In just two years, President Trump has unleashed a regulatory rollback, lobbied for and cheered on by industry, with little parallel in the past half-century. Mr. Trump enthusiastically promotes the changes as creating jobs, freeing business from the shackles of government and helping the economy grow.
The trade-offs, while often out of public view, are real — frighteningly so, for some people — imperiling progress in cleaning up the air we breathe and the water we drink, and in some cases upending the very relationship with the environment around us.
Since Mr. Trump took office, his approach on the environment has been to neutralize the most rigorous Obama-era restrictions, nearly 80 of which have been blocked, delayed or targeted for repeal, according to an analysis of data by The New York Times.
With this running start, Mr. Trump is already on track to leave an indelible mark on the American landscape, even with a decline in some major pollutants from the ever-shrinking coal industry. While Washington has been consumed by scandals surrounding the president’s top officials on environmental policy — both the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior secretary have been driven from his cabinet — Mr. Trump’s vision is taking root in places as diverse as rural California, urban Texas, West Virginian coal country and North Dakota’s energy corridor.
While the Obama administration sought to tackle pollution problems in all four states and nationally, Mr. Trump’s regulatory ambitions extend beyond Republican distaste for what they considered unitaleral overreach by his Democratic predecessor; pursuing them in full force, Mr. Trump would shift the debate about the environment sharply in the direction of industry interests, further unraveling what had been, before the Obama administration, a loose bipartisan consensus dating in part to the Nixon administration.
In the words of Walter DeVille, who lives on the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, “This is our reality now.”
Eric Lipton, a Pulitzer Prize recipient, has been at The New York Times since 1999. He covers Trump regulatory changes.
Steve Eder, a reporter who shared in the Pulitzer Prize this year, has worked at The Times since 2012. He writes about the federal government.
John Branch, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, has been at The Times since 2005. He is based in California.
Gabriella Demczuk is a photographer and regular contributor to The Times, covering Washington politics and national policy.
BAKERSFIELD, Calif. — The spring air was cool. There was the slightest breeze. The smell floated into the cabbage field about six weeks after the newly installed Trump administration brushed aside scientifically established health concerns and overturned a planned ban of one of the world’s most potent pesticides.
It was the early morning of Cinco de Mayo — May 5, 2017 — but there was no day off on this holiday. In three groups, 48 farm workers, most of them women, were scattered around a field in the southern part of California’s vast and flat Central Valley. Some did the back-aching work of bending over and using a knife to chop the heads from the plants. They passed them up to packers standing on a flatbed trailer behind a tractor.
Vicenta Rivera, now 49, was one of the first to feel it — a pesticide drift, the agriculture industry calls it, in this case of chlorpyrifos, one of the most powerful and toxic pesticides in widespread use, that had been sprayed on a nearby grove of mandarin oranges. There was a strong odor, a taste in the back of the throat, numb lips, itchy skin and watery eyes. A headache set in quickly.
Some workers scurried to nearby cars to avoid the toxic air. Others kept picking and packing, squinting and covering their faces and trying not to breathe. They were afraid of the repercussions of walking away. They needed the money. Women coughed. Some vomited.
Bricmary Lopez fainted. A 37-year-old mother of three, she remembers the smell, the dizziness, the overwhelming feeling of nausea. Other workers thought she was faking it, trying to be funny, when she hit the ground and started convulsing.
“We were teasing each other, saying, ‘Ha, you don’t want to work,’” said Lucia Martinez Polido, 57.
Reality bit. Soon, nearly everyone felt the burning sensation and queasiness. Some fainted. Those not immediately incapacitated helped the others. They put a pillow under Ms. Lopez’s head and stood over her, waving their arms over her face, trying to offer fresh air.
Fire trucks and ambulances came. They stayed out on Copus Road, a couple of hundred yards beyond the cabbage field and adjacent almond groves, because the rescuers did not want to get exposed.
Ms. Lopez remembers being ushered behind curtains, a makeshift room assembled for roadside decontamination. She remembers being naked in a temporary shower, and the ambulance ride to a Bakersfield hospital, about 20 miles away.
She said she was given medicine and released. No longer working the fields and riddled with health problems, Ms. Lopez has been searching for answers.
“All I want to know,” she said at her home recently, “is am I going to be O.K.?”
Trump Wins, and E.P.A. Quashes Chlorpyrifos Ban
Had Donald J. Trump not won the presidency in 2016, millions of pounds of chlorpyrifos most likely would not have been applied to American crops over the past 21 months. It would not have sickened substantial numbers of farm workers, or risked what the Environmental Protection Agency’s own studies suggest could be continued long-term health problems for others exposed to the chemical at low levels.
(pounds per county in
thousands for 2016)
By The New York Times | Source: California Department of Pesticide Regulation
Widespread concerns about chlorpyrifos led to its removal for nearly all residential uses in 2000. Environmental groups kept pushing, and two filed a petition with the E.P.A. in 2007 to ban it entirely on food crops. The E.P.A. eventually agreed in 2015, released its revised human health risk assessment in November 2016, and was ordered by a court to “take final action” by the end of March 2017.
Days after the assessment was released, Mr. Trump won the election. DowDuPont, the leading maker of the pesticide, donated $1 million to his inauguration. One of the early acts of the man Mr. Trump appointed to head the E.P.A., Scott Pruitt, was to quash the chlorpyrifos ban on March 29, 2017.
Since taking office, Mr. Trump has consistently sided with powerful economic constituencies in setting policy toward the air we breathe, the water we drink and the presence of chemicals in our communities.
In the process, he has frequently rejected or given short shrift to science, an instinct that has played out most visibly in his disdain for efforts to curb global warming but has also permeated federal policy in other ways. Mr. Trump has expressed skepticism about the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. His administration supported rolling back safeguards for workers exposed to some toxic substances. And in rolling back nearly 80 environmental regulations, he has regularly played down findings that bolstered the need for the rules in the first place.
The administration’s choice not to curb the use of chlorpyrifos is a case study in how ideological and special-interest considerations outweighed decades of term+@DOCNO+389” style=”color: rgb(65, 110, 210); max-width: 100%; text-decoration: underline;”>evidence about the potential harm associated with its use.
The effects of such large-scale decision making are felt locally. And in the case of chlorpyrifos, there may be no place where the tension between science and the administration’s policy inclinations plays out more than in California’s Kern County, the vast crosshatched expanse roughly the size of New Jersey that surrounds Bakersfield.
California is the nation’s leading state for agriculture production. Kern County is a primary hub, with more than $7 billion in agricultural commodities in 2017, led by almonds, citrus and grapes, among dozens of crops.
It also leads the state in the use of chlorpyrifos. And its toll may extend well beyond farm workers. Neighborhoods and schools are carved out of old orchards and groves. They may be separated from crops by mere feet, maybe a road. Even in the middle of the small towns, nobody is far from the fields or the nearly 29 million pounds of pesticides — including 200,000 pounds of chlorpyrifos — spread on them in 2016, just within Kern County.
“For the federal government to not just ignore, but throw away, 10 years of science showing that chlorpyrifos is damaging, we feel that at the local level,” said Valerie Gorospe, a community organizer in Delano, near Bakersfield, whose mother was a longtime advocate for farm workers and pesticide overhaul.
Weighing the Risk When Exposed
Chlorpyrifos is part of the same chemical family as sarin nerve gas. An estimated six million pounds are spread each year across dozens of agricultural crops nationwide, including alfalfa, almonds, citrus, corn, cotton and grapes. It is useful as a broad-spectrum pesticide, farmers and agricultural experts say, because it kills virtually every kind of insect.
The chemical’s effect on humans is the subject of some debate but its toxicity is not in doubt. Acute poisonings, from things like spills or drift, can result in respiratory distress, vomiting, convulsions, unconsciousness and death.
There is also broad concern over the impact of low-level exposure, including in drinking water and on the fruits and vegetables we eat. Chlorpyrifos is deemed particularly dangerous to young women in farming communities, as studies have found it in the blood of pregnant women and their babies. It has been linked to neurodevelopmental problems such as reduced birth sizes and weights, lower I.Q.s, attention deficit problems and disorders on the autism spectrum — symptoms found with higher frequency in farming communities, studies suggest.
Those in the agriculture and chemical industries who say there is still doubt about the degree of the health risk often point, paradoxically, to the problem that the chemical is too toxic to be tested on humans, leaving scientists to rely on epidemiological studies of people who might have been exposed to it in their normal environment over long periods.
An increasing number of the studies show correlations to neurological problems in children, among other issues. But are their problems the result of chlorpyrifos?
Dow says no, and other people associated with the agriculture industry, in an echo of the argument against aggressive action to confront a warming planet, say not enough is known yet to come to a firm conclusion.
“Our attitude is not that chlorpyrifos is good or bad,” said Gabriele Ludwig, the director for sustainability and environmental affairs for the California Almond Board. “We don’t know. We feel it hasn’t gone through the proper process.”
Hundreds in California have been acutely sickened by chlorpyrifos in the last 15 years, mostly farm workers and mostly by drift. The incidences have slowed since 2015, when state regulators added restrictions to chlorpyrifos use, requiring licensing and training.
But as chlorpyrifos use has continued, so have the accidents — at least a half-dozen reported episodes of drift in California, including the one in May 2017 that sent Ms. Lopez to the hospital and sickened 36 other cabbage pickers.
More recently, in July, 10 workers were sickened in Solano County, between Sacramento and San Francisco. They were working in a sunflower field when chlorpyrifos apparently drifted from sprayers in an adjacent almond orchard.
The vast majority of incidents, involving chlorpyrifos or any other pesticide, go unreported. Most farm workers in California are undocumented immigrants. They worry about everything from missing much-needed work to reprisal from bosses and deportation from the authorities.
“There is no incentive to report these things,” said Eriberto Fernandez, the research and policy coordinator for the United Farm Workers Foundation in Bakersfield, whose parents have worked the fields for decades.
Most farm workers, like most other people in Kern County, do not distinguish chlorpyrifos among hundreds of pesticides used in agriculture. They may smell different, or cause different reactions, but few, if any, can name them. That was certainly true during the drift incident in May 2017. No one knew it was chlorpyrifos that was sickening the workers, because most had never heard of it until the Trump administration halted the proposed ban.
“A pesticide is a pesticide,” said Lucia Martinez Polido, one of the women picking cabbage that day.
If pesticides are not floating in the air, they are smeared on their fingers and skin from nearly everything they touch. Shiny citrus leaves are dulled by a white film. Pruning grape vines at the end of the season, for example, can free a chemical odor. Kicking up dust releases it from the soil.
It is why many farm workers cover their skin from head to toe, wrapping bandannas around their noses and mouths, even in the teeth of triple-digit summer days. They bring snacks to the fields that they do not have to touch with their hands. They carry their own bottles of eye wash.
But concern over chlorpyrifos extends well beyond farm workers and acute poisonings.
Each spring, the dozens of schools and licensed child-care centers in Kern County within a quarter mile of an active crop receive a list of the restricted-use pesticides that the growers plan to use, sometime between July 1 and June 30. Some of the lists contain more than 50 different chemicals. Chlorpyrifos is often one of them.
If the pesticides are known to drift, like those spread by crop dusters, they cannot be used within a quarter mile of schools, this year’s notifications state. If they are less susceptible to drift, “such as most applications using a tractor,” the buffers shrinks to 25 feet. Monday through Friday, they cannot be sprayed from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Precautions at the Day Care Center
Among those notified is Sunset Child Development Center, a day care south of Bakersfield. It is part of the Arvin Migrant Center, commonly called a “labor camp,” with rows of housing for itinerant farm workers.
The day care is next to grape vineyards. The children there range from 6 months to 5 years old. Because most of the parents are farm workers themselves, they drop off their children as early as 4:30 a.m. — within the allowable time slot for spraying pesticides like chlorpyrifos.
One parent of a 3-year-old girl is Byanka Santoyo, 28, a single mother from Arvin. She is a daughter of farm workers, and spent time in the fields herself.
Ms. Santoyo works as a community organizer for the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment. It was the area’s notoriously polluted air, sometimes the worst in the nation, that led her to activism. It was the drift episodes experienced by her parents over the years, and now the concern over her daughter’s health, that pulled her toward fighting unsafe use of pesticides.
“We all live surrounded by ag,” Ms. Santoyo said. “We just want it to be safe.”
The day care center is required to allow the children outside for parts of the day. There are sun shades to protect from the heat, but nothing to protect from whatever pesticides might be drifting in the air. Playground equipment is scrubbed several times a week because it often becomes covered in a sticky film that sometimes works its way indoors. Ms. Santoyo says her daughter’s clothes get tacky, and the residue is visible when she wears something like black leggings.
Chlorpyrifos is not the most-used pesticide, but it is the most contentious. In California in 2016, according to the state’s Department of Pesticide Regulation, 902,575 pounds of chlorpyrifos was used in more than 12,000 applications across 640,000 acres on more than 60 different crops.
The fight to ban chlorpyrifos in California has several fronts, fought by organizations that include the United Farm Workers, the Natural Resources Defense Council and Californians for Pesticide Reform. They are ramping up pressure on state regulators and politicians as uncertainty over the federal ban persists.
This August, a three-judge panel from the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, ordered the E.P.A. to ban it. In its ruling, the panel wrote, “There was no justification for the E.P.A.’s decision in its 2017 order to maintain a tolerance for chlorpyrifos in the face of scientific evidence that its residue on food causes neurodevelopmental damage to children.”
The ruling has been appealed, and in the meantime California is weighing tighter regulations of its own. While lawyers and lobbyists fight, the pesticide, sold under a variety of brand names like Lorsban and Vulcan and employed by farmers nationwide, remains in use.
What Happens, a Farmer Asks, If It Is Banned?
Dennis Johnston is a fourth-generation farmer in Exeter, east of Bakersfield. He remembers using chlorpyrifos on the citrus groves since he left college in 1980.
“We use it for katydid, which takes a bite out of the fruit when it’s in the flower form,” Mr. Johnston said, referring to a pest that looks like a grasshopper. “It’s a little bite when they do it, but it grows and becomes a big chunk when it’s ripe and makes it unmarketable.”
Chlorpyrifos, to Mr. Johnston and countless other farmers, is a go-to pesticide when others do not work. But Mr. Johnston, who said he has never had a drift incident, is using it less and less. He simply would like to have it available.
The cloudy future of chlorpyrifos has left farmers like Mr. Johnston unsure how to proceed. Will the appeals court force the E.P.A. to ban it? Will California step in? And what if any of that happens while this season’s crop is growing?
“We’re cautious about it, as most farmers are,” Mr. Johnston said. “Will it kill us if we can’t use it? Probably not, not in my business. Can we make something else work? Yes, but it’s what happens when you lose it. You have to use something in a different manner, or more of it. It’s kind of a daisy chain sometimes.”
That concern echoes across the agricultural landscape, in Kern County and beyond.
“That is a real dance that goes on out in the grove,” said Jim Cranney, the president of the California Citrus Quality Council. “You can have, at some point, the need to use a pesticide, but in other cases, you can allow the insects already in a grove to get rid of the harmful insects. When we use a pesticide that is harmful to the beneficial insects it can cause harmful insects to go haywire.”
In November, in the absence of federal guidelines over chlorpyrifos, California’s Department of Pesticide Regulation announced tighter, though voluntary, restrictions, effective Jan. 1. The state agency wants to declare the chemical a “toxic air contaminant,” which would mean much stricter rules on chlorpyrifos use. But the process could take two years, so the agency made recommended changes in the interim.
That was little relief to people like those in the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety.
In November, in Lindsay, 60 miles north of Bakersfield, the group opened a storefront office. Staffed by volunteers, it is seen as a safe place for farm workers and concerned residents — most of them Latino, many of them undocumented — to ask questions without worry over repercussions from labor contractors or government officials.
On the night of its opening, about 50 people stood in the dark parking lot. There were balloons and a ribbon to be cut. Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate who entered politics partly because of concerns over pesticides, gave a short speech, pausing as each line was translated to Spanish.
She spoke the language of organophosphates, with a deep knowledge of chlorpyrifos — its regulatory history and the risks increasingly attached to it. (She is an author of a 2000 report for Physicians for Social Responsibility called “In Harm’s Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development.”)
“If it’s too dangerous to be used in the home, why isn’t it too dangerous for farm workers?” Ms. Stein said later, as people mingled inside and ate bowls of pozole.
Unable, or Afraid, to Return to the Fields
Lucia Montero came to the United States from Mexico at age 15 and immediately began working the fields. Now 33, she was a foreman in that cabbage patch on May 5, 2017, overseeing one of the three crews, when the invisible but toxic cloud of chlorpyrifos arrived.
At first, she thought she smelled grease or burned oil. Believing it was the tractor, she turned off the engine.
Then came the burning, the itching, the nausea. Ms. Montero called the supervisor on her phone, who told her to get her crew out of the field. By then, several were vomiting. Two or three fainted, she said.
An investigation by the Kern County agricultural commissioner’s office was complicated by the fact that four separate pesticide applications took place that morning within 1.5 miles of the cabbage field.
Ultimately, investigators found that a company called Sun Pacific applied chlorpyrifos at seven tangerine (a common name for a type of mandarin) sites half a mile to 1.5 miles from the cabbage field. Sun Pacific, a large grower behind the Cuties brand of mandarins, was fined $30,250.
Another company nearby had sprayed grapes with a sulfur compound found to have drifted into the cabbage patch, too. That company was fined $20,000.
The investigation said that 37 workers reported illness. Almost all declined medical treatment. In interviews, several said they were afraid of the repercussions, like missed paychecks or being blacklisted by contractors.
Ms. Montero has not been back since that day. She said she cannot fully shake recurring headaches, dizziness and nausea. Still living in Bakersfield, she has taken courses to become a barber.
This month, Ms. Montero learned she was pregnant. She no longer worries just for herself.
“I am scared,” she said. “I just hope I have a healthy baby.”
Bricmary Lopez, the only one of the workers in the field that day to be taken to a hospital, has not returned to the fields either.
She fainted many times after she was sickened by the drift incident, three or four times a week at first, she said. Her asthma has spiked, her skin gets blotchy, and her red-blood cell count has dipped.
She filed a workers’ compensation claim with the packing company she was working for, but action has been slow. Most farm workers, advocates said, never take it this far.
But Ms. Lopez, who arrived from Colombia in 2015 and has filed for asylum, does not fear the repercussions.
“I shouldn’t be worried about calling attention to this,” Ms. Lopez said in her living room. Her daughters, ages 15, 18 and 21, stood at her shoulder, her fiancé sat at her side. “It was not my fault it happened.”
THE REGULATION Chlorpyrifos, developed as a nerve agent, has been in use as a broad-spectrum pesticide since 1965 despite growing evidence of its harmful effects, especially in children and pregnant women. Most residential uses ended in 2001. The E.P.A. moved to ban it for agricultural purposes, with a March 2017 deadline to act.
THE ROLLBACK On March 29, 2017, the new E.P.A. administrator, Scott Pruitt, canceled the proposed ban on chlorpyrifos. The reason: not enough science. “By reversing the previous administration’s steps to ban one of the most widely used pesticides in the world, we are returning to using sound science in decision-making — rather than predetermined results,” Mr. Pruitt said at the time.
THE CONSEQUENCES The use of chlorpyrifos, an estimated six million pounds a year, continues across the country. Only Hawaii has banned its use.
THOMPSONS, Tex. — It is a once-common sight that is now less frequent: A mile-long freight train rolls up to a power plant in Texas — in this case, the W. A. Parish complex near Houston — and then slows to a crawl as its cars, each carrying 100 tons of coal, are tipped one at a time like child’s toys to deliver their load.
Long reliant on coal as a major source of fuel for its electricity-generating plants, Texas is increasingly shifting to natural gas, wind and solar energy, prodded by the improving economics of these alternative sources and by tighter environmental regulation.
The change has brought a degree of progress in cleaning up the air. Two Texas coal-burning plants, targets of an Obama administration policy intended to curb harmful sulfur dioxide emissions, have closed this year. A third, which has supplied power to San Antonio since the 1970s, will be mothballed at the end of this month.
These Texas plants, and a fourth that closed this year, together produced 108,000 tons of sulfur dioxide in 2017, or 39 percent of the total state power plant emissions of the pollutant. That is an extraordinary decline in one year, and more than half of the 194,000-ton reduction called for in the Obama plan from late 2016.
But now, after years of policies that President Trump and others have derisively described as a “war on coal,” the Trump administration has called a timeout on a costly mandate that would have ensured continued improvement in the region’s air quality.
The administration’s target has been an Obama-era rule that would have forced a group of coal-burning plants to install expensive scrubbers to cut sulfur dioxide discharges. For the owner of the W. A. Parish plant, NRG Energy, this would have meant either spending hundreds of millions of dollars to put in two of the huge devices, or shutting down the coal-burning operations there.
Before Scott Pruitt left his post as Mr. Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency administrator, the agency notified NRG, as well as the owners of eight other Texas power plants, that the agency was no longer demanding the air pollution retrofits.
Instead, the agency is working out an industry-backed alternative that will require no immediate reductions in air pollution by the Texas plants still in operation.
The result, according to some of the United States’ top air pollution experts, is measurable human and environmental costs.
Even with the recent shutdowns of coal-burning plants, Texas remains one of the top sources of sulfur dioxide emissions.
Every year that the W. A. Parish plant continues to operate as it has been, an estimated 180 people in Texas and surrounding states die prematurely, according to a recent study. Sulfur dioxide, colorless as it comes out of the smoke stacks, turns into tiny sulfate particles as it travels through the air — small enough to pass through the lungs and enter the bloodstream. These particles can cause aggravated asthma, heart and lung disease, and other serious health problems.
Average particle pollution from nine power plants
(PM2.5 for Aug. 2018 in micrograms per cubic meter)
Fayette Power Project
By Sarah Almukhtar | Sources: Daniel Cohan, associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University, and Brian Strasert, environmental engineer at GSI Environmental.
For Jennifer Cantu, who lives a few miles from W. A. Parish, the regulatory reversal is deeply personal. The plant pumped 37,649 tons of sulfur dioxide into the air last year, one of the highest levels among power plants in the United States.
“It is the kind of thing you don’t think about at all — until you notice that ugly smell every once in a while,” Ms. Cantu said. “And then you remember, ‘There is that plant down there and I wonder: Should my daughters be playing outside?’”
The effects are not limited to the immediate area. Haze created by the plant’s exhaust mars mountaintop views in national forests and wildlife areas, including Caney Creek hundreds of miles away in Arkansas.
No environmental issue has animated Mr. Trump more than coal. The president has often portrayed coal as the heart of a lost industrial glory he is determined to restore. And for political as well as economic reasons, he has sided regularly with the industry and users of coal, dismissing much existing environmental regulation as an unjustifiably expensive, job-killing intrusion on the American economy.
The administration said emissions of many pollutants declined in Mr. Trump’s first year in office and that it expects the declines to continue. “Despite a misleading narrative, our air is getting cleaner,” said James Hewitt, a spokesman for the E.P.A.
After decades of political, scientific and economic clashes over the issue, the trade-offs highlighted by Mr. Trump’s policy shift in Texas raise a fundamental question: When it comes to the pace of environmental progress in the United States, when is enough enough?
Supporters of Mr. Trump’s deregulatory philosophy believe that much of his predecessor’s approach placed unjustifiable costs on companies and the economy. In Texas, the Obama administration relied on a rule governing haze in national parks to push through what critics said was an excessively expensive and unnecessary set of requirements to limit emissions from burning coal.
They dispute that the sulfur dioxide discharged from the W. A. Parish plant is a health threat, or a major cause of haze in national parks and wildlife areas, despite the conclusions of the Obama-era E.P.A. and certain environmentalists.
And more important, they say, the fact that power plants across Texas are cutting the overall amount of sulfur dioxide in the air at an even faster rate than the Obama E.P.A. had mandated — without being forced to make expensive upgrades — is proof that market forces are a better mechanism than the government for balancing the costs and benefits.
“All of this basically is a question of how quickly do you get the desired results,“ said David Knox, a spokesman at NRG, as he gave a walking tour of the sprawling plant.
To discourage the use of coal and promote alternatives, the Obama administration was creative and aggressive in wielding the regulatory tools available to it. On the issue of power generation in Texas, in 2016 the administration employed what is known as the Regional Haze rule, which was intended to deal not with air quality or public health in the immediate vicinity of the power plants, but with the effects their emissions had on visibility in national parklands far downwind.
In this case, downwind included the Caney Creek Wilderness Area near Glenwood, Ark., 400 miles north of Houston.
At the OK Cafe in Glenwood on a recent Sunday, the hot topics included the slow start of the deer hunting season and an upcoming runoff election for local sheriff.
No one there had heard of the W. A. Parish plant. The Regional Haze rule was just as unfamiliar.
John Sorrells, a disabled saw mill operator, has seen traces of the haze in question while hunting in the area near Caney Creek. The haze moves in from the south and takes over the hillsides, hitting up against the mountains, which run east to west here.
“If the wind is blowing out of the south for five days or so, you will see it, especially in the summertime” Mr. Sorrells said. “It just covers the hills. It has got to be coming from somewhere.”
The Regional Haze rule, which dates to the Clinton administration, has a goal of gradually cleaning up haze in 156 national parks and wildlife areas, including such landmarks as Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.
Caney Creek, a pristine, 14,290-acre federally protected wilderness area on the southern edge of Arkansas’ Ouachita National Forest, had its own visibility problems until that trend slowly started to turn around in the last decade. The improvement most likely accelerated this year, with the closing of several major coal-burning power plants in Texas. But the air clarity is still a long way from so-called natural conditions, when views can extend as far as 80 miles.
The W. A. Parish plant, a 2016 E.P.A. assessment found, was noticeably causing haze at Caney Creek 22 days a year, and was a contributing factor in haze there on a total of 54 days.
NRG called the E.P.A. calculations “fundamentally flawed,” disputing that W. A. Parish affects visibility at Caney Creek. But the agency’s findings gave the Obama administration legal justification to step in and propose mandating the installation of scrubbers on a power plant more than 400 miles away.
W. A. Parish
Hundreds of buttons, dials and gauges blink, buzz and slide in one of the control rooms at the W. A. Parish plant, the central nervous system of a 4,900-acre site that allows the crews to watch as coal is ignited by an enormous fireball inside the boiler.
The goal is to hit just the right temperature, about 3,000 degrees, as the steam generator turns turbines with so much power that the entire complex vibrates amid a deafening roar.
One of Parish’s four coal-burning boilers already has a scrubber, which douses the emerging exhaust with a mixture of water and limestone, extracting most of the sulfur dioxide. But the other three coal-burning units have no scrubber.
Parish’s control room monitors demonstrate in real time the difference a scrubber can make: The unit that has one was discharging 272 pounds of sulfur dioxide per hour from the 500-foot smokestacks. A separate unit with no scrubber was pumping out 3,250 pounds per hour.
Stephen Hedge, the Parish plant’s manager, said it had already invested a tremendous amount into cleaning up its air discharges.
“We have got a lot of environmental controls on these plants,” he said, detailing past efforts at Parish to significantly cut pollutants such as nitrogen oxide and mercury.
Most significant, NRG in 2016 completed a $1 billion project — the largest of its kind in the world — that curbs the impact the plant has on climate change. Equipment collects some of the carbon dioxide generated by one of the four coal-burning units so it can be reused by injecting it into the ground to increase oil and gas production at nearby well sites.
In the debate over how much more money should be spent to protect the environment, Texas residents have much at stake, said Daniel Cohan, an associate professor of environmental engineering at Rice University in Houston, and George D. Thurston, a professor of environmental medicine at New York University.
Mr. Cohan estimated in a study published in October that Parish causes 180 premature deaths a year, based on a detailed analysis of emissions from the plant in the summer of 2015. An estimated 120 of those premature deaths would be avoided if scrubbers were installed on the plant as the Obama administration proposed, Mr. Cohan said.
Dr. Thurston produced his own study that examined the health benefits of the Obama plan in greater detail.
Lowering emissions at nine Texas power plants targeted by the Obama-era E.P.A., including Parish, would mean 1,300 fewer cases a year of acute bronchitis, as well as about 100,000 fewer lost workdays from related illnesses and 125 fewer admissions a year to area hospitals for heart conditions, he concluded.
Hoping to drive home the point to Mr. Pruitt, the former E.P.A. head, who is from Oklahoma, Dr. Thurston prepared a summary showing how the Obama policies would also benefit Oklahoma residents, given that air pollution from Texas often blows in that direction.
The bottom line: Hundreds fewer Oklahomans would die prematurely each year, according to a chart that Dr. Thurston passed to Mr. Pruitt during a June 2017 meeting, where Dr. Thurston and other public health experts urged Mr. Pruitt not to reverse the Obama administration’s proposed order demanding plant upgrades under the Regional Haze rule.
“People in your own state won’t get these health benefits from cleaner air if you don’t follow through on this,” Dr. Thurston said he told Mr. Pruitt.
Mr. Pruitt’s response, Dr. Thurston said, was blunt.
“This is a visibility rule,” Mr. Pruitt said. “Therefore the health impacts are irrelevant.”
The agency a few months later notified Texas that it was rejecting the Obama-era proposal. W. A. Parish and the eight other coal-burning plants in Texas would no longer face specific orders mandating air pollution upgrades.
Environmental groups sued late last year to try to block the rollback. But even while this lawsuit has been pending, coal-burning power plants in the state have been shutting down for reasons beyond the potential costs of complying with the Obama policy.
Allan Koenig, a vice president at Vistra Energy, which owns three of the coal-burning plants that have shut down in Texas this year, said his company was shifting to energy generated by renewable sources, such as a solar plant in West Texas that came online this year.
“This is what our customers want,” he said. “So a lot of this is taking place already.”
But the progress that has been made, while considerable, is still far short of what the Obama-era E.P.A. sought.
And even after subtracting the emissions from the Texas coal-burning plants that closed this year, the state remains the top source of sulfur dioxide releases in the country. The 26 states with the lowest sulfur dioxide emissions from power plants — a list that includes California and New York — collectively produced 157,000 tons in 2016. That is less than Texas is still generating on its own, E.P.A. data suggests.
Installing the scrubbers on the six remaining Texas power plants targeted by the Obama administration, including Parish, would mean 11,400 fewer cases a year of asthma attacks spread across 14 states, according to Dr. Thurston’s calculations. It would also mean 600 fewer cases of acute bronchitis, about 40 fewer nonfatal heart attacks and about 310 fewer premature deaths every year.
What these numbers suggest, Mr. Cohan said, is that now is not the time to stop.
“Just because the water is getting cleaner does not mean we should not stop the industry from dumping huge amounts of hazardous waste in our rivers and lakes,” he said. “Just because cars are getting cleaner does not mean we should not regulate the dirtiest cars and trucks on the road. It is the same thing with coal-burning plants like Parish. Sure, they are cleaner than they used to be. But they are still not clean enough.”
THE REGULATION The Environmental Protection Agency proposed in late 2016 that nine Texas coal-burning power plants upgrade pollution controls to reduce haze in nearby national parks and wilderness areas. The E.P.A. estimated that the move would cut sulfur dioxide pollution by 194,000 tons per year. It would also reduce the risk of heart and respiratory conditions for Texans and for people in nearby states.
THE ROLLBACK The Trump administration decided in October 2017 to reverse that plan and allow the state and its utilities to come up with their own plan to reduce the haze.
THE CONSEQUENCES Even without enforcement of the Obama-era plan, three of the nine targeted coal-burning power plants are shutting down this year, resulting in more than half of the reduction in sulfur dioxide the Obama administration wanted. It is unclear whether the rest of the reduction will happen, however, since the remaining plants are not required to install or upgrade scrubbers that can cost hundreds of millions of dollars each.
CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The Kanawha River has never been clean, at least not since Colleen Anderson moved here nearly 50 years ago.
The river is lined with so many chemical facilities that the area where the Kanawha cuts through the Charleston region is known as Chemical Valley. One town, Nitro, even gets its name from a chemical — the nitrocellulose produced there for explosives.
In the 1980s, Ms. Anderson recalls, swimmers competing during an annual waterfront festival would enter the river with bright white swim caps, only to see them stained a murky brown.
“It’s a beautiful river,” she said. “You just don’t want to fall in.”
In fits and starts, the Kanawha has gotten the attention of environmentalists and federal officials concerned about water quality. Beginning in the 1960s, both Republican and Democratic administrations in Washington made strides to restore polluted rivers across the country, including the Kanawha, the largest inland waterway in West Virginia.
Last year, there were even academic papers drawn up to make the Kanawha more desirable for swimming and fishing over the next two decades, building on an aggressive push during the Obama administration to reduce fecal bacteria, industrial pollution and heavy metals in the river.
But the environmental crackdown hit the chemical and coal industries hard, and they resisted much of it. Since the election of President Trump, the most rigorous Obama-era restrictions have been blocked, delayed or killed, allowing many industries along the Kanawha and its tributaries to sidestep some cleanup and protection efforts.
The operator of the state’s largest power plant, which towers over the Kanawha about 20 miles upstream from here, has stopped design work on a water treatment system that would have removed most of the remaining pollutants — like arsenic, mercury and selenium — from discharges into coal ash ponds and the river.
And coal-mining companies are off the hook for needing to step up protections on hundreds of miles of streams and rivers in the Appalachian Basin, which includes the Kanawha. Republicans in Congress, with the support of several Democrats, repealed a rule last year curtailing mining practices that threatened streams and forests.
Rebecca McPhail, president of the West Virginia Manufacturers Association, said the rollbacks under the Trump administration had “provided a boost to confidence for manufacturing investment” in the state. Even without the federal rules, she said, businesses were “working to improve our ability to make the water we are putting out cleaner than when we brought it in.”
Many here cheer the counterattack on the mounting demands from Washington, which had been seen as a direct threat to jobs. Bill Raney, president of the West Virginia Coal Association, said the Obama administration proposed “impossible standards” that were unfair to coal mining. “Things are now getting back to balance, creating some certainty,” he said.
Registered industrial facilities that use
extremely hazardous substances
By The New York Times | Source: Environmental Protection Agency data as of April 30, 2018, via The Right-to-Know Network.
But others saw the Obama-era offensive as long overdue and mourn the faltering of decades of bipartisan consensus around clean-water protections. The likely consequences for ordinary people of the Trump administration’s interventions can be measured in many ways, including the hundreds of pounds of chemicals that continue to make their way into the river and the reduced protections for fish and sources of drinking water.
“I’m angry, but not surprised,” said Ms. Anderson, 68, a writer, graphic designer and singer who spoke up publicly about protecting the environment after a chemical spill in 2014 contaminated the city’s water supply.
During that emergency, she drove an hour from her Charleston home with her elderly parents to find a hotel — and a shower — with safe water. At a public hearing, Ms. Anderson sang her testimony — “If You Love My West Virginia” — a song she wrote about the neglect of the state’s waters and mountains.
‘Not Economically Practical’
Of the big polluters benefiting from the rollbacks, none looms as large as the John E. Amos Power Plant. The coal-powered utility sits upstream, just before the Kanawha begins a U-shape turn toward Charleston.
Giant plumes of steam and exhaust spew around the clock from its cooling towers, but its discharges into waterways pose one of the greatest harms.
The discharges have been highlighted repeatedly over the past two decades in studies by the Environmental Protection Agency. The waste has included arsenic, mercury and other toxic heavy metals, as well as selenium and other substances that kill fish or damage their reproductive systems.
The owner of the plant, the Ohio-based power company A.E.P., has taken steps to address some of the worst problems. Nonetheless, E.P.A. records show, the plant continued to release significant levels of contaminants last year, including more than 400 total pounds of arsenic, mercury and selenium in the Kanawha and an adjacent stream.
Tens of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals and other waste were dumped into coal-ash storage ponds next to the plant. Tests suggested some of the ponds had leaked substances, including arsenic and manganese, into groundwater, although A.E.P. said there was no evidence these contaminants reached the Kanawha.
The E.P.A. has estimated that coal-fired power plants like Amos are responsible for one-third of the toxic pollutants released into surface waters in the United States. The Obama administration ordered Amos and scores of other plants across the country to close many of their storage ponds and eliminate nearly all contaminants in their wastewater, something likely to require additional treatment devices.
The E.P.A. in 2015 estimated that the changes to wastewater treatment alone would prevent the release of 1.4 billion pounds of pollutants a year into holding ponds, rivers, streams and groundwater.
“This is the most toxic, unregulated source of water pollution in the country,” said Elizabeth Southerland, who worked at the E.P.A. for three decades, before retiring last year as the head of the water pollution office. “And it threatens the drinking-water supplies and fisheries of 2.7 million people who live immediately downstream of these coal-fired power plants.”
A.E.P. and other plant owners had begun complying with the new requirement by designing expanded treatment systems. Under the current system at Amos, waste is collected in a smelly, dusty building a mile from the plant. A maze of pipes, filters and tanks skims off some of the toxic contaminants, but leaves others in the water.
The planning and design work for an expanded system was halted this past year at Amos and roughly two-thirds of the 80 power plants ordered to make the upgrades after the E.P.A. moved to delay the Obama-era order by two years. The agency also indicated it might ultimately weaken the requirements.
A.E.P. prides itself on complying with environmental standards. But Melissa McHenry, an A.E.P. spokeswoman, said the company believed “it is not economically practical” to upgrade the wastewater treatment facility, given that its existing system can already remove about 90 percent of selenium, a major pollutant that kills aquatic life.
Without a federal order to update the system, she said, the company might have a problem recovering the cost — estimated to total tens of millions of dollars — from ratepayers in West Virginia, as it needs permission from state regulators to make capital improvements.
Closed, but Still Toxic
Much of the coal fueling the Amos plant comes from mines in West Virginia and elsewhere in Appalachia that have produced tens of billions of tons in coal and provided jobs for generations.
With the industry in decline, some of those facilities have shut down over the past decade. But there is a high risk that a mine will continue to pollute even after it closes. That’s what happened at Surface Mine No. 4A in Clay County, about 60 miles from Charleston.
At first glance, a stream near the mine appears picturesque, but aquatic life is missing and the water is tinged in white. The stream flows into the Leatherwood Creek, which eventually meets the Elk River and ultimately the Kanawha River.
Environmentalists sued the mine’s operator last year, contending that runoff from the mine contained high concentrations of sulfates, magnesium and other contaminants. The chemicals, they said, leached from soil that was dug out of the coal and later used to fill in missing hillsides.
Representatives from Southeastern Land, which owns the mine, did not respond to requests for comment. In court papers, lawyers for the mine’s previous owner acknowledged that there were discharges, but said steps were being taken to minimize the impact on nearby waters.
The federal government tried in 2016 to curb water pollution from mines by imposing the Stream Protection Rule. Finalized by the Interior Department in the waning days of the Obama administration, it mandated long-term monitoring and treatment of pollution from mines, even after active mining had ended.
The rule, now repealed, required a more rigorous level of monitoring than West Virginia, including through tests of insects and other living organisms in streams. But it applied only to facilities that opened or expanded after the regulation went into effect, so Surface Mine No. 4A was likely to be exempted.
The new federal rule and other changes, the Interior Department estimated in 2016, were expected to improve the water quality nationally in 263 miles of rivers each year — 174 of them here in the Appalachian Basin.
But the National Mining Association, which represents the coal industry, said that the rule would cost 78,000 coal mining jobs, and that suitable protections were already in place. Less than a month into the Trump administration, Congress passed a bill nullifying the rule, which Mr. Trump signed in front of coal miners.
“This rule we’re eliminating, it’s a major threat to your jobs, and we’re going to get rid of that threat immediately,” Mr. Trump said.
Joe Lovette, a lawyer and the founder of Appalachian Mountain Advocates, a group that handles litigation for residents hurt by mining pollution, considered the move a setback. “Old mines are the biggest concern,” Mr. Lovette said, adding, “There is this pollution that will discharge into perpetuity.”
A Crisis Forces Action
Many West Virginians have long accepted the environmental consequences of having polluting industries in the state, especially since they drive the local economy. Mr. Lovette would be the first to acknowledge that his objections do not reflect mainstream public opinion.
But the chemical spill that contaminated Charleston’s drinking water in 2014 served as a catalyst for change.
About 10,000 gallons of MCHM, used in cleaning coal, spilled from a ruptured storage tank at Freedom Industries, a company that processed and stored chemicals. The substance leaked into the Elk River, just upstream from the intake for the state’s largest water provider.
By the next morning, 300,000 people across the Charleston region were told not to use their water for drinking, cooking or bathing. The crisis lasted for 10 days, bringing the region to a standstill and prompting people to seek medical care for nausea and vomiting. Restaurants closed, and bottled water was scarce. The chemicals in the air smelled of black licorice.
“I was afraid and shocked,” said Ms. Anderson, who moved to the state in 1970 as a volunteer for the national VISTA service program and has lived for the past 37 years about a mile from the State Capitol and just a few blocks from the Kanawha.
State lawmakers, usually reluctant to challenge industry, quickly passed a sweeping law that required, among other things, annual inspections of aboveground storage tanks. The law was subsequently weakened by exemptions — the number of tanks regulated was reduced to 5,300 from about 48,000 — but it remains one of the country’s tougher regulations on industrial tanks.
The spill also focused the attention of federal regulators. After the contamination, a lawsuit by the Natural Resources Defense Council and other environmental groups led to a consent decree requiring the E.P.A. to complete spill prevention rules by 2019. The E.P.A., under President Obama, considered a regulation that would have expanded its oversight of tanks, letting industry bear the compliance costs.
But in keeping with the hands-off approach of the Trump administration, the agency took a different route. Scott Pruitt, who was forced to resign over the summer as administrator of the E.P.A., proposed as one of his last acts that the agency would take no action.
“E.P.A. believes that additional regulatory requirements for hazardous substances discharges would be duplicative and unnecessary,” Mr. Pruitt said in a news release.
If the E.P.A. enacts Mr. Pruitt’s proposal, new safeguards on storage tanks — expected to cover 350 hazardous chemicals and tens of thousands of facilities across the country — will be shelved.
FORT BERTHOLD, N.D. — In late June, a specially equipped truck from the Environmental Protection Agency drove through the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation to examine air hazards. What it found was sobering.
Among the risks, according to confidential copies of inspection reports obtained by The New York Times, were plumes of improperly burned methane from oil wells.
One flare that was supposed to be burning gas was not lighted, allowing raw methane to spew into the air. In other spots, waves of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, were leaking at high levels from a storage tank.
Those hazards and others were not shared with Fort Berthold’s residents at a time when energy production in the region is booming. But the findings underscored the risks involved in the Trump administration’s decision to reverse a rule curbing leaks and flaring, both of which pose dangers and are increasingly common on federal and Indian lands across the West.
Like other communities around the country, Fort Berthold is confronting a tension at the heart of Mr. Trump’s unrelenting push to roll back regulations governing a range of industries: Cutting the costs associated with environmental protection can generate substantial short-term economic gains while producing longer-term and potentially profound health and environmental effects.
The Flaming Landscape
A 75 percent surge in oil production in the past two years has left Fort Berthold lighted by towering shafts of flame. Hundreds of controlled flares burn so bright in the cold night air that the sky turns a weird orange yellow, even as snow falls onto the frozen ground.
An estimated three billion cubic feet of gas is burned or released each month here — a volume that could heat about 600,000 homes. Energy companies have figured out a way to capture the oil, but their pipelines are not big enough to handle all the less valuable gas that comes out of the ground. Much of the excess is torched.
As oil and gas operations have intensified in this isolated stretch of North Dakota, so have residents’ concerns. The venting of unburned methane fouls the air with chemicals that are not only in some cases carcinogenic but over the next 100 years will be 30 times as potent a cause of global warming as carbon dioxide. At the same time, the improper burning of methane can create pollutants that cause a variety of respiratory problems.
Amount of gas flared per well (in millions of cubic feet)
7 billion cubic feet total
15 billion cubic feet total
By Sarah Almukhtar | Source: North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources. Note: Gas production, and therefore flaring, fluctuates with economic demand.
“My children and grandchildren breathe in this air,” said Lisa DeVille, whose family has lived on the reservation for generations. “How is this going to affect our health?”
Ms. DeVille and her husband, Walter, are members of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation, the group of tribes living at Fort Berthold. She said they learned last year that she had a respiratory condition that her doctor compared to symptoms common among oil field workers. She called it Bakken cough, after the geological formation that is yielding so much oil and gas in the Dakotas and Montana.
The Obama administration, concerned about the effects on health and global warming as well as the wasteful practice of simply burning off energy, moved to curtail leaks and flaring on federal lands and Indian reservations. But in September, under pressure from the energy industry, President Trump’s Interior Department eliminated the rule’s most important provisions.
The move was in keeping with Mr. Trump’s effort to cut regulatory costs for industry and promote domestic energy production. And it will help protect a remarkable economic boom on this once-impoverished reservation, where the tribal government’s budget — 90 percent of which comes from energy-related sources — has surged over the past 15 years to $330 million from $20 million.
Tribal leaders and state officials here say they are committed to using their regulatory powers to try to confront the flaring and leaks. But in an interview last month, the top tribal oil and gas regulator, Carson Hood Jr., acknowledged that he had no plans to cut production until pipelines could be built to handle all the excess gas. That means the intense flaring will probably continue for at least several years, or until the boom in oil drilling subsides.
And the state, which has its own flaring rules, recently moved to reconsider them, as it does not want to chase away any new investment by oil and gas companies, which fuel the state’s economy.
The leaks and flaring are an increasing source of tension at Fort Berthold. Many are focused on the cash from the energy industry that is pouring into community and tribal government coffers. The tribes and some families are paid royalties for each barrel of oil pulled from the ground, revenue that has changed many lives for the better.
“Sovereignty by the barrel,” is the slogan used by the M.H.A. Nation’s Energy Division, which both regulates and promotes oil and gas drilling here.
Yet others are backing a lawsuit challenging Mr. Trump’s rollback of the federal rule, while also pressing tribal leaders to move aggressively on their own to confront the consequences of the burning and leaking of gas.
“This is not just an empty worry — this is very real worry,” said Joletta Bird Bear, whose family collects oil production royalties but is pushing for greater regulations on reservation. “All you have to do is look around and you can see for yourself, the flares burning. They are huge. This is going to impact human life.”
An Upsurge of Wealth
The DeVilles set out for a drive through the Mandaree neighborhood of Fort Berthold to show off both the benefits and the costs that fracking has brought this tiny town.
Oil revenues allowed the M.H.A. Nation to expand its elementary school. The tribes built an elaborate staging area for their annual summertime powwow, which draws hundreds of dancers and drum groups from around the United States and Canada.
Even the car the DeVilles used to cruise through their hometown — a 2019 Toyota Sequoia S.U.V. — comes in part from industry money, as Lisa’s mother receives large royalty payments from production on the land she owns, wealth she uses to help support her family.
Besides royalties, residents also receive disbursement checks cut from the oil and gas money the tribal government collects. Some 16,500 members received $3,000 each last year.
But these benefits often have serious costs. Funding for an early-childhood learning center came from a $1 million donation made by a pipeline company, Crestwood, after it was blamed for spilling more than a million gallons of fracking wastewater. The spill reached the lake that supplies the reservation’s drinking water.
“I am not against oil and gas — my family benefits too,” Ms. DeVille said. “I just want the industry to held accountable for impacts they are causing here. What are you going to tell your children’s children: ‘I am sorry I took the money, and so now you don’t have clean air and clean land and clean water to live’?”
The intensity of the flaring — which has surged on Fort Berthold since 2016 — is on display across the reservation, where flares burn with so much power that they sound almost like jet engines. In warmer months, wheat fields need to be sprayed with water so the intense heat does not light them on fire.
A larger share of gas is flared in Fort Berthold than almost anywhere else in the United States. There is a severe shortage of pipelines and processing plants in the area, driving the need to burn. But it is more than just a matter of flames licking the sky.
The Denver-based team from the E.P.A. that visited in June came with infrared cameras, air monitors and a GPS tool that tracked toxic chemical releases. Its findings demonstrated that flaring, which can be unhealthy on its own, was often just a hint of even more harmful gas leaks. Venting can release a variety of pollutants into the air, including volatile organic compounds like ethylbenzene, a possible carcinogen, and toluene, a neurotoxin that may result in birth defects. The compounds also are a factor in the formation of ozone, which can lead to asthma and heart attacks.
The Polluted Air
Companies are required to notify the Interior Department when they are flaring methane beyond the start-up of a well. In 2005, the agency received only 50 applications for extended flaring. By 2014, the number had jumped to 1,250. The Interior Department did not respond when asked how many wells on federal and Indian lands flared in 2018.
As part of a broad strategy to slow climate change and also reduce wasteful burning of natural gas that if captured could be sold, the Obama administration adopted a rule in 2016 that put legal limits on the amount of flaring and leaking. The caps would have gotten tighter each year until 2026, when 98 percent of all gas produced on federal lands and Indian reservations was to be captured.
About 70 percent of the gas produced each month on the reservation is captured, according to the state, while the remainder is burned, leaked or intentionally vented. That means operators on Fort Berthold would probably have been targeted for enforcement if the rule had remained in effect.
The rule also required companies to perform semiannual inspections of their equipment on Indian reservations and federal lands to ensure there were no leaks, and to repair any within 30 days.
Moreover, it forced companies to get ahead of the leaks by replacing so-called high-bleed pneumatic controllers, designed to release pressure by letting gas leak, with low-bleed devices.
The E.P.A. estimated that the rule would reduce venting and leaks by 35 percent and flaring by 49 percent within a decade — while also saving enough natural gas nationwide to supply about 740,000 homes a year.
But it was only a matter of days after this rule was finalized that the campaign to kill it began. North Dakota joined with an oil and gas trade group and other states to sue the Interior Department, claiming the federal government was overstepping its authority and creating unnecessary regulations given state limits on flaring.
The Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a conservative advocacy group affiliated with Charles G. and David H. Koch, followed up by asking Congress to scrap the rule, an effort that fell short by two votes when Senator John McCain of Arizona and two other Republicans opposed the repeal.
“Improving the control of methane emissions is an important public health and air quality issue,” Mr. McCain said, explaining his decision.
Once in power, the Trump administration moved on its own to postpone the rule, an act that a federal judge blocked after noting that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke had “entirely failed to consider the benefits of the rule, such as decreased resource waste, air pollution and enhanced public revenues.”
Undeterred, the Interior Department moved again to remove most of the important provisions, a process it completed in September. Yet even then, the Trump administration, in formal rule-making documents, acknowledged that its actions would come with considerable costs.
A Tide of Change
The story of oil and gas at Fort Berthold, in a way, is the story of a long-delayed payback for injustices experienced by the three affiliated tribes that call Fort Berthold their home.
Their ancestors controlled vast swaths of the West. But they were assembled here on this North Dakotan land by the United States government in the 1870s, an area that a tribal history described as being known for its “unproductive soil, unfriendly climate, scant supply of wood, poor water, high winds, dust, drought, frost, flood, grasshoppers.”
The plight grew even more extreme by the 1950s when the United States government built a dam on the Missouri River, which splits Fort Berthold in two. The project flooded the center of the reservation and its most fertile lands, forcing most of the residents to relocate.
But there was a secret lurking here deep underground — a formation of oil and gas called the Bakken. When new drilling technologies emerged about a decade ago, they transformed Fort Berthold into one of the hottest spots in the world for energy production.
“Without choice, we were stuck here by the government,” said Mr. Hood, the director of the M.H.A. Nation’s Energy Division. “Lo and behold, we were put on top of one of the richest natural resources in North America. We end up being in a very lucrative position.”
This explains, in part, why some tribal leaders are pleased that the Trump administration has repealed most of the Obama Administration’s gas rule. The Interior Department is now telling the M.H.A. Nation that it will be allowed to decide on its own how it wants to regulate methane flaring and venting.
But Mr. Hood said that some kind of action was needed.
“I got some flaring going on over here, and I got some flaring going on over there that you can’t see at the moment,” Mr. Carson said, pointing in just about every direction visible from his office window.
“It is really a big concern for us as a nation,” he said, “having to breath this methane, benzene, all those dangerous elements that are in the natural gas itself. I really want to do the best that I can to protect the air for our people.”
Mr. Hood’s solution, as well as that of the chairman of the tribe, Mark N. Fox, is to encourage the construction of pipelines and processing plants near or on the reservation to capture and ship out the gas — a process that could take years, and hit a wall if oil prices fall.
The tribes, Mr. Hood said, have also focused on trying to curb venting, the most harmful way to dispose of the unwanted gas, by sending a compliance officer to oil and gas sites with an infrared camera that can detect the emissions. But when pressed to detail how that effort was proceeding — and how much in fines his office had imposed for the widespread violations — Mr. Hood said he would not discuss the matter.
Back in Washington, the Trump-era E.P.A. is now moving to weaken its own rule limiting harmful methane gas releases on new well sites nationwide.
“We are sort of powerless — this is our reality,” said Mr. DeVille as he and his wife completed their drive though the most intense Fort Berthold flaring zones. “This is our reality now.”
THE REGULATION After years of debate, the Interior Department in late 2016 put new limits on the flaring of natural gas produced on federal or Indian lands. When the gas is burned, it is wasted, and when it is burned improperly, it can cause respiratory problems.
The leaking of that gas is also harmful, and is a major contributor to climate change. The chemicals are in some cases carcinogens, while air pollution associated with the releases can lead to asthma and even heart attacks.
Starting in 2018, producers were required under the rule to capture 85 percent of the gas, with that number jumping to 98 percent by 2026. The Interior Department estimated that this would save 41 billion cubic feet of gas a year — enough to supply about 740,000 households.
THE ROLLBACK In September 2018, after complaints from the oil and gas industry, the department reversed the flaring limits, arguing that state governments and Indian tribes could impose their own.
THE CONSEQUENCES The Trump administration acknowledged that 299 billion cubic feet of gas would be lost, through venting or flaring, over the coming decade as a result of the changes.