IN 2016, THE CITY OF Waco, Texas issued an order to remove a fence in the city’s public burial ground, Greenwood Cemetery. But it wasn’t just a cosmetic change: Using a forklift and power tools, City of Waco Parks & Recreation staff cut apart the chain-link fence that had been used to divide the white section of the cemetery from the black section.
The cemetery had been racially segregated since it opened in the late 1800s. It was operated by two sets of caretakers, white and black, until the city took over the cemetery about 10 years ago.
Waco is not the only Texas community to struggle with the surprisingly robust ghost of Jim Crow: This spring, the cemetery association of Normanna, Texas, about an hour outside Corpus Christi, was sued by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund for barring a white woman from burying the ashes of her Hispanic husband there. Although the cemetery association later relented, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating. No Hispanic people are buried within the Normanna cemetery—there is one sole tombstone with a Spanish surname, located just outside the cemetery’s chain link fence.
Until the 1950s, about 90 percent of all public cemeteries in the U.S. employed a variety of racial restrictions. Until recently, to enter a cemetery was to experience, as a University of Pennsylvania geography professor put it, the “spatial segregation of the American dead.” Even when a religious cemetery was not entirely race restricted, different races were buried in separate parts of the cemetery, with whites usually getting the more attractive plots.
Some white Americans did fight against this policy. Abolitionists, such as Thaddeus Stevens, a radical Republican and chair of the House Ways and Means Committee during the Civil War, insisted on being buried in a non-segregated burial ground. Stevens chose to be buried in an interracial cemetery in Lancaster, Pennsylvania after his death in 1868. The issue of interracial eternal repose was so important to him that he wrote it into his own epitaph. His tombstone read: “I repose in this quiet and secluded spot, not from any natural preference for solitude; but, finding other cemeteries limited as to race, by charter rules, I have chosen this that I may illustrate in my death, the principles which I advocated through a long life, equality of man before the Creator.”
From the 1920s through the 1950s, courts did not consider cemeteries to be “public accommodations,” so cemeteries did not qualify for special civil rights protections. But in May 1948, the Supreme Court ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer that state enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in land deeds violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. This had a major impact on the ability of blacks to buy houses in white neighborhoods, but it also affected the de-segregation of cemeteries. Whites-only restrictions on cemetery plots could no longer hold up in court. As a sign of the slowly-changing times, several interracial cemeteries appeared in the 1950s. Charles Diggs, Sr., a black undertaker and florist in Detroit, bought land to create an interracial cemetery just outside the city in 1953. Mount Holiness Cemetery in Butler, New Jersey, also promoted itself as an interracial cemetery in black newspapers like The New York Age in the 1950s.
But since blacks and whites continued to live and worship separately, such initiatives were few and far between.
Just a few weeks after SCOTUS ruled in Shelley v. Kraemer, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which officially desegregated the military. Although it took years to desegregate battlefield units, the order went into immediate effect at Arlington National Cemetery. One of the first black veterans to be buried in a formerly white section of Arlington was Spottswood Poles, a star of Negro League baseball who enlisted with the infamous Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black unit that fought in the trenches of France during World War I. Poles earned five battle field star decorations, as well as the Purple Heart, for his military service. He was interred at Arlington with full military honors in 1962.
As the racial composition of communities changed over time, many black cemeteries became neglected and forgotten, and the resting places of countless unsung heroes of America’s black past quietly disappeared. In 2014, U.S. Senator Bob Casey called on the Veterans’ Administration to establish a public database listing where all black Civil War veterans were buried, because few such cemetery records exist. Since many black graves are unmarked, recording and cataloguing their locations requires ground-penetrating radar and high-precision GPS. Several months ago, over 800 unmarked graves were uncovered using this technology at a black cemetery in Atlanta, demonstrating the potential for similar discoveries in cemeteries and forgotten burial grounds across the country.
Like the city councilors of Waco, many community groups and civic associations are currently engaged in the difficult, lengthy, and expensive tasks involved in unearthing black history. In the process, they are discovering that addressing the wrongs of the past is often more complicated than simply removing the physical reminders of Jim Crow that haunt our landscape. The traces of the past are sunk deep into the earth, but with the right tools, it’s possible to make them visible.
The two-pound coyote pup looked every bit like a small domestic puppy Wednesday at the Penny Pond Forest Preserve in Barrington Hills while being held by animal rehabber Dawn Keller of Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation.
The coyote, now named Peace, snuggled into Keller’s arm adorably, and when she placed him on the ground for a second, he made a dash despite the fact there was a cast on his right rear leg.
Keller has teamed with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Conservation Police, Cook County Forest Preserve Police and the Humane Society of the United States to try and bring attention to the May 11 incident that injured the pup at the Penny Pond preserve in Barrington Hills.
“It was a heinous wildlife crime,” said Sgt. Jed Whitchurch, IDNR’s supervisor for this region, referring to how a fisherman found a burlap bag in Penny Pond, and when he fished it out of the water, there were seven one-pound coyote pups just a few weeks old that all looked dead.
The fisherman called Cook County Forest Preserve Police, and an officer arrived to pick up the coyote pups, according to Lambrini Lukidis, communications director for the forest preserve. She said they are not sure how long the bag was in the water, but six of the pups were found to have water in their lungs, a sign of drowning.
“The police officer put them into a bucket and that was when he noticed one was still alive,” she said. The surviving coyote, just over a pound and two to three weeks old, was taken to Golf Rose Animal Hospital in Schaumburg. Staffers there in turn called Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation in Barrington because they don’t have a permit to keep wild animals.
Say hello to Peace, who has doubled in size and is recovering better than expected, according to Keller.
“The leg was shattered — it was dangling and misshapen, and it was sticking out slightly because of a hip fracture,” she said. Flint Creek staff started treating it with fluids, anti-inflammatory and pain medication. On the second day, it opened its eyes. Nine days later, the leg was set in a cast, and the coyote was eating well and stable at that point.
“Coyotes are really misunderstood. We really struggled with a name because he had such a horrible life so far,” Keller said, adding that Flint Creek staffers turned it around and settled on Peace because they advocate for the peaceful coexistence of coyotes and other wildlife and humans.
“He broke my heart when he was rescued,” Keller said, adding that rescuers were not sure the pup was going to make it through the first 24 hours because it suffered from hypothermia. Its shattered leg was either the result of blunt-force trauma or someone swinging the animal around by it leg, Keller said after consulting with a veterinarian.
The IDNR gave Keller special permission to show off the coyote pup to media in the hopes of garnering more attention about the incident and hopefully more leads, according to Whitchurch.
“Cold-case wildlife cases are tough. We’re hoping with the financial reward someone with information will come forward and tell us,” he said. Whitchurch added that the news of the vicious incident is still spreading, so he is hoping more media attention will inform more people.
“It’s been quieter than we were hoping for. Some people are just hearing about it,” he said, noting that there are two leads received by investigators that could be promising, but it is hard because there is no description to work with yet and it happened in May.
Some people have wondered what difference it makes, since coyotes are one of the few animals in Illinois that can be hunted year round.
“This was not a humane act,” said Whitchurch. “This is an unusual case — it’s not the norm.”
According to the IDNR, about 7,000 coyotes are harvested each year in Illinois with 75 percent taken by hunters and 25 percent by trapping, which is restricted to fall and winter months. The liberal hunting season allows landowners to remove problem animals without having to obtain a special permit. IDNR biologists monitor the populations.
The IDNR also reports that coyotes are Illinois’ largest wild predator and were nearly extinct after the state was settled. They’re most abundant in the southern, southeastern and west-central parts of the state. Their numbers increased dramatically during the 1970s and early 1980s.
While they occasionally take livestock, poultry or pets, their diet consists of animal matter, but they often eat insects, fruits or berries. Rabbits and mice are important food sources, according to the IDNR.
A study in the Chicago area showed the following percentages of food groups occurring in coyotes’ diets: 43 percent small rodents; 22 percent white-tailed deer; 23 percent fruit; 18 percent eastern cottontail rabbit; and 13 percent birds. The presence of human-associated foods, like garbage, was rare, coming in at 2 percent, as was the presence of domestic cat, at 1 percent.
Wildlife experts say coyotes are valuable members of the wildlife community and do more good than harm where humans are concerned, and the IDNR believes trying to eliminate all of the coyotes in an area is not a realistic goal because voids will be filled quickly. Fortunately, removing individuals with “bad behaviors” usually solves a problem even when other coyotes continue to live in an area, according to the IDNR.
A reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for the Barrington Hills case has been steadily climbing from just a few thousand dollars to $8,000 this week. Tips can be left on the IDNR police tip line at 1-877-236-7529.
The grisly incident attracted the attention of the Humane Society of the United States, which has put more than half of the reward money. It had doubled its standard cruelty reward from $2,500 after a board member for the organization agreed to fund the increase, according to HSUS.
“Anyone who could so callously maim and kill defenseless coyote pups and then toss them away like trash is a danger not only to animals but to the community at large,” said Marc Ayers, the society’s Illinois state director.
“We are hopeful that this reward will bring forward anyone with information about this heinous crime,” Ayers added. Getting the serious attention of law enforcement, prosecutors and residents in cases involving allegations of cruelty to animals is an essential step in protecting the community, according to a statement from the group.
The connection between animal cruelty and human violence is well documented, according to the group. Studies show a correlation between animal cruelty and all manner of other crimes, from narcotics and firearms violations to battery and sexual assault, Ayers said.
“It takes a special person to brutalize an animal, especially babies,” Keller said. “That’s not normal. It’s really sad.”
Whitlock said the cooperation between the various groups and agencies has been heartening.
“It’s nice to see the stakeholders coming together,” he said. “It’s great to see people care about our natural resources and Illinois wildlife.”
He Was Once Labeled a Horse Thief; Now He Wants to Save Them
A South Carolina man who was mistakenly arrested for stealing horses has leased 4,000 acres of Kentucky land in the hopes of turning it into a horse sanctuary.
| May 15, 2017, Associated Press
By ADAM BEAM, Associated Press
JACKSON, Ky. (AP) — Curtis Bostic is an attorney, a politician and — for a few weeks in 2016 — an accused horse thief.
On a cold December day in the rugged hilltops of Breathitt County, Bostic was trying to rescue some horses he said had been abandoned and were malnourished. But he was arrested by a sheriff’s deputy, who said the horses belonged to two men who follow the local custom of setting them free in the winter to wander the wilderness of the county’s abandoned coal fields.
The charges were later dismissed after the sheriff’s department said it didn’t have probable cause to make the arrest. But during the night Bostic spent in jail, he came up with an idea: A few weeks later, he leased the land where he had been arrested. He sent a letter to the two men who had pressed charges against him. Now, they were the trespassers, and Bostic ordered them to come get their horses before he put them up for adoption.
“I can’t change the full county. But I can say you are not going to come to my property and drop your horse off in the cold winter,” Bostic said.
Bostic wants to turn 4,000 acres of former coal mines into a horse sanctuary. It’s the latest idea on how to tackle the growing horse population in the mountains of Kentucky, a state known more for pampered thoroughbreds on pristine farms than bony horses roaming free.
Bostic’s descriptions of thousands of horses suffering at the hands of cruel owners have offended the locals who say he doesn’t understand their culture.
Clifton Hudson, 30, owns five horses that he sets free to wander land he doesn’t own near his home in Breathitt County. He said he provides 600 pounds of salt each month for the horses. He stopped hauling hay bales to the land because the horses were not eating them, a sign he says means they have plenty of grass to graze. The locals often bring their children to the mountains on the weekends to pet and feed the horses.
“It’s just really it’s more of a pastime than anything else with the people of the county,” Hudson said. “So far the only person really had an issue with it has been Mr. Bostic.”
Wild horses have been a familiar sight in the Kentucky mountains for decades. But following the Great Recession and the thousands of jobs lost because of the disappearing coal industry, more horses have been set loose.
Just how many and whether they have enough food is up for debate.
Dumas Rescue, a local animal rescue organization, told a legislative committee last fall that Floyd County alone had 1,000 horses. Owner Tonya Conn said they took in 22 horses last year but had to turn away requests for 100 others.
“Some of them have never been touched by human hands,” she said.
Debby Spencer, a board member for the Appalachian Horse Center, said Floyd County has just 44 free-roaming horses, based on a census she conducted in 2014 across nine eastern Kentucky counties. She found 440 horses in eight of them, a number she said has since grown to 584.
“There is more than enough food up there,” Spencer said.
Bostic lives in South Carolina, where he’s a former member of the Charleston County Council and once ran for Congress, losing to former Gov. Mark Sanford in a 2013 primary. He’s the general counsel for Kinzer Drilling Co., which owns the land Bostic has leased. He and his wife run an orphanage in Burma and own a private retreat in Charleston that has horses.
“We kind of enjoy being saviors of the world,” he said.
But some don’t see it that way. Hudson said a lot of owners will breed their horses in the wild, collecting and selling the offspring for side income. Bostic’s lease threatens to disrupt that practice.
Breeding of free-roaming horses is tricky. Male horses, once banned from free-ranging based on an unwritten rule among local owners, are running free and mating with female horses without owners’ knowledge. In September, Johnson County sheriff’s deputies discovered 20 to 30 horses at a former coal mine. Three of the horses, all males, had been shot in the head.
“It looked like they were trying to thin the herd by killing the males,” Deputy Terry Tussey said. “It’s still an open case. We never found out anything.”
Animal aid groups have hosted free gelding clinics in eastern Kentucky, but they depend on owners bringing their horses — and many lack resources to do so.
Local government leaders see the herds of wild horses galloping through the mountains and dream of tourists flocking to watch them. Such efforts have worked elsewhere, including ponies on Assateague Island in Virginia and mustangs at the Black Hills Wild Horse Sanctuary in South Dakota. But in Kentucky, a group trying to build the Appalachian Horse Center in Breathitt County has struggled to raise money.
The group has land not far from where Bostic was arrested. It plans to build a visitor center, offer guided tours and treat people with equine-assisted therapy. Local leaders hoped the group would partner with Bostic, but he isn’t interested in tourism.
“I don’t know how that would ever work,” he said. “What I want to do is help the animals that are here.”
Copyright 2017 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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The commodity cycle improved in 2016, find out why the trend may continue
May 17, 2017
The last two of 11 people charged in a scheme to distribute oxycodone throughout the Kansas City metropolitan area have pleaded guilty.
May 17, 2017
A student wants a new name for her South Carolina high school that carries the name of a prominent Civil War general.
May 17, 2017
Authorities in Florida say a man fatally shot a tow truck owner after a dispute over the $285 he owed for his impounded car.
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The Kansas City Zoo is hoping a new effort will help save an endangered species of African wild dogs.
May 17, 2017
The California Department of Fish and Wildlife has extended an emergency closure of the commercial rock crab fishery in Northern California.
May 17, 2017
A traffic stop in DeKalb County has yielded three kinds of drugs and paraphernalia.
May 17, 2017
Puerto Rico nationalist Oscar Lopez Rivera has been freed from house arrest after decades in custody in a case that transformed him into a martyr with supporters but outraged those who lost loved ones in a string of deadly bombings.
May 17, 2017
The Florida Highway Patrol says multiple vehicles may have hit a woman in the northbound lanes of Florida’s Turnpike near Fort Lauderdale.
Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune
WATCH: In The War Between Tigers And Drone, Chalk One Up For Tigers
After show, housing animals is circus
Finding sites hard with U.S. awash in ex-performers
When Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey folds its circus tents in May, about 400 people will be out of a job.
So will dozens of animals.
The show’s famous elephants are already retired, now living out their days on the company’s conservation center in Florida.
Some acts, like the dogs and the lions, are owned by their handlers and will remain with them.
But the kangaroos, horses, camels, tigers and others belong to Feld Entertainment, the producer of Ringling, which has said it will find them suitable homes.
Stephen Payne, a spokesman, said those locations have not yet been chosen, but that wherever the creatures land will “have to meet our high animal care standards.”
Their options include zoos and private owners, but former circus animals often end up at the animal sanctuaries that dot the nation, which vary widely in quality. Those might not have much trouble taking in horses or kangaroos, but tigers, bears and other large carnivores are another matter.
Failed roadside zoos and refuges, abandoned exotic pets and crackdowns on circuses have created a swelling menagerie of wild animals that need homes with lots of land, lots of food and proper enclosures.
Payne said Feld owns about 18 tigers, which will likely join a steady stream of big cats in search of shelter.
“We will do anything we can do to help them place their tigers, I’ll say that right now,” said Ed Stewart, the president of the California-based Performing Animal Welfare Society, or PAWS, a longtime Ringling adversary that this month took in eight tigers from a failed sanctuary in Colorado.
“But it’s not going to be easy, because all legitimate sanctuaries are full of tigers right now.”
The demand for wild animal accommodation is rising out of trends that animal welfare activists and sanctuary owners welcome, such as an increasing public distaste for entertainment and research involving animals and bans against circuses in U.S. cities and several Latin American countries.
But they say it is also a sign of the shocking ease with which Americans can acquire exotic animals, as well as the big money involved in breeding bear cubs and other creatures that sell for thousands of dollars.
Tigers are the emblems of this crisis of homeless wild animals, though bears are also “ridiculously hard to place,” said Kellie Heckman, executive director of the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, which has accredited 132 U.S. sanctuaries, only 11 of which accommodate big cats.
Ordinary people adopt cubs as pets, and some zoos and refuges let visitors take photos with them, a practice animal welfare advocates condemn.
But cute cubs grow into aggressive adolescents within a matter of months, and those used for entertainment often don’t perform for many years.
U.S. officials and conservation groups estimate 5,000 to 10,000 tigers live in the United States, far more than in the wild. Until recently, dozens of them resided at Serenity Springs, an unaccredited Colorado sanctuary that bred big cats, offered photos with cubs and had been cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for animal welfare violations.
Last fall, it was sold to a respected sanctuary in Arkansas, which has since been finding new homes for 110 animals, mostly cats.
“The sanctuary community cannot continue to be the dumping ground for all of those that make a profit off animals — whether that is using them for cub photos, circus acts or any commercial purpose. There just isn’t enough capacity,” Heckman said. “Building more sanctuary enclosures is not the answer. We need to regulate who can have exotic animals and for what purposes.”
Laws vary by animal and by state.
Some states have bans or require permits, while five do not restrict keeping dangerous wild animals. Last year, the federal government finalized two regulations aimed at increasing oversight of the American tiger population.
Advocates say they are hopeful the Ringling closure might generate momentum for two federal bills, which the company opposed, to ban private ownership and breeding of big cats as well as the use of wild animals in circuses and traveling shows.
Representatives of accredited sanctuaries say they’re eager to help find homes for the Ringling animals. Susan Bass, the spokeswoman for Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, said its founder had offered assistance in an email to chief executive Kenneth Feld. The sanctuary would be able to add some of the tigers to its population of 80 cats big and small, Bass said.
Among the Big Cat Rescue animals are five tigers from Serenity Springs, as well as Hoover, a recently arrived tiger that had spent his life traveling Peru in a circus wagon. That country banned performing exotic animals in 2011.
Feeding and caring for each tiger costs the sanctuary about $10,000 a year, Bass said.
“As far as we know, (Hoover had) never been able to roll around on the grass or have access to a body of water to play in,” Bass said. The tiger, who today lives on an acre of land with lakefront access, seemed startled when he first dipped his paw in the lake, but “he swims day and night now.”
Such initial bewilderment is common to circus animals, many of which have never had room to roam, said Pat Craig, executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, a 720-acre Colorado spread that is home to 450 large carnivores. It recently took in two tigers from Mexico, part of an influx created after exotic animals in circuses were outlawed there. After Bolivia passed a similar ban, the sanctuary had received 25 lions.
One of the Mexico tigers, Craig said, is nearly paralyzed, probably because of an injury. For years it had been housed in a crate.
“It’s a huge load for our medical team to work on her, to get her back into shape,” he said.
But that tiger is lucky: Although the sanctuary takes in more than 100 animals each year, resource limitations force him to turn down 50 percent of the animals he’s asked to take.
Still, Craig emphasized that he could find space for Ringling animals.
Stewart, the California sanctuary director, echoed that. His main 2,300-acre facility houses a former Ringling elephant, one of three retired circus elephants on the property. Another used to ride a tricycle during the Hawthorn Corp.’s circuses.
Other animals under PAWS care, which include lynxes and monkeys, have complicated back stories, having been passed from owner to owner, he said.
“There’s no line between, ‘This is a pet animal, a roadside zoo animal, a circus animal,’ ” Stewart said. “They could be any one of those categories in their lifetime. They’re just a commodity.”
Two Movies with Cats I Haven’t Seen
–I heard a radio interview of someone who’d worked on the movie Inside Llewyn Davis in which a yellow cat shows up often. Asked how the cat was trained for the purpose, the guy said, “You can train a cat to do anything it wants to do.” Said that was why the company kept 16 yellow cats available, ready to work.
Yesterday Alice watched Nine Lives accompanied by Annie (short for Anhinga), one of our black twins who prefers Alice. When the movie cat spoke in its own voice, instead of Kevin Spacey’s, Annie got excited and searched for the cat, under the television set, behind it, around the room.
Cast includes Christopher Walken who ” … plays Felix, the quirky owner of a magical pet shop where Tom, a workaholic, cat-hating jerk of a dad (Kevin Spacey), comes to buy his daughter a kitty as a birthday present.
A Coincidence at the Movies
We went to an early showing of Pollock, a film about the painter Jackson Pollock played by the powerful actor Ed Harris.
In the theater when we arrived there were just two people, members of Alice’s church–Ann Whitney, a fine professional actor, and Bob Harris, Ed’s father, who’d had an entertainment career of his own on television, in several of Ed’s pictures, and in productions of the Northminster Players at the church.
Ann played the drugstore lady in the movie Home Alone, filmed in my neighborhood, to my inconvenience. I learned later that the Village of Winnetka gained no revenue from the production.
EPA’s late changes to fracking study downplay risk of drinking water pollution
This story was reported in conjunction with APM Reports.
Top officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency last year made critical changes at the eleventh hour to a highly anticipated, five-year scientific study of hydraulic fracturing’s effect on the nation’s drinking water. The changes, later criticized by scientists for lacking evidence, played down the risk of pollution that can result from the well-drilling technique known as fracking.
Documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that in the six weeks before the study’s public release, officials inserted a key phrase into the executive summary that said researchers did not find evidence of “widespread systemic impacts” of fracking by the oil and gas industry on the nation’s drinking water.
Earlier draft versions emphasized more directly that fracking has contaminated drinking water in some places.
The documents also show that the news release accompanying the scientific study was changed on June 3, 2015, the day before it was made public. A draft displayed a conclusion that the EPA had identified “potential vulnerabilities” to drinking water. But the final release dated June 4, concluded: “Assessment shows hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources and identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”
In a conference call with reporters about the study on the day it was released, the EPA’s deputy administrator, Tom Burke, highlighted the lack of “widespread, systemic impacts” as the agency’s top finding.
In fact, scientists had found evidence in some places that fracking activity had polluted drinking water supplies.
In all, the agency identified more than two dozen instances in which hydraulic fracturing had an impact on water resources. The agency also identified hundreds of other spills, many of which reached soil and water.
It’s not clear precisely who inserted or ordered the new phrasing. But emails acquired via the Freedom of Information Act show EPA officials, including press officers, met with key advisers to President Obama to discuss marketing strategy a month before the study’s release. The emails also show EPA public relations people exchanging a flurry of messages between 4 and 11 p.m. on the eve of the study’s release.
The authenticity of the documents — before and after the changes — was confirmed independently by three people with knowledge of the study.
In interviews with 19 people familiar with the research, some characterized the “(no) widespread, systemic” language as a “bizarre conclusion” and “irresponsible.” Others said they were “surprised and disappointed” that top EPA officials used the phrase and said they had no idea it would become the headline until it came out.
The revised summary was quickly embraced by the oil and gas industry, which for nearly a decade had been fighting off environmentalists’ attacks and negative news coverage about fracking’s alleged harm to the environment.
Industry representatives cheered the findings, touting them as validation that fracking is safe.
Media organizations big and small highlighted the conclusion in headlines and sound bites. In a 140-character information ecosystem, suddenly the industry had the benefit of government assurance that fracked wells did not pose a significant threat to water supplies.
Those reports won the day, dominating the news cycle despite the EPA report noting that fracking activities, including chemical spills and faulty well construction, did have an impact on drinking water resources.
It’s not unusual for government agency reports to be edited and crafted in a way that provides positive context for a preferred policy. When research is mischaracterized by policy-makers, however, it raises concerns about the politicization of government science.
“There’s not really a wall between science and politics,” said Dominic DiGiulio, a former EPA scientist. “In my opinion, that statement was put in there to ensure that there would not be blowback from the oil and gas industry.”
The oil and gas industry, along with Republican allies in Congress, has regularly criticized the EPA for investigations into fracking, arguing that state regulators have primary responsibility over the oil and gas sector. Even as it was conducting the broad study, in three instances the EPA withdrew abruptly from investigations into landowner complaints over water contamination related to fracking.
Agency scientists are revising the study, a standard process with all EPA research that involves input from the public and the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, a peer review group that provides scientific advice to the agency.
EPA officials say they hope to release the final version of the $29 million study by the end of the year.
Burke and his boss, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, declined requests for interviews. Asked about the late changes in the news release, Tom Reynolds, who ran the agency’s communications office when the study was released, declined to comment.
The revelations come as Republican President-elect Donald Trump is set to take office on a pledge to abolish the EPA and eliminate regulations on oil and gas activities to boost energy exploration. It might be difficult for Trump to eliminate the agency, but even slight reductions could have a major effect on an agency that already has been hit by budget cuts.
Between 2010 and 2016, the EPA’s budget was reduced $2.1 billion, or 20 percent. There are also 1,902 fewer EPA employees than in 2010.
Congress called for study
The oil and gas industry has used hydraulic fracturing for decades. The process sends a mix of water, chemicals and sand into the subsurface at high pressure.
In the past 20 years, its use has dramatically increased as technology has combined with horizontal drilling techniques to produce vast amounts of affordable fossil energy from shale rock formations.
The number of hydraulically fractured wells drilled nationwide has jumped from 24,000 in 2000 to 300,000 in 2015, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Fracking has been the linchpin in the nation’s energy economy for the past decade. It has unearthed huge amounts of oil and gas, reducing the nation’s dependence on coal for electricity generation and its reliance on foreign oil.
The government reported in May that hydraulically fractured wells provided two-thirds of U.S. natural gas production in 2015 – nearly 10 times the amount produced in 2000.
Natural gas is also seen by many, including the Obama administration, as a cleaner-than-coal bridge to a time when most electricity will come from renewable sources. In addition to making the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources of oil and natural gas, fracking has delivered an economic boost to many parts of the country.
But like many industries relying on natural resources, the prospect of jobs has collided with environmentalists and residents worried about clean air and clean water.
Landowners in many states, including Texas, Colorado, Pennsylvania, Alabama and Wyoming, have complained that their drinking water was contaminated after fracking activity occurred near them.
Concerned about the complaints and potential impacts, Congress in 2009 urged the EPA to study fracking’s impact on drinking water. Supporters of the congressional action cited a 2004 EPA study that said fracking was safe; they claimed the study politicized the science and played down negative findings.
So EPA scientists spent years evaluating scientific reports from academics, industry, non-governmental organizations and government agencies. They took their own water samples, conducted laboratory analysis, did computer modeling of potential contamination, interviewed residents reporting water quality changes and negotiated with oil and gas companies to acquire proprietary well drilling data.
The study was highly anticipated and in the months before its release in June 2015, a draft assessment was shared with top policymaking and public information officials, according to internal emails.
Meetings involved White House advisers Candace Vahlsing and Dan Utech and officials from the Energy and Interior departments. Vahlsing and Utech declined to comment, a White House spokesman said.
White House Assistant Press Secretary Frank Benenati also was involved in the study’s “messaging,” according to the emails. Benenati, now the EPA’s director of communications, didn’t respond to specific questions about his involvement with the study.
A former EPA official involved in the study defended the controversial line about no “widespread systemic impacts,” saying the lack of a definitive conclusion required the agency to give a nuanced view of fracking. “In this area, there’s incomplete information,” said Ken Kopocis, who was the deputy assistant administrator for water at the EPA. “And so scientists will introduce some element of judgment in drawing their conclusions.”
Kopocis also said it’s common for the White House to be involved in meetings discussing major scientific reports because it’s necessary to inform other agencies involved in oil and gas issues.
The EPA report did note a number of instances in which fracking activity, including poorly designed well construction, chemical spills, well blowouts and direct drilling into formations containing water, had a “documented impact” on drinking water.
The findings included a 2010 chemical spill in Kentucky that killed threatened fish, a well blowout in North Dakota that resulted in chemicals potentially reaching a nearby aquifer and direct drilling into drinking water resources in Wyoming.
The report concluded that 9.4 million people lived within a mile of a hydraulically fractured well between 2000 and 2013.
The agency also reported 457 spills related to fracking in 11 states between 2006 and 2012. In 324 of those cases, the EPA said spills reached soil, surface water or ground water. A spreadsheet of those spills was included in the study.
On the day of the release, when asked to quantify the risks of fracking, Burke demurred. “The study was not, nor was it intended to be, a numerical catalog of all episodes of contamination,” he said.
The examples of documented contamination were overshadowed by the last-minute changes that shifted the tenor of the report.
Some experts in hydraulic fracturing say the late edit exonerated the practice in the public eye.
“It’s not Watergate, but it completely alters the take-home message of the report,” said Rob Jackson, a researcher at Stanford University, who believes hydraulic fracturing can be done safely.
He worries that the EPA’s decision to minimize the vulnerabilities has reduced the urgency for government regulators and oil and gas companies to push to make the process safer. “It’s still making a big, big difference because it supports the narrative that there aren’t problems,” Jackson said.
DiGiulio, after leaving his job as an EPA scientist, joined Jackson in a research project at Stanford that found fracking had a “clear impact” on drinking water in Pavillion, Wy.
The agency had earlier abandoned its research into problems at Pavillion and turned the investigation over to the state. It was one of the three instances in which the EPA withdrew from investigating suspected contamination incidents in the past four years. The others were in Dimock, Pa., and Parker County, Texas. The agency did not include water testing data from those cases in its national study on drinking water.
The EPA’s Science Advisory Board, however, suggested the agency “should include and critically analyze” findings from those three locations. The advisory board also rebuked the EPA’s conclusion of no “widespread systemic impacts.”
Calling the phrase “ambiguous” and inconsistent with the observational data, the advisory board directed the EPA to show the underlying data to back up its claim of no “widespread, systemic impacts”.
“We suggested that they provide a definition of ‘systemic,’ a definition of ‘widespread’ and then provide quantitative data to support the conclusion,” said Peter Thorne, a University of Iowa environmental scientist who chairs the Science Advisory Board. “That is all a way of asking them to put that kind of scientific rigor behind a statement as broad as that.”
Study took pressure off industry
McCarthy, the head of the EPA, said at the National Press Club last week that the agency will soon release the final study. She also said her agency is balancing the requests of the 30-member Science Advisory Board with the study’s limitations. During her remarks, McCarthy noted that the four board members with oil and gas ties dissented from the criticism of the phrase.
“This was one science advisory board that was as fractured as the subject matter,” McCarthy said. “While I can’t tell you the direction it is going to take, we are going to listen to all sides in terms of what the members thought, and we’ll come to the best decision that we can.”
The EPA has the authority to manage drinking water impacts to water resources and to oversee drinking water impacts through several federal laws, including the Clean Water Act and the Safe Water Drinking Act.
But states largely oversee oil and gas development.
The industry, heavily invested in continuing the practice, has steadily battled the EPA. The companies and their industry groups have also repeatedly said there have been no confirmed cases of groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing.
That’s why the outcome of the EPA study was important.
If the study had emphasized major problems with the practice, it could have meant increased oversight by state regulators, a call for banning fracking in certain communities and even calls for additional federal oversight.
Instead, the draft study took pressure off the industry.
“When the federal Environmental Protection Agency says that technology causes no widespread, systemic risk, that’s a big deal,” said Kevin Book, head of the research team at ClearView Energy Partners, which advises oil and gas investors. “That reinforces the sense that there’s nothing to see here, folks. Move on.”
How the language changed
The documents obtained by APM Reports and Marketplace show that on April 24, 2015, an executive summary was circulated that said “hydraulic fracturing activities have contaminated drinking water resources in a variety of documented cases. Despite these risks, the number of documented impacts is quite low.”
Nowhere did the draft state that there was no widespread, systemic impact on water.
On May 4, EPA officials met with key advisers to Obama, officials from the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Department of Energy to make sure they were “clear on messaging,” according to public documents.
By May 12, the executive summary had changed to include the phrase: “We did not find evidence of widespread, systemic impacts.”
And on May 20, another change deleted a sentence that said “a low rate of documented impacts does not minimize the effects experienced by citizens whose drinking water resources have been impacted.”
The agency’s news release also was altered in the days before the draft study was released.
A version circulated internally in early June featured a headline emphasizing vulnerabilities to drinking water.
But the news release issued publicly on June 4 featured a less forceful headline and a smaller, second headline saying that fracking had not “led to widespread, systemic impacts” and that the study “identifies important vulnerabilities to drinking water resources.”
Within a day, the Marcellus Shale Coalition from Pennsylvania put together a collection of TV news reports, all emphasizing the lack of impact and largely ignoring the vulnerabilities.
Industry has battled EPA
Today the oil and gas industry continues to use the study to advance drilling around the world.
The Maryland Petroleum Council is highlighting the research as it pushes to allow fracking in that state. And earlier this month, the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying group, urged the EPA to keep the language in the study. It said the report could affect New York’s statewide ban on fracking and influence whether other countries adopt the practice.
The American Petroleum Institute released its own industry-backed study confirming that hydraulic fracturing has led to no widespread, systemic impact to drinking water.
“It has plenty of supporting evidence for its conclusion, yet hydraulic fracturing and its peer-reviewed studies continue to face misinformed attacks on scientific conclusions that support the value and safety of the process,” said Erik Milito, director of upstream and industry operations at the American Petroleum Institute.
Milito also said he believes the EPA’s Science Advisory Board raised questions about the report because it was swayed by the testimony of landowners who were complaining about their drinking water.
In addition to requesting supporting evidence, several members of the board characterized the phrase as a “value statement,” not a scientific one.
Board member Thomas Young, a professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of California-Davis, said he believes the phrase is misleading because the federal agency may not have found a widespread impact, but impacts could still be occurring.
“When you say that there’s no impact, people leap to the conclusion that there is no way in which this material is making it to water resources,” he said. “And I do not think that has been proven.”
Young said he was unaware that the EPA had made last-minute changes to the study or the news release. He said he would have chosen different wording but understood the push to put a conclusion on a multiyear study that cost millions.
Congress, the oil and gas industry and environmental groups would not have settled for a report simply calling for additional research, Young said. “Most people don’t really want to spend millions of tax dollars on a study that comes up with the answer of ‘more study is needed.’”
The study ran into a number of difficulties when it began five years ago.
The EPA, for example, tried to work with oil and gas companies to conduct testing on sites before, during and after a fractured well is drilled. Called “baseline testing,” it would have allowed scientists to see whether the process resulted in any contamination of groundwater. Despite pledges of cooperation from the industry, the EPA could never reach agreement with any company to conduct the tests.
“Initially, industry was very supportive of working together with the EPA to do some field studies,” said Robert Puls, a scientist who oversaw the study in 2010 and 2011. “As the details for doing those studies got closer and closer to actual implementation, their resistance seemed to grow.”
Puls said he left his position at the EPA in 2011 partly because he was frustrated with resistance by oil and gas companies to work with the EPA on the study.
“They didn’t protect my water”
The Science Advisory Board isn’t the only group questioning how EPA officials could make the general claim that fracking caused no “widespread, systemic impacts” without scientific basis.
Many landowners who believe their water was harmed by hydraulic fracturing say the EPA let them down by minimizing the impact.
“They’re supposed to protect my water,” said Bill Ely, who owns land in Dimock, Pa., and settled a lawsuit with Cabot Oil and Gas over tainted water. “I pay them to protect my water. They didn’t protect my water or these people in this area here.”
A spokesman for Cabot did not return messages. Company officials have said that any problems with the water in Dimock occurred long before the company drilled in the area.
Ely is one of several dozen landowners in Dimock who noticed water was changing color once drilling started in their community in 2009.
The complaints from landowners placed Dimock at the center of the fight over the environmental safety of fracking. Movie stars and environmentalists visited the small, northeastern Pennsylvania town and called for the practice to be banned. Industry groups countered with analysis that the practice is safe and brings money and jobs to an economically depressed area.
Since the first incident occurred in 2009, state and federal regulators became heavily involved in Dimock.
In 2010, Pennsylvania regulators announced a settlement with Cabot Oil and Gas that required the company to pay $4.1 million to residents for drilling violations. Regulators said Cabot’s drilling practices allowed combustible methane to contaminate drinking water. And this year two families also won a $4.2 million court case against the company for negligence and creating a nuisance. More than a dozen other families settled with the company for an undisclosed sum.
Cabot has not disclosed terms of its settlement with landowners. Attorneys for Cabot said in court that the methane leaking from the wells was occurring naturally and was a problem before the company drilled in the area.
In 2012, the EPA conducted a study of private water wells of 64 homes in Dimock. The agency eventually determined “that there are not levels of contaminants present that would require action by the agency.”
But another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, looked at the same data and concluded in June 2016 that chemicals in the water wells in 27 of the 64 homes were high enough to affect human health.
Some landowners are still pushing for the government to do more.
Every few weeks, Ray Kemble, who said he has one of those 27 homes, has to fill two 325-gallon tanks with water. The tanks, which sit in a shed outside his home, ensure he has clean water. His property, which sits across the street from a well pad, is covered with anti-fracking signs.
Kemble has been questioning the EPA’s conclusion of no widespread, systemic impact, including publicly testifying before the Science Advisory Board. He said he’s disappointed that regulators, including the EPA, didn’t do more for him.
“Why do we have to fight the government when the government was supposed to be protecting us?” he said. “Those agencies were put there to protect the people from stuff like this from happening.”
Drilling provides economic boost
Though some landowners in the Dimock area are unhappy with fracking in the community, it has provided an economic boost.
Cabot has a major presence in the community and says it has invested $1.5 billion in Dimock and surrounding areas in Susquehanna County. Cabot trucks can be seen regularly throughout the rural community and the company has a new corporate office in nearby Montrose.
Cabot is among many companies to tap into the energy rich Marcellus Shale Formation that lies under parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio. Landowners are paid monthly, and drilling has increased employment in rural parts of the country. Jobs in the oil and gas extraction sector grew nationally by 33,600 between 2006 and 2016, government figures show.
Bill Aileo, a homeowner in Dimock, said the natural gas boom has helped the community. He wouldn’t say how much he’s being paid for his mineral rights but said a majority of landowners are happy with the natural gas activity in the area.
“We’ve had a shot in the arm,” he said. “It’s probably the best thing that’s happened to this community in 50 years.”
Obama’s embrace of fracking has forced him to walk a fine line.
He acknowledges that the fracking process, along with transporting and storing oil and gas, could release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. The outgoing administration this month issued rules to prevent methane leaks on federal lands. But Obama has said that gradually transitioning from coal to natural gas has reduced U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. “We’re going to have to straddle between the world as it is and the world as we want it to be and build that bridge,” he said in October.
The specifics of Trump’s approach are unknown. Last Monday, Trump issued a video statement saying that energy issues, including fracking, will be a top priority when he takes office.
“I will cancel job-killing restrictions on the production of American energy, including shale energy and clean coal – creating many millions of high-paying jobs. That’s what we want. That’s what we’ve been waiting for,” he said.
Trump has appointed Myron Ebell, a climate change skeptic, to lead the transition at the EPA. The president-elect also has pledged to further deregulate the oil and gas industry, but his position on fracking has been contradictory. In September, he vowed to expand natural gas production from fracking and coal production, two competing energy resources.
In August, Trump told a Colorado TV station that he was willing to let voters have a say on fracking bans, but in April he criticized New York state’s ban on the practice.
The disagreement over the environmental impact of fracking will continue in the Trump administration. In addition to finishing the study on hydraulic fracturing’s impact on drinking water, the EPA will continue to pay for research on fracking.
In September, it announced a $2 million study that will examine how oil and gas development is affecting water quality and its impact on human health. The study is focused on an area that includes Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
Some scientists, landowners and environmental advocates believe that the EPA lacks credibility to research fracking’s impact on drinking water. They have grown suspicious about how the EPA handles fracking issues.
“They don’t know who to trust,” said Raina Rippel, who directs the Southwestern Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, which tracks health impacts on people in high-fracking areas. “They don’t necessarily feel that the state regulatory agencies or the federal regulatory agencies are listening. They feel so severely betrayed right now.”
Correction: The original text inaccurately named the Clean Water Act. It has been corrected.