RESEARCH REPORT: Real Estate at Risk, by State, from Sea Level Rise until 2050

This research study by Climate Central and Zillow, the real estate listing firm, contains a great deal of data and information graphics that we urge you to check out in the original website, below:

Ocean at the Door: New Homes and the Rising Sea

Published: November 13th, 2018

Research Report by Climate Central and Zillow

Recent housing growth rates are faster in high flood risk zones for most coastal states.

RELATED RESOURCES (that can be accessed from the Climate Central website here.)
     • Interactive map showing risk zones
     • Sea level tool with results by location: scroll to the “Future Flood Risk to Homes” section of tool after typing a city, county, or state name (For quick links to states, click on the interactive below)
     • Research brief on the threats to housing stock overall
     • Full results in two downloadable spreadsheets
     • Download report PDF

In 2012, Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey, producing a major storm surge and damaging or destroying many thousands of homes. Over the years that followed, builders put up new houses and reconstructed damaged ones — in many areas that will be vulnerable to more flooding in the future.

The post-Sandy rebuilding was a striking example of a broader pattern. Across the United States, coastal communities have recently built tens of thousands of houses in areas at risk of chronic future flooding driven by sea level rise from climate change. That has put homeowners, renters, and investors in danger of steep personal and financial losses in the years ahead. And while municipalities are increasingly developing plans to cope with sea level rise, the pattern of actual recent construction may be a more robust guide to which places are taking the threat most seriously.

In what we believe to be the first country-wide analysis of its kind, Climate Central and Zillow have isolated the number of new homes in low-lying coastal areas in all 24 coastal states, projecting how many will become exposed to chronic ocean flooding over the coming decades — depending on what choices the world makes around greenhouse-gas pollution today.

The results are clear. If the world makes moderate cuts to greenhouse-gas pollution — roughly in line with the Paris agreement on climate, whose targets the international community is not on track to meet — some 10,000 existing homes built after 2009 will be at risk of flooding at least once per year, on average, by 2050. The figures for 2100 are about three times higher — and five times higher if pollution grows unchecked.

Over the last decade, public interest in sea level rise has grown, tidal flooding has increased in many coastal communities, and global attention has coalesced around the dangers of climate change in international negotiations in Copenhagen and Paris. And yet in the years after 2009, the percentage growth rate at which new homes were added inside of America’s highest coastal flood-risk zones outpaced the percentage growth rate outside of those areas — in more than half of the country’s coastal states.

Location, Location, Inundation

By boosting the average water height, sea level rise is projected to make the kinds of intermittent floods that coastal communities see once in the average year reach farther inland than they do today. Those floods can damage and devalue homes, degrade infrastructure, wash out beaches, and interrupt daily life.

Future emissions will shape the extent of those harms — and the number of homes in each coastal region’s “risk zone” — in the years ahead. Unless otherwise noted, this report defines the risk zone as the area exposed to an average of at least one coastal flood per year in 2050, under the moderate emissions cuts known technically as Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5, and under the median projections for sea-level rise corresponding to this emissions level as described in Kopp et al. 2017. Other risk zones can be defined with other assumptions, such as unchecked emissions, or by looking to the year 2100, and yield different results. “New homes” refers only to currently existing structures built after 2009 and before 2017 (or before 2016 in Alabama, Florida, Mississippi and New York). “New” does not refer to homes that will be built in the future.

New homes in risk zones are not evenly distributed across the country’s coastal states. Local factors, from the size of the population and the condition of the economy to the amount of space available, shape the development of new housing stock in each community. And the size of a risk zone is itself the product of a variety of elements, from land elevation to the presence of protective features such as levees.

Fairly comparing the pattern of new, risky construction across different cities, states or counties, then, requires tracking more than just raw numbers. One way to do this is to compare percentage growth in housing within the flood-risk zone with percentage growth outside of it, producing a single, comparable ratio for each place.

Take the state of New Jersey. After 2009, the housing growth rate was more than three times higher in the coastal flood risk zone than in safer areas. Around 2,700 new homes, worth some $2.6 billion, were put up in the flood-risk zone after that year — most likely driven by reconstruction following Sandy. In Mississippi and Delaware, meanwhile, the ratio of risky growth to less risky growth was around 2.5. And in Florida, where the recent risk zone growth rate has just slightly outpaced the growth rate in safer areas, 908 newly built homes are nevertheless in locations at risk of flooding at least annually by 2050.

Nine other coastal states likewise saw their construction growth rates in the risk zone outpace their growth rates in safer areas. (In addition to the states listed in Table 1, these include Alabama, Hawaii, Maine, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island.) More than half of the country’s coastal states, in other words, have recently seen higher housing growth rates inside the flood-risk zone than outside of it.

Counties and Cities

Just as the growth in new risk-zone housing is unevenly distributed across states, so it is unevenly distributed within them. There are 23 counties where more than 100 at-risk homes were built after 2009. All of those counties are in ten states: Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Jersey, South Carolina, Texas, and Virginia.

In Ocean County, New Jersey, more homes — about 1,300 — were built in flood-risk zones after 2009 than in any coastal state except New Jersey itself.

29 cities built at least 50 homes in the risk zone after 2009. None built more than Ocean City, New Jersey, a popular resort town in Cape May County, which put up 308 new houses in the risk zone.

The larger cities of Corpus Christi, Texas, Charleston, South Carolina, and Norfolk, Virginia, also rank among the cities with the highest number of new homes in areas of future chronic flood risk.

Flooding the Market

This report has so far focused on just one pollution scenario. But other outcomes are possible. Instead of making the kinds of moderate emissions reductions pledged in Paris, the world might achieve deep cuts. Alternatively, humanity could pour greenhouse gases into the atmosphere unchecked.

How would these alternatives affect the coastal flood risk to recently built U.S. homes? By 2050, not by much. Moderate cuts to pollution would leave just over 10,000 new homes in the risk zone. Deep cuts in emissions — what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change calls RCP 2.6 — would trim that figure to just under 10,000. And unchecked pollution, or RCP 8.5, would place a little more than 11,000 homes in areas in danger of at-least-yearly future floods.

By the end of the century, however, there will be massive differences in the dangers that these emissions scenarios pose for coastal homes. Deep cuts would leave 18,000 recently built homes at risk. Moderate reductions akin to those pledged in the Paris agreement would boost that number to 30,000. If greenhouse-gas pollution rises unchecked, 49,000 of today’s new homes would lie in the flood-risk zone by century’s end.

More striking still is that those 49,000 just-built homes would represent a tiny fraction of the total number of homes at flood risk. Unchecked pollution would put a total of 2.5 million existing homes at risk of yearly flooding or worse by 2100. Those properties are currently worth $1.33 trillion — an amount equal to six percent of the U.S. economy.

No state has more to lose from such an outcome than Florida, where 8,000 more new homes are projected to be in the flood-risk zone by century’s end if greenhouse-gas pollution continues unabated than if moderate cuts are achieved. When all home vintages in the state are considered, the difference is even starker. Unchecked pollution would put 730,000 more homes in flood-risk zones than would moderate cuts — and 960,000 more than deep cuts.


Sea level and flood projections

This analysis determines the maximum local land elevations that define risk zones by projecting future local sea levels and adding the height above sea level that local floods exceed on average once per year.

Local sea level projections are based on a recent peer-reviewed research paper (Kopp et al. 2017) building off of global projections from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and emerging research on the potential instability of Antarctic ice sheets (DeConto and Pollard 2016), which could lead to significantly more sea level rise in the second half of the century. Climate pollution scenarios modeled include “unchecked pollution” (technically, Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5, or RCP 8.5), “moderate carbon cuts” (RCP 4.5), and “deep carbon cuts” (RCP 2.6), this last choice meaning a peak in emissions near the year 2020 followed by a sharp decline to zero near 2070 and then by net negative emissions. The sea level model was run for thousands of simulations given each scenario. Median projections under each scenario for the years 2050 and 2100 are used, reflecting mid-range sea level sensitivity to climate pollution. Lesser or more severe outcomes are possible, with 5th and 95th percentile results available in the Risk Finder tool (scroll to the “Future Flood Risk to Homes” section of the tool after typing a city, county, or state name, and click on the gear-shaped settings icon at the top right of the panel).

Annual average flood levels were derived using methods from Tebaldi et al. 2012, with water level station data updated through the end of 2015 for 71 stations around the United States. This approach assumes no future changes in the frequency or severity of coastal storms or tides, as compared to past decades. Some research indicates climate change will worsen future storms. Storm surge associated with major hurricanes has already been increasing over the last century.

Defining risk zones

“Risk zones” are first classified as areas with elevations below local projected sea levels plus annual flood heights. Assessment is based on accurate, high-resolution, lidar-derived elevation data provided principally by the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA). Initial risk zones are then refined by removing low-lying areas that appear to be protected from the ocean by natural topography or by levees. This approach is called using a “bathtub model,” since it relies only on how still water would fill a landscape, like water filling a tub, without accounting for factors such as wind, waves, or rain that give actual floods dynamic and uneven surfaces. Bathtub models are perfectly appropriate for mapping pure sea level projections, and make reasonable approximations for mild floods, such as annual ones.

Dynamics play a larger role in rarer and more violent storms, so bathtubs are less appropriate for these. More sophisticated methods using hydrodynamic simulations can take many factors into account that bathtub models cannot, but require large amounts of computing power to characterize well the thousands of combinations of sea level, tides, wind, waves, and rain that any location might experience in the future.

Levees, walls, dams, or other features may protect some areas, especially at lower elevations. Data limitations, such as an incomplete inventory of levees and a lack of levee height data, make assessing the protection afforded by levees difficult. Levees are particularly prevalent in Louisiana and in the Bay Area and San Joaquin delta region of Northern California. Missing or mischaracterized levee data in these areas may have important effects on results, including known overestimates of exposure due to missing levee data in Northern California. We use data from the FEMA/USACE Midterm Levee Inventory for our national flood control structure dataset, and supplement this with local data from Louisiana and Massachusetts. This analysis does not account for future erosion, marsh migration, or construction. As is general best practice, local detail should be verified with a site visit.

We assume levees are always high and strong enough for flood protection. However, the American Society of Civil Engineers rated only eight percent of levees as in “acceptable” condition, and some areas and assets that appear to be protected by levees, ridges, or other features may not actually be protected. Areas may have hidden connections through porous bedrock geology, as is common in South Florida, another area with plentiful levees that line drainage channels and canals. Low-lying areas may also be connected by channels, breaks in levees or seawalls, or drainage passages that are not captured by the elevation data, such as sewers. There is further no guarantee that existing levees will be maintained through 2050 or 2100. On the other hand, new defenses could also be built within these timeframes.

Housing data

Homes whose geographic coordinates lie within or outside of risk zones were separately counted and their values, which were estimated by Zillow, were summed. Zillow provided location, value data (Zestimates), and build years for homes built through 2016 (for Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and New York) or 2017 (for all other coastal states). Separate tallies were made for homes built in 2010 or later, versus 2009 or earlier. The data do not include build year for some homes; these homes were included in analyses for all homes. Only homes with known build year were included in calculations of housing growth rate, which was computed as homes built in 2010 or later, divided by homes built in 2009 or earlier.

Geographic coordinates of homes within the Zillow database may also contain errors, especially in low-density rural areas. However, we have empirically found such errors to be virtually random with nearly zero bias, so exposure totals aggregated to larger administrative boundaries, such as cities and counties, are expected to accurately reflect actual vulnerability.

Zillow property and Zestimate data were refined to ensure a set of unique properties with complete addresses and home valuations (Zestimates). Zillow data include single-family homes, condominiums, and other homes in multi-unit properties, such as duplexes and triplexes — in other words, units where the tax parcel is a single dwelling unit. Buildings zoned for commercial residential use, such as apartment buildings, are not included, and so total housing counts using these data are generally lower than corresponding estimates using the 2010 census.

Address and built year data were provided by Zillow through the Zillow Transaction and Assessment Dataset (ZTRAX). More information on accessing the data can be found at Proprietary Zillow data, such as Zestimates, were provided under strict confidentiality.

Report image: DVIDSHUB/flickr

Posted in Climate Change, Development, Disaster Management

Playing Catch Up in the War Against Domestic Terrorism

This article from Janet Reitman appeared in the NY Times Magazine — I’d urge you to read it there (in hard copy or the link here —<> — for the graphics, but the information is important enough that I thought it worth copying the text:

U.S. Law Enforcement Failed to See the Threat of White Nationalism.
Now They Don’t Know How to Stop It.

The first indication to Lt. Dan Stout that law enforcement’s handling of white supremacy was broken came in September 2017, as he was sitting in an emergency-operations center in Gainesville, Fla., preparing for the onslaught of Hurricane Irma and watching what felt like his thousandth YouTube video of the recent violence in Charlottesville, Va. Jesus Christ, he thought, studying the footage in which crowds of angry men, who had gathered to attend or protest the Unite the Right rally, set upon one another with sticks and flagpole spears and flame throwers and God knows what else. A black man held an aerosol can, igniting the spray, and in retaliation, a white man picked up his gun, pointed it toward the black man and fired it at the ground. The Virginia state troopers, inexplicably, stood by and watched. Stout fixated on this image, wondering what kind of organizational failure had led to the debacle. He had one month to ensure that the same thing didn’t happen in Gainesville.

Before that August, Stout, a 24-year veteran of the Gainesville police force, had never heard of Richard Spencer and knew next to nothing about his self-declared alt-right movement, or of their “anti-fascist” archnemesis known as Antifa. Then, on the Monday after deadly violence in Charlottesville, in which a protester was killed when a driver plowed his car into the crowd, Stout learned to his horror that Spencer was planning a speech at the University of Florida. He spent weeks frantically trying to get up to speed, scouring far-right and anti-fascist websites and videos, each click driving him further into despair. Aside from the few white nationalists who had been identified by the media or on Twitter, Stout had no clue who most of these people were, and neither, it seemed, did anyone else in law enforcement.

There were no current intelligence reports he could find on the alt-right, the sometimes-violent fringe movement that embraces white nationalism and a range of racist positions. The state police couldn’t offer much insight. Things were equally bleak at the federal level. Whatever the F.B.I. knew (which wasn’t a lot, Stout suspected), they weren’t sharing. The Department of Homeland Security, which produced regular intelligence and threat assessments for local law enforcement, had only scant material on white supremacists, all of it vague and ultimately not much help. Local politicians, including the governor, were also in the dark. This is like a Bermuda Triangle of intelligence, Stout thought, incredulous. He reached out to their state partners. “So you’re telling us that there’s nothing? No names we can plug into the automatic license-plate readers? No players with a propensity for violence? No one you have in the system? Nothing?’’

One of those coming to Gainesville was William Fears, a 31-year-old from Houston. Fears, who online went by variations of the handle Antagonizer, was one of the most dedicated foot soldiers of the alt-right. Countless YouTube videos had captured his progress over the past year as he made his way from protest to protest across several states, flinging Nazi salutes, setting off smoke bombs and, from time to time, attacking people. Fears was also a felon. He had spent six years in prison for aggravated kidnapping in a case involving his ex-girlfriend, and now he had an active warrant for his arrest, after his new girlfriend accused him of assault less than two weeks earlier. On Oct. 18, the night before the event, Fears and a few others from Houston’s white-nationalist scene got in Fears’s silver Jeep Patriot for the 14-hour drive. Fears’s friend Tyler TenBrink, who pleaded guilty to assault in 2014, posted video from their trip on his Facebook page. There were four men, two of them felons, and two nine-millimeter handguns. “Texans always carry,” Fears said later.

Gainesville would be Spencer’s first major public appearance since the violence of the Unite the Right rally two months before, and the city, a progressive enclave in the heart of deep-red north Florida, was on edge. Anticipating chaos, Gov. Rick Scott declared a state of emergency — prompting Spencer to tweet out an image of his head making its way across the Atlantic toward Florida: “Hurricane Spencer.” A few days before the event, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement sent out a small, bound “threat book” of about 20 or so figures, most of them openly affiliated with Spencer or with anti-fascist groups, which Stout knew from his own research meant they weren’t the people to worry about. Anonymous online chatter on sites like 4chan, meanwhile, described armed right-wing militants coming to Gainesville to test Florida’s Stand Your Ground law. Stout envisioned 20 white supremacists with long guns. We’re screwed, he thought.

By the morning of Oct. 19, a fortress of security, costing the University of Florida and police forces roughly half a million dollars, had been built around the western edge of the 2,000-acre campus and the Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, where Spencer and his entourage arrived that afternoon. More than 1,100 state troopers and local cops stood on alert, with another 500 on standby. There were officers posted on rooftops. Police helicopters buzzed the skies. The Florida National Guard had been activated off-site, and a line of armored vehicles sat in reserve. Hundreds of journalists from around the United States and abroad were in attendance, anticipating another Charlottesville.

Some 2,500 protesters had descended on the small area cordoned off for the event, where they confronted a handful of white supremacists, most of them Spencer groupies like Fears and his friends. “Basically, I’m just fed up with the fact that I’m cisgendered, I’m a white male and I lean right, toward the Republican side, and I get demonized,” Colton Fears, Will’s 28-year-old brother, who was wearing an SS pin, told HuffPost. TenBrink, also 28, told The Washington Post that he had come to support Spencer because after Charlottesville, where he was seen and photographed, he had been threatened by the “radical left.” He seemed agitated by the thousands of protesters. “This is a mess,” he told The Gainesville Sun. “It appears that the only answer left is violence, and nobody wants that.”

But Will Fears told reporters he came to Gainesville to intimidate the protesters. “It’s always been socially acceptable to punch a Nazi, to attack people if they have right-wing political leanings,” he said. “We’re starting to push back.” He went on: “We want to show our teeth a little bit because, you know, we’re not to be taken lightly.”

The Spencer speech turned out to be a bust, thanks to an audience so determined to drown him out that at one point they erupted in a chant of “Orange! Blue! Orange! Blue!” as if at a Gators football game. Afterward, the crowd left the auditorium and flooded back onto Hull Road, the long avenue leading toward the center of campus. Thousands of protesters surrounded the small group of Spencer acolytes. TenBrink, a sinewy young man wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, was particularly overwhelmed and jumped a barricade to escape the angry crowd. The police put him in handcuffs and escorted him into a parking garage. Then, for reasons that remain unclear, they uncuffed TenBrink and walked him out of the garage and toward the parking lot, and let him go. Neither TenBrink nor his friends were in the threat book.

There are several versions of what happened after TenBrink was released. It was about 5:15 p.m. The Texans drove down Archer Avenue, the broad street bordering the south edge of campus, about a mile from the secured area. A group of protesters were sitting at a bus stop. The men in the Jeep started shouting “Heil Hitler!” according to the police report and several witness statements. “Do you know my friend Heil? Heil Hitler? Get it?” The men started throwing Nazi salutes.

One of the protesters had come to Gainesville armed with a retractable baton. When the Texans began to harass them, he grabbed his baton and struck a window of the S.U.V. “My life and the lives of those around me was at risk,” he told the police. Will Fears jumped out. “I’m about to beat this dude up with his own fricking expandable baton,” he later recalled.

Suddenly, witnesses said, a man later identified as TenBrink jumped from the vehicle holding a handgun. “Shoot them!” the Texans were heard yelling. TenBrink pointed the gun at the protester.

White supremacists and other far-right extremists have killed far more people since Sept. 11, 2001, than any other category of domestic extremist. The Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism has reported that 71 percent of the extremist-related fatalities in the United States between 2008 and 2017 were committed by members of the far right or white-supremacist movements. Islamic extremists were responsible for just 26 percent. Data compiled by the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database shows that the number of terror-related incidents has more than tripled in the United States since 2013, and the number of those killed has quadrupled. In 2017, there were 65 incidents totaling 95 deaths. In a recent analysis of the data by the news site Quartz, roughly 60 percent of those incidents were driven by racist, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, antigovernment or other right-wing ideologies. Left-wing ideologies, like radical environmentalism, were responsible for 11 attacks. Muslim extremists committed just seven attacks.

These statistics belie the strident rhetoric around “foreign-born” terrorists that the Trump administration has used to drive its anti-immigration agenda. They also raise questions about the United States’ counterterrorism strategy, which for nearly two decades has been focused almost exclusively on American and foreign-born jihadists, overshadowing right-wing extremism as a legitimate national-security threat. According to a recent report by the nonpartisan Stimson Center, between 2002 and 2017, the United States spent $2.8 trillion — 16 percent of the overall federal budget — on counterterrorism. Terrorist attacks by Muslim extremists killed 100 people in the United States during that time. Between 2008 and 2017, domestic extremists killed 387 in the United States, according to the 2018 Anti-Defamation League report.

“We’re actually seeing all the same phenomena of what was happening with groups like ISIS, same tactics, but no one talks about it because it’s far-right extremism,” says the national-security strategist P. W. Singer, a senior fellow at the New America think tank. During the first year of the Trump administration, Singer and several other analysts met with a group of senior administration officials about building a counterterrorism strategy that encompassed a wider range of threats. “They only wanted to talk about Muslim extremism,” he says. But even before the Trump administration, he says, “we willingly turned the other way on white supremacy because there were real political costs to talking about white supremacy.”

‘This is what public demonstration looks like in an era when white nationalism isn’t on the fringes, but on the inside of the political mainstream.’

In March 2018, a 20-year-old white evangelical Christian named Mark Anthony Conditt laid a series of homemade I.E.D.s around Austin, Tex., in largely minority communities. The bombs killed two African-Americans and injured at least four others over the course of several weeks, terrorizing the city, yet the local authorities preferred to describe Conditt, who committed suicide, as a “very challenged young man.” Also last spring, another white man, 28-year-old Benjamin Morrow, blew himself up in his apartment in Beaver Dam, Wis., while apparently constructing a bomb. Federal investigators said Morrow’s apartment doubled as a “homemade explosives laboratory.” There was a trove of white-supremacist literature in Morrow’s home, according to the F.B.I. But local cops, citing Morrow’s clean-cut demeanor and standout record as a quality-control manager at a local food-processing plant, made sure to note that just because he had this material didn’t mean he was a white supremacist. “He could have been an individual that was doing research,” the local police chief said.

In this atmosphere of apparent indifference on the part of government officials and law enforcement, a virulent, and violent, far-right movement has grown and metastasized. To combat it, some officials have suggested prosecuting related crimes through expansion of the government’s counterterrorism powers — creating a special “domestic terrorism” statute, for instance, which currently doesn’t exist. But a report released on Oct. 31 by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School argues that the creation of such a statute could easily be abused to target “protesters and political dissidents instead of terrorists,” and that law enforcement already has ample authority to prosecute domestic terrorism: “Congress must require that counterterrorism resource decisions be based on objective evaluations of the physical harm different groups pose to human life, rather than on political considerations that prioritize the safety of some communities over others.”

The report also calls out the Justice Department for its “blind spot” when it comes to domestic terrorism and hate crimes, which Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein conceded earlier in the week. During a conference on Oct. 29, Rosenstein said that according to the latest F.B.I. crime report, “88 percent of agencies that provide hate-crimes data to the F.B.I. reported zero hate crimes in 2016.” The Justice Department was reviewing the accuracy of the reports, he noted. “Simply because hate crimes are not reported does not mean they are not happening.”

In 2016, the latest full year of data available from the F.B.I., more than 6,100 hate-crime incidents were reported, 4,270 of them crimes against people (as opposed to, say, defacing property). And yet only 27 federal hate-crime defendants were prosecuted that year. “The F.B.I. knows how many bank robberies there were last year,” says Michael German, an author of the Brennan Center report and a former F.B.I. agent, “but it doesn’t know how many white supremacists attacked people, how many they injured or killed.”

More concerning to German, though, is that law enforcement seems uninterested in policing the violent far right. During the first year after Donald Trump’s election, protests and riots erupted across the country, often involving men with criminal histories who, by definition, were on the law-enforcement radar. During the so-called Battle of Berkeley in March 2017, for instance, a far-right agitator named Kyle Chapman became a hero to the alt-right after he reportedly pummeled an anti-fascist counterprotester with a billy club. Chapman was a 41-year-old who had two previous felony convictions. He proceeded to travel around the country, engaging in violence at other protests, now under the online moniker Based Stickman — a cheerful reference to the Berkeley attacks.

Chapman was one of a number of known white supremacists to align with the Proud Boys, a nationalist men’s movement founded in 2016 by the anti-immigrant “Western chauvinist” Gavin McInnes, a founder of Vice Media. There was also the Rise Above Movement (RAM), an alt-right group composed largely of ex-cons, many with ties to Southern California’s racist skinhead movement. Over the past two years, each group engaged in violent confrontations with their ideological enemies — a lengthy list including African-Americans, Jews, Muslims, nonwhite immigrants, members of the L.G.B.T. community and the progressive left — and generally escaped punishment. This changed to a degree over the past few weeks when, after a yearlong campaign by journalists at ProPublica and other media outlets, federal prosecutors filed charges against eight members of RAM, including two of its leaders. Similarly, after a pressure campaign on social media, the New York Police Department arrested and charged six members of the Proud Boys in connection with an assault after a speech by McInnes at a Republican club in Manhattan on Oct. 12. On his podcast, McInnes noted that he has “a lot of support” in the N.Y.P.D. (The police commissioner denies this.)

In at least one instance, the police have in fact coordinated with far-right groups. In 2017, a law-enforcement official stationed at a rally in downtown Portland, Ore., turned to a member of a far-right militia group and asked for his assistance in cuffing a left-wing counterprotester, who had been tackled by a Proud Boy.

“This is what public demonstration looks like in an era when white nationalism isn’t on the fringes, but on the inside of the political mainstream,” says Brian Levin, a former New York City police officer who now leads the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University-San Bernardino. During the run-up to some of last year’s major events in places like Charlottesville or Berkeley, he notes, “there was an unending stream of violent themed chatter and an almost choreographed exchange of web threats between antagonists across wide geographic expanses” that earned barely a nod from law enforcement.

During a congressional hearing in the wake of Charlottesville, Christopher Wray, director of the F.B.I., told lawmakers last September that the bureau had “about 1,000” open domestic-terror investigations, roughly the same number of investigations the bureau had open on ISIS. The bureau has not provided information on how many of those investigations pertained to white nationalists or other far-right extremists, as opposed to left-wing or “black-identity extremist” groups, nor whether they are full-blown investigations, preliminary inquiries or “assessments.” The F.B.I. has also responded to criticism that it has failed to address hateful or threatening messages on social media. The F.B.I. said in a statement: “The F.B.I. does not and cannot police ideologies under the First Amendment.” But looking at prosecutions, German says, “it’s clear that many of the people targeted for investigation for allegedly supporting the Islamic State were initially identified because of something they said online.”

There are serious civil liberties concerns with any broad surveillance of social media, German says. What’s also true, he notes, is that the volume of white-supremacist-related content is overwhelmingly high. “There are relatively few Americans voicing their support for ISIS online. But there are millions of racists, anti-Semites, Islamophobes, homophobes and xenophobes who engage in eliminationist rhetoric about the communities of people they fear and hate every day on social media and radio talk shows. Even if the F.B.I. wanted to monitor this hate speech, they wouldn’t have the resources, or any way to distinguish between those who talk and those who act.”

Levin believes that the Justice Department could be more flexible in pursuing these groups without violating First Amendment concerns. Just as they do with ISIS supporters, law-enforcement agencies would be within their legal rights to monitor, analyze and share any of the publicly available intelligence on white supremacists or hate groups that suggests violent confrontations. “The problem is not that we rightly scrutinize violent Salafist extremism,” Levin says, “but that we do so while materially ignoring domestic white nationalists or those on their fringes who also represent a violent threat.”

When we first spoke this August, Levin noted the continued ascendance of the far right, even after many of its members went underground after Charlottesville. “The rocket ship is still twirling,” he said. Levin predicted that the next big wave of activity wouldn’t be around mega-rallies but around what he calls “aggressive maneuvers” by loners or small cells. A series of violent outbursts in a single week in October made his prediction seem prescient.

In just seven days, a Florida man who lived out of a van plastered with stickers, including one of Hillary Clinton’s face in cross hairs, is reported to have sent a series of pipe bombs to at least a dozen of Trump’s critics. Two days after the first package appeared, a middle-aged white man, having tried unsuccessfully to break into a black church near Louisville, Ky., reportedly shot and killed two elderly African-Americans at a Kroger. “Whites don’t kill whites,” the man reportedly told an armed white man who confronted him. Then, at week’s end, a man who posted on Gab, the alt-right’s preferred social-media site, about a “kike infestation” interrupted services at the Tree of Life synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and several handguns; he was charged with murdering 11 people and injuring several more, including police officers. The Anti-Defamation League believed it to be the deadliest anti-Semitic attack in American history.

Law enforcement’s inability to reckon with the far right is a problem that goes back generations in this country, and the roots of this current crisis can be traced back more than a decade. With violent political messaging emanating from the White House and echoed throughout the conservative media and social-media landscapes, Levin only expects more attacks. “What we need to worry about is the guy who is riled up by this rhetoric and decides to go out and do something on his own,” he told me in August. “We have people who are ticking time bombs.”

In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis issued a report warning of a rise in “right-wing extremism.” The department is the country’s largest law-enforcement body, created after Sept. 11 to prevent and respond to various threats, most specifically those connected to terrorism. While most of its counterterrorism focus has been on preventing Islamist terrorist attacks, the department is also supposed to examine domestic threats, like those coming from violent white supremacists, antigovernment militants and single-issue hate groups, like radical anti-abortion activists.

The author of the report was a senior intelligence analyst named Daryl Johnson, who ran a small Homeland Security domestic-terrorism unit. Two years earlier, in January 2007, Johnson was sitting in his bland second-floor office when he received a call from a contact at the Capitol Police. A first-term Illinois senator named Barack Obama was planning to announce that he was running for president. “Curious if you’ve heard any threatening chatter,” the officer said.

This was the first time Johnson had heard of Obama, and he didn’t know about any threats, but that didn’t mean there wouldn’t be any. Though white-extremist groups had been fairly quiet in the years since Sept. 11, Johnson saw this as a temporary lull. These people never truly went away, he thought; they just needed the right motivation to energize them.

“What do you think’s going to happen when the Ku Klux Klan and the neo-Nazis and other white supremacists get wind of this?” the officer asked.

Johnson didn’t skip a beat: “I think it’s going to be the perfect recruiting and radicalization tool for white supremacy.”

At 38, Johnson spoke with the earnestness of an Eagle Scout, which he was. He was also a registered Republican who grew up in a small Mormon community in rural Virginia where millennialism, or end-times theology, was a core concept. During the 1980s, when Johnson was still in high school, far-right separatists took to the Ozarks or to strongholds in rural Idaho, where they stockpiled food and weapons and conducted paramilitary training in preparation for the biblical “last days.” Some, like the Aryan Nations, whose members embraced the racist Christian Identity philosophy, spawned domestic terror cells like the Order, which waged a brutal campaign of bombings, armed robberies and murder, culminating with the June 1984 assassination of Alan Berg, the prominent Jewish radio talk-show host who frequently spoke of flushing out the latent anti-Semitism in Denver’s conservative community.

Years of law-enforcement investigation and infiltration of right-wing terror groups commenced, and by the early 1990s, many of the movement’s most violent members were dead or in jail. But the government standoffs at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Tex., energized a new generation of separatists, Patriot militias — the forerunners of today’s antigovernment militia groups — as well as individuals like Timothy McVeigh, who made his way through various antigovernment and racist ideologies and organizations under the radar of law enforcement, before the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

The deaths of 168 people, including 19 children, at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building brought the threat of domestic terrorism by white Americans into stark relief. In the aftermath, the F.B.I. added many more agents to work domestic terrorism cases, and Attorney General Janet Reno created a special task force to investigate domestic terrorism. But by the end of 2001, the dominant business of the F.B.I., as well as every other federal law enforcement body, was international terrorism. Years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the supposed threat posed by Al Qaeda and other Muslim groups continued to drive policy, notably at the Department of Homeland Security, which Johnson, who started his career in Army intelligence, joined in 2005. At the time, he later recalled, he was the only analyst exclusively working on non-Islamic domestic threats. By 2007, he had put together a small team of analysts who began to scour extremist websites and message boards. What they found alarmed them.

The militant far right was enjoying a renaissance, thanks to the internet. Hundreds of militia recruitment and paramilitary training videos had sprung up on YouTube, along with promotions for weapons training and, to Johnson’s horror, bomb-making manuals. Between October 2007 and March 2008, Johnson and his unit documented the formation of 45 new antigovernment militia groups, which he saw as highly significant given that before fall 2007, these sorts of groups had been on the decline. Some white-supremacist groups, seizing upon the anti-immigration rhetoric that was then fomenting, created violent video games aimed at exploiting public fear of “illegals” streaming over the border.

By the spring of 2008, Obama’s candidacy, just as Johnson predicted, had become a lightning rod for white supremacists and other hate groups. As the campaign moved into its final months, law-enforcement agencies intercepted at least two assassination plots against Obama. Other threats and racist posts flooded the internet, where Johnson’s team noticed a sharp increase in membership on Stormfront, the first major white-nationalist website. The site added 32,000 new users within the first three months after Obama’s inauguration, nearly double the number it added in 2008.

Johnson and his team compiled their findings into a report, which they were still working on when Obama tapped Janet Napolitano, formerly the governor of Arizona, as the new secretary of Homeland Security. Napolitano “got it” when it came to white supremacy, says Juliette Kayyem, who served as the department’s assistant secretary for intergovernmental affairs in 2009 and 2010. While serving as Arizona’s attorney general, Napolitano coordinated the investigation of one of Timothy McVeigh’s accomplices. Now, concerned that a reinvigorated white-supremacist movement could pose a threat to the country’s first African-American president and to citizens, Napolitano began asking her intelligence analysts about a rise in lone-wolf “right-wing extremism,” a term commonly used in the counterterrorism world to refer to the radical beliefs of fringe players on the right of the political spectrum.

In March 2009, Johnson says he and a few colleagues from the F.B.I. briefed Napolitano on their findings, theorizing that heightened stress because of the continuing financial crisis, coupled with the election of the first black president, created a “unique driver” for individual radicalization and antigovernment and white-supremacist recruitment. Military veterans, including those returning after multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, might be particularly susceptible candidates, they noted, a prediction based on a 2008 F.B.I. assessment that found 203 individuals with military experience who had joined white-supremacist groups since Sept. 11, 2001. It was a tiny number given the overall United States veteran population, which at the time was close to 24 million. It was also a small percentage of the thousands of white supremacists the F.B.I. estimated were active. But the “prestige” that those with military or tactical skills held within white-supremacist groups made their influence much greater, the F.B.I. argued.

Johnson remembers Napolitano, sitting at the conference table, soberly flipping through the PowerPoint slides and thanking the analysts for the presentation. A few days later, the Department of Homeland Security released its report, “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment,” which was distributed across the government and local law-enforcement agencies.

On April 11, 2009, four days after his report was released, Johnson was at home in West Virginia when a PDF of the document was posted on the website of the syndicated conservative radio host Roger Hedgecock. A link to the PDF was also posted on a blog maintained by the Oath Keepers, the antigovernment group composed of numerous law-enforcement officials. “FORWARD THIS TO EVERY AMERICAN!” read the post, which Johnson suspected had been written by a member of the law-enforcement community. “YOU are now a dangerous terrorist according to the Obama administration.”

By the next day, news of a “chilling” report from the department was making its way through far-right message boards and the blogosphere, where it was picked apart by conspiracy sites like Infowars, which deemed it evidence of a deep-state plot. More mainstream right-wing pundits like Michelle Malkin considered it, in Malkin’s words, an “Obama D.H.S. hit job” on conservatives. Some progressives also had concerns about the report’s “dangerously vague and speculative” nature, as a Mother Jones correspondent, James Ridgeway, wrote, warning that “civil libertarians of all stripes” should be nervous and raising the specter of government surveillance.

From the perspective of many people inside the department, the report was “exactly what the department is supposed to do, which is inform and educate our stakeholders about what we see as a threat,” Kayyem says. “This was not a political document.”

‘The problem is not that we rightly scrutinize violent Salafist extremism, but that we do so while materially ignoring domestic white nationalists or those on their fringes who also represent a violent threat.’

Congressional Republicans, answering to a nascent Tea Party movement and the American Legion, soon took issue with the label “right-wing extremism,” which John Boehner, then minority leader of the House, charged was being used by the Department of Homeland Security “to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” Boehner was particularly bothered by the report’s mention of veterans. “To characterize men and women returning home after defending our country as potential terrorists is offensive and unacceptable,” he said in a statement. Several G.O.P. lawmakers called for Napolitano’s resignation, as well as that of Johnson, who, in their view, equated conservatives with terrorists.

Johnson was appalled. “I never anticipated such an aggressive, vile backlash,” he told me recently. It was puzzling: Just a few months before his April 2009 report was published, the department released an assessment of the cyber threat posed by “left-wing extremists,” like the Earth Liberation Front and the Animal Liberation Front. Legislators, the media and the public at large — including progressives — had no objection to that terminology. But the political firestorm over “right-wing extremism” had caused such an uproar that the Department of Homeland Security ultimately avoided using ideological terminology like “right-wing.” A few weeks after the report was released, Napolitano formally apologized to veterans, and after intense pressure from veterans’ groups, the department withdrew the report.

Afterward, the administration tried to depoliticize the issue. Obama had been elected promising to improve relations with the Muslim world, though this soon provided an opening for conspiracy-minded Republicans like Representative Louie Gohmert, the Texas congressman who once insinuated that Mohamed Elibiary, an adviser to Obama’s national-security team, was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. During the Bush administration, the word “terrorism” had become almost synonymous with Islam. Now, as one former policy adviser recalls, “the Obama people were adamant that it couldn’t just be about jihadis.”

They adopted a new, less ideological lexicon. Terrorism became “violent extremism,” which suggested behavior. The administration also came up with a new paradigm of “ideologically motivated violence” that ostensibly could apply to any form of extremism, not just Islamic terrorism. The Justice Department, the Department of Homeland Security and the State Department would develop “countering violent extremism” programs that focused on outreach and community engagement, not warrantless surveillance, though in practice they were still an effort to identify and root out jihadist elements from American Muslim communities, just as they had been during the Bush administration.

At the same time, most of the work exclusively focused on domestic extremism stopped at the Department of Homeland Security. “I blame an entire political apparatus led by Republicans that made calling something ‘right-wing extremism’ a political statement,” says Kayyem, who notes the paradox of G.O.P. leaders’ attacking Democrats for refusing to use the phrase “radical Islamic extremism.” “They’d say if you can’t say it, you can’t fight it,” she says. “But it cuts both ways. If you’re not allowed to say that white supremacy is a form of radicalization, then how are you going to stop it?”

Johnson’s 2009 report proved prescient. In February 2011, the Southern Poverty Law Center said that in the previous year, the number of domestic hate groups in the United States had reached more than 1,000 for the first time. The antigovernment Patriot movement gained 300 new groups over the same time period, a jump of over 60 percent. Every sphere of the far right was being energized at the same time. There was also an uptick in so-called lone wolves, who held extremist views but associated with no specific organization. In May 2010, a year after Johnson’s report was released, a father and son from Ohio, members of a little-known antigovernment movement called “sovereign citizens,” shot and killed two police officers during a traffic stop in West Memphis, Ark. It was the 12th attack or foiled plot by white-extremist “lone wolves” since 2009, almost all of which received little publicity.

The United States attorney from Western Arkansas, Conner Eldridge, was one of a number of Justice Department prosecutors who felt the department had given short shrift to domestic terrorism. Quietly, Eldridge began to network with United States attorneys from states with a history of white-supremacist activity. They pressed the Justice Department for more resources. “Our thesis was, hey, let’s focus on domestic terrorism at an equal level as we’re focusing on international terrorism, because they’re both terrorism,” Eldridge told me recently. “But we consistently confronted, at every level, a sort of lack of attention to domestic terrorism. The day-to-day focus was on the next potential ISIS attack.”

Back in Washington, weeks would go by with the daily national threat briefings rarely if ever discussing possible domestic threats from the far right. At the F.B.I., counterterrorism agents candidly admitted that domestic terrorism was seen as a backwater and that the only path to advancement was through international terrorism cases. In a recent report on law enforcement’s evaluation of Muslim versus right-wing extremism, a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, noted that in 2008 and 2009 — the only years for which figures were made public — fewer than 350 of the F.B.I.’s 2,000 counterterrorism agents were assigned to domestic terrorism.

After a series of violent attacks by white supremacists, including on a Jewish community center and a nearby retirement home in Overland Park, Kan., Attorney General Eric Holder announced in 2014 that he was reconvening the Justice Department’s Domestic Terrorism Executive Committee. The group hadn’t met in 13 years. “It wasn’t the same as it had been before, but it was something,” says Eldridge, who was tapped to head the committee, which included representatives from about 15 law-enforcement agencies and five Justice Department divisions, including the F.B.I. and the U.S. Marshals. “But we had no budget, no staff, and we had no person whose sole job was to run the committee.”

The ceaseless focus on ISIS and Al Qaeda filtered down to local law enforcement. The administration’s much-touted “countering violent extremism” agenda was directed at various threats. But “the language heavily focused on recruitment and radicalization by ISIS and Al Qaeda,” recalls Nate Snyder, a counterterrorism adviser to the Obama administration at the Department of Homeland Security from 2009 through 2017. As early as 2010, he says, his office was receiving calls from police officers asking for help in many Southern and Midwestern states. “They’d be like, ‘Thanks for that stuff on Al Qaeda, but what I really need to know is how to handle the Hammerskin population in my jurisdiction,’ ” he says, referring to the white-supremacist skinhead group.
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A supporter of the far-right group Patriot Prayer at a rally in Portland, Ore., in September 2017. Credit Mark Peterson/Redux

In 2011, the White House described the threat of Al Qaeda and its affiliates as the “pre-eminent security threat to our country.” By 2013, a new threat had emerged: so-called homegrown violent extremists, or H.V.E.s, a category of people who, though born in the United States, were inspired by a nondomestic ideology to commit violence. H.V.E.s, who tended to be Muslim, were not to be mistaken for domestic terrorists, who by definition were not only Americans but also driven by a domestic ideology like white supremacy. And yet the two were often conflated, and therefore “homegrowns” were also perceived as domestic terrorists: the Tsarnaev brothers, responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013; the perpetrators of the San Bernardino massacre or the mass shooting at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando. Dylann Roof, born in South Carolina, whose homegrown racism was nurtured on neo-Nazi websites like The Daily Stormer, was not, in this context, a domestic terrorist, nor were any of his beliefs seen as indicative of “violent extremism.” His shooting spree in a church in Charleston, in which he killed nine African-Americans, was interpreted as something else. What drove him, authorities said, was hate. He was a murderer.

This dichotomy plagued Representative Bennie Thompson, the Mississippi Democrat who served as ranking member of the House Homeland Security Committee. For years, Thompson pressed both the administration and fellow members of Congress to be more outspoken on domestic terrorism. “The silence was almost deafening when it came to raising any of those issues in Congress,” he says. “And the administration had this do-nothing approach. They kept telling us, well, we see that white supremacy is a problem, but there’s no way we can get ourselves involved in this because they won’t talk to us.”

It was a curious response from an administration whose “C.V.E.” agenda supposedly addressed all types of ideologically motivated violence. “I really suspect they did some polling and found out that there were certain things an African-American president couldn’t talk about,” one former adviser said. “I think they didn’t want to poke the bear.”
This approach was most evident with Obama’s second Homeland Security chief, Jeh Johnson, who came to the department in 2013, after a three-year sojourn as general counsel to the Defense Department, where he provided legal authority for the drone-strike program. During Johnson’s tenure, Nate Snyder says, his office received calls from evangelical pastors worried about far-right recruitment in their congregations. There was also concern about reports of white supremacy in the military.

Johnson, who told me that fear of another ISIS-style attack kept him up at night, held regular round tables with imams and other members of the Islamic community. He resisted the pressure from some members of his staff, and some in Congress, like Thompson, to make similar overtures to communities concerned about antigovernment or white-supremacist groups. He thought it would be absurd to hold round tables with sovereign citizens and white supremacists. “I didn’t think that would have been a very effective use of my time to try,” he told me.

Johnson never called Dylann Roof a domestic terrorist, a phrase commonly applied to Timothy McVeigh. “If there was ever an opportunity to define white extremists as domestic terrorists, Dylann Roof was it,” Snyder says. “But people went back and forth, and it went down the same careful deliberation that happens with active shooters: Maybe it was a mental-health issue. Maybe he was ‘disturbed.’ Maybe he had a predisposition to violence.”

When I spoke to Johnson, he felt it was not his place to call Roof a terrorist. There isn’t a crime of “domestic terrorism” to charge someone with. “There is a certain type of violent extremism that is by nature more of a matter for law enforcement, and another that is about engaging communities at the local level,” he said. But the country’s chief law-enforcement official at the time, Attorney General Loretta Lynch, also didn’t call Roof a terrorist — though she did note that his mass shooting, which she was prosecuting as a hate crime, seemed to meet the definition of terrorism. “Hate crimes are the original domestic terrorism,” she said. James Comey, then director of the F.B.I., wasn’t sure. Terrorism, he stated in June 2015, was “more of a political act,” and he didn’t see the Charleston shooting as political. Even after a racist manifesto Roof penned surfaced online stating his intent to “protect the white race” by instigating a race war, Comey still wasn’t sure it met the definition. “I only operate in a legal framework,” he told HuffPost.

The refusal to name the attack as “terrorism” was, in some critics’ eyes, a crucial misstep that would have far broader implications. “I was very pleased when the Obama administration started and said, We’re not going to use the phrase ‘war on terror,’ ” says Erroll Southers, a former F.B.I. agent and now director of the Safe Communities Institute at the University of Southern California. “I think the Obama people decided, O.K., we’re not going to call it ‘terrorism,’ thinking it was a good thing. The problem was they didn’t realize how much it emboldened the other side and gave them political cover.”

In the months following Donald Trump’s inauguration, security analysts noted with increasing alarm what seemed to be a systematic erosion of the Department of Homeland Security’s analytic and operational capabilities with regard to countering violent extremism. It began with the appointment of a new national-security team. Like their counterparts now running immigration policy, the team came from the fringe of conservative politics, some of them with connections to Islamophobic think tanks and organizations like ACT for America or the Center for Security Policy, whose founder, Frank Gaffney, was Washington’s most prominent peddler of anti-Muslim conspiracy theories.

In addition to Gaffney, whose biased and statistically flawed data on the “Muslim threat” became the premise for Trump’s so-called Muslim ban, there were other ideological fellow travelers like Sebastian and Katharine Gorka, the husband-and-wife national-security team. Sebastian Gorka became a senior White House adviser, and Katharine Gorka became a senior adviser to the Department of Homeland Security. During the transition, Sebastian Gorka predicted the demise of “C.V.E.,” which he suggested was a fuzzy, politically correct approach to a problem — terrorism — that needed a better fix. Shortly afterward, Katharine Gorka, who once criticized the Obama administration for “allowing Islamists to dictate national-security policy,” made it clear, Nate Snyder recalls, that she didn’t like the phrase “countering violent extremism.” From now on, the mission would be focused on “radical Islamic terrorism,” the White House’s go-to phrase, which, as Sebastian Gorka later explained, was intended to “jettison the political correctness of the last eight years.”

‘What we need to worry about is the guy who is riled up by this rhetoric and decides to go out and do something on his own.’

A surreal scene, replicated in nearly every department and agency, soon began to play out inside the Department of Homeland Security. George Selim, a longtime national-security expert in both the Bush and Obama administrations who headed the Office of Community Partnerships, which worked with local government and civic groups on C.V.E. efforts, noted that as the months passed, “it was clear that there were fewer and fewer of the career civil servants at the table for critical policy decisions.” Some political appointees seemed to have virtually no experience with the issues they had been tapped to advise on. Katharine Gorka, as her own LinkedIn biography notes, had never held a public-sector job before joining the department, nor did she seem to have any practical experience in national security, or law enforcement, or intelligence. Another new senior Homeland Security official, the retired Navy officer Frank Wuco, had made a career of lecturing to the military about the jihadi mind-set, often while role-playing as a member of the Taliban in a Pashtun hat and kaffiyeh. “That’s who was trying to tell me he understands the threat,” an official said dryly.

By February 2017, after the Trump administration issued its first executive order trying to ban citizens of Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States, several American Muslim groups decided to reject federal C.V.E. grant money they were awarded under the Obama administration out of concern over the new administration’s framing of the issue. That March, the White House froze the $10 million the previous administration had allotted for the grants, pending review. While that review was underway, the Department of Homeland Security and the F.B.I. issued a joint intelligence bulletin, dated May 10, warning that white supremacists might pose “a threat of lethal violence” over the next year. The report, which some analysts said reflected a fraction of the actual numbers, said that white supremacists “were responsible for 49 homicides in 26 attacks from 2000 to 2016 . . . more than any other domestic extremist movement.”

At the end of June, the Department of Homeland Security withheld grant money from several previously approved applicants whose focus was on studying extremists’ online networks and helping both white supremacists and Muslim extremists leave their movements. Though the total budget for C.V.E. was minuscule given the department’s overall grant budget, rejecting those programs nonetheless produced “a real chilling effect,” as one policy analyst recalls. Some researchers withdrew from plans to brief lawmakers on far-right extremism.

In July 2017, Selim tendered his resignation. Not long afterward, a senior official on the interagency task force running C.V.E. efforts withdrew. More departures followed. The Department of Homeland Security renamed the Office of Community Partnerships the Office of Terrorism Prevention Partnerships. At the department’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, analysts specifically looking at domestic terrorism and coordinating with local law enforcement were reassigned as public-affairs liaisons, Snyder says. “So no one is looking at the intelligence and connecting the dots, which is what the Department of Homeland Security was created to do.”

In the lingo of the counterterrorism world, the department’s responsibility is anything “left of boom,” meaning all the pre-emptive steps that might prevent an attack, from securing the borders to synthesizing and sharing intelligence to working with community leaders and local law enforcement to help them better identify risks. Today, at least for the federal government, Snyder says “left of boom is dead.”

William Fears was born in 1987 and spent his childhood in Jasper, Tex., a tiny and deeply segregated town about 130 miles northeast of Houston. East Texas is Klan country, and Jasper holds a notable spot in the racist history of the region as the town where, in 1998, when Fears was 10, three white men lynched a black man named James Byrd Jr., chaining him to the back of a truck and dragging him to death.

Early in his life, Fears, searching for identity, cycled through a long list of ideologies. He was 14 on Sept. 11, 2001, old enough to absorb the patriotic fervor of that moment but too young to enlist. For a year or two, he was a Michael Moore-style populist, having been “red-pilled on ‘Bowling for Columbine.’ ” Then, having spent a great deal of his spare time stoned and watching YouTube, Fears embraced the Sept. 11 “truthers” movement. As he spent more and more time on sites like Infowars, he was exposed to notions that the government, backed by the Illumi-nati, the globalists, the Freemasons — Jews, but not “the Jews” as he would later come to see them — had blown up the towers, crashed the financial markets and plunged the country into economic crisis. This led to his next great obsession: the candidacy of the G.O.P. presidential hopeful Ron Paul, a libertarian who had amassed a large grass-roots following of what The New York Times then called “iconoclastic white men.”

But Fears eventually grew bored with Paul, just as he had grown bored with Michael Moore, and it was in this state of vague political disillusionment, and heavy drug use, that Fears kidnapped a former girlfriend in 2009 and stabbed her in the face, legs and neck before she managed to escape. In 2010, he was sentenced to seven years in prison.

Fears doesn’t like to talk much about his sojourn in the Texas state-prison system, though like many young men who went from the penitentiary to the far right, he was introduced to the basic tenets of white supremacy there. “White guys got to stick together,” he says, referring to an admitted friendship with members of the Texas branch of the Aryan Brotherhood, one of the most notoriously brutal white-supremacist gangs in the country. But he dropped those friendships after prison, he insists. “I didn’t like the whole Nazi skinhead thing with tattoos on their face and beating up minorities for no reason,” he says, implying that they represented an earlier generation: “They’re like 1.0s.”

Six years later, Fears was paroled and emerged from prison drug-free but otherwise largely the same. He was still a conspiracy theorist, though he was less obsessed with the government, his friend John Canales noticed when they reconnected that summer. “Now it was all about the Jews,” Canales says. At home in the Houston suburb of Pasadena, Fears submerged himself in what to him was the new, hyperconnected world of the internet, where every YouTube video he watched algorithmically directed him to others with increasingly far-right political agendas. He was fascinated by men like Richard Spencer, who fashioned himself as the second coming of George Lincoln Rockwell, the founder of the American Nazi Party. He was also intrigued by Donald Trump, the troubadour of a new generation of angry white men, the alt-right movement — white supremacy 2.0 — with its in-jokes and symbols that were mostly lost on U.S. law enforcement.

‘The administration had this do-nothing approach. They kept telling us, well, we see that white supremacy is a problem, but there’s no way we can get ourselves involved.’

Fears believed in the power of memes, though alt-right memes, while dripping in irony, were also, in essence, hate speech, part of a propaganda war arguably intended to spread terror just as much as any ISIS execution video. Fears, his friend Canales says, was one of the first people Canales knew to understand this and promote the memes as broadly as he could, standing on street corners and “sieg heil-ing” at passers-by or waving a swastika-laden Pepe the Frog sign reading “Free Helicopter Rides,” an allusion to the murder of political enemies, notably leftists.

In December 2016, less than six months after getting out of prison, Fears went to his first Richard Spencer event, on the campus of Texas A&M. More so-called free-speech events followed, where young white men in red MAGA hats and polo shirts descended upon college campuses or progressive enclaves in otherwise blood-red states: a clean-cut Trumpian army, marching in formation or hurling insults at activists who, outraged by their very presence, would try to fight them.

Sometimes the police would intervene, or not. Fears, for one, always felt safe with the police in Texas, though he said “they work for ZOG” — the so-called Zionist Occupied Government. “They’ll take their paycheck over the country.”

Cops would stand watch at events, sometimes on horseback, and while they might not have been ideologically aligned with the alt-right, they still tolerated them. Fears said the cops were far less forgiving of Antifa, a catchall term that has been used to describe dedicated anti-fascists and so-called anarchist extremists, as well as animal rights activists, immigration rights activists, members of the local Socialist movement, environmental protesters like those who had recently been blasted by water cannons and rubber bullets at Standing Rock, and Black Lives Matter supporters, whose protests have been met by dozens of cops in riot gear, as well as sometimes members of a paramilitary support unit. One Houston activist, who went to high school with Fears, recalls a rally where the police posed for pictures with members of the alt-right. “Very buddy-buddy,” he says.

The same essential scenario played out across the country. At a rally in Sacramento in June 2016 organized by the white-supremacist Traditionalist Worker Party, a throng of counterprotesters showed up. “The police didn’t step in really at all,” a police observer and representative of the National Lawyers Guild later told The Sacramento Bee. “They basically just let people do what they wanted to do,” the observer said. “In this case, someone made a decision just to let them fight it out.” Ten people were hospitalized, at least five for stabbing wounds and other lacerations, most of them left-wing counterprotesters, some of whom were later charged with assault. Only one white supremacist was arrested, though court records originally acquired by The Guardian mentioned at least four T.W.P.-affiliated men who came armed with knives to the rally but were not charged. “We’re looking at you as a victim,” an investigator with the California Highway Patrol reportedly assured a member of the T.W.P. after the rally.

One domestic-terrorism expert who conducts hate-crimes training for law enforcement was baffled by the pushback she received from police officers who didn’t seem to view white-supremacist groups as a law-enforcement problem. “They’d say things like, ‘Why aren’t you calling Black Lives Matter or Antifa a hate group?’ The answer is, because they’re not hate groups! But they didn’t see it that way.”

It was in this atmosphere that Fears made his progress through various protests. He traveled to Charlottesville with a backpack of dystopian gear: goggles, gloves and a helmet, though he disguised himself as a Trump supporter in a suit. It was war. It was also fun. By the summer of 2017, the media had begun to cover more far-right events, leading more people to show up in protest, which furthered the right’s victimization narrative, which in turn led to more events and more violence, all of which was packaged into neat selling points for a movement whose actual real-life followers may have been far fewer than they appeared.

A person’s willingness to brawl was a point of pride. Some of the most ardent fighters, many of them felons, became celebrities in their own right, offered speaking slots at rallies, where their V.I.P. status earned them police protection. The Rise Above Movement, led in part by a gang member who had gone to prison for an attack, turned beat-downs into an art form, which they promoted on YouTube, drawing recruits. Nathan Damigo, a former Marine who was incarcerated for five years for armed robbery, used footage of his punching a young woman in the face during a Berkeley protest as a recruiting video for his white-nationalist organization, Identity Evropa. The Proud Boys went as far as to create an entire culture around gang-style rituals, including initiation beatings.

On Facebook, various white men were stating their intention of going to Charlottesville for what they understood would be a huge gathering of the tribes, making plans of whom to meet up with and what to bring. Fears initially advised against carrying weapons, but he suggested keeping them close by. “It all comes down to police,” he said on Facebook. “If they leave us to fight for ourselves like in Berkeley, we know to get ready for bricks to start flying.”

In private communications on the chat service Discord, posted online by the progressive watchdog Unicorn Riot, organizers of Unite the Right spent weeks discussing tactics. The F.B.I. itself was limited in its surveillance capacity (though many left-wing groups argued that this did not prevent the bureau from monitoring their activities), and in the absence of comprehensive federal scrutiny, right-wing activists trawled through left-wing websites, shared photos of leading anti-fascist and racial-justice activists and infiltrated real-life gatherings. In advance of the event, leaked chats documented potential attendees openly advising their comrades to take note of any threats of violence so they could share them with the police. Erroll Southers later remarked on the sophistication of advising their followers not to bring cellphones, and sharing information among small cells of affinity groups: “From an intelligence perspective, it was very impressive.”

From a law-enforcement perspective, it was chaos. Rarely did a white-supremacist event draw more than 60 people before 2016; 100 was remarkable. But Charlottesville was another galaxy, both in the sheer number of marchers and their diversity. Southers notes, “You had factions of white nationalists, white supremacists, Klan members, neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates — which was like having ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabab and Boko Haram at the same rally. And they were all rallying together, shoulder to shoulder, while the police watched these people go toe to toe sort of like a modern-day ‘Game of Thrones’ battle.”

“I put my baton on the ground and hands in the air,” the protester later said of the moment when Tyler TenBrink pointed his gun directly at him. The man was terrified. TenBrink took aim and fired. One of the other protesters hid in the trees. Several more crouched behind a small wall, screaming. The bullet missed. The men jumped back into Fears’s Jeep and, with Colton behind the wheel, sped away toward Interstate 75 — but not before a witness wrote down the license-plate number.

Lieutenant Stout learned of the shooting later that night, and while no one was hurt, his heart sank. In all his preparations, Stout hadn’t considered that violence might occur outside the secure perimeter they had so carefully set up. That night, the Florida state police caught up with the Jeep on the highway and arrested the Texans. The city officials breathed a sigh of relief and lauded the day as a success.

Will Fears spent more than 40 days in the Alachua County Jail on $1 million bail. Depending on whom he is talking with, he and his brother and TenBrink, who both remain in the Alachua County Jail, were the “celebrities” of the jail, or maybe just Fears was. He portrayed his stay as fairly cushy, and one in which he was a very big deal, which of course he wasn’t to the authorities who picked him up in December, after Texas ordered him extradited back to Houston to face charges in the supposed assault of his girlfriend last October. Along the way back to Texas, Fears tried to make conversation. “I was on the news, you didn’t see that?” he remarked. When Fears arrived back in Houston, he spent two nights in the Harris County Jail, then appeared before a judge, who promptly released him on $5,000 bail.

Fears returned home to Pasadena and resumed the same life he had always led. Apparently unconcerned about exposure, he had posted his cellphone number on social media. Earlier this year, I called him. We met at a Belgian cafe in a rapidly gentrifying part of Houston. When I arrived, Fears was sitting at an outside table, drinking an Arnold Palmer.

Fears told me he had spent most of the past year celebrating the alt-right’s covert domination of the news cycle. He seemed thrilled that Donald Trump tweeted about a so-called migrant caravan, which, like the supposed “white genocide” in South Africa, was mostly fiction. Yet it was effectively promoted by alt-right websites like The Daily Stormer and Breitbart, and now right-wing celebrities like Ann Coulter and Tucker Carlson were talking about it. “This idea that the alt-right is falling apart and is going to go away, it’s not true,” he says. “The alt-right formulates all these ideas,” he went on. “What Tucker Carlson talks about, we talked about a year ago.”

It was a few days after the massacre of 17 people in Parkland, Fla., and Fears had been considering the spate of school shootings in America. He repeated the rumor, widespread on 4chan and Gab, that the shooter, Nikolas Cruz, was Jewish, and so were many of his victims. It’s unclear if this is true. But if it were, it would make no sense to Fears, who, if he believes in anything, believes in the essentially tribal nature of all human beings. Jews, he said, “have a biological need to look out for their own.” He had spoken a bit about what he called the J.Q., or Jewish Question, as successive generations of anti-Semites have referred to the debate over how Western nations should handle the presence of Jews in their societies. “I don’t hate them for it, but I realize that their interests aren’t the same as mine.”

Fears’s views aren’t unique — roughly 22 million Americans call it “acceptable” to hold neo-Nazi or white-supremacist views, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken in the wake of Charlottesville in August 2017. Roughly the same number of people, about 10 percent of Americans, said they supported the “alt-right”; about half of those polled said they were against it. Driving around Fears’s neighborhood one day, I saw Confederate flags, and American flags, and sometimes a Blue Lives Matter flag, and the black-and-white “Don’t Tread on Me” flag waving from shiny new trucks. I also saw row after row of McMansions, many of them with swimming pools. There were new S.U.V.s parked in the driveways, and boats: signs of money made and money spent. One former high school classmate of Fears’s described the culture as “wannabe redneck.”

Fears says that unlike him, the bulk of the alt-right prefers to stay in the shadows. “I see a lot of people and talk to a lot of people that people would pay a lot of money to find out who they are,” he says. Some of them, he suggests, take part in his weekly Thursday-morning “fight club,” practicing mixed martial arts. Some have white-collar jobs or are veterans, groups that make up a large part of the movement.

Fears was wearing a baseball cap adorned with a red, white and blue patch known as the “whomster” flag. It’s “kind of a racist joke,” he said, albeit one that most people won’t get, as they probably have no clue what “whomster” means (it’s a common meme that refers to the supposed, if baseless, fact that African-Americans say “whomst” a lot). The flag featured the Texas lone star against a backdrop of 14 red and white stripes, an allusion to a signature white supremacist slogan addressing their goal of preserving the white race. The star is centered on a large blue sonnerad, or black sun, an ancient symbol favored by white supremacists, who see it as less obvious than, say, a swastika. In recent years, even longtime neo-Nazi groups like the National Socialist Movement have rebranded by dropping the swastika for less “triggering” symbols like sonnerads or runes. The meaning is the same.

‘I think it’s easy for our generation, or the youth, the way society is now, to feel victimized. It’s like with your back against the wall, you know what I mean?’

Fears has said that he was upset that his little brother, who in September pleaded guilty to accessory to attempted murder, got in so much trouble. “He’s not really a white nationalist that much,” he said during an interview with a right-wing podcast. “He’s really only involved in anything as a result of being my little brother.”

It was a bit like the little brother-big brother Boston bombing duo, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whom Fears identifies with. He agreed to meet with me, he said, because I had written about them. “I think it’s easy for our generation, or the youth, the way society is now, to feel victimized. It’s like with your back against the wall, you know what I mean?”

In the Tsarnaevs’ case, this led to terrorism, and for Dzhokhar, the surviving brother, it led to a stretch on death row. Fears, drinking his iced tea-lemonade concoction, considered this. “Maybe he saw a lot of things in the world that bothered him and just didn’t know how to deal with it,” he said. “I can sort of relate to that.”

Fears munched on some bread. “You’re Jewish, right?” he said pleasantly.

In fact, I am. And while I happened to be sitting across the table from an admitted fascist who admires Adolf Hitler and has advocated (he says trollishly) “white Shariah,” I didn’t feel threatened by Will Fears. Like so many of the movement’s vague anymen, he presented himself as polite, articulate and interested in cultural politics, and though his views are abhorrent, he stated them all so laconically you might forget that he actually believes in the concept of a white ethnostate. And that’s the point: The genius of the new far right, if we could call it “genius,” has been their steadfast determination to blend into the larger fabric of society to such an extent that perhaps the only way you might see them as a problem is if you actually want to see them at all.

The purpose of the F.B.I.’s Joint Terrorism Task Force is to investigate terrorism and share information from those investigations so that the law-enforcement community is able to identify the most dangerous individuals. State and local law-enforcement “fusion centers” were set up with this same goal in mind. There are perhaps half a dozen information-sharing and threat-assessment networks available to law enforcement. In an alternate universe, these networks would function efficiently. In reality, German says, “far-right violence remains a blind spot. It just isn’t properly tracked or understood.”

On Aug. 31 this year, his 25th anniversary on the force, Dan Stout retired from the Gainesville Police Department, in part because of the stress and fatigue he endured from the Spencer incident. “The level of resources and financial impact these types of events are now costing communities to prepare for and manage, it’s just unsustainable,” he says. “How much of our city do we literally turn into a quasi-police state to manage this?” Stout’s study of the alt-right and left-wing movements made him an “expert,” at least in the eyes of federal and state law enforcement, who, he says, began to invite him to visit their jurisdictions to share what he had learned. “They were soaking it up like a sponge,” he says. And yet, in reality he feels that they had collectively dodged a bullet — “no pun intended,” he says. “Just another inch to the right or the left and we’d have had a very bad situation.”

In May, I called up the Harris County district attorney’s office to ask why someone who had been in jail in Florida on $1 million bond had, upon extradition, been released on $5,000 bond. Joshua Phanco, a prosecutor who at the time was in charge of Fears’s case, was alarmed by the call. He vaguely recalled that Fears had been in prison in Florida, but he wasn’t aware that Fears had been charged with attempted murder, or that he had anything to do with white supremacy. “This is the first I’m hearing this,” he told me. (Fears’s charge in Florida has since been dropped.)

Phanco, who has since moved on to the district attorney’s major-crimes division, spoke with me for two hours. He diagramed the byzantine system that is the Harris County criminal-justice system, one of the nation’s largest, and a study in dysfunction. There is no central database, no way to share information among all the tiny police departments that feed into the clerk’s office, which then divvies up crimes among 22 criminal courts, now scattered across the entire county. Basically, he said, unless someone tells him about a guy he’s prosecuting, he has no clue.

“I mean, how come I didn’t know what happened in Florida?” he said. “Is it my fault? Is it Florida’s fault? How come there wasn’t an officer in Houston watching this? How come he was on nobody’s radar?” Houston has an aggressive gang task force whose investigators have deep knowledge of everyone from the street-level drug dealers to the cartel bosses. “If a fairly high-up guy from MS-13 sneezes, I get a call at 10 p.m.,” he said.

If Fears were on someone’s radar, Phanco doubted he would ever get off it. “But who’s responsible for keeping track of these alt-right guys in Houston? Nobody. For me the question is, well, how come? If you want to look at these guys as terrorists — which I think it is when they’re firing guns out of cars at protesters,” he noted, “then the question remains: Who or what will prevent him from committing more crimes? And, from my chair, nobody,” Phanco said. “Nobody’s watching it, nobody’s tracking it. And that’s what’s got me scared.”

Janet Reitman is a contributing writer for the magazine who is working on a book about the rise of the far right in post-9/11 America. She is also a contributing editor for Rolling Stone.

Posted in Governance, politics

Speaking of Suppression: Gun Injuries to Children — first study ever

from the Associated Press:

Guns send over 8,000 US kids to ER each year, analysis says

By LINDSEY TANNER       —        29 October 2018


FILE – In this Jan. 26, 2013, file photo, handguns are displayed on a vendor’s table at an annual gun show in Albany, N.Y. In a study looking at data from 2006-14, serious gun injuries including many from assaults sent 75,000 U.S. children and teens to emergency rooms over the nine years. Results were released on Monday, Oct. 29, 2018. (AP Photo/Philip Kamrass, File)

Gun injuries, including many from assaults, sent 75,000 U.S. children and teens to emergency rooms over nine years at a cost of almost $3 billion, a first-of-its-kind study found.

Researchers called it the first nationally representative study on ER visits for gun injuries among U.S. kids. They found that more than one-third of the wounded children were hospitalized and 6 percent died. Injuries declined during most of the 2006-14 study, but there was an upswing in the final year.

The researchers found that 11 of every 100,000 children and teens treated in U.S. emergency rooms have gun-related injuries. That amounts to about 8,300 kids each year.

The scope of the problem is broader though; the study doesn’t include kids killed or injured by gunshots who never made it to the hospital, nor does it count costs for gunshot patients after they’re sent home.

“I don’t know what more we need to see in the world to be able to come together and tackle this problem,” said Dr. Faiz Gani, the lead author and a researcher at Johns Hopkins University medical school.

The study is an analysis of estimates on emergency department visits in a national database created by the U.S. government’s Agency on Healthcare Research and Quality.

The researchers focused on victims under age 18; the average age was about 15.

Almost half the gun injuries were from assaults, nearly 40 percent were unintentional and 2 percent were suicides. There were five times more ER visits for boys than for girls.

Pediatric ER visits for gun injuries fell from a rate of 15 per 100,000 in 2006 to about 7 per 100,000 in 2013, then jumped to 10 per 100,000 in 2014, the most recent data.

University funding paid for the analysis, published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

The findings highlight that gun violence involving kids extends beyond mass shootings that gain the most attention, said Dr. Robert Sege, co-author of an American Academy of Pediatrics gun injuries policy.

“It’s extraordinarily sad because these children grow up in fear and it affects their ability to feel safe and comfortable at home or in school. It has an enormous ripple effect on child development,” said Sege, a Tufts University professor of medicine who was not involved in the research.

Pressure from the gun lobby has limited U.S. government funding for research on gun injuries and death, and that has led to big gaps in understanding the scope of the problem, said Dr. Denise Dowd, an ER physician at Children’s Mercy hospital in Kansas City.

“It’s really important that we have an idea of the magnitude of life lost and injured and how much money we are spending … so we can prioritize it as a national health concern.”

But she said much more needs to be known for prevention.

“We need national surveillance systems just like we do with motor vehicle deaths, to track these injuries and figure out the circumstances,” she said.


Follow AP Medical Writer Lindsey Tanner at @LindseyTanner .


The Associated Press Health & Science Department receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

Posted in Close to Home, politics

The Cost of Chaos: Trump, Tillerson, Pompeo Now Have the State Department They Wanted

via The Cost of Chaos: Trump, Tillerson, Pompeo Now Have the State Department They Wanted

Quote | Posted on by

Fracking May be Safe; Companies Fracking are Criminally Negligent

From the best regional journalists in the USA — High Country News.

[A great article, written OK . . . . but the issue itself is really important . . . ]

Energy & Industry
When your neighborhood goes boom
How site workers and firefighters responding to a 2017 natural gas explosion in Windsor, Colorado, narrowly avoided disaster.
Daniel Glick and Jason Plautz
Image credit: Joshua Polson/The Greeley Tribune
Oct. 19, 2018 From the print edition


A few days before Christmas last year, a dispatcher for the Weld County Sheriff’s Office was working through a routine set of calls, ranging from missing cats and parking ticket warrants to domestic disturbances, drunk drivers and a possibly armed meth-head menacing a neighbor. Then, at 8:48 p.m., came a jarring alert: The Windsor Severance Fire Rescue frequency reported a unit “responding to an explosion at an oil well site.”

It was 32 degrees and clear on Dec. 22, 2017. A thin, fresh blanket of snow covered Windsor, Colorado, an increasingly suburban community about 60 miles north of Denver. The dispatcher’s tones scrambled rural firefighters more accustomed to grass fires and car accidents than an explosion at a hydrocarbon factory. Stress levels skyrocketed as the first responders described the scene over their radios.

“We’ve got oil burning from an oil fracking truck,” one said, reading the operator’s name from a sign: “Extraction Oil. Extraction.”

“I can see flames about 30 feet in the air, and smoke.”

More than 350 homes were within a mile of the site, and 911 calls from residents flooded the switchboard. The Greeley Police Department emergency call center summed up a report: “Heard big boom. Shook the house. Looks like an oil rig is on fire. Can see flames.”

The first engine laid down two hoses and called for another 2,000-gallon water tender, but the incident commander realized that with so much flammable material, they’d need specialized foam concentrate designed to smother hydrocarbon fires. “Water’s not going to put the fire out,” he said over the radio. “Our best bet is to cool everything around it until we can get foam.”

Karley Robinson, a 25-year-old medical assistant, was playing Dungeons & Dragons at home with her husband and brother when they were shaken back to reality by a huge “boom.” They stepped outside to see the night illuminated, flames shooting skyward, flashing lights rushing to the scene. Robinson figured it was coming from the massive oil and gas site less than a mile away. But then she remembered the well-pad complex, sitting just 130 feet from her kitchen window.

Robinson’s 5-year-old daughter padded up to her parents. “Mommy, is everything going to be OK?” she asked.

Robinson reassured her daughter, “I think everything’s going to be OK.” Still, she called Extraction Oil and Gas, the operator of the exploded well, and left a message: “Hey, I’m right down the street from where one of your rigs blew up.” Even though a different operator owned her backyard wells, she hoped for “some assurance that my house wouldn’t explode.”

It’s a situation that could unfold in any of the dozens of Western communities that have been stampeded by drilling rigs during the latest oil and gas boom: An inferno fueled by toxic, flammable hydrocarbons in backyards, near schools and baseball fields and suburban dwellings. The potential for catastrophe has grown especially high in neighborhoods like Robinson’s. Nearly half of Colorado’s 55,000 active wells are in Weld County, where Robinson lives and thousands more are on their way. Locals call it “Welled County.”

Robinson’s D&D campaign sat abandoned on the kitchen table while she comforted her daughter. But the phone never rang.

When Windsor Severance Fire and Rescue Battalion Chief Todd Vess heard the blast, he thought something had fallen in his basement; that’s how close it sounded. The department’s alert system flashed “oil and gas explosion” on his phone, but at first Vess wasn’t too concerned. Dispatchers received plenty of false alarms regarding drilling sites, especially concerning the fiery nighttime flaring of excess fuel.

Another battalion chief called and told Vess this was the real deal: Flames were consuming an oil and gas site, and a trauma unit was on its way. Vess calmly “prepared for the worst” as more than a dozen neighboring fire districts and regional airport rescue squads converged on the Stromberger well pad with fire engines, water tenders, and trucks carrying firefighting foam. Responders reported flames at least 50 feet high. One firefighter called in for directions and received some deadpan guidance over his radio:

“You’re not gonna miss this, Joe.”

Flames erupt from an Extraction Oil and Gas well site in Windsor, Colorado, after an explosion that injured one worker.
Fox 31/2 News video capture from Dec. 22, 2017

On the well pad site, every oil worker’s nightmare flashed to life with the first terrifying explosion. The crew had been conducting “flowback operations,” probably the most dangerous stage of oil and gas development. After drilling, operators “complete” the well via hydraulic fracturing, or pumping a mixture of sand, water and chemicals at high pressure to release hydrocarbons from tight rock formations more than a mile underground. Afterwards, the fracking fluids, along with other toxic chemicals, dissolved solids and heavy metals flow back to the surface at high pressure. The liquids are sorted, stored and eventually moved off-site. The Stromberger facility, which sprawled across an area larger than eight football fields, contained 19 flowing wells, along with an assortment of other industrial apparatus, much of it filled or flowing with a salty, flammable chemical and hydrocarbon stew.

“Do an emergency shut in. SHUT IN NOW!” supervisors yelled, desperate to ensure that no more oil and gas leaked out and caused an even bigger blast.

“It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”
—Ernie Bouldin, supervisor for one of Extraction Oil and Gas’ contractors

Workers darted around frantically, shutting off valves, with some of them wielding fire extinguishers. Ernie Bouldin, 57, a supervisor for one of Extraction’s contractors, Colter Energy, who was on-site that night, said that the workers’ quick action helped avoid the worst-case scenario. If they hadn’t shut everything down, Bouldin later said, “It could’ve been like an atomic bomb going off.”

Pressurized pipelines popped beneath their feet and heat singed their coveralls on the freezing night. As workers hustled to shut valves before heading to a designated “muster” area, two of them saw a figure silhouetted against the flames. Houston “Ty” Pirtle staggered aimlessly, arms hanging awkwardly by his sides. They rushed over and heard him wheezing through a damaged airway. That’s when the chilling reality sunk in: The explosion had touched one of their own.

Picture Caption: Karley Robinson with her newborn baby outside her home in Windsor. She heard the “boom” and saw the ensuing inferno from the Stromberger well explosion last December.
Ted Wood/The Story Group

Denver media and official reports portrayed the events of that winter night as a quickly contained fire that posed little danger to the public or the environment. But first responder dispatch tapes not made public until now, along with newly released documents and interviews with workers, experts and first responders, paint a darker picture, one of chaos on the verge of catastrophe.

The Windsor explosion highlights what many neighbors wonder: Who is looking out for their safety? Neither the state agency overseeing the oil and gas industry nor the health and environment department conducted an independent investigation of the disaster or its environmental impact. The only fine levied was a small one against an on-site contractor for workplace safety violations. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, or COGCC, issued a “Notice of Alleged Violation” against Extraction in August, which has the “potential to result in a penalty.” But no penalty has been announced. And even as Extraction Oil and Gas acknowledges that it still doesn’t know exactly what happened in Windsor, the company continues to receive approval to drill more wells in even more densely populated towns.

Nevertheless, fallout from the incident continues to ripple across the state, particularly along the Front Range, where drilling rigs are popping up in backyards while brand-new housing developments sprout next to old oil and gas fields. It’s become a rallying point in an intense campaign around a November ballot measure that would require oil and gas wells to be located farther away from homes and schools.

The incident also reminded Robinson, the young mother, that she may have traded her family’s safety for the low cost of their home. Robinson just had her second child in August, a boy born four weeks premature, and now it’s always on her mind.

“I feel like I’m playing Russian roulette with my family,” she said.

Herb Brady, former chief of Windsor Severance Fire Rescue, stands for a portrait in Houston, Texas, where he now works for an EMS vehicle manufacturer.
Jeff Lautenberger for High Country News

In his eight years as fire chief for the city of Windsor, Herb Brady had watched the steady encroachment of oil and gas wells on new subdivisions, and vice-versa. He had become accustomed to gratefully receiving the “baubles and trinkets” the energy companies offered his rural fire department, including expensive gas monitors and financial donations. He thought “fracktivists” bent on shutting down the industry were hysterical troublemakers.

The Stromberger explosion reshaped his worldview.

Now living in Houston, the 55-year-old said he sees how industry money manipulates public opinion and local politicians, projecting a false aura of competence and oversight over “petrochemical plants in people’s backyards.” The industry wields influence throughout Colorado, blocking even modest legislative reforms, pressuring regulators and using the courts to get huge tax breaks and intimidate opponents. Brady now recognizes what he calls his “detrimental reliance” on state and federal agencies that oversee the industry. “I always thought that the COGCC and OSHA (the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration) were on top of things, and all I had to do was do my job.”

Now, he said, “The public has a right to be concerned. It is a dangerous situation.”

For Brady, seeing that firefighters responding that night lacked the necessary protective gear and training underscored just how unprepared rural departments are for an event of this magnitude. “It was just a roll of the dice, the fact that nobody died. We were lucky.”

Ernie Bouldin, oil and gas contractor, now retired on medical leave.
Ted Wood/The Story Group

Right before the blast, the Stromberger crew of 13 “flow-back operations assistants” and three supervisors ticked through their routine rounds, inspecting the wells and aboveground storage tanks, 23 separators, seven combustors and miles of piping around the site. Bouldin, one of the site supervisors on duty, said the workers were “like family” to each other, even as they bitched about the cold and the long hours.

Bouldin, who is on medical retirement unrelated to his oil and gas work, spoke on the record about the explosion; another worker spoke with a promise of anonymity because he still works in the industry. Others relayed through intermediaries that they were told not to speak to journalists, or that they “don’t want to relive it again.” Pirtle and his family did not respond to multiple interview requests, although they did share information publicly as he was convalescing.

Houston Pirtle was known for being a hard worker, the kind you’d want on your team. With less than a year of experience, the 6-foot-tall, 190-pound man was still a “green hat” on the Stromberger site. According to a social media post from his mother, Pirtle had been through some rough patches in his personal life recently, but the Colter job provided stability and good pay (employees typically start at $16 an hour, plus a per diem). The weeks-long blocks of work, sometimes 14 hours a day, were tough, but things were looking up for the 26-year-old, his wife, Rachel Darrah, and their two toddlers.

That night, Pirtle was working in a shack and making hourly rounds to monitor the levels, pressure and temperature readings for the valves, flow-back storage tanks and separators. The generator that powered his shack’s light and a nearby portable heater had been acting up lately. A sensor is supposed to shut the generator down if it detects unsafe gas levels, but it kept blinking off, seemingly at random. Repairmen had repeatedly tried troubleshooting it, but hadn’t replaced it.

The troublesome generator, which was not “spark-proof,” was placed about 10 feet from the trailer, much closer than the 100 feet recommended to reduce fire risk under best industry practices by the American Petroleum Institute. Everyone knew that was a bad idea, but it’s one of the many small concessions that complex sites make to keep running. Elsewhere, a flameless heater, which also was not “spark-proof,” had been moved to within about 10 feet of the flow-back storage tanks to keep a set of pipes warm on frigid winter nights. Wires and pipes weren’t arranged as neatly as usual, creating a high-octane obstacle course. No Extraction employees were on-site, but company spokesman Brian Cain said “an experienced contractor” served as a company representative.

Extraction’s accident report filed with the COGCC does not identify a root cause for the explosion, but the investigations support one theory. According to an OSHA investigative report obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request, a third-party forensic team that Extraction hired after the fact found leaks in piping designed to contain hydrocarbon gas emitted from the flow-back storage tanks. Leaked gas may have pooled in a corner surrounded on two sides by 32-foot-high, flesh-colored sound barriers, trapped close to the ground by an inversion of cold air.

The balky generator went out, possibly because the gas sensor triggered a shutdown. Pirtle’s trailer went dark, so he bundled up to go check on it.

Once there’s a pool of gas, any spark can light it. When Pirtle tried to restart the generator, something — the engine kicking on, two pipes scraping together, a bit of static from a fleece jacket — provided that spark. The tank went up in a fireball in an earth-shaking blast, sending the workers scrambling to protect the site. Smaller explosions set off other fires around the site, threatening to spread into a chain reaction of flame.
“If you don’t shut those off right away, a lot of people are going to die.”

—Ernie Bouldin, supervisor for one of Extraction Oil and Gas’ contractors

Even though the workers trained daily for such an emergency, Bouldin said the true test for any crew only comes in the face of real fire. “None of them ran,” he said proudly. Bouldin, three hours into his 13-hour shift, was 150 feet from the exploded tank. Alert workers darted around to manually close ball and wheel valves to stop the hydrocarbons flowing to tanks and through the miles of pipes around the site. “If you don’t shut those off right away,” Bouldin said, “a lot of people are going to die.”

The blast badly burned Pirtle’s hands and face and seared his windpipe. Two workers carried him away and applied cream from an on-site first aid kit to his second- and third-degree burns, while supervisors kept a running headcount. Bouldin sped his pickup truck through “ungodly” heat and helped hoist Pirtle into the cab. An ambulance met them at the edge of the site to take the injured man to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley.

The rest of the crew was taken to a nearby hotel, where many of the men stayed during their 28-day-on, 14-day-off shifts, for a standard emergency debriefing, then returned to the well pad to meet their worried families.

Bouldin acknowledged that there were “things (Extraction) should have fixed,” but said that ultimately they were small issues. “We wouldn’t have done it if we thought it would have put anyone in danger,” he said.

Jason Brooks, general manager for U.S. operations for Colter Energy, which is headquartered in Canada, said the company would “not reply to any inquiries surrounding the fire.” Extraction spokesman Cain said in an email that the company “considers safety to be our utmost priority and our record of operations in this basin reflects that commitment.”

Even though he’s not in the field anymore, Bouldin still wakes up at night thinking about what happened to his younger co-worker. “He got burned pretty danged good,” Bouldin said. “We were pretty tore up about that.”

Bouldin’s voice faltered when asked if his mind had changed about how the site was managed. “Right now,” he said, “I’d tell you this was unacceptable.”

The GoFundMe page for Houston “Ty” Pirtle, who was badly burned in the explosion.

The Windsor explosion and its aftermath reflect an unnerving aspect of life under the latest — and largest — oil and gas boom to hit the West, whether in Wyoming, North Dakota, New Mexico, Utah or here on Colorado’s Front Range. Over the past two decades, new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques have allowed the industry to access oil and gas locked up in deep shale formations and to cluster multiple wells on single pads. They’ve concentrated these mini-industrial sites closer to communities, taking advantage of laws and regulations put into place during earlier demographic and technological eras. As Colorado’s population has increased from 4.3 million to more than 5.6 million since 1999, the number of active oil and gas wells over the same time period has increased from less than 22,000 to almost 55,000 today — a 150 percent increase.

Picture Caption: Zoom out to view wells in all stages of development and production on Colorado’s Front Range, where most of the state’s 5.6 million people live. Colorado Oil and Gas Commission data compiled by The Denver Post via CARTO

These twin growth spurts mean that large drilling operations and vast residential developments are spreading like competing invasive species, often right on top of each other. Subdivisions near the exploded Stromberger pad sport bucolic names like “Peakview Estates,” “Greenspire” and the ironic “Windmill Homes.” Meanwhile, residents deal with constant thumping sounds, foul smells, industrial lights and toxic emissions from fracking operations a Frisbee-toss away from backyard play areas.

Fearful and frustrated citizens in towns from Lafayette to Loveland and beyond have educated themselves about arcane subsurface mineral rights law while fighting for greater local control. Some cities passed fracking bans, which were overturned by the Colorado Supreme Court. Two months before the Windsor explosion, nine local governments signed a letter to Gov. John Hickenlooper, D, stating: “There is a large and growing consensus that this intensive industrial activity does not belong in residential neighborhoods, near schools or hospitals, or in close proximity to drinking water supplies.”

Even some industry officials have publicly stated that safety issues are getting short shrift. Citing former executives saying that top management had de-emphasized safety considerations, Anadarko shareholders filed a class action suit late last year, claiming the company’s Colorado operations were a “ticking time bomb.”

When Battalion Chief Vess arrived on the scene, small explosions rocked the chilly night as pockets of pressure blew and ignited. The firefighters approached the fire as they would any other, sending firefighters and engines as close to the burning equipment as seemed prudent. The incident commander determined that Engine 1 would be their “line in the sand” at what seemed like a safe distance from the facility.

With flammable fluid still leaking and the danger of re-ignition high, firefighters couldn’t extinguish the blaze with water. So they started calling in specialized firefighting foam from regional responders, companies and local airports.

Extraction employees arrived on-site, urging firefighters to protect the well heads and warning them about new hazards. Firefighters relayed the information to Command. At one point, a “little house” near Engine 7 was Extraction’s “primary concern” because it contained valves that checked the back pressure. “If that goes, all the back pressure’s going to go.”

New events raised more alarms. “The separator is something that’s at high risk,” said a voice on the radio. “We need to get some water on that quickly.”

Smaller explosions continued to go off. A voice broke in over the firefighter frequency, relaying a message from Extraction’s liaison: “We’ve got a serious hazard behind the green heaters on the east side where the real heavy black smoke is coming up. He described those as ‘bombs.’ If they go, then we’re all getting hurt.”

Another explosion, and the tone of the communications took on more urgency. The incident commander took over. “We need to pull our people back. Everybody pull back. We’re going emergency traffic. All units pull back to a safe location. Behind the command post. All units begin clearing out. You guys get your people and your engine out of there, now.”

One of the firefighters wanted to make sure that he heard correctly, because there was no way to remove hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of equipment without sending personnel closer to the burning site. “If you want apparatus, we’re going to have to make another trip back in.”

“That’s negative. Go ahead and just get your people out.”

Two firefighters started to go back in anyway, trying to retrieve equipment. The incident commander ordered them to stop.

“All units, from command,” he said. “We’re abandoning the site. We’re letting it go.”

The Stromberger site as it looks today, after remediation from the 2017 explosions and fire.
Ted Wood/The Story Group


Water tenders and trucks kept arriving, bearing 265-gallon “totes” of foam in 4-by-4-foot tanks and 55-gallon drums, requiring a ratio of 97 parts water to three parts foam. Initially, water supply was tight. It took five minutes to drive each way to the closest hydrant and five minutes to fill each tender, plus waiting time as drivers lined up for their turns. Firefighters called around for a second water source, and at one point sought a highway flare to thaw a frozen connection to a second hydrant. Extraction, which has contracts for emergency water, trucked in more in 18-wheelers.

Uncertain about how soon the fires would be contained and lacking specialized expertise even in well-heavy Colorado, Extraction called in Houston-based Wild Well Control, a company that’s responded to oil disasters from Kuwait to the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A crew mobilized in Texas but didn’t arrive on-site until daybreak.

All night long, firefighters kept a steady stream of foam and water aimed at the facility. Eventually, the abandoned equipment was no longer in danger. Firefighters worked throughout the next morning, monitoring flames that occasionally licked up and popped like bottle rockets.

Firefighters ended up using more than 3,500 gallons of foam. Retired Fire Chief Brady said that figure doesn’t include an undisclosed amount that was rounded up from private sources, including other energy companies like Noble Energy. Windsor Severance Fire only had two totes. “We used pretty much all the foam in northern Colorado,” Brady recalled, leaving many first responders without any on hand after the fire. Replacement foam had to be trucked in from Texas.

The specification sheets for the foams state that they contain anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of some form of ethylene glycol, a major component of antifreeze, plus an undisclosed percentage of “proprietary” materials that contain chemicals known as PFAS, or polyfluoroalkyl substances. Dubbed “forever chemicals,” they are long-lasting in groundwater and of concern to public health officials and oil and gas industry operators alike. They have been notably linked to contamination near Colorado’s Buckley Air Force Base and other military sites.

During the night, a mixture of water and firefighting foam began flowing towards the site perimeter. Firefighters brought earth-moving equipment in to contain the runoff. Brady said that a “caravan” of big trucks brought in by Extraction were loaded with the runoff and carted away. Extraction refuses to say where the material was disposed of, and the state does not require such a disclosure. Extraction’s Cain said in an email: “The material was taken to a licensed commercial disposal facility. That’s all I have to share.”

Ultimately, Extraction Oil and Gas “remediated” the Stromberger site by carting away 406 tons of dirt over a week in April, according to manifests filed with the COGCC. They deposited that dirt in the North Weld County landfill, a clay-lined facility that does not accept hazardous waste. The soil was classified as “Non-regulated solid: E&P Contaminated Soil” on a “non-hazardous manifest.”

That nonspecific description of “Exploration and Production” wastes exemplifies the opaque regulations governing the industry. In 2002, for example, the Environmental Protection Agency reclassified fluids emitted from oil and gas drilling operations as non-toxic waste that did not need to be reported. These wastes include produced water containing multiple contaminants, as well as drilling fluids, stimulation fluids, liquid hydrocarbons and hydrocarbon-bearing soil.

The so-called shale revolution took off, and reclassification soon led to exemption. In 2005, then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s “Energy Task Force” led to legislation that exempted hydraulic fracturing fluids from every major federal environmental law.

Doc Nyiro, environmental protection manager for Waste Management, which operates the North Weld landfill, wrote that firefighting foam-contaminated soil is acceptable at the site. Both the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the COGCC said there is no requirement to report the use of firefighting foam, nor to test for related chemicals when companies dump potentially contaminated soil in landfills.

As one consequence, Health Department spokesman Mark Salley wrote in an email, “The extent of PFAS contamination in Colorado’s groundwater is unknown.”

A screen capture from television news footage shows a Firestone, Colorado, home fully engulfed by flames in April 2017. Two men died and a woman was severely injured in the fire, which was caused by a leak in an underground pipeline.
YouTube Video capture from Denver7

Colorado’s most infamous gas explosion occurred on April 17, 2017, when a leak in an underground pipeline exploded a suburban home in Firestone, less than 25 miles north of the Denver city limits. The blast killed two men, Mark Martinez and his brother-in-law, Joe Irwin, and severely burned Martinez’s wife, Erin.

It was followed by a flurry of “never-again” statements. Though Colorado has not seen another household explosion, natural gas infrastructure continues to pose dangers around the country. In January this year, five workers were killed in an oil well explosion in Oklahoma. In September, explosions linked to natural gas pipelines killed one person and destroyed several homes in three Boston neighborhoods, just a week after a western Pennsylvania town was evacuated for its own pipeline fire.

The Windsor blast is a reminder that the hazard remains high, stoking the fears of communities potentially in harm’s way. According to a 2017 study by the Colorado School of Public Health that analyzed state accident reports, there were 116 reported fires or explosions at Colorado oil and gas sites between 2006 and 2015 — an average of almost one per month. But those numbers only reflect incidents covered by the state’s reporting requirements at the time, which, as the authors noted, were less stringent than those in Utah, a state hardly renowned for its strict environmental rules.

Until recently, Colorado only required companies to report explosions and fires if they resulted in an injury to the general public that required medical treatment, or if there was “significant damage” to a well or equipment, a judgment left to the operator’s discretion.

The authors say the number of actual fires and explosions in Colorado likely would be almost two and half times higher — more than one incident every two weeks — if the state had stronger reporting requirements. They noted: “The increased size and complexity of operations at multi-well pads will likely continue in the future, particularly in urban and suburban areas, increasing the potential risk for those living and working in close proximity to these sites.”
“The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”

—Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission

Todd Hartman, spokesman for the Department of Natural Resources, which oversees COGCC, said, “Any spill or fire is one too many, and we continue to work hard to reduce those events.” Hartman added that with more than 55,000 active wells in the state, 116 accidents is “equal to one event every 1,573,276 well/days,” or days a well is operated. “The volume of activity that occurs without serious incident in such a large and dispersed industry is also worth noting alongside the accidents that unfortunately do at times occur.”

Still, operators have reported more than 40 fires and explosions at oil and gas facilities since the end of 2015, when the Colorado School of Public Health team stopped their data analysis — more than one a month. The incident descriptions are often vague and are buried in the COGCC’s difficult-to-navigate website. Several incidents caused fatalities, including an oil tank battery explosion in Mead a month after Firestone, which killed one worker and injured three.

State oil and gas inspector Mike Leonard, who was on the scene in Windsor that night, says people outside the industry tend to conflate the causes of these oil and gas accidents. “What happened at Windsor is not what happened at Firestone,” Leonard said. “It’s not what happened at Mead.”

Those distinctions may indeed be lost on Colorado communities where wellpads and infrastructure loom over houses and schools. Whatever the cause of individual explosions and fires, keeping neighborhoods safe poses a daunting challenge for under-resourced first responders. “Nobody is really talking much about the low-probability, high-consequence events,” said Don Whittemore, a former assistant fire chief for Rocky Mountain Fire and an internationally recognized expert on disaster response. “Your average Joe Firefighter isn’t prepared for these kinds of events.”

In February 2018, partly in response to the Firestone tragedy, COGCC tightened its reporting requirements to include “any accidental fire, explosion, or detonation, or uncontrolled release of pressure.” A bill to make those agency rules permanent passed the Democrat-controlled state House last session. But industry officials opposed the bill, and the Republican-controlled state Senate killed it.

Concerns about oil and gas development go well beyond explosions. The same gases that fueled the Windsor explosion can also harm human health and the climate.

Methane, a powerful greenhouse gas that warms the planet more quickly than carbon dioxide, can leak during the extraction and transportation of oil and gas. It is often accompanied by volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, a major contributor to the ozone problem in Colorado, where some areas have violated federal ozone health standards for years. Studies from around the country have linked proximity to those emissions with multiple health and environmental impacts, including increased cancer risks and adverse birth outcomes. According to COGCC, there were 17,254 detected leaks in 2017 from compressors, pressure relief devices, pump seals and other sources. (Most were repaired.)

In Colorado, those oil-and-gas-related VOCs aren’t being adequately measured. The Windsor explosion brought that into sharp relief. Detlev Helmig, a scientist at the University of Colorado’s Institute of Alpine and Arctic Research, ran an air-monitoring station in Boulder tracking levels of known carcinogens like benzene and toluene. A Windsor resident emailed Helmig after the blast, wondering if his monitors had picked up anything. If enough gas had leaked to cause a well-pad fireball, they wondered, couldn’t there be toxic levels of benzene in the air?

Helmig was stunned to see sharp spikes in ethane and benzene levels that night, the highest levels measured before or since. “With very, very high certainty,” Helmig said, there was a huge release of gases in the hours before the explosion. Given the wind patterns at the time, the gases most likely came from the direction of Windsor, but because Helmig’s monitor is about 40 miles away from the explosion site — and there’s not a similar monitor closer — the exact source couldn’t be pinpointed.

In August, Boulder County’s funding for Helmig’s monitoring station ran out.

In this case, Helmig believes, what people don’t know can hurt them.

“There’s an expectation that changes in regulations will cause improvements to air quality. But the only way to know is to measure,” he said. The state health and environment agency, Helmig says, “doesn’t seem to have the resources or the interest.”

A well pad near a subdivision in Windsor, Colorado.
Ted Wood/The Story Group, for High Country News


Industry advocates acknowledge the dangers of oil and gas work, but prefer to highlight new technology and training that makes it safer. On Aug. 22, at the 30th annual Colorado Oil and Gas Association Energy Summit in Denver, attendees — some sporting “Frack Yeah” ribbons on their badges — talked up their role as “good neighbors.”

COGA distributed pamphlets detailing more than $9 million in donations from members last year. Executives encouraged giving employees paid time off to volunteer, or paying to maintain schools and libraries.

Yet critics continue to push back. The upcoming 2018 election will allow voters to weigh in on one of the most influential policy measures in years. Proposition 112 would require wells to be at least 2,500 feet from homes, schools, parks and other buildings, a distance that industry says would severely curtail new production in the state, but advocates say will make neighborhoods safer.

Also on the November ballot is an industry-backed measure, Amendment 74. It would regard any government law or regulation that could have an impact on private property values — including basic zoning codes and subsurface mineral rights — as a “taking” that would require governments to reimburse property owners. The environmental group Conservation Colorado wrote that Amendment 74 would “paralyze state and local governments in their capacity to protect the health and safety of citizens.” The Colorado Municipal League, hardly a firebrand on these issues, circulated a memo exhorting its members to defeat 74 because of its “far reaching and potentially disastrous consequences.”

The oil and gas industry has launched an all-out blitz, fighting the setback initiative and promoting the takings amendment, at times using dubious methods — harassing signature gatherers and spending millions of dollars on public relations campaigns. Chip Rimer, senior vice president of global operations for Noble Energy, told the August COGA conference that the 2018 midterms would be “one of the most influential elections for our industry.” He cited a Common Sense Policy Roundtable report predicting 147,000 lost jobs over 12 years if the setback initiative passed, telling attendees to imagine a town the size of Boulder going dark. “If that doesn’t get your blood boiling,” he urged the crowd, “you’ve got to get your passion up.”

Protect Colorado, a political action committee opposing any ballot initiatives that would limit fossil fuel development, had pulled in more than $30 million in 2018 as of early October, and had spent more than $20 million that year in part on radio, television and digital advertising. Extraction has contributed nearly $3 million this year to Protect Colorado, while Noble Energy and Anadarko have collectively contributed more than $10 million.

At the mid-August COGA conference, Colorado’s gubernatorial candidates — Democratic Congressman Jared Polis and Republican State Treasurer Walker Stapleton — both stated their opposition to Proposition 112. Even though Polis famously advocated for stricter controls on fracking in the past, including a 2,000-foot setback, he said the latest measure was “simply the wrong solution for Colorado.”

Often lost in the debate are regulations, or the lack thereof, restricting how close new homes can be built to existing oil and gas infrastructure. In Firestone, the exploded house was built just 170 feet from an unregulated and abandoned gas line owned by Anadarko Petroleum, 20 feet further than the required setback in the town.

In Windsor, new homes are supposed to be 350 feet from oil wells. But Karley Robinson’s home ended up less than the distance of an Olympic swimming pool lap from tank batteries and combustors, due to a setback loophole used by developers and energy companies. “Once the plat is approved, the property owner has the right to build,” said Town of Windsor Planning Department Director Scott Ballstadt. “The setbacks don’t apply to building permits.” The wells, in turn, were approved before the houses were all built, meaning that the oil and gas commission’s setback rules apparently didn’t apply. Even if they did apply, the town setbacks are measured from the wellheads, not other oil and gas infrastructure that can leak or explode. This kind of play by housing developers, many of whom lease their mineral rights to oil and gas companies, occurs throughout the state.

Randy Ahrens, the mayor of Broomfield, a booming burg halfway between Denver and Boulder, couldn’t get the Windsor blast off his mind. Ahrens had spent six years working in oil and gas, but was skeptical of the industry’s impact on his community, which some residents were starting to call “Doomfield” because of the influx of well permit applications. Extraction had been seeking approval to drill 84 new wells in his town; how could he assure residents that what happened in Windsor wouldn’t happen there?

He still hasn’t gotten a good answer. The Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission never conducted an independent investigation, instead relying on an accident report from Extraction that failed to identify a “root cause” for the incident. Instead, the company laid out possibilities for the source of the leak (possibly an open valve or a depressurized tank) and the source of the spark, including a vague mention of “unknown worker activities.” The state accepted the filings.

Asked if Extraction’s self-investigation into the Windsor explosion was sufficient, the COGCC’s Leonard said, “Everything they put in that report lines up with what I saw that night.” He explained that the state primarily wants to ensure that another accident like that won’t happen again; inspectors now know to look for where heaters and generators are sited.

The state agency’s authority is limited, so its investigation and any discipline had to focus on Extraction, not on contractors like Colter that may share blame. Industry insiders say that essentially creates a system of plausible deniability, allowing companies to hire contractors for the most dangerous work. “That’s part of the game that gets played,” says Bouldin, the former Colter supervisor. “They keep their fingers out of it so they can blame somebody else.”

Meanwhile, the Colorado Department of Health and Environment says that the cleanup from any oil and gas fire, explosion or spill is not their responsibility.

None of this offered much comfort to Mayor Ahrens, who emailed Extraction’s inconclusive report to staff and voters alike, vowing to push for more information. “At the end of the day,” he said in an interview, “I don’t think they (Extraction) really know what happened.” At one testy city council meeting, Extraction executives walked out when asked about their safety record.
“I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”

—Broomfield, Colorado, Mayor Randy Ahrens, who tried to keep new wells from being drilled in his city

In response to Broomfield’s concerns, Eric Jacobsen, Extraction’s senior vice president of operations, wrote a letter stating that the company had identified probable gas and ignition sources that might have contributed to the Windsor explosion. “Because it is difficult to pinpoint the exact contributing gas or ignition source as the definitive cause of the incident, we have implemented corrective actions that address all of these possible sources in our operations going forward.” Among those: enhanced supervision of flowback operations, better on-site gas monitoring and new contractor training.

Despite Ahrens’ ongoing concerns, state law makes it difficult for Broomfield to say no to new drilling. After Extraction executives originally told Ahrens that Broomfield could receive a million dollars a year in new revenue, Ahrens says he told them, “I’d pay you a million dollars a year not to drill.”

As of mid-October, the COGCC had approved 71 new wells in Broomfield.

With his family by his side, Houston Pirtle was stabilized at the hospital. Speaking to CBS Denver on Jan. 3, His wife said that Pirtle’s first words when they removed the tubes from his throat were to ask how she was doing. “That’s just who he is,” Darrah said. “(He) wanted to make sure me and the kids were okay.”

Pirtle’s family had to set up a GoFundMe campaign that raised $11,000 to help keep his wife and two infant children afloat as he recovered. Bouldin, the retired supervisor, splutters with contempt when asked about the way Pirtle was treated. “The big leaders of this chain are too cowardly to step up and take responsibility,” he said.

Pirtle’s family got through his initial convalescence with help from the funds they raised. Within months, Pirtle was back in the field, still physically and mentally scarred. A friend said Pirtle is “up and down.”

OSHA investigated the accident, but the agency’s legal mandate is narrowly focused on worker safety issues, not dangers to the public. It’s even more limited because there are no federal safety standards for oil and gas industry workers. Instead, OSHA relies on “best industry practices” collected by the American Petroleum Institute, the industry trade group.

“This doesn’t necessarily mean the best practices,” said Richard “Dean” Wingo, a former OSHA regional manager based in Dallas. “The best practices could be beyond what the industry recognizes, but OSHA is not going to hold them to that.”

Colter Energy, the contractor whose workers were on-site, was ultimately cited for a handful of workplace safety violations. OSHA levied a $7,068 fine, but that was negotiated down to just $3,534 for two “serious” violations: keeping the generator and heater too close to a separator.

According to SEC filings, Extraction Oil and Gas listed $8.8 million in net income in the second quarter of 2018, selling 73,563 “barrels of oil equivalent” per day in crude oil and gas. The company’s top two executives earned more than $25 million each in 2016 after it went public. XOG’s stock value has since halved, but the state has approved applications from Extraction and its subsidiaries for nearly 400 wells since October 2017; the companies have nearly 700 more permits pending.

For its role as operator in the Windsor fire, Extraction escaped without a fine from the federal or state government. It did, however, reimburse 13 local government entities a total of $140,013.02 for more than 20 hours of firefighting and support.

The Stromberger well pad’s neighbors, still reeling from that night, realize that they have to live with the risks or pay a high price to move. Heidi Jette, a mother of five who lives within a mile of the blast, said it helped pierce the industry’s assurances that everything is safe. “When you realize everything that’s out there, it’s just scary,” said Jette. “There’s so much that gets brushed under the carpet. Everyone is kind of in denial.”

In the weeks following the fire, former Windsor Fire Chief Brady said his conscience bothered him. “I’m scared for the firefighters, and I’m scared for these communities,” he said. He began sharing his views, but said that nobody wanted to hear them. “Between the lack of information and the cover-up,” he told himself, “I’m done.”

He doesn’t know what will happen if things don’t change. However, he does know that he no longer wants to be responsible for Colorado’s neighborhood oil rush. “Is this situation really OK with the citizens?” he wondered.

“If it is, well, there you go.”
Help us investigate more stories like this.

Daniel Glick is a co-founder of The Story Group. Previously, he worked for Newsweek for 13 years and has also written for National Geographic, Smithsonian, Audubon, The New York Times Magazine and more than a dozen other periodicals.

Jason Plautz is a journalist based in Denver, Colorado. His work has appeared in Science, HuffPost, 5280, Undark, National Journal, Ars Technica, Industry Dive and Greenwire. He was a Ted Scripps Fellow in Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado.

Glick, Plautz and photographer Ted Wood are members of The Story Group, an independent, multimedia journalism company based in Boulder. TSG produces print and video stories for publications and electronic media, focusing on environmental and resource issues in the West.

Email HCN at editor or submit a letter to the editor.

This coverage is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.

Posted in Fun

Chesapeake Bay Program version 1.0, 35 Years Ago

This is the Chesapeake Bay Program that was voluntary and did not work.

Celebrating 35 Years of Restoration

In 1983, a partnership was born with the signing of the first Chesapeake Bay Agreement


The Chesapeake Bay Agreement is signed on Dec. 9, 1983 by Governors Charles S. Robb (Va.) Harry Hughes (Md.) and Richard Thornburgh (Pa.), DC Mayor Marion Barry and EPA Administrator William Ruckleshaus. (Image by Chesapeake Bay Program)

by Rachel Felver

October 11, 2018

Did you know that the Chesapeake Bay Program celebrates its 35th anniversary this year? On December 9, 1983, the governors of Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania, the mayor of the District of Columbia, the chair of the Chesapeake Bay Commission and the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency met at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia to sign a one-page pledge that recognized that a cooperative approach was necessary to address the pollution issues that plagued the Chesapeake Bay.

This one-page document became the original Chesapeake Bay Agreement, which established the Chesapeake Bay Program liaison office in Annapolis, Maryland. It also formed the Chesapeake Executive Council, dictating that this group would meet annually to “assess and oversee the implementation of coordinated plans to improve and protect the water quality and living resources of the Chesapeake Bay estuarine systems”.

Keep an eye on the Chesapeake Bay Program’s blog and social media accounts this fall, as we continue to look back at the history that made this program what it is today.

About Rachel Felver – Rachel is the Director of Communications for the Chesapeake Bay Program. She has the experience of growing up in a headwaters state – Pennsylvania – and is now living life right next to the Bay in Maryland. After obtaining her masters’ in environmental policy and management from the University of Pittsburgh, she spent almost nine years with the Environmental Protection Agency before a stint with the National Aquarium. Her favorite Bay activities include paddleboarding and taking her dog swimming.

Posted in Chesapeake Bay, Governance, politics

Doctors Can’t Do Math

[Frankly, I’m getting a bit impatient with the number and variety of problems in the medical professions that seem to stem directly from the inability — even refusal — to address the self-generated errors that practitioners inflict on patients.

At least a decade ago I remember reading a similar article about the inability of doctors to understand basic statistics — in one example, 80% of doctors defined the significances of “percentiles” wrong.

So here we are a half-a-generation on, and they still don’t “ … acknowledge the gaps in our understanding,” as Dr. Morgan notes in his last paragraph. . . . . Couldn’t we make doctors pass a humility test before they can practice, and then have to renew it every five years? bp]

What the tests don’t show

Doctors are surprisingly bad at reading lab results. It’s putting us all at risk.

By Daniel Morgan
October 5, 2018

The man was 66 when he came to the hospital with a serious skin infection. He had a fever and low blood pressure, as well as a headache. His doctors gave him a brain scan just to be safe. They found a very small bulge in one of his cranial arteries, which probably had nothing to do with his headache or the infection. Nevertheless, doctors ordered an angiogram to get images of brain blood vessels. This test, in which doctors insert a plastic tube into a patient’s arteries and inject dye, found no evidence of any blood vessel problems. But the dye injection caused multiple strokes, leading to permanent issues with the man’s speech and memory.

That case, recounted in JAMA Internal Medicine three years ago, is no surprise. As a doctor in a large urban hospital, I know how much modern medicine has come to rely on tests and scans. I review about 10 cases per day and order and interpret more than 150 tests for patients. Every year, doctors in this country order more than 4 billion tests. They’ve gotten more sophisticated and easier to execute as technology has advanced, and they’re essential to helping doctors understand what might be wrong with their patients.

But my research has found that many physicians misunderstand test results or think tests are more accurate than they are. Doctors especially fail to grasp how false positives work, which means they make crucial medical decisions — sometimes life-or-death calls — based on incorrect assumptions that patients have ailments that they probably don’t. When we do this without understanding the science of risk and probability, we unacceptably increase the chances of making the wrong choice. In the worst cases, as with the man whose angiogram caused otherwise avoidable strokes, we increase the odds of unnecessarily putting patients in danger.

The first problem that doctors (and thus, patients) face is a basic misunderstanding of probability. Say that Disease X has a prevalence of 1 in 1,000 (meaning that 1 out of every 1,000 people will have it), and the test to detect it has a false-positive rate of 5 percent (meaning 5 of every 100 subjects test positive for the ailment even though they don’t really have it). If a patient’s test result comes back positive, what are the chances that she actually has the disease? In a 2014 study, researchers found that almost half of doctors surveyed said patients who tested positive had a 95 percent chance of having Disease X.

This is radically, catastrophically wrong. In fact, it’s not even close to right. Imagine 1,000 people, all with the same chance of having Disease X. We already know that just one of them has the disease. But a 5 percent false-positive rate means that 50 of the remaining 999 would test positive for it nonetheless. That means 51 people would have positive results, but only one of those would really have the illness. So if your test comes back positive, your true chance of having the disease is actually 1 out of 51, or 2 percent — a heck of a lot lower than 95 percent.

A 5 percent false-positive rate is typical of many common tests. The primary blood test to check for a heart attack, known as high-sensitivity troponin, has a 5 percent false-positive rate, for instance. U.S. emergency rooms often administer the test to people with a very low probability of a heart attack; as a result, 84 percent of positive results are false, according to a study published last year. These false-positive troponin tests often lead to stress tests, observation visits with expensive co-pays and sometimes invasive cardiac angiograms.

In one study, gynecologists estimated that a woman whose mammogram was positive had a higher than 80 percent chance of having breast cancer; the reality is that her chance is less than 10 percent. Of course, women who have a positive mammogram often undergo other tests, such as an MRI and a biopsy, which can offer more precision about the presence of cancer. But researchers have found that even after the battery of exams, about 5 of every 1,000 women will have a false-positive result and will be told they have breast cancer when they do not.

The confusion has serious consequences. These women are likely to receive unnecessary treatment — generally some combination of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy, all of which have serious side effects and are stressful and expensive. Switzerland and France, grasping this problem, are halting and reconsidering their mammogram programs. In Switzerland, they’re not screening ahead of time, preferring to manage cases of breast cancer as they’re diagnosed. In France, doctors are letting women decide for themselves whether to have the tests.

Studies have found that doctors make similar errors with other tests, including those for prostate and lung cancer, heart attack, asthma and Lyme disease. Of course, no test is perfect, and even very careful, statistically sophisticated doctors can sometimes make mistakes. That’s not the problem.

Too many of my colleagues do not understand that many of the tests they rely on are deeply fallible. In a study I published last year with several colleagues, we reviewed the treatment of 177 patients who were admitted to hospitals with a wide range of problems, from broken bones to severe intestinal pain, to see how necessary their tests were, as judged by the latest medical guidelines. We found that nearly 90 percent of the patients received at least one unnecessary test and that, overall, nearly one-third of all the tests were superfluous. When patients receive tests that aren’t needed, there is a reasonable chance that doctors are using the results to make choices about treatment; by definition, these choices have a higher danger of being flawed.

In another paper, from 2016, my colleagues and I interviewed more than 100 doctors to gauge their understanding of the risks and benefits of 10 common medical tests or treatments. We found that nearly 80 percent of our subjects overestimated the benefits. Strangely, the doctors themselves acknowledged this, with two-thirds rating themselves as not confident in their understanding of tests and probability. Eight out of 10 said they rarely, if ever, talked to patients about the probability of test results being accurate.

I have to admit that I, too, sometimes fall prey to overvaluing test results regardless of their probability. Last year, I saw a patient who had problems breathing. His symptoms were typical of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but a test for a blood clot in the lung came back positive. This test has a relatively high false-positive rate, but we still started the patient on a blood thinner, which can treat clots but also has serious risks, such as internal bleeding. Within a few days, another test confirmed that he did not have a blood clot, so we discontinued the anticoagulant, which caused no permanent harm. But things could have gone much worse.

Basic misunderstandings about how tests work and how accurate they are contribute to a bigger problem. Although precise numbers are hard to come by, every year, many thousands of patients are diagnosed with diseases that they don’t have. They receive treatments they don’t need, treatments that may have harmful side effects. Perhaps just as important, they and those around them often experience enormous stress from these incorrect diagnoses. Treating nonexistent diseases is wasteful and often expensive, not only for patients but for hospitals, insurance companies and governments.

Doctors also tend to overuse some tests. In a paper last year, my colleagues and I highlighted some key examples: One was computed tomography (CT), a high-tech scanning technology that is increasingly used in patients with nonspecific respiratory symptoms. In cases with only mild respiratory problems, the test does not improve patient outcomes, and it can lead to false positives. Often, the test shows small lung nodules that can lead doctors to follow up with a high-risk surgical biopsy for cancer — which is very unlikely to be the cause of the symptoms. The scan also exposes patients to radiation, which is a risk in itself; studies have found that between 1.5 and 2 percent of all cancers in the United States are caused by radiation from CT scans.

To be fair, it is not surprising that doctors tend to overestimate the precision and accuracy of medical tests. The companies that provide tests work hard to promote their products. Doctors often think that ordering more tests will protect against lawsuits. Moreover, medical schools offer limited instruction on how to understand test results, which means many doctors are not equipped to do this well. Even when medical students have short classroom instruction in test interpretation, it is rarely taught in a clinic with actual patients.

There is no simple solution. One key step is for doctors to acknowledge the gaps in our understanding and to improve our knowledge of what each test can accurately tell us. Medical schools and professional associations can also do a much better job of educating doctors to understand how risk and probability work. Patients must also play an important role. They should realize that doctors, even quite capable ones, may not fully understand the statistical underpinning of the tests they use. In essence, your doctor may have a blind spot, an unconscious tendency to have too much trust in a test. Being aware of this problem and asking your doctor about disease probability can reduce hassles and anxiety — and sometimes even save lives.

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