal ash killed my husband.”

    Her husband’s death prompted Baker to become an activist. She said she wants Duke to dispose of its waste properly, but she still understands the value the utility company provides.

    “I don't hate them. They give me my electricity, I thank them for that,” she said. “They keep my room cool, keep us warm in the wintertime – I just want them to do what is right.”

    Researcher Robin Saha said the benefits industries provide like jobs and economic growth are important, but communities may not be aware of the tradeoffs they are making.

    “(Companies) may be donating to the school, or they may be buying a new gym, and it’s kind of like they are paying people off to kill them, in a sense,” said Saha. “So you are accepting these things at what cost?”

    EPA regulations were set up to keep people safe from industrial pollution reaching their drinking water, but Saha claims there is “a failure of federal and state policy.”

    “Many of these types of facilities should not be located where there’s a lot of people: near schools, near hospitals, near nursing homes, where there’s elderly and more often than not, they are,” Saha said.

    Industries will develop where there is a “path of least resistance,” Saha said, but it’s up to community members to work together to dictate what kind of companies set up shop in their neighborhood.

    “We'll extinguish our own ... the entire human race if we're not careful,” said Tracey Edwards, an advocate from Walnut Cove who wants coal ash removed. “Somebody has to do something and it can't always be about somebody earning a dollar. We have to preserve humanity.”

    News21 reporters Claire Caulfield and Bryan Anderson contributed to this report.

    Some people living near coal-fired power plants such as this one in Belews Creek, N.C., have been relying on bottled water for over two years since high levels of certain chemicals were found in their well water.Jasmine Spearing-Bowenhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jasmine-spearing-bowenKarl Schneiderhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/karl-schneiderhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/17/21086/industrial-waste-pollutes-america-s-drinking-water

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    VICTORVILLE, CA - Once a fighter jet training base critical to the Cold War, little remains of the former George Air Force Base but rows of dilapidated houses, a dismantled military hospital and dangerous chemicals from pesticides, jet fuels and other hazardous wastes that have poisoned the water for decades.

    “Now when I see the base today, areas of it look like a war zone,” said Frank Vera, an Air Force veteran stationed on the base in the early 1970s. “I don’t think people know what to do with some of these areas because they are so contaminated.”

    George is among at least 400 active and closed military installations nationwide where the use of toxic chemicals has contaminated or is suspected of contaminating water on bases and nearby communities with chemicals ranging from cleaning solvents and paints to explosives and firefighting foam, according to a News21 investigation.

    At 149 current and former U.S. military bases, the contamination is so severe that they have been designated Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning they are among the most hazardous areas in the country requiring cleanup.

    One of those installations, Hill Air Force Base just north of Salt Lake City, is both one of the state’s largest employers, with 21,000 employees, and a Superfund site. Since 1987, the EPA has been monitoring the base, where more than 60 chemicals were found in soil and groundwater. According to EPA records, an “unsafe level of contamination” still exists on some areas of the base.

    “Even though the DOD has made significant strides in identifying and investigating the level of contamination at domestic base sites, the pace of actual cleanup has been quite slow,” according to a research study from the Berkeley School of Law. “As the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) recently found, ‘most of the time and money has been spent studying the problem.’”

    According to a 2017 GAO report, the Department of Defense already has spent $11.5 billion on evaluations and environmental cleanup of closed bases, and it estimates $3.4 billion more will be needed.

    In March, the DOD said it would be testing the water at 395 active and closed bases across the country to determine whether perfluorinated compounds are contaminating the drinking water on bases and in communities around them.

    Originally developed by corporate giants 3M and DuPont for use in consumer products like Teflon, Scotchgard and stain-proof clothing, these chemicals, known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), were used by the DOD since the 1970s in firefighting foam to extinguish jet fuel fires.

    In 2012, the EPA added PFAS to its list of unregulated contaminants that may be hazardous to human health, though records indicate the Pentagon knew of the hazards decades earlier.  In 1981, the Air Force Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory conducted studies that found that exposure to earlier variations of PFAS were harmful in female rats and caused behavioral changes in offspring.

    The Air Force started replacing the original firefighting foam with a “new, environmentally responsible firefighting foam” in August 2016.

    Because the chemicals don’t break down easily, communities still are finding them in their drinking water. For example, in May, residents in Airway Heights, Washington, were instructed not to drink their tap water after elevated levels of PFAS were found in drinking water wells on and around the active Fairchild Air Force Base.

    “I think it’s crazy that pretty much the whole time I’ve lived out here, approximately 12 years, I’ve been drinking bad water,” said Martha Grall, an Airway Heights resident. “Because they didn’t feel like sharing that information years ago, I have no faith in believing anything they have to say now when they try and tell us it’s safe now.”

    Though the Air Force started treating the water, Grall said, “As far as trusting the tap water, I don’t think I ever will.”

    Fairchild is one of more than 30 bases where PFAS contamination was discovered this year. In 2015, the DOD reported to the GAO that “the cost of cleaning up perfluorinated compounds will likely be  significant.” The Air Force had budgeted $100 million over a five-year period for the investigation and remediation of the chemical. However, the Air Force has already spent more than $150 million as of June 2017.

    As of August, the DOD had yet to complete testing for PFAS at more than 200 bases.

    “There are lots of places where this is a problem,” said Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan. “And there are lots of places where it’s a problem, and the people don’t even know it yet.”

    “The biggest concern right now is that the Air Force hasn’t had any sense of urgency,” he said. They ought to be leading the effort to solve this problem. To find people who might have been affected, and to provide whatever relief is appropriate.”

    But U.S. Navy Commander Patrick Evans, a Pentagon spokesman, told News21 in a statement, “We take this matter very seriously and pledge an unshakable commitment to protecting human health and the environment.”

    Decades after base closures, PFAS threaten communities

    The former George Air Force base sits on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. Many parts of it are abandoned. The operations building and movie theater are boarded up. Tumbleweeds, mounds of concrete and building materials fill the dugout of an old baseball field. But while almost any sign of military life is gone, the water contamination is not.

    “The Air Force is promising to clean it up,” said Vera, the veteran who served at the base. “But in the end, they are just walking away from the contaminated bases and the people are stuck with this nightmare.”

    In 1990, the base was added to the EPA’s Superfund list. Jet fuel, benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), pesticides and radioactive wastes have contaminated groundwater, EPA records show.

    George was closed in 1992 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. Within one year, the DOD began transferring land over to local communities to be redeveloped. But 25 years later, the water still is contaminated.

    “You don’t see George as far along as some of the other military bases,” said Bill Muir, the senior engineering geologist for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, responsible for protecting water in the region.

    In 2015, PFAS chemicals also were found by the Air Force in the groundwater at the base, a potential threat to the businesses that have been built on the base, as well as surrounding communities.

    “We’re not aware that the perfluorinated compounds have impacted any of the drinking water wells downgradient of the base,” Muir said. “There is potential, and that’s why the Air Force will be sampling in the future, and we’ll encourage that.”

    Vera, 64, worked in the gun shop, where he said he used chlorinated solvents to clean weapons. “I would come out of there drenched in TCE,” he said. “They would empty the wash tank periodically and just dump it down the drain.”

    “The Air Force and the government in general, betrayed not only me, but everyone who stayed at these Superfund sites because they absolutely knew that they were contaminated,” said Vera. “They knew the harm it would possibly cause us.”

    “I drank gallons and gallons of water because it was the desert,” he said. “A lot of times, it was dark and had a real chemical taste. It tasted like JP-4, jet fuel.”

    In 2008, Vera created a website, Georgeafb.info, which started out as an “information repository” to keep his records and documents. Lisa McCrea, a former military wife, learned about the tainted water from his website.

    “Lots of us didn’t know a thing about the contamination,” said McCrea, 49. “We owe so much to Frank for his tireless years of work on this, trying to bring this to light (and) letting everybody know because there’s still families out there that have no clue.”

    McCrea lived on the base with her family for four years. She recalled the unsettling memory of pesticides being sprayed on her home, leaving yellow stains on the walls and on their clothes. In July, she made the trip from Ohio to California to revisit the base.

    “It’s hard to believe that we used to live here day in and day out without any protection,” said McCrea, standing in front of her former house. “And it’s even more upsetting that they (Air Force) let us live here without doing anything about it.”

    Terri Crooks, 59, is an Air Force veteran who was stationed on the base in the mid-’80s where she worked as an administrative clerk. She later was diagnosed with breast cancer and gynecological issues.

    From Vera’s website, Crooks learned that her conditions could be related to exposure to pesticides and submitted a claim to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2015. The VA awarded her 70 percent disability, acknowledging that her health conditions could be connected to her military service at the base.

    Crooks was exposed to the chemical nearly 40 years ago, but Muir said a pesticide plume is among George’s biggest contamination problems even now.

    “The Air Force needs to work to aggressively treat these zones of contamination,” Muir said. Instead, it proposed using Monitored Natural Attenuation, a remediation strategy that allows nature to break down the chemicals over time.

    Phil Mook, a senior representative for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is overseeing cleanup at George, said the Air Force has spent the last 30 years removing contamination.

    “We’ve done a lot of work,” Mook said. “We still have work to do. In about 30 years, we’ll have much smaller TCE, fuels and petroleum. Estimated, another 70 years after that, we have the last little tail of it.”

    But according to the Lahontan Water Board, that treatment at George could take up to 500 years for the pesticide and solvent contamination to reach safe levels, and up to 40,000 years for areas of fuel contamination in the groundwater.

    The MNA method is used at more than half of the military locations classified as Superfund sites, according to EPA data.

    “We can’t accept monitored natural attenuation,” Muir said. “We need active remediation. We want a more aggressive approach than watching it.”

    “We have been forgotten,” McCrea told News21. “The base closed, everyone scattered to the wind, and I guess they figured, problem solved,” she continued. “To this day, there has been no word from the United States Air Force about the contamination at George Air Force Base.”

    Base cleanups cost taxpayers millions

    At the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan, the water contamination has persisted for nearly half a century. At the height of the Cold War, the base was home to B-52s and nuclear bombs. Now,  little is left but empty airfields and crumbling buildings.

    Wurtsmith was closed in 1993 and was proposed as a Superfund site in 1994. With an estimated cleanup cost of $72 million, the DOD expects Wurtsmith to be one of the most expensive cleanups of any former base, according to a 2017 GAO report.

    Leaking storage tanks and waste disposal practices at the base contaminated the groundwater with benzene, trichloroethylene, lead and other hazardous chemicals for decades. PFAS discovered in 2012 also polluted groundwater, not only on the base but in surrounding communities.

    “It’s clear that what was thought to be a relatively confined problem is bigger than what we thought it was,” said Kildee, the Michigan congressman whose district includes Wurtsmith. “And it’s clearly affected the drinking water.”

    Nearly 400 drinking water wells on and near the base have tested positive for the PFAS, and the contamination is migrating toward Lake Huron as well as local lakes used for fishing and recreation.

    “Right now, the Air Force said it’s going to be at least another 30 years to treat this,” said Aaron Weed, township supervisor for Oscoda, Michigan. “But we’ve already been dealing with contamination for over 30 years.”

    The town relies on water recreation to support its economy. We have visitors who don’t want to come up here and visit because they think all the water is contaminated,” said Weed. “It is safe to swim in the water. Just drinking the contaminated water is a problem.”

    Van Etten Lake runs through the center of Oscoda and has tested positive for PFAS.

    “Tourism and our economy are affected by this,” said Robert Tasior, a resident in Oscoda Township.

    He also is part of the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board, which includes EPA representatives, Air Force officials and other residents who are working together on a cleanup plan. He says the Air Force needs to “step up.”

    “It happened under their watch. And where I come from, if it happened under your watch, you’re responsible for it,” he said. “If it means putting shovels in the ground to get rid of this stuff, then that’s what they need to do.”

    Weed, the township supervisor, said the Air Force only is treating groundwater under the base and has been unresponsive to concerns about PFAS migrating toward the lake.

    “I want people to have clean water,” Weed said. “I don’t want them to be sick from the natural environment we really have here. I believe that this slow response from the Air Force in treating this contamination is a poisoning of the American people.”

    While residents worry about the current PFAS contamination, veterans like Rick Thompto, 58, are concerned about the long legacy of contamination at the base. Thompto worked as a security police officer on the base from 1978 to 1982. One night, while on a routine security check of the base, he discovered leaking barrels of cleaning solvents.

    “We noticed that the door was open to this building … it was always locked,” Thompto said. “We stepped in there and were hit with a strange odor. I looked and it was all rolling down and going in the drain.”

    Thompto now has a persistent brain tumor he and his wife contend is the result of drinking toxic water during his nearly five years at Wurtsmith. In 2007, he was awarded 100 percent disability from the VA.

    It took Thompto and his wife seven years and several appeals before the VA acknowledged that his brain tumor was related to contaminated water. A recent brain scan shows Thompto could completely lose his brain function at any time.

    “This isn’t going to happen gradually,” said his wife, Tressa. “It could happen tonight. It could happen a few months from now.”

    “He shouldn’t have gotten sick,” she continued. “If the government did their job the right way and cared about their people, he wouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place.”

    A public health assessment from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in 2000 concluded that the TCE contamination Wurtsmith’s drinking water had been present as early as the 1950s.

    “To watch your loved one slowly die in front of you is difficult,” said Tressa Thompto. “It took us seven years of fighting, and even after winning, you’re still fighting.”

    A community works to bounce back  

    Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, bears little resemblance to the abandoned landscapes at other closed bases. Before the base closed in the spring of 1991, the state of New Hampshire had already created a redevelopment plan to replace the former base with a business park.

    Despite being classified as an Superfund site in 1990 and “one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in New England” due to TCE, jet fuel and other contaminants in the groundwater, Pease bounced back after nearly a decade of cleanup.

    Today, the base is gone, replaced with brick buildings housing restaurants, pharmaceutical companies and day care centers.

    “The Air Force has said that this is probably the most successful redevelopment of an Air Force base that they have in the country,” said Andrea Amico, co-founder of a community action group Testing for Pease.

    “It’s beautiful. It’s tree lined. It’s a very nice place,” said Amico. “At lunch time, it’s filled with people running and biking and walking, it’s a beautiful place to be. So you don’t come on to this thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this place is an environmental disaster.’”

    Amico didn’t know about the history of the Pease International Tradeport property when she moved to Portsmouth. Starting in 2011, she dropped her infant daughter off every day at a day care center nestled between lush trees and her husband’s office building on the tradeport without worry.

    But in 2014, Amico learned from a newspaper article that water serving the tradeport was highly contaminated and unsafe to drink. Her daughter and husband had been drinking the water every day for three years.

    Pease was the first military base to discover PFAS in the local drinking water. Three drinking water wells serving the entire tradeport tested positive for PFAS, and one in particular tested at levels more than 12.5 times above the EPA provisional health advisory.

    “When you do something that impacts children, you better watch out for their moms,” she said.

    Amico and two other mothers created an advocacy group after learning that their children had been drinking contaminated water at a daycare on the tradeport. Amico, Michelle Dalton and Alayna Davis created Testing for Pease and lobbied for two years to get blood testing for the community funded by New Hampshire Health and Human Services.

    She remembered the day she received the results for her two children. “It was like a kick in the face,” she recalled. “Even knowing they were going to be high, to actually see it on paper was a really big blow.”

    Amico’s daughter, now 6, had the highest PFAS level of anyone in the family. “I know it’s going to be in her blood for a long time,” Amico said. “And there’s not a lot of data to support what it may or may not do to her.”

    Much of the research about PFAS has been left to community.

    “It’s a Catch-22 because we’re at the forefront of all the bases,” said Dalton. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory.”

    Amico says that so far, the Air Force has been responsive, but only after receiving significant pressure from community members, the EPA and New Hampshire state representatives.

    “It doesn’t feel as if they’ve done anything on their own good will here, which is frustrating to me,” she said.

    Portsmouth resident Lindsey Carmichael is a member of Pease’s Community Assistance Panel, a group of citizens who work with federal agencies to look at health effects on the community. She became involved after learning that the water at her son’s day care was contaminated.

    Although her son’s blood levels did not show a heightened level of PFAS, she is still concerned for the long-term health effects on her son and those who drank the water at the tradeport.

    One of the main things that we’re hoping for is that the DOD, Air Force, who was the polluter who has taken full responsibility for the contamination, would also pay for a health study to help us understand what in fact the implications are of the exposure,” Carmichael said.

    However, as of May 2017, the Air Force has denied community requests to conduct a health study on the residents affected by the contamination at Pease.

    “All of us are guinea pigs and we bear the burden of proving a product or chemical’s safety – or lack thereof – and the consequences are what we’re seeing here,”  Carmichael said.

    For decades, day-to-day military operations have contaminated the water at bases across the country, including the now-defunct George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif.Corinne Roelshttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/corinne-roelsBriana Smithhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/briana-smithAdrienne St. Clairhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/adrienne-st-clairhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/18/21105/military-bases-contamination-will-affect-water-generations

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    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 United States 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 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 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 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 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 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 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 1 and 2 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 says 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.

    Enron’s advice

    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.

    U.S. gas moved by pipeline to Canada and Mexico tripled in the past decade, with more coming. There’s also a rush to build liquefied natural gas terminals to ship product overseas.

    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.

    Kristen Lombardihttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/kristen-lombardiJamie Smith Hopkinshttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/jamie-smith-hopkinshttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/07/17/20982/natural-gas-building-boom-fuels-climate-worries-enrages-landowners

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    VICTORVILLE, CA - Once a fighter jet training base critical to the Cold War, little remains of the former George Air Force Base but rows of dilapidated houses, a dismantled military hospital and dangerous chemicals from pesticides, jet fuels and other hazardous wastes that have poisoned the water for decades.

    “Now when I see the base today, areas of it look like a war zone,” said Frank Vera, an Air Force veteran stationed on the base in the early 1970s. “I don’t think people know what to do with some of these areas because they are so contaminated.”

    George is among at least 400 active and closed military installations nationwide where the use of toxic chemicals has contaminated or is suspected of contaminating water on bases and nearby communities with chemicals ranging from cleaning solvents and paints to explosives and firefighting foam, according to a News21 investigation.

    At 149 current and former U.S. military bases, the contamination is so severe that they have been designated Superfund sites by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, meaning they are among the most hazardous areas in the country requiring cleanup.

    One of those installations, Hill Air Force Base just north of Salt Lake City, is both one of the state’s largest employers, with 21,000 employees, and a Superfund site. Since 1987, the EPA has been monitoring the base, where more than 60 chemicals were found in soil and groundwater. According to EPA records, an “unsafe level of contamination” still exists on some areas of the base.

    “Even though the DOD has made significant strides in identifying and investigating the level of contamination at domestic base sites, the pace of actual cleanup has been quite slow,” according to a research study from the Berkeley School of Law. “As the Governmental Accountability Office (GAO) recently found, ‘most of the time and money has been spent studying the problem.’”

    According to a 2017 GAO report, the Department of Defense already has spent $11.5 billion on evaluations and environmental cleanup of closed bases, and it estimates $3.4 billion more will be needed.

    In March, the DOD said it would be testing the water at 395 active and closed bases across the country to determine whether perfluorinated compounds are contaminating the drinking water on bases and in communities around them.

    Originally developed by corporate giants 3M and DuPont for use in consumer products like Teflon, Scotchgard and stain-proof clothing, these chemicals, known as per- and polyfluorinated alkyl substances (PFAS), were used by the DOD since the 1970s in firefighting foam to extinguish jet fuel fires.

    In 2012, the EPA added PFAS to its list of unregulated contaminants that may be hazardous to human health, though records indicate the Pentagon knew of the hazards decades earlier.  In 1981, the Air Force Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory conducted studies that found that exposure to earlier variations of PFAS were harmful in female rats and caused behavioral changes in offspring.

    The Air Force started replacing the original firefighting foam with a “new, environmentally responsible firefighting foam” in August 2016.

    Because the chemicals don’t break down easily, communities still are finding them in their drinking water. For example, in May, residents in Airway Heights, Washington, were instructed not to drink their tap water after elevated levels of PFAS were found in drinking water wells on and around the active Fairchild Air Force Base.

    “I think it’s crazy that pretty much the whole time I’ve lived out here, approximately 12 years, I’ve been drinking bad water,” said Martha Grall, an Airway Heights resident. “Because they didn’t feel like sharing that information years ago, I have no faith in believing anything they have to say now when they try and tell us it’s safe now.”

    Though the Air Force started treating the water, Grall said, “As far as trusting the tap water, I don’t think I ever will.”

    Fairchild is one of more than 30 bases where PFAS contamination was discovered this year. In 2015, the DOD reported to the GAO that “the cost of cleaning up perfluorinated compounds will likely be  significant.” The Air Force had budgeted $100 million over a five-year period for the investigation and remediation of the chemical. However, the Air Force has already spent more than $150 million as of June 2017.

    As of August, the DOD had yet to complete testing for PFAS at more than 200 bases.

    “There are lots of places where this is a problem,” said Congressman Dan Kildee, a Democrat from Michigan. “And there are lots of places where it’s a problem, and the people don’t even know it yet.”

    “The biggest concern right now is that the Air Force hasn’t had any sense of urgency,” he said. They ought to be leading the effort to solve this problem. To find people who might have been affected, and to provide whatever relief is appropriate.”

    But U.S. Navy Commander Patrick Evans, a Pentagon spokesman, told News21 in a statement, “We take this matter very seriously and pledge an unshakable commitment to protecting human health and the environment.”

    Decades after base closures, PFAS threaten communities

    The former George Air Force base sits on the edge of the Mojave Desert in California. Many parts of it are abandoned. The operations building and movie theater are boarded up. Tumbleweeds, mounds of concrete and building materials fill the dugout of an old baseball field. But while almost any sign of military life is gone, the water contamination is not.

    “The Air Force is promising to clean it up,” said Vera, the veteran who served at the base. “But in the end, they are just walking away from the contaminated bases and the people are stuck with this nightmare.”

    In 1990, the base was added to the EPA’s Superfund list. Jet fuel, benzene, trichloroethylene (TCE), pesticides and radioactive wastes have contaminated groundwater, EPA records show.

    George was closed in 1992 as part of the Base Realignment and Closure, or BRAC. Within one year, the DOD began transferring land over to local communities to be redeveloped. But 25 years later, the water still is contaminated.

    “You don’t see George as far along as some of the other military bases,” said Bill Muir, the senior engineering geologist for the Lahontan Regional Water Quality Control Board, responsible for protecting water in the region.

    In 2015, PFAS chemicals also were found by the Air Force in the groundwater at the base, a potential threat to the businesses that have been built on the base, as well as surrounding communities.

    “We’re not aware that the perfluorinated compounds have impacted any of the drinking water wells downgradient of the base,” Muir said. “There is potential, and that’s why the Air Force will be sampling in the future, and we’ll encourage that.”

    Vera, 64, worked in the gun shop, where he said he used chlorinated solvents to clean weapons. “I would come out of there drenched in TCE,” he said. “They would empty the wash tank periodically and just dump it down the drain.”

    “The Air Force and the government in general, betrayed not only me, but everyone who stayed at these Superfund sites because they absolutely knew that they were contaminated,” said Vera. “They knew the harm it would possibly cause us.”

    “I drank gallons and gallons of water because it was the desert,” he said. “A lot of times, it was dark and had a real chemical taste. It tasted like JP-4, jet fuel.”

    In 2008, Vera created a website, Georgeafb.info, which started out as an “information repository” to keep his records and documents. Lisa McCrea, a former military wife, learned about the tainted water from his website.

    “Lots of us didn’t know a thing about the contamination,” said McCrea, 49. “We owe so much to Frank for his tireless years of work on this, trying to bring this to light (and) letting everybody know because there’s still families out there that have no clue.”

    McCrea lived on the base with her family for four years. She recalled the unsettling memory of pesticides being sprayed on her home, leaving yellow stains on the walls and on their clothes. In July, she made the trip from Ohio to California to revisit the base.

    “It’s hard to believe that we used to live here day in and day out without any protection,” said McCrea, standing in front of her former house. “And it’s even more upsetting that they (Air Force) let us live here without doing anything about it.”

    Terri Crooks, 59, is an Air Force veteran who was stationed on the base in the mid-’80s where she worked as an administrative clerk. She later was diagnosed with breast cancer and gynecological issues.

    From Vera’s website, Crooks learned that her conditions could be related to exposure to pesticides and submitted a claim to the Department of Veterans Affairs in 2015. The VA awarded her 70 percent disability, acknowledging that her health conditions could be connected to her military service at the base.

    Crooks was exposed to the chemical nearly 40 years ago, but Muir said a pesticide plume is among George’s biggest contamination problems even now.

    “The Air Force needs to work to aggressively treat these zones of contamination,” Muir said. Instead, it proposed using Monitored Natural Attenuation, a remediation strategy that allows nature to break down the chemicals over time.

    Phil Mook, a senior representative for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, which is overseeing cleanup at George, said the Air Force has spent the last 30 years removing contamination.

    “We’ve done a lot of work,” Mook said. “We still have work to do. In about 30 years, we’ll have much smaller TCE, fuels and petroleum. Estimated, another 70 years after that, we have the last little tail of it.”

    But according to the Lahontan Water Board, that treatment at George could take up to 500 years for the pesticide and solvent contamination to reach safe levels, and up to 40,000 years for areas of fuel contamination in the groundwater.

    The MNA method is used at more than half of the military locations classified as Superfund sites, according to EPA data.

    “We can’t accept monitored natural attenuation,” Muir said. “We need active remediation. We want a more aggressive approach than watching it.”

    “We have been forgotten,” McCrea told News21. “The base closed, everyone scattered to the wind, and I guess they figured, problem solved,” she continued. “To this day, there has been no word from the United States Air Force about the contamination at George Air Force Base.”

    Base cleanups cost taxpayers millions

    At the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in northern Michigan, the water contamination has persisted for nearly half a century. At the height of the Cold War, the base was home to B-52s and nuclear bombs. Now,  little is left but empty airfields and crumbling buildings.

    Wurtsmith was closed in 1993 and was proposed as a Superfund site in 1994. With an estimated cleanup cost of $72 million, the DOD expects Wurtsmith to be one of the most expensive cleanups of any former base, according to a 2017 GAO report.

    Leaking storage tanks and waste disposal practices at the base contaminated the groundwater with benzene, trichloroethylene, lead and other hazardous chemicals for decades. PFAS discovered in 2012 also polluted groundwater, not only on the base but in surrounding communities.

    “It’s clear that what was thought to be a relatively confined problem is bigger than what we thought it was,” said Kildee, the Michigan congressman whose district includes Wurtsmith. “And it’s clearly affected the drinking water.”

    Nearly 400 drinking water wells on and near the base have tested positive for the PFAS, and the contamination is migrating toward Lake Huron as well as local lakes used for fishing and recreation.

    “Right now, the Air Force said it’s going to be at least another 30 years to treat this,” said Aaron Weed, township supervisor for Oscoda, Michigan. “But we’ve already been dealing with contamination for over 30 years.”

    The town relies on water recreation to support its economy. We have visitors who don’t want to come up here and visit because they think all the water is contaminated,” said Weed. “It is safe to swim in the water. Just drinking the contaminated water is a problem.”

    Van Etten Lake runs through the center of Oscoda and has tested positive for PFAS.

    “Tourism and our economy are affected by this,” said Robert Tasior, a resident in Oscoda Township.

    He also is part of the Wurtsmith Restoration Advisory Board, which includes EPA representatives, Air Force officials and other residents who are working together on a cleanup plan. He says the Air Force needs to “step up.”

    “It happened under their watch. And where I come from, if it happened under your watch, you’re responsible for it,” he said. “If it means putting shovels in the ground to get rid of this stuff, then that’s what they need to do.”

    Weed, the township supervisor, said the Air Force only is treating groundwater under the base and has been unresponsive to concerns about PFAS migrating toward the lake.

    “I want people to have clean water,” Weed said. “I don’t want them to be sick from the natural environment we really have here. I believe that this slow response from the Air Force in treating this contamination is a poisoning of the American people.”

    While residents worry about the current PFAS contamination, veterans like Rick Thompto, 58, are concerned about the long legacy of contamination at the base. Thompto worked as a security police officer on the base from 1978 to 1982. One night, while on a routine security check of the base, he discovered leaking barrels of cleaning solvents.

    “We noticed that the door was open to this building … it was always locked,” Thompto said. “We stepped in there and were hit with a strange odor. I looked and it was all rolling down and going in the drain.”

    Thompto now has a persistent brain tumor he and his wife contend is the result of drinking toxic water during his nearly five years at Wurtsmith. In 2007, he was awarded 100 percent disability from the VA.

    It took Thompto and his wife seven years and several appeals before the VA acknowledged that his brain tumor was related to contaminated water. A recent brain scan shows Thompto could completely lose his brain function at any time.

    “This isn’t going to happen gradually,” said his wife, Tressa. “It could happen tonight. It could happen a few months from now.”

    “He shouldn’t have gotten sick,” she continued. “If the government did their job the right way and cared about their people, he wouldn’t have gotten sick in the first place.”

    A public health assessment from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in 2000 concluded that the TCE contamination Wurtsmith’s drinking water had been present as early as the 1950s.

    “To watch your loved one slowly die in front of you is difficult,” said Tressa Thompto. “It took us seven years of fighting, and even after winning, you’re still fighting.”

    A community works to bounce back  

    Pease Air Force Base in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, bears little resemblance to the abandoned landscapes at other closed bases. Before the base closed in the spring of 1991, the state of New Hampshire had already created a redevelopment plan to replace the former base with a business park.

    Despite being classified as an Superfund site in 1990 and “one of the most contaminated Superfund sites in New England” due to TCE, jet fuel and other contaminants in the groundwater, Pease bounced back after nearly a decade of cleanup.

    Today, the base is gone, replaced with brick buildings housing restaurants, pharmaceutical companies and day care centers.

    “The Air Force has said that this is probably the most successful redevelopment of an Air Force base that they have in the country,” said Andrea Amico, co-founder of a community action group Testing for Pease.

    “It’s beautiful. It’s tree lined. It’s a very nice place,” said Amico. “At lunch time, it’s filled with people running and biking and walking, it’s a beautiful place to be. So you don’t come on to this thinking, ‘Oh, my God, this place is an environmental disaster.’”

    Amico didn’t know about the history of the Pease International Tradeport property when she moved to Portsmouth. Starting in 2011, she dropped her infant daughter off every day at a day care center nestled between lush trees and her husband’s office building on the tradeport without worry.

    But in 2014, Amico learned from a newspaper article that water serving the tradeport was highly contaminated and unsafe to drink. Her daughter and husband had been drinking the water every day for three years.

    Pease was the first military base to discover PFAS in the local drinking water. Three drinking water wells serving the entire tradeport tested positive for PFAS, and one in particular tested at levels more than 12.5 times above the EPA provisional health advisory.

    “When you do something that impacts children, you better watch out for their moms,” she said.

    Amico and two other mothers created an advocacy group after learning that their children had been drinking contaminated water at a daycare on the tradeport. Amico, Michelle Dalton and Alayna Davis created Testing for Pease and lobbied for two years to get blood testing for the community funded by New Hampshire Health and Human Services.

    She remembered the day she received the results for her two children. “It was like a kick in the face,” she recalled. “Even knowing they were going to be high, to actually see it on paper was a really big blow.”

    Amico’s daughter, now 6, had the highest PFAS level of anyone in the family. “I know it’s going to be in her blood for a long time,” Amico said. “And there’s not a lot of data to support what it may or may not do to her.”

    Much of the research about PFAS has been left to community.

    “It’s a Catch-22 because we’re at the forefront of all the bases,” said Dalton. “We’re kind of in uncharted territory.”

    Amico says that so far, the Air Force has been responsive, but only after receiving significant pressure from community members, the EPA and New Hampshire state representatives.

    “It doesn’t feel as if they’ve done anything on their own good will here, which is frustrating to me,” she said.

    Portsmouth resident Lindsey Carmichael is a member of Pease’s Community Assistance Panel, a group of citizens who work with federal agencies to look at health effects on the community. She became involved after learning that the water at her son’s day care was contaminated.

    Although her son’s blood levels did not show a heightened level of PFAS, she is still concerned for the long-term health effects on her son and those who drank the water at the tradeport.

    One of the main things that we’re hoping for is that the DOD, Air Force, who was the polluter who has taken full responsibility for the contamination, would also pay for a health study to help us understand what in fact the implications are of the exposure,” Carmichael said.

    However, as of May 2017, the Air Force has denied community requests to conduct a health study on the residents affected by the contamination at Pease.

    “All of us are guinea pigs and we bear the burden of proving a product or chemical’s safety – or lack thereof – and the consequences are what we’re seeing here,”  Carmichael said.

    For decades, day-to-day military operations have contaminated the water at bases across the country, including the now-defunct George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif.Corinne Roelshttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/corinne-roelsBriana Smithhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/briana-smithAdrienne St. Clairhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/adrienne-st-clairhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/18/21105/military-bases-contamination-will-affect-water-generations

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    CAMPTI, La. – Deep in the winding mass of crumbling back streets in Campti, Leroy Hayes sets a glass of water from his faucet in a patch of sunlight on the railing of his porch and watches specks of sediment float to the top.

    Hayes said the town’s water system has been bad for years, with water often coming out brown and smelling like bleach. The family uses bottled water for drinking and cooking and often has to drive to the city of Natchitoches, 11 miles away, to wash their clothes. The Campti water leaves their clothes with a yellowish tint.

    “Don’t nobody drink that mess,” Hayes said.

    Like many poor African-American communities, Campti’s poverty is a significant impediment to making crucial improvements to the town’s infrastructure – including its old water system. Hayes is a lifelong resident of the town, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of the predominantly African-American population lives in poverty. Campti’s median household income is only $15,428.

    Skepticism about drinking water is pervasive in many black communities, most recently in the urban cities like Milwaukee, where high childhood lead poisoning rates plague the city, and Flint, Michigan, where lead from pipes leached into the city’s water. But it also affects the pockets of poverty in states such as Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Texas, where many residents rely on antiquated water systems and haphazard monitoring or live near businesses and industries whose waste, they say, pollutes their water systems.

    “Everything that happens now where people don’t want it, it goes into a poor and black neighborhood,” said Esther Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.

    A News21 national analysis of water violations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that tens of millions of Americans are drinking contaminated water – particularly in small, low-income and minority communities. Aging infrastructure and limited funding are two of the major water issues posing a threat to public health, according to the agency’s 2016 Drinking Water Action Plan.

    “For someone to say that there’s not a correlation to me means they have their eyes closed, or they don’t want to believe that these impacts are actually happening or don’t want to dedicate the resources to these communities,” said Mustafa Ali, the former assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA.

    In Uniontown, Alabama, black residents blame a swell of gastrointestinal complications on the waste from a nearby catfish farm they say pollutes their drinking water. In parts of North Carolina, impoverished African-Americans sometimes rely on contaminated wells for drinking water – though public water systems run just a few feet from their homes.

    “The probability of drinking water violations is significantly greater in communities that are both poor and nonwhite,”  said Manuel Teodoro, a Texas A&M University professor and the co-author of “Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Justice in Safe Water Compliance,” a 2017 study of violations across the country. “What’s troubling from an environmental justice perspective is that race and ethnicity matter most when people are poor.”

    The water system in Campti is more than 50 years old, according to an audit from the Louisiana legislative auditor. Near the end of 2016, the water tank sprang several holes, some of which were temporarily plugged with sticks. A new tank was built in March, but residents still don’t trust that the water is safe.

    Annette Caskey lives in one of the poorest areas of Campti – a small community called Sherry Circle. Broken pavement leads to a small hill, where worn dirt paths climb to small trailer-like houses. Caskey’s tap water is often orange or brown. Rather than drink it, she buys water by the caseload at the local Brookshire’s or M&M Grocery. Her dogs also get bottled water.

    “This water sucks,” Caskey said. “Sometimes it’s got too much chlorine in it, and sometimes it’s got no chlorine at all. It’s like you’re drinking sewage.” For a long time, residents were getting sick with diarrhea and other issues, Caskey said. She said it stopped for a while, but people have started getting sick again.

    Campti is the oldest settlement along the Red River, whose waters snake from northwest Texas down to the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. Worn-down roads lead to the town’s meager collection of businesses, which include a Dollar General, a Papa John’s and a couple of gas stations – the Campti Quick Stop and an All-N-1.

    Judy Daniels, Campti’s mayor from 2006-2010, said most of the town’s water infrastructure is anywhere from 40 to 60 years old, and the town doesn’t have money to fix it. She said the water does have problems, and they get worse after a storm or power outage because the water pump does not have a backup generator.

    “The funds just aren’t there for us,” Daniels said. “We’re the stepchildren.”

    Campti’s water system has had seven health-based violations. Six of those came in the 1990s, when tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria – a sign that feces or sewage could be contaminating the water. The only health-based violation this decade was in 2014, when Campti’s system received a treatment violation, meaning there was a deficiency that was not properly treated.

    “It’s been like this ever since I’ve been here, and I grew up here,” Caskey said.

    There have been no other recent health violations. But then, testing the water for the last five years has been up to the local utilities that manage the water. Budget cuts in 2012 forced the Louisiana Office of Public Health to lay off the state’s sanitarians, the people responsible for taking water samples. According to an audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, during that time – from 2012 until January 2017 – the state could not be sure the results were accurate.

    The town of Tallulah, 150 miles east of Campti, has had 11 health-based violations dating to 1991. In 2015, coliform was found in the system.

    Much of Tallulah was born from the 1,440-acre Scottland Plantation, where an old mansion still stands, the only remnant of the former village of Richmond, which was destroyed during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today, Tallulah’s median household income is $23,317, about half of the state’s average. About 40 percent of the population – which is 77 percent black – lives in poverty, including 60 percent of its children.

    Decorian Herring lives with his two daughters in one of the most impoverished parts of Tallulah, a sparsely populated complex named Magnolia Villas. The neighborhood often floods during storms, and, more than once, he’s seen alligators swimming between the rows of apartments.

    The tap water is usually discolored and has a strong odor, Herring said. But it gets worse after a storm floods the complex.

    “Sometimes you’ll run the water in the tub … and you’ll see the water come out green or brown,” Herring said. “A lot of times we’ll get the letter around here that they’re going to be shutting the water off for a couple of hours because of the contamination.”

    The water started getting worse about a year ago, Herring said. People in the complex started getting sick with stomach viruses, and they stopped drinking the water. He said he’s constantly buying cases of bottled water for his family.

    “You never really know when the boil advisory is,” Herring said. “The majority of the time it comes late in the mail. They’ll have already started it.”

    The Rev. Tommy Watson, pastor of East Star Baptist Church and one of Tallulah’s aldermen, said the town has been “repairing and patching” the system for the last several years. The town had four or five boil advisories in 2016, which is more than normal, Watson said. Two of those came when a water main broke.

    Tallulah Mayor Paxton Branch said the town plans to replace its system. The current system is so old that companies don’t make the parts necessary for some repairs. Right now, the city has about $6 million of the $10 million needed to begin construction.

    For some residents, the new system can’t come fast enough. Hours after the mayor explained his plan for a new system, a water main broke, leaving large swaths of the town without water.

    Pamela Oliver says she doesn’t trust the water enough to use it for anything but cooking and cleaning.

    Louisiana only recognizes the lowest level of EPA standards and does not regularly test for secondary issues, such as color and odor, the most common complaints in towns like Campti and Tallulah.

    “The problem with Louisiana is that we only recognize the lowest EPA ratings for our water, which means our water is safe,” said Lady Carlson of Together Louisiana, a statewide advocacy group. “So the water in St. Joseph, they said was safe. It looks like gumbo, but you can drink it. In six months, we had the problem fixed.”

    Louisiana’s St. Joseph is the site of the state’s most-publicized water system failure. After pipes in the town’s decrepit water system began to corrode, lead and copper leached into the system.

    “When you look at the areas with crumbling infrastructure, it’s in communities of color and low-income communities,” said Ali, the former EPA official.

    In his post with the EPA, Ali oversaw the office tasked with advocating for populations inordinately affected by environmental issues – low-income communities, African-Americans, Latinos and Native American tribes. Ali resigned over disagreements with President Donald Trump’s administration.

    The Environmental Justice Office is one of several EPA departments that face elimination under the president’s proposed budget.

    Yet, across the country, Americans of color are growing more concerned about their drinking water, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Up from 73 percent in 2015, 80 percent of nonwhite respondents now worry “a great deal” about their water.

    "If we don't help our most vulnerable communities to not only be healthier but to be more economically viable, then we leave a gap in our country, and it weakens us," Ali said.

    In Melville, about an hour northwest of Baton Rouge in southern Louisiana, the town’s water system is served by a single 54-year-old well. One of the country’s poorest communities, it has just over 1,000 residents and a median household income of $17,670.

    The self-proclaimed “Catfish Capital of the World” sits on the banks of the Atchafalaya River – one of the state’s most iconic and beloved geographic features. But the town has no second well or backup plan. If the well goes down, the state of Louisiana will have to send trucks of water to keep the town from drying out.

    Its system also has been poorly maintained and doesn’t have enough money to pay for upgrades, said Mayor Erana Mayes. In 2013, the water system was $125,541 in the red, and in 2014, $62,971 in utility payments went missing. Leaks regularly spring in the underground pipes. But when one leak is clamped, another pops up down the line.

    “We’re constantly using chlorine. That’s a daily thing,” Mayes said. “Our water is good, now. Nothing is wrong with it. It’s just the expense of it.”

    Carlson said most of the problems in rural towns – like Tallulah and Melville – come from outdated water systems and aging pipes. But there’s little money to make repairs, much less replace the pipes.

    “There’s just been a lack of attention to these neighborhoods and a lack of political will to get things done,” said Carlson.

    In southern Alabama’s Uniontown, a community first established around a slave plantation, water quality is a persistent worry for the mostly black residents, who say a nearby catfish farm contaminates their town water system.

    “Everybody knows about the smell and water in Uniontown. It’s bad,” said Demetrius Holmes, who says he’s been in and out of the hospital 20 times because of gastrointestinal complications. “They just say gastroparesis, or acid reflux. I’ve heard them all. But no one can figure out what’s wrong with my intestines.”

    He says it’s the water.

    “You have 2,000 to 2,200 people that live here in Uniontown and just about all of us have problems, and a lot of us have the same problems,” said Ben Eaton, vice president of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. “But as far as good water, I can’t say it’s good. Too many issues around it to just say.”

    Mark Elliott, a civil engineer and researcher at the University of Alabama, claims a nearby catfish farm plays a part. “They have been disposing their industrial wastewater to the Uniontown system.”

    “The system was not designed to take that load. Basically, … their wastewater volume is equivalent to the whole town put together,” he said. “So their system ended up being underdesigned. It’s bursting the side of the lagoon and running off into the stream constantly.”

    In another community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, residents relied for years on contaminated well water – even though most everyone around received water from a public system. “The well water was bad,” said Robert Campbell, a pastor in the community. “Now, we can basically say what is in there. Fecal matter, benzene, arsenic ... but it wasn’t safe to drink.”

    This year, the community was hooked up to public water and sewer services.

    “We didn't have the basic amenities, like clean water and sewer,” Campbell said. “There were a lot of things we were looking at, saying, why isn’t it in another community that looks almost like us except for the ethnicity of the community?”

    In Sandbranch, Texas, residents don’t have a public drinking water system at all. Just 14 miles from downtown Dallas, residents used to rely on private wells supplied by groundwater but don’t anymore. Most drink bottled water delivered by the local church each week.

    “It would be a miracle if we could ever turn our tap on and get running water,” said 83-year-old Ivory Hall Jr., who makes a 20-mile round trip to the city of Ferris to fill a water tank and hauls it home.

    Leroy Thomas has lived in Sandbranch for 40 years and says the water used to be drinkable. He claims the groundwater was contaminated by illegal dumping and more recently, a nearby wastewater treatment.

    “The runoff, the illegal dumping, the tires … all of the waste that people bring in here, it’s going in the ground,” he said.

    News21 requested water testing records for Sandbranch. But an email from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, “After reviewing the appropriate resources of the TCEQ, we were unable to locate any responsive information in the possession of the TCEQ.

    Most of the community’s 100 or fewer residents live in ramshackle houses they can’t sell because they wouldn’t make enough money to move.

    “This is America and in the 21st century, people living in the shadows of the most prosperous urban area as far as job creation for the last five years deserve water,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who presides over the Dallas County Commissioners Court. “We got families that can stand on a hill and can look at downtown Dallas and don’t have running drinking water. That’s what we’re trying to fix.”

    A 2016 report to President Barack Obama outlined several problems affecting water quality across the nation, including aging systems and lead service lines. According to the report, called “Science and Technology to Ensure the Safety of the Nation’s Drinking Water,” lead pipes have become a common problem in old cities and the Midwest. The American Water Works Association estimates 6.1 million lead service lines remain in the U.S. and serve 15 million to 22 million people.

    “You hear time and time again this issue with aging infrastructure, and you have the lead pipes being part of the issue,” said Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “You have this recipe for disaster like what we found in Flint.”

    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. These lead pipes – along with the 130,000 homes with lead-based paint – contribute to the high numbers of poisoned children, according to the 2014 Report on Childhood Lead Poisoning in Wisconsin.

    One of them is Troy Lowe, a 4-year-old infatuated with dandelions, which he picks for his bus driver.

    In December, his father, Tory Lowe, learned his son had lead poisoning, as do 8.6 percent of the children in Milwaukee, according to a 2014 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

    Even before then, Lowe had been working to inform his community on Milwaukee’s north side about the dangers of lead in the water. Lowe also uses his Facebook page to blast messages about shootings, kidnappings and carjackings to his more than 38,000 followers. He also made a music video called “Don’t Drink the Water” in which he raps about the city’s lead service lines.

    “If the people most affected don’t know, it doesn’t matter,” Lowe said.

    His son’s lead test result of 5.9 micrograms per deciliter is lower than many children in Milwaukee, Lowe said, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says researchers have not defined the effect lower levels might on the central nervous system and cannot rule out adverse effects at low levels. Any level above 5 micrograms is considered lead poisoning.

    As part of the line replacement plan, the city published lists of every property known to have lead service lines. The Lowe family’s home was listed. He said his family does not drink from the tap, opting to buy bottled water instead.

    “I know there’s thousands of kids being lead poisoned … if my son can get lead poisoning and we don’t even drink the water,” Lowe said.

    Milwaukee recently began an effort to replace the lead lines, starting with $3.4 million to replace 300 that serve schools and day cares in 2017. Then, the city will spend another $3.4 million to replace 300 lines serving residences.

    At that pace, it would it would take more than 233 years to replace all of Milwaukee’s residential lead lines. To replace all 70,000 lead lines in the next 50 years, the city would need replace 1,400 pipes per year, which would cost about $4.5 million each year, according to the Water Quality Task Force.

    Robert Miranda, a representative for the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, a water advocacy group, said there may be as many as 20,000 more lead service lines the city did not include in its original estimate. An April 2017 report by Milwaukee’s Water Quality Task Force backs up Miranda’s claim, noting that there is a “measure of uncertainty” because the number of lead lines installed from 1951 to 1962 “remains in limbo.”

    “What we don’t know is how many more pipes we have from 1952 to 1962,” Miranda said. “They didn’t have anything that really substantiated or made that date concrete.”

    The Milwaukee Department of Public Works declined an interview request from News21, but an email from department spokeswoman Sandy Rusch Walton said: “The (Milwaukee) Water Works complies with all state and federal drinking water standards, and is known for its extensive water quality monitoring program that reaches beyond basic requirements.”

    Anna Smith lived with her children in a decrepit apartment where rain and snow fell through a hole in the ceiling and plastic grocery bags plugged a crack in the wall. It is one of many on the list of buildings with lead service lines.

    Her 3-year-old daughter, Laila, tested at 8.8 micrograms per deciliter in October. Her other child, 1-year-old Princeton, tested with 12.1 in July.

    “I wouldn’t have stayed there if I knew they had lead poisoning,” Smith said, adding that her daughter “was drinking from the faucet and stuff. I was cooking with the water.”

    Short-term lead exposure can cause symptoms such as headaches, constipation and abdominal pain, according to the CDC. Long-term exposure can lead to more serious neurological issues. It often affects children more than adults.

    In East Chicago, Indiana, residents have filed an emergency action petition with the EPA, asking the agency to address lead service lines affecting water. In the northwest Indiana city known historically for its lead and steel production, as many as 90 percent of the homes could be connected to lead service lines, according to the petition to the EPA. In one neighborhood, 40 percent of the homes tested by the EPA for the Drinking Water Pilot Study exceeded federal action levels, meaning enough lead was in tap water to pose a risk.

    The Calumet neighborhood’s water problem was discovered as the EPA was investigating a separate issue – lead and arsenic in the soil left behind by the USS Lead Superfund Site –  where the low-income neighborhood now sits. According to the EPA, it’s not possible for lead to leach into the pipes, but many of the homes’ water tested positive, which indicates lead service lines.

    The NAACP’s Patterson said communities of color – both urban and rural – are disproportionately affected by polluting industries because they are more likely to be located near low-income neighborhoods.

    “There’s an interesting mix of things. One, the pollution that comes externally from power plants or those types of things are disproportionately located in communities of color,” she said. “Then, because those types of facilities are often underregulated and monitored, you have this situation where … all of these things can end up affecting the water supply.”

    Akeesha Daniels spent 13 years in the West Calumet Housing Complex, a now-abandoned housing project where the lead refinery once stood. She said the residents were never warned about the lead in the soil or the pipes.

    “We were never told,” Daniels said. “Not one thing. Why would you let your most vulnerable people live there and not notify us that something was wrong?”

    Calumet Lives Matter, a local advocacy group, is distributing cases of water to residents out of churches each week. Sherry Hunter, an organizer of the group, said each family gets four cases of water, some of which are donated by the nearby cities of Hammond and Gary.

    The petition, signed by several community groups, says the city’s water is unsafe to drink, even with the measures in place to control corrosion of the lead pipes. State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, whose district includes East Chicago, said the state is working to determine the extent of the water contamination issue and how much it will cost to fix it.

    “We are fed up with the assault of toxic contamination on our city, our neighborhoods and our people,” said the Rev. Cheryl Rivera, one of the leaders with the Community Strategy Group, another organization that pushed for the petition. “Take it to somebody else’s neighborhood. It is absolutely environmental racism. We are tired of our children and our families being poisoned intentionally.”

    Troy Lowe, 4, sleeps under the arm of his father, Tory Lowe, in Milwaukee. Troy tested positive for lead poisoning after ingesting the tap water in their home.William Taylor Potterhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/william-taylor-potterBrandon Kitchinhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/brandon-kitchinAlexis Reesehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/alexis-reesehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/21/21114/crumbling-pipes-tainted-water-plague-black-communities

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    Like many buildings of its vintage, the century-old headquarters of the United States General Services Administration was once lined with asbestos.

    The hazardous mineral, used for fireproofing, filled nearly a half-million square feet of the building on F Street in downtown Washington, D.C.  It took more than a hundred licensed workers almost a year to pry out the substance during a renovation that began in 2011.  The workers would log nightly nine-hour shifts, spent mostly in air-tight spaces that reached 100 degrees. Some didn’t wear clothing beneath their protective Tyvek suits, hoping to stave off heat exhaustion and avoid bringing home cancer-causing asbestos fibers.

    The pay for this grueling task was dictated by the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1931 law that promises specific wages and benefits for construction work on government buildings and infrastructure. The compensation set by the U.S. Department of Labor under the act, based on location and job duties, is often higher than what’s offered on private-sector projects.

    Three workers on the GSA job who spoke to the Center for Public Integrity said their employer didn’t tell them what they were owed under the law. They and 124 others filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in 2011.

    Investigators found in the workers’ favor, saying they should have earned $25.47 per hour including benefits, as skilled laborers, a specific category of employee under Davis-Bacon. Instead, their supervisors paid them $15.84 an hour and classified their work as general labor. Six years after the complaint was filed, the investigation remains open because of an appeal. The workers still haven’t gotten their back pay.

    “You feel powerless,” said Luis Fonseca, who, like his former colleagues on the GSA job, lost about $1,300 per month before overtime, which also was underpaid. “You see that companies are doing what they want and you can never do anything against them.”

    But in some ways, Fonseca and his former co-workers already have beaten the odds.

    The Wage and Hour Division must enforce at least 14 statutes across the nation’s 29 million businesses with a team of only 929 investigators as of the end of June. Federal agencies, which spent more than $470 billion on contracts during the 2016 fiscal year, are saddled with a flawed system to vet contractors and monitor their compliance with those laws. As a result, contractors’ violations rarely show up in government databases. Subcontractors, which often employ most of the workers on construction projects, get even less scrutiny.

    Last year, the federal government spent more than $40 billion on contracts covered by Davis-Bacon. But a Center investigation found that about 70 percent of the businesses caught violating the law in 2016 don’t appear in federal databases designed to track companies’ contracting records. 

    Weak oversight allows subcontractors in particular to shortchange workers on government projects with little fear of being caught or barred from future contracts. Meanwhile, their overseers often maintain clean labor records and continue to win government business. This fiscal year, federal agencies have spent more than $425 million on contractors found to have violated Davis-Bacon in 2016, according to U.S. Treasury and Labor Department records analyzed by the Center. The top spenders: The U.S. Department of Defense and the GSA.

    A GSA spokeswoman said in a written statement that the agency could not comment on the wage-theft allegations related to its headquarters renovation because of the ongoing Labor Department investigation. It’s GSA policy, she said, to check companies’ compliance records and investigate any concerns noted by contracting officers before awarding contracts.

    The Defense Department conducts similar reviews to ensure that “contracts are only awarded to responsive and responsible companies,” a spokesman said in a statement.

    True extent of wage theft unknown

    In fiscal year 2016, the Labor Department found 12,567 Davis-Bacon violations and recovered about $20.5 million in back wages for workers, down from an average of $26.5 million over the previous five years. But the true extent of the problem is impossible to know given the department’s limited ability to police millions of businesses and the prevalence of misinformation and fear that keeps workers from getting legally owed wages. During the first two years of the Obama administration, the Wage and Hour Division added nearly 300 investigators, and recovery of back wages jumped accordingly. Collections in 2011, for example, were more than double those of the previous year. The number of investigators has since hovered around 1,000.

    Unlike the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the federal minimum wage, Davis-Bacon usually bars workers from trying to recover lost pay through private lawsuits. Most aggrieved workers, therefore, must go through the Labor Department for relief.

    Enforcement by the department is complicated by the layers of companies often involved in construction work. The prime contractor on the 2011 GSA headquarters renovation was Whiting-Turner/Walsh Joint Venture, which was paid $124 million to oversee the work. Luis Fonseca worked under a subcontractor called Asbestos Specialists Inc., which brought him on through a staffing company, further distancing him from Whiting-Turner/Walsh management.

    The Wage and Hour Division accused Asbestos Specialists of misclassifying — and therefore shorting — workers on the GSA project.  But the case remains open on appeal, and the asbestos workers have yet to receive the $640,693.74 the Labor Department says they’re collectively owed. “We all have commitments — we have responsibilities with our kids, our parents, our wives,” said Manuel Vega, one of the workers who is due back wages.

    In a related investigation in 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Asbestos Specialists of discrimination. The workers, mostly immigrants from Latin America, claimed company supervisors harassed them with racial slurs and demeaning treatment, such as giving them unfiltered water — sometimes after spitting in it — while the supervisors drank from bottles. In a settlement with the EEOC, the company did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay the workers a total of $100,000 and provide anti-discrimination training to its staff.   

    Asbestos Specialists has received at least $5.8 million in federal construction contracts since 2013. In a written statement, the company’s lawyer said Asbestos Specialists has appealed the Labor Department’s decision in the GSA case and believes it paid the workers properly.

    Apart from Fonseca, Vega and the 125 other workers it hired through the staffing company, Asbestos Specialists put 13 of its own employees on the GSA job. Those 13 workers were paid close to the legal rate of $25.47 per hour.

    “They demand so much work from you, and they play with your money,” Fonseca said. “It belongs to you, but it doesn’t reach your hands.”

    Poor track record of oversight

    Government subcontractors underpay their employees any number of ways, Labor Department records show. Some companies misclassify workers, claiming they belong to a lower-paying trade, as the Labor Department found with the GSA asbestos-removers. Others have been caught striking employees from payroll records entirely. Still others cut workers’ hours on paper to make it appear that the wages paid reflected actual time worked.

    In one case, air-conditioner installers on a job financed in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were routinely given paychecks reflecting the $50.70 per hour to which they were entitled under Davis-Bacon. They were forced to cash the checks and return about half the money to their employer, Igloo HVAC LLC, the Labor Department alleged. Payroll records submitted to HUD reflected none of this.

    The Labor Department settled the case with Igloo HVAC, which paid more than $80,000 in back wages to five workers. Roberto Flores, the company’s owner, declined to comment, citing the settlement agreement. A HUD spokesman said that while the agency reviews payroll records submitted for projects it finances, it can’t always verify the accuracy of those records.

    Wage theft in federal contracting has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration proposes a “great rebuilding of our country,” a $1 trillion increase in public infrastructure investment over the next 10 years.

    In June, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that wages paid to workers on highway and other infrastructure projects would be covered by Davis-Bacon. But federal agencies’ track record of monitoring violators isn’t good. Regulations require agencies to determine whether potential contractors are “responsible,” which can have myriad meanings — whether they can stick to a schedule, for example, or have sufficient assets. Federal contracting officers use a network of databases to review companies’ performance, but the databases, which are maintained by the Defense Department, don’t usually divulge labor-law violations. Companies that win contracts vet their own subcontractors, which generally don’t appear in the databases.  

    Toward the close of the Obama administration, the Labor Department tried to address these problems with a rule that aimed to bring government contractors into compliance with Davis-Bacon and other labor laws before they could receive additional awards. The short-lived Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which became final last year, created a system under which agencies could review companies’ violation histories: Companies would report any black marks from the previous three years. Each agency would get a labor compliance officer, and contracting databases would become more inclusive.

    The rule also included a paycheck-transparency mandate, requiring contractors to break down payment amounts in detail to workers and specify their job classifications.  

    Most of the rule’s provisions never went into effect — they were stayed by a federal judge following a lawsuit by two trade groups, Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Security Companies.

    All of this became immaterial in March, when President Donald Trump affirmed Congress’ vote to dismantle the rule under the Congressional Review Act.

    "When I met with manufacturers earlier this year — and they were having a hard time, believe me — they said this blacklisting rule was one of the greatest threats to growing American business and hiring more American workers,” Trump said as he signed the legislation.

    Now, as was the case before, information on companies’ labor infractions — distinct from the performance databases administered by the Defense Department — lies scattered across Labor Department, EEOC and National Labor Relations Board offices.  

    David Weil, who led the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division from 2014 to 2016, said he found the revocation of the rule “remarkable,” given Trump’s stated concern about creating a “level playing field for American companies and our workers.”

    “If these are the laws of the land, you should be paying the workers according to fair prevailing wages and paying them the benefits you're supposed to be paying,” said Weil, the dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. “Why should companies that have consistently violated multiple federal labor statutes in the past be given the opportunity to get more government work?”

    For workers who file complaints with the Labor Department, recovering wages can be an arduous process. Last year, the department closed 864 Davis-Bacon cases in which it had found violations. A typical case took about 250 days to resolve. Some cases were closed within one month; the oldest was opened in 2006.

    Fonseca and Vega, the former GSA asbestos workers, still don’t know when their case will end. It involves four interconnected employers. At the top of the chain was Whiting-Turner/Walsh, the general contractor. Next came Interior Specialists Inc., a subcontractor. That firm, in turn, hired Asbestos Specialists. Finally, there was WMS Solutions LLC, the staffing company that directly employed the asbestos-removers but didn’t determine their pay. WMS isn’t part of the Labor Department’s investigation; the other three companies have contested the wage-theft charges.

    A Whiting-Turner spokeswoman declined to comment on the case. Representatives of its partner on the GSA headquarters renovation, Walsh Group, and Interior Specialists did not respond to requests for comment. Maryland records show WMS’s business status as “forfeited,” and company officials could not be reached.

    ‘You’re artisans’

    In April, Trump made an appearance at North America’s Building Trades Unions’ legislative conference. "I've spent my life working side by side with American builders, and now you have a builder as your president," he told his audience.

    He called out different trades represented in the room, from bricklayers to ironworkers to plumbers, waiting for each group to cheer.

    “You're not only builders, but you're artisans,” he said. “Just as you take pride in your work, our nation takes great, great pride in you.”

    The Trump administration’s Wage and Hour Division, whose top posts remain unfilled, has yet to reveal its enforcement strategy, and division officials declined to be interviewed for this article. The Labor Department’s fiscal 2018 budget request for the division seeks a modest $3 million increase to help employers with legal compliance. The Obama administration, in contrast, sought an extra $50 million to boost wage-and-hour enforcement for the current fiscal year, but Congress failed to appropriate the money.

    This year, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed a $10 million cut for the division, and a $1.3 billion cut for the Labor Department overall.

    In March, acting Solicitor Nicholas Geale said the Labor Department needed to show “a little more humility.” In June, the department reinstated a practice that had been suspended under Obama: the issuance of opinion letters, which on their face help employers clarify gray areas of labor law. Critics say the letters create a rationale employers can later use as a defense in worker lawsuits.

    To Rajesh Nayak, an Obama Labor Department official, the Trump administration’s moves so far are telling. “It starts to paint this picture of a very different Wage and Hour [Division] — and one that doesn't match the rhetoric of putting American workers first,” said Nayak, who served as deputy chief of staff to Labor Secretary Tom Perez.  

    The division has long fought an uphill battle. Its investigators rely on worker complaints, tips from industry and labor groups and their own sleuthing to enforce wage laws.

    Workers, however, are often reluctant to complain.

    “These guys may very well lose their jobs,” said John Monroe, a labor compliance officer at the Foundation for Fair Contracting. The foundation, funded by building-trades unions, seeks out wage-theft violations on government construction projects and submits complaints to the Labor Department.

    Monroe regularly walks onto job sites, blending in with a hardhat and safety vest. He asks workers about their pay and passes out sheets listing Davis-Bacon rates for different trades.

    Monroe said he’s never been to a site where he didn’t encounter a case of wage theft. But even when the Labor Department finds violations, companies usually are forced to pay only back wages.  Penalties and damages are rare, especially in Davis-Bacon cases. In 2016, damages were assessed in less than 1 percent of cases in which Davis-Bacon violations were found, and penalties were paid in less than 2 percent.

    “The penalty for robbing the bank is to give the money back,” Monroe said, “and that's just not a deterrent.”

    Data intern Iuliia Alieva contributed to this article.

    A construction worker cuts brick in Washington, D.C.Maryam Jameelhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/maryam-jameelhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/21/21058/fleecing-america-s-builders

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    Federal health officials made more than $16 billion in improper payments to private Medicare Advantage health plans last year and need to crack down on billing errors by the insurers, a top congressional auditor testified Wednesday.

    James Cosgrove, who directs health care reviews for the Government Accountability Office, told the House Ways and Means oversight subcommittee that the Medicare Advantage improper payment rate was 10 percent in 2016, which comes to $16.2 billion.

    Adding in the overpayments for standard Medicare programs, the tally for last year approaches $60 billion — which is almost twice as much as the National Institutes of Health spends on medical research each year.

    “Fundamental changes are necessary” to improve how the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services ferrets out billing mistakes and recoups overpayments from health insurers, he said.

    Medicare serves about 56 million people, both those 65 and older and disabled people of any age. About 19 million have chosen to enroll in Medicare Advantage plans as an alternative to standard Medicare.

    Federal officials predict the Medicare Advantage option will grow further as massive numbers of baby boomers retire in coming years.

    Standard Medicare has a similar problem making accurate payments to doctors, hospitals and other health care providers, according to statistics presented at the hearing. Standard Medicare’s payment error rate was cited at 11 percent, or $41 billion for 2016.

    Last week, Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced the arrest of 412 people, some 100 doctors among them, in a scattershot of health care fraud schemes that allegedly ripped off the government for about $1.3 billion, mostly from Medicare.

    CMS official Jonathan Morse said that the “largest contributors” to billing mistakes in standard Medicare were claims from home health care and inpatient rehabilitation facilities.

    Some lawmakers appeared frustrated that CMS cannot say for sure how much of the “improper payments” in both Medicare options are caused by fraud. The agency uses the term broadly to cover billing fraud, waste and abuse, as well as simply overcharges and underpayments.

    “When trying to understand how much fraud is in Medicare, the answer is simply we don’t know,” subcommittee Chairman Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) said.

    Yet he added that “it doesn’t take a big percentage [of fraud] to get a giant number” of dollars.

    CMS official Morse did little to clear up any confusion over billing mistakes. In his written testimony, he said that improper payments are “most often payments for which there is no or insufficient supporting documentation to determine whether the service … was medically necessary.”

    In his testimony, GAO official Cosgrove focused on the Medicare Advantage program. He took aim at a little-known government audit process called Risk Adjustment Data Validation, or RADV. These audits require health plans to submit a sample of patient records for review.

    Cosgrove said that the RADV audits take too long to complete and failed to focus on health plans with the greatest potential for recovery of overcharges. He also said that CMS officials had not done enough to make sure the payment data they use are accurate. As a result, “the soundness of billions of dollars in Medicare expenditures remains unsubstantiated,” according to written testimony.

    The GAO, the watchdog arm of Congress, has previously criticized CMS for its failure to ferret out overcharges in Medicare Advantage. In an April report, GAO found that CMS has spent about $117 million on the Medicare Advantage audits since 2010 but recouped just under $14 million in total.

    Payment errors and overcharges by Medicare Advantage plans were the subject of a lengthy investigation by Kaiser Health News and the Center for Public Integrity. Federal officials have struggled for years to weed out billing irregularities by Medicare Advantage plans, according to CMS records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuitfiled by the Center for Public Integrity.

    The investigation found that Medicare Advantage payment errors result mostly from flaws in a billing formula called a risk score. Congress expected risk scores would pay higher amounts for sicker patients and less for people in good health when it began phasing in the billing scales in 2004.

    But since then, a wide range of CMS audits and other reviews have found that Medicare wastes billions of tax dollars annually because some health plans inflate risk scores by exaggerating how sick their patients are. One CMS memo made public through the FOIA lawsuit referred to risk-based payments as essentially an “honor system,” with few audits to curtail fraud and abuse.

    Even when RADV audits have detected widespread overpayments, CMS officials have failed to recoup money after years of haggling with the health plans.

    In January, Kaiser Health News reported that Medicare had potentially overpaid five Medicare Advantage health plans by $128 million in 2007, but under pressure from the insurance industry collected just $3.4 million and settled the cases.

    Morse testified on Wednesday that CMS is still in the process of completing appeals of RADV audits from 2007. He said that payment errors have been calculated for 2011 and that reviews for 2012 and 2013 were underway.

    These results are years behind schedule, according to CMS documents, which show the results were expected in early 2014. In the past, officials have said that they expected to collect as much as $370 million from the 2011 audits.

    Morse said on Wednesday he didn’t know when the 2011 audit results would be released. “Hopefully soon,” he said after the hearing. “I actually don’t know.”

    This story was produced by Kaiser Health News, a nonprofit health newsroom whose stories appear in news outlets nationwide, is an editorially independent part of the Kaiser Family Foundation.

    Carol Berman, of West Palm Beach, Fla., speaks with pedestrians about the need for policymakers to protect Medicare Advantage benefits during the Coalition for Medicare Choices' Medicare Advantage Food Truck stop on North Capitol Street in Washington on Monday, March 9, 2015.Fred Schultehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/fred-schultehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/07/19/21011/fraud-and-billing-mistakes-cost-medicare-and-taxpayers-tens-billions-last-year

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    In an arrangement prominent ethics experts say is without precedent and potentially illegal, the White House is referring questions for senior presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon to an outside public relations agent whose firm says she is working for free.

    Alexandra Preate, a 46-year-old New Yorker and veteran Republican media strategist, describes herself as Bannon's "personal spokesperson." But she also collaborates with other White House officials on public messaging and responses to press inquiries. It was Preate who responded when the Center for Public Integrity recently asked the White House Press Office questions about Bannon.

    Preate, however, is not employed by President Donald Trump’s administration or paid by the federal government.

    The unorthodox setup means Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, is potentially violating the Antideficiency Act, which provides that federal employees "may not accept voluntary services for [the] government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law."

    The revelations about Preate's work are the latest controversy to embroil the White House Communications Office, which is reeling from a series of high-profile resignations, firings and leadership changes in recent days.

    To be sure, it's not uncommon for executive branch employees to hire personal lawyers who aren’t on the government's payroll, but who nonetheless advise their clients on government work-related matters. The difference is that personal lawyers don't step in to help the White House perform its official duties.

    Preate, however, “appears to be organizing the administration's response to questions sent to the White House," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in government ethics. "And the fact that other officials are responsive to her distinguishes this situation from the kind of activity a private lawyer would do."

    Said Norm Eisen, ethics czar during the Obama administration: "She seems to be privy to government information, and she appears to be acting on behalf of a government entity, either Bannon or the White House Press Office. If she's doing it for free, then that is a potential violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act."

    To date, no one has ever been convicted or indicted for violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, and most of the dozen or so violations reported each year result in little more than administrative penalties. Still, a "knowing and willful violation" of the Anti-Deficiency Act is a Class E felony, punishable by a "$5,000 fine, confinement for up to two years, or both."

    As a private citizen, Preate is not subject to the restrictions imposed by the Anti-Deficiency Act, nor would she be liable for any potential violations. White House officials, on the other hand, are subject to the act.

    Preate, the White House Press Office, Bannon aides, the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice all refused to answer repeated questions from the Center for Public Integrity about Preate’s arrangement with the White House, whether she is working for free, and whether her role has been approved by government lawyers or ethics officials.

    Eighteen phone calls

    The Center for Public Integrity first became aware of Preate's role earlier this month after sending an email to White House Deputy Press Secretary Lindsay Walters with questions about Bannon’s personal financial disclosure.

    Minutes later, Walters replied to say the White House Press Office was "working to get you a response." Walters copied Julia Hahn, a White House deputy policy strategist and former Breitbart reporter who works closely with Bannon.

    Instead of receiving a response from Walters or Hahn, the Center for Public Integrity received a phone call from Preate, who said that she was calling "for Steve." Preate later arranged a call for the Center for Public Integrity with a member of the White House Counsel's Office, who addressed questions about Bannon's financial disclosures.

    From July 11 through July 13, Preate called the Center for Public Integrity 18 times about the story. During these conversations, Preate would only agree to speak off the record, which is why the Center is not reporting on the content of the calls.

    “We would never have tolerated this in the Bush White House," Tony Fratto, a former principal deputy press secretary for President George W. Bush, said of the Trump White House’s arrangement with Preate.

    In addition to the ethics issues, Fratto said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity, Preate’s role would have caused problems within the White House Press Office itself.

    "From an operational perspective, a situation like this would be difficult to manage, because it's an uncoordinated messaging channel that isn't being overseen by the White House communications office," Fratto said.

    "If a comms director doesn't have control over who is doing the messaging, then you get contradictory information and disjointed messaging, and that's a problem,” he added.

    Indeed, the struggles of the Trump White House to coordinate an effective communications strategy have been monumental. In just the past week, the White House Press Office has been upended by the sudden resignation of White House press secretary Sean Spicer, the surprise appointment of New York financier Anthony Scaramucci as White House communications director and the messy dismissal of senior assistant press secretary Michael Short.

    In his first briefing as communications director on Friday, Scaramucci promised a new era of discipline in the White House press office. He also pledged to get the entire communications staff "super-coordinated around here with the president" and his message.

    If that's Scaramucci's plan, then Bannon, who reportedly objected to Scaramucci’s hiring, may be in for a fight.

    Who's paying the bills?

    There are good reasons why the government is required to officially hire, and pay, the people who work for it.

    Bannon “took an oath to support and defend the Constitution,” Clark said.

    But Preate has not taken such an oath. This means “the public has no idea who, if anyone, is paying this piper,” she added.

    Preate is the founder and CEO of a New York-based public relations firm, Capital HQ, whose marquee client is the conservative news and opinion website Breitbart News.

    Bannon ran the conservative news site until he joined Trump’s campaign last year. He states on his government financial disclosures that he officially resigned from Breitbart in August, but Breitbart CEO Larry Solov said Bannon didn't resign until after Trump won the election in November.

    "If Preate's firm works for Breitbart, then is this arrangement part of a continuing relationship of some kind between Breitbart and Bannon?" Eisen said. "Is Breitbart paying for this?”

    In addition to Breitbart, Preate has reportedly represented prominent Republican political donor Rebekah Mercer, whose billionaire family is a part-owner of Breitbart. She has also been quoted in news stories as "a friend" of Mercer.

    Bannon has a longstanding personal and professional relationship with the Mercer family, who reportedly convinced Trump to put Bannon in charge of his campaign last summer.

    As of March 31, Bannon had not yet sold his stakes in at least two companies he co-owns with members of the Mercer family: The movie production company Glittering Steel LLC, and the influential GOP big data firm, Cambridge Analytica.

    Neither the White House nor Preate would confirm whether Bannon has sold his stakes in the two Mercer-linked companies since March.

    The Mercers were also among Trump’s most influential bankrollers. During the 2016 election cycle, the Mercers spent $22 million to support Republican candidates, and they funded a super PAC, Make America Number 1, that backed Trump’s general election bid.

    Zero-to-60 on the Trump train

    Preate may not be a household name, but she has deep roots in Republican politics.

    Her father, Ernie Preate, was twice elected Attorney General of Pennsylvania as a Republican. In 1994 he ran for governor, losing the nomination to then-Rep. Tom Ridge, who would go on to win in the general election.

    But Ernie Preate's promising career in politics ended abruptly the following year, when he pleaded guilty to mail fraud in a federal case involving illegal campaign contributions. He served 11 months in prison, and has since become an advocate for prison reform.

    It's not clear exactly when Bannon and Alexandra Preate's professional relationship began.

    In March of 2016, Breitbart spokesman Kurt Bardella abruptly resigned. Almost immediately, publicists at Preate’s firm, Capital HQ, were quoted as representatives of Bannon and Breitbart.

    By July of 2016, then-Capital HQ associate Garrett Marquis was busy promotingClinton Cash, a movie based on a book by Peter Schweizer, who runs a Mercer-funded group called the Government Accountability Institute. The film version of Schweizer's book was released on Breitbart.com, and it was co-produced by Bannon and Rebekah Mercer through their joint production company, Glittering Steel LLC.

    In August, Preate first appeared in a news story as a spokeswoman for Bannon. This was a few days before Trump officially named Bannon CEO of his presidential campaign. When Politico reported that Bannon had been once been charged in a domestic violence incident, Preate issued a statement in Bannon's defense.

    The following day, Preate again spoke on behalf of Bannon. This time, Preate’s flacking came after The Guardian reported Bannon did not actually live at the address where he was registered to vote.

    Later on, if news organizations described Bannon as a Trump campaign staffer, it was Preate — not a Trump campaign representative — who would push back, reminding reporters that Bannon was offering his services to Trump for free. "He is a volunteer — as CEO," she wrote to a reporter for The Daily Beast in October.

    Throughout the final months of the campaign, Preate appeared in media reports identified only as a "Bannon spokeswoman." But behind the scenes, Preate's team at Capital HQ worked hard to promote Bannon.

    This included offering interviews to reporters with people who would say nice things about Bannon, and touting how well Breitbart had performed under Bannon's leadership.

    Since Bannon joined the Trump administration, at least one news outlet, New York magazine, has reported that Preate joined the White House with him.

    But Preate does not work for the White House, said Chad Wilkinson, the current president of Preate-owned Capital HQ who also serves as Breitbart’s spokesman. Nor has Preate filed any of the government-mandated disclosures required for federal employees.

    Preate moved to Washington in January “to work for Bannon after Trump took office,” Wilkinson said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity. Preate’s Twitter page lists her as living “in DC.”

    Wilkinson and other Capital HQ associates began speaking on behalf of Breitbart in Preate’s absence.

    Preate "has never received a dime" from Bannon in exchange for her work on his behalf, Wilkinson said.

    But as Capital HQ’s founder and chief executive officer, Preate continues to profit from the Breitbart representation, Wilkinson said.

    Friends with money

    For Virginia Canter, an attorney for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and a former government ethics lawyer, Bannon's situation raises the question of whether Preate's clients are effectively supplementing Bannon's salary.

    "The question is whether there is some kind of arrangement among Bannon, Breitbart and Preate that enables Preate to provide public relations services to Bannon and the White House, without compensation from either Bannon or the White House," she said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity.

    Bannon and Preate refused multiple requests from the Center for Public Integrity to answer this specific question.

    Canter served as associate counsel to the president during the Obama administration, associate director of the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department during the George W. Bush administration and associate counsel to the president during Bill Clinton’s administration.

    According to Eisen, Clark, Canter and others, Bannon's acceptance of Preate's services could also violate 18 U.S. Code section 209, a law commonly known as the salary supplementation ban. This law "prohibits employees from being paid by someone other than the United States for doing their official Government duties," according to the Office of Government Ethics.

    "If this gift of valuable public relations consulting services is being provided to Bannon by Preate or by others, then that is compensation that could be viewed as supplemental compensation on top of his salary as a member of the executive branch," Eisen said. "And that is not permitted."

    This is not the first time that questions have arisen over whether Bannon is maintaining ties to Breitbart that violate executive branch ethics rules.

    Within weeks after Trump took office in January, reports began to emerge that Bannon was contacting Breitbart staffers in an attempt to influence how the site was covering Trump’s administration.

    The contact appeared to violate the Ethics Pledge Bannon had signed as a condition of his employment in the Trump White House. The pledge expressly prohibits newly hired officials, like Bannon, from having contact with their previous employers.

    In late March, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sent a letter to White House Counsel Don McGahn, requesting an investigation into whether Bannon had violated the Ethics Pledge.

    Rather than reprimand Bannon, the White House in May released what it said was a retroactive, blanket ethics waiver. Such a waiver allowed executive branch employees who had previously worked for media organizations — such as Bannon at Breitbart— to ignore longstanding federal rules that prohibit government employees from communicating with their former employers.

    Unlike every ethics waiver that had ever been granted before it, however, this one did not have a signature on it. Nor did it have a date to show when it went into effect.

    Friends with benefits

    Even if Preate's services were to be viewed as simply a gift, and not salary supplementation, they could still violate executive branch ethics rules that bar government employees from accepting gifts from outside sources, said Brendan Fischer, who leads the federal ethics and election law reform project at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

    "There's a more general executive branch prohibition on accepting gifts that seems to apply here," Fischer said in an interview.

    This prohibition also contains a number of important exceptions, said Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative nonprofit group that promotes transparency and accountability in government.

    "The rules allow for the pro bono provision of services when they're from friends," he said in an interview, an exception that he said could prove relevant to Bannon and Preate. It states that a government employee may accept "a gift motivated solely by a family relationship or personal friendship."

    Still, Fitton acknowledged that the unresolved questions of who is paying for Preate's services, or whether anyone is, muddying issues around personal gifts.

    Also complicating matters: Preate's position as the founder and CEO of Capital HQ, said Walter Shaub, who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics during the first six months of the Trump administration. He now leads the ethics practice at the Campaign Legal Center, a nonpartisan political watchdog organization.

    Additionally, Shaub said, if there's hypothetically "a history of Bannon having paid for her professional services, this further undermines the argument that this is a gift motivated solely by Preate's personal friendship with Bannon."

    "At a minimum," he said, "this blurs the lines between Preate's firm and her gift of pro bono public relations services."

    Still, the prospect that Preate could be gifting her services to Bannon does little to resolve the question of why she is responding to questions sent by reporters to the White House Press Office.

    Under President George W. Bush, the issue of how the White House handled ethics questions from reporters was never in question, said Fratto, the former Bush press official.

    Fratto recalled the hiring of Ed Gillespie, a Bush adviser who’s now running for Virginia governor. Gillespie had founded a public relations and lobbying firm, Quinn Gillespie & Associates, before joining the Bush administration.

    "He had a whole PR firm behind him, but I was the one who handled questions about his personal finances,” Fratto said. “I don't think it ever occurred to anyone to have Quinn Gillespie handle it. Those were ethics questions for the White House.”

    In the absence of any explanation from the White House about Preate's role, both Eisen and Clark say they hope other federal agencies and Congress will investigate the situation.

    "The Justice Department should look at this,” Eisen said, “and I hope they'll get some answers to these questions."

    Versions of this story appear in TIME, RevealPublic Radio International and the Columbus Dispatch.

    White House strategist Steve Bannon waits for President Donald Trump to make a statement about the U.S. role in the Paris climate change accord on June 1, 2017, in the Rose Garden of the White House.Christina Wilkiehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/christina-wilkiehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/07/27/21014/steve-bannon-has-shadow-press-office-it-may-violate-federal-law

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    CAMPTI, La. – Deep in the winding mass of crumbling back streets in Campti, Leroy Hayes sets a glass of water from his faucet in a patch of sunlight on the railing of his porch and watches specks of sediment float to the top.

    Hayes said the town’s water system has been bad for years, with water often coming out brown and smelling like bleach. The family uses bottled water for drinking and cooking and often has to drive to the city of Natchitoches, 11 miles away, to wash their clothes. The Campti water leaves their clothes with a yellowish tint.

    “Don’t nobody drink that mess,” Hayes said.

    Like many poor African-American communities, Campti’s poverty is a significant impediment to making crucial improvements to the town’s infrastructure – including its old water system. Hayes is a lifelong resident of the town, where according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than half of the predominantly African-American population lives in poverty. Campti’s median household income is only $15,428.

    Skepticism about drinking water is pervasive in many black communities, most recently in the urban cities like Milwaukee, where high childhood lead poisoning rates plague the city, and Flint, Michigan, where lead from pipes leached into the city’s water. But it also affects the pockets of poverty in states such as Louisiana, Alabama, North Carolina and Texas, where many residents rely on antiquated water systems and haphazard monitoring or live near businesses and industries whose waste, they say, pollutes their water systems.

    “Everything that happens now where people don’t want it, it goes into a poor and black neighborhood,” said Esther Calhoun, president of Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice.

    A News21 national analysis of water violations from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found that tens of millions of Americans are drinking contaminated water – particularly in small, low-income and minority communities. Aging infrastructure and limited funding are two of the major water issues posing a threat to public health, according to the agency’s 2016 Drinking Water Action Plan.

    “For someone to say that there’s not a correlation to me means they have their eyes closed, or they don’t want to believe that these impacts are actually happening or don’t want to dedicate the resources to these communities,” said Mustafa Ali, the former assistant associate administrator for environmental justice at the EPA.

    In Uniontown, Alabama, black residents blame a swell of gastrointestinal complications on the waste from a nearby catfish farm they say pollutes their drinking water. In parts of North Carolina, impoverished African-Americans sometimes rely on contaminated wells for drinking water – though public water systems run just a few feet from their homes.

    “The probability of drinking water violations is significantly greater in communities that are both poor and nonwhite,”  said Manuel Teodoro, a Texas A&M University professor and the co-author of “Class, Race, Ethnicity, and Justice in Safe Water Compliance,” a 2017 study of violations across the country. “What’s troubling from an environmental justice perspective is that race and ethnicity matter most when people are poor.”

    The water system in Campti is more than 50 years old, according to an audit from the Louisiana legislative auditor. Near the end of 2016, the water tank sprang several holes, some of which were temporarily plugged with sticks. A new tank was built in March, but residents still don’t trust that the water is safe.

    Annette Caskey lives in one of the poorest areas of Campti – a small community called Sherry Circle. Broken pavement leads to a small hill, where worn dirt paths climb to small trailer-like houses. Caskey’s tap water is often orange or brown. Rather than drink it, she buys water by the caseload at the local Brookshire’s or M&M Grocery. Her dogs also get bottled water.

    “This water sucks,” Caskey said. “Sometimes it’s got too much chlorine in it, and sometimes it’s got no chlorine at all. It’s like you’re drinking sewage.” For a long time, residents were getting sick with diarrhea and other issues, Caskey said. She said it stopped for a while, but people have started getting sick again.

    Campti is the oldest settlement along the Red River, whose waters snake from northwest Texas down to the Atchafalaya River in Louisiana. Worn-down roads lead to the town’s meager collection of businesses, which include a Dollar General, a Papa John’s and a couple of gas stations – the Campti Quick Stop and an All-N-1.

    Judy Daniels, Campti’s mayor from 2006-2010, said most of the town’s water infrastructure is anywhere from 40 to 60 years old, and the town doesn’t have money to fix it. She said the water does have problems, and they get worse after a storm or power outage because the water pump does not have a backup generator.

    “The funds just aren’t there for us,” Daniels said. “We’re the stepchildren.”

    Campti’s water system has had seven health-based violations. Six of those came in the 1990s, when tests showed the presence of coliform bacteria – a sign that feces or sewage could be contaminating the water. The only health-based violation this decade was in 2014, when Campti’s system received a treatment violation, meaning there was a deficiency that was not properly treated.

    “It’s been like this ever since I’ve been here, and I grew up here,” Caskey said.

    There have been no other recent health violations. But then, testing the water for the last five years has been up to the local utilities that manage the water. Budget cuts in 2012 forced the Louisiana Office of Public Health to lay off the state’s sanitarians, the people responsible for taking water samples. According to an audit by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor, during that time – from 2012 until January 2017 – the state could not be sure the results were accurate.

    The town of Tallulah, 150 miles east of Campti, has had 11 health-based violations dating to 1991. In 2015, coliform was found in the system.

    Much of Tallulah was born from the 1,440-acre Scottland Plantation, where an old mansion still stands, the only remnant of the former village of Richmond, which was destroyed during Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi. Today, Tallulah’s median household income is $23,317, about half of the state’s average. About 40 percent of the population – which is 77 percent black – lives in poverty, including 60 percent of its children.

    Decorian Herring lives with his two daughters in one of the most impoverished parts of Tallulah, a sparsely populated complex named Magnolia Villas. The neighborhood often floods during storms, and, more than once, he’s seen alligators swimming between the rows of apartments.

    The tap water is usually discolored and has a strong odor, Herring said. But it gets worse after a storm floods the complex.

    “Sometimes you’ll run the water in the tub … and you’ll see the water come out green or brown,” Herring said. “A lot of times we’ll get the letter around here that they’re going to be shutting the water off for a couple of hours because of the contamination.”

    The water started getting worse about a year ago, Herring said. People in the complex started getting sick with stomach viruses, and they stopped drinking the water. He said he’s constantly buying cases of bottled water for his family.

    “You never really know when the boil advisory is,” Herring said. “The majority of the time it comes late in the mail. They’ll have already started it.”

    The Rev. Tommy Watson, pastor of East Star Baptist Church and one of Tallulah’s aldermen, said the town has been “repairing and patching” the system for the last several years. The town had four or five boil advisories in 2016, which is more than normal, Watson said. Two of those came when a water main broke.

    Tallulah Mayor Paxton Branch said the town plans to replace its system. The current system is so old that companies don’t make the parts necessary for some repairs. Right now, the city has about $6 million of the $10 million needed to begin construction.

    For some residents, the new system can’t come fast enough. Hours after the mayor explained his plan for a new system, a water main broke, leaving large swaths of the town without water.

    Pamela Oliver says she doesn’t trust the water enough to use it for anything but cooking and cleaning.

    Louisiana only recognizes the lowest level of EPA standards and does not regularly test for secondary issues, such as color and odor, the most common complaints in towns like Campti and Tallulah.

    “The problem with Louisiana is that we only recognize the lowest EPA ratings for our water, which means our water is safe,” said Lady Carlson of Together Louisiana, a statewide advocacy group. “So the water in St. Joseph, they said was safe. It looks like gumbo, but you can drink it. In six months, we had the problem fixed.”

    Louisiana’s St. Joseph is the site of the state’s most-publicized water system failure. After pipes in the town’s decrepit water system began to corrode, lead and copper leached into the system.

    “When you look at the areas with crumbling infrastructure, it’s in communities of color and low-income communities,” said Ali, the former EPA official.

    In his post with the EPA, Ali oversaw the office tasked with advocating for populations inordinately affected by environmental issues – low-income communities, African-Americans, Latinos and Native American tribes. Ali resigned over disagreements with President Donald Trump’s administration.

    The Environmental Justice Office is one of several EPA departments that face elimination under the president’s proposed budget.

    Yet, across the country, Americans of color are growing more concerned about their drinking water, according to a 2017 Gallup poll. Up from 73 percent in 2015, 80 percent of nonwhite respondents now worry “a great deal” about their water.

    "If we don't help our most vulnerable communities to not only be healthier but to be more economically viable, then we leave a gap in our country, and it weakens us," Ali said.

    In Melville, about an hour northwest of Baton Rouge in southern Louisiana, the town’s water system is served by a single 54-year-old well. One of the country’s poorest communities, it has just over 1,000 residents and a median household income of $17,670.

    The self-proclaimed “Catfish Capital of the World” sits on the banks of the Atchafalaya River – one of the state’s most iconic and beloved geographic features. But the town has no second well or backup plan. If the well goes down, the state of Louisiana will have to send trucks of water to keep the town from drying out.

    Its system also has been poorly maintained and doesn’t have enough money to pay for upgrades, said Mayor Erana Mayes. In 2013, the water system was $125,541 in the red, and in 2014, $62,971 in utility payments went missing. Leaks regularly spring in the underground pipes. But when one leak is clamped, another pops up down the line.

    “We’re constantly using chlorine. That’s a daily thing,” Mayes said. “Our water is good, now. Nothing is wrong with it. It’s just the expense of it.”

    Carlson said most of the problems in rural towns – like Tallulah and Melville – come from outdated water systems and aging pipes. But there’s little money to make repairs, much less replace the pipes.

    “There’s just been a lack of attention to these neighborhoods and a lack of political will to get things done,” said Carlson.

    In southern Alabama’s Uniontown, a community first established around a slave plantation, water quality is a persistent worry for the mostly black residents, who say a nearby catfish farm contaminates their town water system.

    “Everybody knows about the smell and water in Uniontown. It’s bad,” said Demetrius Holmes, who says he’s been in and out of the hospital 20 times because of gastrointestinal complications. “They just say gastroparesis, or acid reflux. I’ve heard them all. But no one can figure out what’s wrong with my intestines.”

    He says it’s the water.

    “You have 2,000 to 2,200 people that live here in Uniontown and just about all of us have problems, and a lot of us have the same problems,” said Ben Eaton, vice president of the Black Belt Citizens Fighting for Health and Justice. “But as far as good water, I can’t say it’s good. Too many issues around it to just say.”

    Mark Elliott, a civil engineer and researcher at the University of Alabama, claims a nearby catfish farm plays a part. “They have been disposing their industrial wastewater to the Uniontown system.”

    “The system was not designed to take that load. Basically, … their wastewater volume is equivalent to the whole town put together,” he said. “So their system ended up being underdesigned. It’s bursting the side of the lagoon and running off into the stream constantly.”

    In another community in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, residents relied for years on contaminated well water – even though most everyone around received water from a public system. “The well water was bad,” said Robert Campbell, a pastor in the community. “Now, we can basically say what is in there. Fecal matter, benzene, arsenic ... but it wasn’t safe to drink.”

    This year, the community was hooked up to public water and sewer services.

    “We didn't have the basic amenities, like clean water and sewer,” Campbell said. “There were a lot of things we were looking at, saying, why isn’t it in another community that looks almost like us except for the ethnicity of the community?”

    In Sandbranch, Texas, residents don’t have a public drinking water system at all. Just 14 miles from downtown Dallas, residents used to rely on private wells supplied by groundwater but don’t anymore. Most drink bottled water delivered by the local church each week.

    “It would be a miracle if we could ever turn our tap on and get running water,” said 83-year-old Ivory Hall Jr., who makes a 20-mile round trip to the city of Ferris to fill a water tank and hauls it home.

    Leroy Thomas has lived in Sandbranch for 40 years and says the water used to be drinkable. He claims the groundwater was contaminated by illegal dumping and more recently, a nearby wastewater treatment.

    “The runoff, the illegal dumping, the tires … all of the waste that people bring in here, it’s going in the ground,” he said.

    News21 requested water testing records for Sandbranch. But an email from the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality said, “After reviewing the appropriate resources of the TCEQ, we were unable to locate any responsive information in the possession of the TCEQ.

    Most of the community’s 100 or fewer residents live in ramshackle houses they can’t sell because they wouldn’t make enough money to move.

    “This is America and in the 21st century, people living in the shadows of the most prosperous urban area as far as job creation for the last five years deserve water,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins, who presides over the Dallas County Commissioners Court. “We got families that can stand on a hill and can look at downtown Dallas and don’t have running drinking water. That’s what we’re trying to fix.”

    A 2016 report to President Barack Obama outlined several problems affecting water quality across the nation, including aging systems and lead service lines. According to the report, called “Science and Technology to Ensure the Safety of the Nation’s Drinking Water,” lead pipes have become a common problem in old cities and the Midwest. The American Water Works Association estimates 6.1 million lead service lines remain in the U.S. and serve 15 million to 22 million people.

    “You hear time and time again this issue with aging infrastructure, and you have the lead pipes being part of the issue,” said Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP Environmental and Climate Justice Program. “You have this recipe for disaster like what we found in Flint.”

    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. These lead pipes – along with the 130,000 homes with lead-based paint – contribute to the high numbers of poisoned children, according to the 2014 Report on Childhood Lead Poisoning in Wisconsin.

    One of them is Troy Lowe, a 4-year-old infatuated with dandelions, which he picks for his bus driver.

    In December, his father, Tory Lowe, learned his son had lead poisoning, as do 8.6 percent of the children in Milwaukee, according to a 2014 report by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services.

    Even before then, Lowe had been working to inform his community on Milwaukee’s north side about the dangers of lead in the water. Lowe also uses his Facebook page to blast messages about shootings, kidnappings and carjackings to his more than 38,000 followers. He also made a music video called “Don’t Drink the Water” in which he raps about the city’s lead service lines.

    “If the people most affected don’t know, it doesn’t matter,” Lowe said.

    His son’s lead test result of 5.9 micrograms per deciliter is lower than many children in Milwaukee, Lowe said, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says researchers have not defined the effect lower levels might on the central nervous system and cannot rule out adverse effects at low levels. Any level above 5 micrograms is considered lead poisoning.

    As part of the line replacement plan, the city published lists of every property known to have lead service lines. The Lowe family’s home was listed. He said his family does not drink from the tap, opting to buy bottled water instead.

    “I know there’s thousands of kids being lead poisoned … if my son can get lead poisoning and we don’t even drink the water,” Lowe said.

    Milwaukee recently began an effort to replace the lead lines, starting with $3.4 million to replace 300 that serve schools and day cares in 2017. Then, the city will spend another $3.4 million to replace 300 lines serving residences.

    At that pace, it would it would take more than 233 years to replace all of Milwaukee’s residential lead lines. To replace all 70,000 lead lines in the next 50 years, the city would need replace 1,400 pipes per year, which would cost about $4.5 million each year, according to the Water Quality Task Force.

    Robert Miranda, a representative for the Freshwater for Life Action Coalition, a water advocacy group, said there may be as many as 20,000 more lead service lines the city did not include in its original estimate. An April 2017 report by Milwaukee’s Water Quality Task Force backs up Miranda’s claim, noting that there is a “measure of uncertainty” because the number of lead lines installed from 1951 to 1962 “remains in limbo.”

    “What we don’t know is how many more pipes we have from 1952 to 1962,” Miranda said. “They didn’t have anything that really substantiated or made that date concrete.”

    The Milwaukee Department of Public Works declined an interview request from News21, but an email from department spokeswoman Sandy Rusch Walton said: “The (Milwaukee) Water Works complies with all state and federal drinking water standards, and is known for its extensive water quality monitoring program that reaches beyond basic requirements.”

    Anna Smith lived with her children in a decrepit apartment where rain and snow fell through a hole in the ceiling and plastic grocery bags plugged a crack in the wall. It is one of many on the list of buildings with lead service lines.

    Her 3-year-old daughter, Laila, tested at 8.8 micrograms per deciliter in October. Her other child, 1-year-old Princeton, tested with 12.1 in July.

    “I wouldn’t have stayed there if I knew they had lead poisoning,” Smith said, adding that her daughter “was drinking from the faucet and stuff. I was cooking with the water.”

    Short-term lead exposure can cause symptoms such as headaches, constipation and abdominal pain, according to the CDC. Long-term exposure can lead to more serious neurological issues. It often affects children more than adults.

    In East Chicago, Indiana, residents have filed an emergency action petition with the EPA, asking the agency to address lead service lines affecting water. In the northwest Indiana city known historically for its lead and steel production, as many as 90 percent of the homes could be connected to lead service lines, according to the petition to the EPA. In one neighborhood, 40 percent of the homes tested by the EPA for the Drinking Water Pilot Study exceeded federal action levels, meaning enough lead was in tap water to pose a risk.

    The Calumet neighborhood’s water problem was discovered as the EPA was investigating a separate issue – lead and arsenic in the soil left behind by the USS Lead Superfund Site –  where the low-income neighborhood now sits. According to the EPA, it’s not possible for lead to leach into the pipes, but many of the homes’ water tested positive, which indicates lead service lines.

    The NAACP’s Patterson said communities of color – both urban and rural – are disproportionately affected by polluting industries because they are more likely to be located near low-income neighborhoods.

    “There’s an interesting mix of things. One, the pollution that comes externally from power plants or those types of things are disproportionately located in communities of color,” she said. “Then, because those types of facilities are often underregulated and monitored, you have this situation where … all of these things can end up affecting the water supply.”

    Akeesha Daniels spent 13 years in the West Calumet Housing Complex, a now-abandoned housing project where the lead refinery once stood. She said the residents were never warned about the lead in the soil or the pipes.

    “We were never told,” Daniels said. “Not one thing. Why would you let your most vulnerable people live there and not notify us that something was wrong?”

    Calumet Lives Matter, a local advocacy group, is distributing cases of water to residents out of churches each week. Sherry Hunter, an organizer of the group, said each family gets four cases of water, some of which are donated by the nearby cities of Hammond and Gary.

    The petition, signed by several community groups, says the city’s water is unsafe to drink, even with the measures in place to control corrosion of the lead pipes. State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, whose district includes East Chicago, said the state is working to determine the extent of the water contamination issue and how much it will cost to fix it.

    “We are fed up with the assault of toxic contamination on our city, our neighborhoods and our people,” said the Rev. Cheryl Rivera, one of the leaders with the Community Strategy Group, another organization that pushed for the petition. “Take it to somebody else’s neighborhood. It is absolutely environmental racism. We are tired of our children and our families being poisoned intentionally.”

    Troy Lowe, 4, sleeps under the arm of his father, Tory Lowe, in Milwaukee. Troy tested positive for lead poisoning after ingesting the tap water in their home.News21 Staffhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/news21-staffWilliam Taylor Potterhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/william-taylor-potterBrandon Kitchinhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/brandon-kitchinAlexis Reesehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/alexis-reesehttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/21/21114/crumbling-pipes-tainted-water-plague-black-communities

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    Like many buildings of its vintage, the century-old headquarters of the United States General Services Administration was once lined with asbestos.

    The hazardous mineral, used for fireproofing, filled nearly a half-million square feet of the building on F Street in downtown Washington, D.C.  It took more than a hundred licensed workers almost a year to pry out the substance during a renovation that began in 2011.  The workers would log nightly nine-hour shifts, spent mostly in air-tight spaces that reached 100 degrees. Some didn’t wear clothing beneath their protective Tyvek suits, hoping to stave off heat exhaustion and avoid bringing home cancer-causing asbestos fibers.

    The pay for this grueling task was dictated by the Davis-Bacon Act, a 1931 law that promises specific wages and benefits for construction work on government buildings and infrastructure. The compensation set by the U.S. Department of Labor under the act, based on location and job duties, is often higher than what’s offered on private-sector projects.

    Three workers on the GSA job who spoke to the Center for Public Integrity said their employer didn’t tell them what they were owed under the law. They and 124 others filed a complaint with the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division in 2011.

    Investigators found in the workers’ favor, saying they should have earned $25.47 per hour including benefits, as skilled laborers, a specific category of employee under Davis-Bacon. Instead, their supervisors paid them $15.84 an hour and classified their work as general labor. Six years after the complaint was filed, the investigation remains open because of an appeal. The workers still haven’t gotten their back pay.

    “You feel powerless,” said Luis Fonseca, who, like his former colleagues on the GSA job, lost about $1,300 per month before overtime, which also was underpaid. “You see that companies are doing what they want and you can never do anything against them.”

    But in some ways, Fonseca and his former co-workers already have beaten the odds.

    The Wage and Hour Division must enforce at least 14 statutes across the nation’s 29 million businesses with a team of only 929 investigators as of the end of June. Federal agencies, which spent more than $470 billion on contracts during the 2016 fiscal year, are saddled with a flawed system to vet contractors and monitor their compliance with those laws. As a result, contractors’ violations rarely show up in government databases. Subcontractors, which often employ most of the workers on construction projects, get even less scrutiny.

    Last year, the federal government spent more than $40 billion on contracts covered by Davis-Bacon. But a Center investigation found that about 70 percent of the businesses caught violating the law in 2016 don’t appear in federal databases designed to track companies’ contracting records. 

    Weak oversight allows subcontractors in particular to shortchange workers on government projects with little fear of being caught or barred from future contracts. Meanwhile, their overseers often maintain clean labor records and continue to win government business. This fiscal year, federal agencies have spent more than $425 million on contractors found to have violated Davis-Bacon in 2016, according to U.S. Treasury and Labor Department records analyzed by the Center. The top spenders: The U.S. Department of Defense and the GSA.

    A GSA spokeswoman said in a written statement that the agency could not comment on the wage-theft allegations related to its headquarters renovation because of the ongoing Labor Department investigation. It’s GSA policy, she said, to check companies’ compliance records and investigate any concerns noted by contracting officers before awarding contracts.

    The Defense Department conducts similar reviews to ensure that “contracts are only awarded to responsive and responsible companies,” a spokesman said in a statement.

    True extent of wage theft unknown

    In fiscal year 2016, the Labor Department found 12,567 Davis-Bacon violations and recovered about $20.5 million in back wages for workers, down from an average of $26.5 million over the previous five years. But the true extent of the problem is impossible to know given the department’s limited ability to police millions of businesses and the prevalence of misinformation and fear that keeps workers from getting legally owed wages. During the first two years of the Obama administration, the Wage and Hour Division added nearly 300 investigators, and recovery of back wages jumped accordingly. Collections in 2011, for example, were more than double those of the previous year. The number of investigators has since hovered around 1,000.

    Unlike the Fair Labor Standards Act, which establishes the federal minimum wage, Davis-Bacon usually bars workers from trying to recover lost pay through private lawsuits. Most aggrieved workers, therefore, must go through the Labor Department for relief.

    Enforcement by the department is complicated by the layers of companies often involved in construction work. The prime contractor on the 2011 GSA headquarters renovation was Whiting-Turner/Walsh Joint Venture, which was paid $124 million to oversee the work. Luis Fonseca worked under a subcontractor called Asbestos Specialists Inc., which brought him on through a staffing company, further distancing him from Whiting-Turner/Walsh management.

    The Wage and Hour Division accused Asbestos Specialists of misclassifying — and therefore shorting — workers on the GSA project.  But the case remains open on appeal, and the asbestos workers have yet to receive the $640,693.74 the Labor Department says they’re collectively owed. “We all have commitments — we have responsibilities with our kids, our parents, our wives,” said Manuel Vega, one of the workers who is due back wages.

    In a related investigation in 2016, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission accused Asbestos Specialists of discrimination. The workers, mostly immigrants from Latin America, claimed company supervisors harassed them with racial slurs and demeaning treatment, such as giving them unfiltered water — sometimes after spitting in it — while the supervisors drank from bottles. In a settlement with the EEOC, the company did not admit wrongdoing but agreed to pay the workers a total of $100,000 and provide anti-discrimination training to its staff.   

    Asbestos Specialists has received at least $5.8 million in federal construction contracts since 2013. In a written statement, the company’s lawyer said Asbestos Specialists has appealed the Labor Department’s decision in the GSA case and believes it paid the workers properly.

    Apart from Fonseca, Vega and the 125 other workers it hired through the staffing company, Asbestos Specialists put 13 of its own employees on the GSA job. Those 13 workers were paid close to the legal rate of $25.47 per hour.

    “They demand so much work from you, and they play with your money,” Fonseca said. “It belongs to you, but it doesn’t reach your hands.”

    Poor track record of oversight

    Government subcontractors underpay their employees any number of ways, Labor Department records show. Some companies misclassify workers, claiming they belong to a lower-paying trade, as the Labor Department found with the GSA asbestos-removers. Others have been caught striking employees from payroll records entirely. Still others cut workers’ hours on paper to make it appear that the wages paid reflected actual time worked.

    In one case, air-conditioner installers on a job financed in part by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development were routinely given paychecks reflecting the $50.70 per hour to which they were entitled under Davis-Bacon. They were forced to cash the checks and return about half the money to their employer, Igloo HVAC LLC, the Labor Department alleged. Payroll records submitted to HUD reflected none of this.

    The Labor Department settled the case with Igloo HVAC, which paid more than $80,000 in back wages to five workers. Roberto Flores, the company’s owner, declined to comment, citing the settlement agreement. A HUD spokesman said that while the agency reviews payroll records submitted for projects it finances, it can’t always verify the accuracy of those records.

    Wage theft in federal contracting has taken on new urgency as the Trump administration proposes a “great rebuilding of our country,” a $1 trillion increase in public infrastructure investment over the next 10 years.

    In June, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao announced that wages paid to workers on highway and other infrastructure projects would be covered by Davis-Bacon. But federal agencies’ track record of monitoring violators isn’t good. Regulations require agencies to determine whether potential contractors are “responsible,” which can have myriad meanings — whether they can stick to a schedule, for example, or have sufficient assets. Federal contracting officers use a network of databases to review companies’ performance, but the databases, which are maintained by the Defense Department, don’t usually divulge labor-law violations. Companies that win contracts vet their own subcontractors, which generally don’t appear in the databases.  

    Toward the close of the Obama administration, the Labor Department tried to address these problems with a rule that aimed to bring government contractors into compliance with Davis-Bacon and other labor laws before they could receive additional awards. The short-lived Fair Pay and Safe Workplaces rule, which became final last year, created a system under which agencies could review companies’ violation histories: Companies would report any black marks from the previous three years. Each agency would get a labor compliance officer, and contracting databases would become more inclusive.

    The rule also included a paycheck-transparency mandate, requiring contractors to break down payment amounts in detail to workers and specify their job classifications.  

    Most of the rule’s provisions never went into effect — they were stayed by a federal judge following a lawsuit by two trade groups, Associated Builders and Contractors and the National Association of Security Companies.

    All of this became immaterial in March, when President Donald Trump affirmed Congress’ vote to dismantle the rule under the Congressional Review Act.

    "When I met with manufacturers earlier this year — and they were having a hard time, believe me — they said this blacklisting rule was one of the greatest threats to growing American business and hiring more American workers,” Trump said as he signed the legislation.

    Now, as was the case before, information on companies’ labor infractions — distinct from the performance databases administered by the Defense Department — lies scattered across Labor Department, EEOC and National Labor Relations Board offices.  

    David Weil, who led the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division from 2014 to 2016, said he found the revocation of the rule “remarkable,” given Trump’s stated concern about creating a “level playing field for American companies and our workers.”

    “If these are the laws of the land, you should be paying the workers according to fair prevailing wages and paying them the benefits you're supposed to be paying,” said Weil, the dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. “Why should companies that have consistently violated multiple federal labor statutes in the past be given the opportunity to get more government work?”

    For workers who file complaints with the Labor Department, recovering wages can be an arduous process. Last year, the department closed 864 Davis-Bacon cases in which it had found violations. A typical case took about 250 days to resolve. Some cases were closed within one month; the oldest was opened in 2006.

    Fonseca and Vega, the former GSA asbestos workers, still don’t know when their case will end. It involves four interconnected employers. At the top of the chain was Whiting-Turner/Walsh, the general contractor. Next came Interior Specialists Inc., a subcontractor. That firm, in turn, hired Asbestos Specialists. Finally, there was WMS Solutions LLC, the staffing company that directly employed the asbestos-removers but didn’t determine their pay. WMS isn’t part of the Labor Department’s investigation; the other three companies have contested the wage-theft charges.

    A Whiting-Turner spokeswoman declined to comment on the case. Representatives of its partner on the GSA headquarters renovation, Walsh Group, and Interior Specialists did not respond to requests for comment. Maryland records show WMS’s business status as “forfeited,” and company officials could not be reached.

    ‘You’re artisans’

    In April, Trump made an appearance at North America’s Building Trades Unions’ legislative conference. "I've spent my life working side by side with American builders, and now you have a builder as your president," he told his audience.

    He called out different trades represented in the room, from bricklayers to ironworkers to plumbers, waiting for each group to cheer.

    “You're not only builders, but you're artisans,” he said. “Just as you take pride in your work, our nation takes great, great pride in you.”

    The Trump administration’s Wage and Hour Division, whose top posts remain unfilled, has yet to reveal its enforcement strategy, and division officials declined to be interviewed for this article. The Labor Department’s fiscal 2018 budget request for the division seeks a modest $3 million increase to help employers with legal compliance. The Obama administration, in contrast, sought an extra $50 million to boost wage-and-hour enforcement for the current fiscal year, but Congress failed to appropriate the money.

    This year, the House Appropriations Committee has proposed a $10 million cut for the division, and a $1.3 billion cut for the Labor Department overall.

    In March, acting Solicitor Nicholas Geale said the Labor Department needed to show “a little more humility.” In June, the department reinstated a practice that had been suspended under Obama: the issuance of opinion letters, which on their face help employers clarify gray areas of labor law. Critics say the letters create a rationale employers can later use as a defense in worker lawsuits.

    To Rajesh Nayak, an Obama Labor Department official, the Trump administration’s moves so far are telling. “It starts to paint this picture of a very different Wage and Hour [Division] — and one that doesn't match the rhetoric of putting American workers first,” said Nayak, who served as deputy chief of staff to Labor Secretary Tom Perez.  

    The division has long fought an uphill battle. Its investigators rely on worker complaints, tips from industry and labor groups and their own sleuthing to enforce wage laws.

    Workers, however, are often reluctant to complain.

    “These guys may very well lose their jobs,” said John Monroe, a labor compliance officer at the Foundation for Fair Contracting. The foundation, funded by building-trades unions, seeks out wage-theft violations on government construction projects and submits complaints to the Labor Department.

    Monroe regularly walks onto job sites, blending in with a hardhat and safety vest. He asks workers about their pay and passes out sheets listing Davis-Bacon rates for different trades.

    Monroe said he’s never been to a site where he didn’t encounter a case of wage theft. But even when the Labor Department finds violations, companies usually are forced to pay only back wages.  Penalties and damages are rare, especially in Davis-Bacon cases. In 2016, damages were assessed in less than 1 percent of cases in which Davis-Bacon violations were found, and penalties were paid in less than 2 percent.

    “The penalty for robbing the bank is to give the money back,” Monroe said, “and that's just not a deterrent.”

    Data intern Iuliia Alieva contributed to this article.

    A construction worker cuts brick in Washington, D.C.Maryam Jameelhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/maryam-jameelhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/21/21058/fleecing-america-s-builders

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    This report is part of a project on drinking water contamination in the United States produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 program.

    YUMA, Ariz. – Nestor Alaniz didn’t get a permit to build a well in his mother’s backyard, and he didn’t get it inspected.

    In fact, he didn’t even know how to dig a well. He learned by watching tutorials on YouTube while his brother, a construction worker, helped him drill the 25-foot-deep hole. 

    They built the well after the old one dried up for the fourth time. Their mother, who lives in a “colonia” – an unincorporated community – of about 400 residents outside of Yuma, Arizona had gone without water to her home for a year.

    They didn’t have the $5,000 to $10,000 to pay a certified well driller, so they spent $1,200 to buy their own equipment and build it themselves.

    County officials said they’re concerned when residents build wells without required permits. They know there’s often not enough separation between the wells and septic tanks, which can increase risk of contamination. And they fear some of the wells do not go deep enough. However, officials said their hands are tied because the legal process to get things done is too complicated.

    All along the U.S.-Mexico border, about 840,000 mostly low-income, immigrant Latinos have settled in colonias – cheap plots of land outside city limits without basic infrastructure such as water and sewage systems, electricity and paved roads.

    A News21 analysis of census data indicates that across the United States, the average income in predominantly Latino unincorporated areas is 40 percent lower than the average income in predominantly white unincorporated areas, making it harder for these communities to deal with water quality issues. Colonias exemplify some of these problems.

    As of 2015, an estimated 30 percent of colonia residents didn’t have access to safe, clean drinking water, according to the Rural Community Assistance Partnership, a national nonprofit group.

    News21 visited colonias along the border – in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas – and examined how residents deal with water contamination and why it’s so difficult to improve their condition.

    Colonias often face complicated government bureaucracy and limited budgets that make it hard to secure funds to fix problems. Residents are often poor, with little education, and some are undocumented. And since many residents say they are not civically engaged, they feel invisible to their elected officials.

    Colonia residents also have to face the public perception that they chose to settle in their communities knowing they lacked services.

    “There are attitudes out there that these people moved into these subdivisions on their own, consciously, and they should not be expecting the state to bail them out,” said Texas state Sen. Jose Rodriguez, a Democrat from El Paso. “The fact that (colonias) exist in other parts of the border along the U.S. reflects some similar attitudes.”

    Historical settlement

    The word colonia means “neighborhood” in Spanish. The federal and state governments use the term to describe settlements along the border that lack infrastructure. Colonias can be traced to the 1950s, but some argue they’ve been there longer.

    Thousands of mostly immigrants – both legal and undocumented – who couldn’t afford to live in the city settled in colonias. County and state regulations did not require developers to provide basic services if the land didn’t exceed a certain number of lots.

    “If you look at the history of these communities, they were unscrupulous land sales,” said Gina Nuñez, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso.

    Land developers would tell colonia residents: “ ‘Don't worry. Those services are coming. The county is growing, and they're going to provide those services,’ ” El Paso County Commissioner Vince Perez said. “We still haven't been able to deliver (water and wastewater) service to residents who have been waiting three decades.”

    About 90 percent of the colonias –  roughly 2,000 of them – are in Texas, according to data from Texas and the Rural Community Assistance Partnership. It was the first border state to legally recognize colonias and allocate funds for them.

    In the early 1990s, after a population boom, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Department of Agriculture officially recognized colonias as neighborhoods within 150 miles of the border that lack some basic utilities. The National Affordable Housing Act of 1990 required that all the border states set aside a percentage of Community Development Block Grants for colonias.

    “We created ways for these communities to better compete for resources,” said Ed Cabrera, a HUD spokesman. “Despite these efforts, there’s obviously still a lot of need in these areas.”

    Some colonias have their own water systems or receive water from nearby cities if they're close enough. Their treatment facilities, pipes, wells and septic tanks are too often old, or they can’t afford the technology to properly clean the water.

    Complicated bureaucracy

    Araceli Silva moved to her colonia near Yuma 27 years ago because of the cheap price. She settled there after immigrating from Michoacan, Mexico when she was 17 to do farm work in the fields.

    The 53-year-old mother of nine has struggled with her wells, which have run dry more than once. She doesn’t have the money to hire a professional because she stopped working after suffering severe back pain – a result of harvesting broccoli for so long.

    Silva and her neighbors rely on individual wells because they can’t hook up to the city system.

    Yuma County officials said the residents must meet certain conditions before they can apply for funds to connect to city water. The first problem: The county won’t allow more than one house on each parcel. But since the residents already have multiple homes on each parcel, they won’t budge.

    Residents who want access to water also would have to sign off on a petition and agree to pay for a preliminary assessment without first knowing the cost. The county would need to hire engineers to figure out if the project is viable and determine the expense. Residents would have to pay for these reports even if the project doesn’t happen.

    “Some of them would call them a ‘blank check’ because they’re signing a petition without knowing how much it’s gonna cost them at the end,” said Nancy Ngai, Yuma County community planning coordinator. She said that, depending on the size of the project, those reports can cost  nearly $100,000. Without the residents signing that petition, the county can’t help, she said.

    After years of going back and forth with residents, the county gave up. “For the past 10 years, I really have not worked with them at all simply because there were too many roadblocks that I was just not able to find an answer to,” Ngai said.

    For Silva, that means remaining in the shadows. “No one comes to this place to help,” Silva said in Spanish.

    Lack of funding

    The residents of Tornillo, a small unincorporated community in El Paso County in Texas, get their water from their own water treatment plant. But their system has tested positive for high arsenic levels for a decade, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

    Local officials tried to address the arsenic, which is naturally occurring in the region, but they couldn’t secure enough money to pay the $3.25 million needed for a new water treatment plant.

    The El Paso County Tornillo Water Improvement District relies on property taxes and the revenue from water bills, which isn’t enough to pay for the upkeep of the new plant. The lack of funds is a common problem for these small water districts when they need to make major improvements. It means they must obtain a loan or seek help from the county, state or federal government. 

    Franciela Vega, business affairs manager for the Tornillo water district, said securing a loan wasn’t a viable option. “We knew that if we obtained a full loan, it wouldn't be affordable for the customers,” Vega said.

    Vega said they never even thought of asking the county for money since it struggles financially as well. And when the district tried the state, it couldn’t secure a grant through the Texas Water Development Board’s Economically Distressed Areas Program, which provides water and wastewater funding for poor communities. That funding is quickly evaporating: Now there’s only $50 million left from its latest $250 million bond authorization in 2007.

    “The bottom line is that a lot of these legislators feel they’ve spent a lot of money (on colonias),” said Rodriguez, the Texas state senator. “It’s really unconscionable that people didn’t give priority to these programs, for people that are essentially living in Third World conditions.”

    Jessica Zuba, an administrator with the water development board, said these funds have serviced 300,000 colonia residents in Texas since the program’s inception in 1989.

    The Tornillo district eventually got a federal grant through the Environmental Protection Agency’s border program, and it installed a plant in March.

    But water-quality experts said federal funds face an uncertain future as well. President Donald Trump’s budget proposal eliminates all federal money allocated for water and wastewater projects through HUD’s block grant program, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s water and wastewater program, and the EPA’s border program.

    Even when water districts in colonias do find the money for major projects, they can struggle with maintaining their systems. Small water systems often have to charge their customers more because they can’t spread out the costs among a larger population base.

    For example, the Tornillo district installed the treatment plant in March, however, the water district still had an arsenic violation in July, according to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. The cost of any repairs will mean higher rates for residents.

    Residents rely on bottled water

    As colonias residents struggle with the long wait for clean water, they often turn to bottled water. Latinos rely more on bottled water than other minorities and whites, according to the 2015 American Housing Survey, and they spend nearly $2.17 more on commercial bottled water a month than non-Latinos, according to a study conducted by Vanderbilt University economist William Viscusi.

    All along the border, dozens of small water bottles and gallon jugs pile up in homes because residents don’t think it’s safe to drink from the tap.

    Residents from Glen Acres, New Mexico, rely on bottled water because they don’t trust the quality and don’t like the taste of the tap water from their own water system. It has had more water quality violations than any other system in the state, according to a News21 analysis of EPA data.

    The system, which delivers water to 72 homes, has had uranium and fluoride levels above the legal limit intermittently since 2002, but it could not afford the technology to remove the uranium. In July, it began buying water from the city of Lordsburg, which is less than 3 miles away.

    Glen Acres resident Jacinta Marquez, 60, has lived in the colonia for more than 30 years. She relies on a disability check – on average $1,200 a month, according to the state – and spends about $20 on bottled water and nearly $75 on her water bill during the hot months, she said.

    “We’re on a limited income here,” Marquez’s daughter Anna Marquez said.

    Residents are also concerned about the quality of Lordsburg’s water, which also struggles to keep its fluoride levels low. They said they will continue to buy bottled water even though they get their water from the city.

    Lack of communication

    Colonia residents say their water companies often don’t communicate with them, or they do so in English – despite the fact that about 30 percent of the Latino population in the U.S. border states speak limited English, according to a News21 analysis of Census data.

    Some residents from La Union, New Mexico, said they didn’t even know their water, which comes from their own water system, was contaminated because they never received a notice.

    Barbara Muñoz and her 87-year-old mother, who has dementia, diabetes and congestive heart failure, said she didn’t realize the water they’d been drinking for the past seven years had arsenic. Neither did nine of the neighbors contacted by News21.

    “It sucks,” Muñoz said. “I’m disappointed.”

    Since 2009, La Union Mutual Domestic Sewer and Water Association had 28 violations for exceeding arsenic levels, according to the New Mexico Environment Department. Their arsenic levels returned to normal in November last year.

    Officials from the water company, which serves more than 900 people, said they have been informing residents when they mail bills. However, the state gave them nine violations from 2009 to 2016 for failing to notify their users of previous high arsenic levels.

    Regulators issue violations when water systems fail to follow EPA standards or notify residents that their water is unsafe to drink. The EPA requires water systems to notify its users about potentially dangerous violations with “another method” – such as the telephone – in addition to mail to make sure all customers receive the information.

    Rosa Maria Jasso, who has lived in La Union for 30 years, said she never drinks the water and only uses it to cook. She doesn’t trust the water, especially after her pet fish died when she used tap water to fill its tank. She didn’t know it had arsenic.

    Leadership struggles

    Colonias that have secured funds to improve water conditions have one thing in common: Community organizing. But mobilizing a community isn’t easy. Leaders sometimes have to overcome opposition from their neighbors.

    “They tell us ‘what do you gain from doing this?’ Sometimes (they say) ‘why do you care?’” said Arturo Padilla, a community leader from Horizon View Estates, a colonia in El Paso County.

    The residents of Horizon View Estates must rely on septic tanks for waste disposal, but they often overflow and residents can’t afford new ones.

    Padilla tried to persuade the city water utility, Horizon Regional Municipal Utility District, to build a sewage system in Horizon View Estates. He called a state senator, the county commissioner and a state representative and invited them to Horizon View to listen to residents. He handed out more than 200 fliers inviting residents to a meeting so officials could talk about funding options for the $10 million sewage project.

    Hundreds of residents from Horizon View Estates attended. But after the meeting ended, some residents said they were disappointed and didn’t think it would make a difference.

    Padilla is afraid that people will lose interest and won’t care, he said. Or even if they do, they won’t do anything about it.

    In border communities, undocumented immigrants often don’t want to interact with officials or call attention to themselves because they’re afraid of deportation.

    Lorena Hernandez, a Tornillo resident, said undocumented immigrants in Tornillo won’t accept free water filters from a nonprofit. They won’t go to the water district meetings either. They told her if they go to the meetings, officials will tell them: “What are you complaining for if you’re not from here?” she said in Spanish.

    Perez, the El Paso commissioner, said race, ethnicity and legal status place an additional barrier when trying to solve water issues in these communities. Many residents won’t even report crime, he said. And if they’re afraid to call the police, they’re probably afraid to report problems with their water. 

    He said the problem has worsened under the Trump administration.

    “Being on the border, unfortunately, we have a front-row seat to just all this unfolding,” Perez said. “(There’s) this atmosphere of fear that I've never seen before, and it's really unfortunate … I don't think that this is what America used to represent.”

    Taking action

    In California’s eastern Coachella Valley, not too far from exclusive golf resorts and luxury hotels, hundreds of decades-old mobile home parks that lack access to clean water are scattered near grape, citrus and date fields.

    Sergio Carranza, executive director of the nonprofit Pueblo Unido Community Development Corp., has used his engineering background to design cost-effective filtration systems in those colonias – or polancos, as they call them in California – that are too far away to consolidate with the city.

    Back in his home country of El Salvador, Carranza did volunteer social work in his community during his country's civil war. So when he came to Southern California and noticed that Latinos were living in similar conditions as they did in El Salvador, he became a community organizer.

    Carranza managed to bring a less expensive arsenic filtration system to St. Anthony Mobile Home Park, which has a contaminated well that serves as the main water source for the community.

    In Horizon View Estates near El Paso, Cristina Morales joined Arturo Padilla’s efforts to install a sewage system.

    She collected brown water from her tap in a bottle and carries it in her purse to show officials. She worked on a petition. She also started taking photos of the damage: sewage pooling in a backyard, a bathtub full of sewage water, sewage coming from a kitchen sink.

    When she went to a utility meeting with Padilla, she said officials told them they could not speak to the board if they didn’t do so in English. “I told Mr. Arturo, ‘No, we don’t walk out. We’re not leaving,’” Morales said. Her daughter translated.

    Morales is one of many women in colonias who have taken on the role of organizing and advocating for sewage and clean water.

    “I refer to women as ‘chispas’ – sparks – because they have to ignite the energy and enthusiasm in their neighbors to want to gather and organize and advocate for themselves,” said Nuñez, the anthropology professor.

    That was the case in San Elizario, Texas, where a group of women who lived in colonias formed the nonprofit Adults and Youth United Development Association Inc.

    “We didn’t have a title,” Executive Director Olivia Figueroa said. “We were just housewives who didn’t know English. But we had, and we still have, the necessity.”

    Twenty-three years ago, Figueroa left her colonia in Chihuahua, Mexico, and immigrated to the U.S. She payed $40 to cross the Rio Grande, only to arrive in another colonia in the U.S. As in Mexico, the colonia had no electricity, no paved roads, no sewage and no drinking water.

    “And that’s when I said, ‘Where’s the American dream?’ ” Figueroa said in Spanish. “I didn’t think that here, in the United States, in the most powerful country in the world, there would be lack of services.”

    Figueroa and other women from the colonia began to meet regularly at one another’s houses and discuss what they could do to get basic services. Sometimes they met at abandoned houses.

    Eventually, they bought an old house, demolished it and built a new one to house their own organization. Figueroa said most of the colonias in San Elizario now have tap water, sewage, paved roads and electricity, a feat she thinks would have been slower if left up to government officials.

    “If you see the authorities not doing anything, then we have to do it ourselves,” Figueroa said.

    The water in La Union, N.M., had tested positive for arsenic above the legal limit since 2009. Residents said they still don’t drink the tap water, opting instead to fill at the local filling station. News21 Staffhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/news21-staffMaria Esquincahttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/maria-esquincaAndrea Jaramillohttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/andrea-jaramillohttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/22/21123/colonias-border-struggle-decades-old-water-issues

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    This summer, the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal joined forces with hundreds of "citizen sleuths" to investigate the personal assets, liabilities, business ties and potential conflicts of interest of President Donald Trump and hundreds of his administration appointees.

    This weekend, Reveal — a co-production of The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX — will broadcast and podcast a special segment about the people behind the #CitizenSleuth reporting project and what they've uncovered.

    A sneak peak: You'll learn a lot about recently fired Trump adviser Steve Bannon's million-dollar debts, a shadow White House press office that may violate federal law and some Trump officials who earn a government paycheck despite owing the Internal Revenue Service tens of thousands of dollars. 

    Interested in how much Trump himself is worth? We'll tackle that, too.

    Reveal and the Center for Public Integrity will also collaborate on a second segment airing this weekend about how children from New Jersey to California find themselves at risk of breathing toxic air— just by going to school.

    Consult this list to find a local radio station that airs Reveal. (Scroll right on the chart to find the day and time Reveal airs on your local station.)

    And come Sunday, download the Reveal's podcast version of the show by clicking here.

    Still want to become a #CitizenSleuth?

    Dive into the spreadsheet below now and send tips and hints to: newstips@publicintegrity.org

     

     

    White House Senior Advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner talk behind President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a Cabinet meeting, June 12, 2017, in the Cabinet Room of the White House in Washington.The Center for Public Integrityhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/authors/center-public-integrityhttps://www.publicintegrity.org/2017/08/24/21131/revealed-trump-administration-members-personal-finances

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