Jaeah is a former reporter at Mother Jones. Her writings have appeared in The Atlantic, the Guardian, Wired, Christian Science Monitor,Global Post,Huffington Post,Talking Points Memo, and Grist. She tweets at @jaeahjlee.
One year after a fertilizer explosion in West, Texas, killed 15 people, pinpointing potentially hazardous sites remains tricky.
Jaeah LeeApr. 17, 2014 6:00 AM
Last April 17, an explosion at a fertilizer plant in West, Texas, killed 15 people, injured at least 200, and destroyed dozens of homes, schools, and a nursing home. In the wake of the disaster, we wondered: Can we locate the industrial sites in your community where similar incidents might occur?
The answer to that question, it turns out, is not so simple. Even basic information about sites where hazardous chemicals are kept and what kinds of accidents can be anticipated is tucked away in official documents. Much of that data is not easily accessible due to post-9/11 security measures, making it nearly impossible to get a clear sense of whether you live, work, or go to school near the next potential West, Texas.
Here's what we do know: Millions of Americans live near a site that could put them in harm's way if hazardous chemicals leak or catch fire. The Environmental Protection Agency monitors roughly 12,000 facilities that store one or more of 140 toxic or flammable chemicals that are potentially hazardous to nearby communities. In late 2012, a Congressional Research Service report found that more than 2,500 of these sites estimate that their worst-case scenarios could affect between 10,000 and 1 million people; more than 4,400 estimated that their worst-case scenarios could affect between 1,000 and 9,999 people.
The interactive map below, based on data from the EPA's Risk Management Program, shows at least 9,000 facilities where a "catastrophic chemical release" or what the EPA calls a "worst-case scenario" could harm nearby residents. Hover over any site to see its exact location, the chemicals it stores, and how many accidents it documented in its most recent 5-year reporting period.
According to chemical safety experts, this is the most comprehensive national-level chemical safety data out there. But there's a lot it doesn't tell us.
First, don't let the facilities with no accidents fool you. Before its explosion last year, West Fertilizer's EPA records showed that it had no mishaps. "A lot of facilities, even though they haven't had any accidents, it doesn't mean they aren't capable of [one], and that the damage can't be similar to what we've seen in West, Texas," explains Sofia Plagakis, a policy analyst with the Center for Effective Government's environmental right-to-know program. "It only takes one accident," says John Deans, a former toxics campaigner at Greenpeace.
And if you click on the West Fertilizer Co. plant in West, Texas, you won't see any record of ammonium nitrate, the prime suspect in last year's explosion. (The other suspect was anhydrous ammonia, which the EPA does monitor.) That's because the chemical is not monitored under the EPA's Risk Management Program. Almost every facility on the map above also stores a chemical whose name has been redacted. That information is only accessible if you visit one of 15 EPA Federal Reading Rooms scattered across the country. Basically, the data used to make this map can't be used to predict the next West, Texas-style accident; it couldn't even predict the first West, Texas, accident.
More data is out there, however. To find out more about where ammonium nitrate is stored, try the Department of Homeland Security, which monitors facilities that keep the chemical under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. Yet DHS never knew about West Fertilizer, even though the plant told state agencies in 2012 that it stored 540,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate, about 1,350 times the amount that triggers the reporting requirement. While West Fertilizer didn't report to DHS, it did disclose its ammonium nitrate storage to Texas' emergency planning committee in a federally required report that's meant to help firefighters, hospitals, and other first responders prepare for an accident.
If you're confused, you're not alone. Disparate government data sets and patchy oversight have raised more questions about chemical risks than regulators or citizens can answer. In the wake of the West, Texas, tragedy, the Obama administration promised to address these knowledge gaps and issued an executive order, calling for agencies such as DHS and the EPA to improve their info sharing with state agencies and local responders.
Other organizations have tried to determine which chemical plants pose the greatest risks to nearby residents. In 2011, Greenpeace's Deans and his team set out to find some answers in the EPA data. But publicly accessible risk data doesn't say exactly how close facilities are located to communities, how many people live in those communities, or what kinds of damage an accident might cause. The West Fertilizer explosion destroyed or irreparably damaged three of the town's four schools. Had the accident happened during the day, Plagakis asks, "Did the school know how to get the students out of harm's way?"
Facilities are supposed to report this information to the EPA, but these Offsite Consequence Analyses are not included in the agency's response to public records requests for risk management data. You can access this information at an EPA Federal Reading Room. But you're allowed one visit per month and can only bring a pen and paper. Greenpeace dispatched about a dozen researchers to the reading rooms for this project, Deans says.
When it was done, Deans's team had identified 473 chemical facilities that could put 100,000 people or more at risk. "Of those," they found, "89 put one million or more people at risk up to 25 miles downwind from a plant." In all, Greenpeace concluded, one out of every three Americans was at some risk of being affected by a toxic chemical release from a nearby facility.
Chemical Sites That Put 100,000 or More People at Risk
Still, the West Fertilizer plant, which is in a town of 2,800 people, does not show up on this map. As mounting evidence pointed to ammonium nitrate as the likely culprit in the West Fertilizer explosion, a team of Reuters reporters started looking for other ammonium nitrate facilities across the country to see if they could pinpoint other potentially risky locations. It found hundreds of thousands of homes, hundreds of schools, and 20 hospitals within a mile of sites that store or use the chemical.
According to news reports, there are roughly 6,000 facilities that store ammonium nitrate at levels that should report to Homeland Security. DHS never returned calls to verify this number, and it does not publicize the ammonium nitrate facilities it tracks under its Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards program. Federal law mandates that any facility storing at least 10,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate disclose it to local emergency planning authorities. To track down these reports, you have to ask your state for it. Some states, like Illinois, make the information easily accessible online. Others, like Arizona, have denied public requests to see the the documents. Reuters requested these Tier II reports from environmental, public safety, and emergency response agencies in all 50 states: 29 states released the information, 10 states did not respond or did not have electronic data, and 11 refused altogether.
"The states that declined often wanted us to request information about a specific site," says Ryan McNeill, one of the Reuters reporters who worked on mapping the ammonium nitrate facilities. "They claim that's what the law intended. Our counter was that this is a silly position because it requires a citizen to know about the existence of a site with dangerous chemicals before they can request information. How is the public supposed to know whether a warehouse houses dangerous chemicals?"
Meet the companies battling Obamacare's contraceptive mandate.
Jaeah LeeApr. 2, 2014 6:00 AM
Margot Riphagen of New Orleans wears a birth control pills costume as she protests in front of the US Supreme Court.
Last week, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Inc., the closely watched case in which the Oklahoma-based craft store chain has challenged the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate, requiring insurance policies to cover birth control without a copay. Hobby Lobby's high-profile case may have nabbed most of the headlines so far, but it's far from the only company that's taking on the Obama administration over the mandate.
Since February 2012, 71 other for-profit companies have challenged the ACA's contraceptive mandate in court, according to the National Women's Law Center (NWLC). The majority of these for-profit cases (46 in addition to Hobby Lobby's) are still pending. Jump to the full list of cases by clicking here.
The plaintiffs maintain that the federal government, by requiring contraceptive coverage under the ACA, is infringing on their religious views. Like Hobby Lobby, many of these companies had already covered birth control under their insurance plans, but they oppose the ACA's rules requiring health plans to cover contraceptives including the drug Plan B, which they argue causes abortions. The Thomas More Law Center, a law firm "dedicated to the defense and promotion of the religious freedom of Christians," has filed 11 cases on behalf of 33 plaintiffs against the ACA contraceptive mandate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, the center asserts in an amicus brief supporting Hobby Lobby, protects employers fighting the mandate "from being forced, under threat of ruinous government fines, to fund products and services that violate their sincerely held religious beliefs."
"Forced" is not quite accurate, though, as my colleague Stephanie Mencimer reported last week. An employer doesn't have to provide health insurance to its employees at all; in fact, it's probably cheaper for a company to instead pay the tax that would help subsidize its employees' coverage obtained through the exchanges or Medicaid.
A pro-Hobby Lobby verdict would most immediately affect the at least 22,000 people employed by the companies who brought these lawsuits.
A Supreme Court ruling in Hobby Lobby's favor could have a far-reaching impact, potentially dismantling corporate laws that have long shielded CEOs and board members from lawsuits or paving the way for companies to claim religious exemptions from other federal regulations, as we reported last week. But a pro-Hobby Lobby verdict would most immediately affect the more than 22,000 people employed by the companies who brought these lawsuits, says Gretchen Borchelt, senior counsel and director of state reproductive health policy at the NWLC, which has been tracking the cases. The outcome of many of these cases, she says, may hinge on the Supreme Court's Hobby Lobby ruling.
So who are some of these other companies fighting the Obama administration over the ACA contraceptive mandate?
In Michigan, there's Trijicon, a military contractor specializing in optics equipment for weapons. The company last made headlines in 2010, when it came under fire for stamping references to Bible verses on its combat rifle sights. According to data provided to Mother Jones by the Department of Defense, Trijicon currently holds at least $8.9 million in active contracts with the US military.
In its August 2013 lawsuit, Trijicon claims that the company "and its shareholders have a deeply held religious belief that life begins at conception/fertilization." The company's website states: "We believe that America is great when its people are good. This goodness has been based on biblical standards throughout our history and we will strive to follow those morals." Depending on where the Supreme Court lands on Hobby Lobby, that belief could mean no more birth control coverage for the company's 257 employees, 212 of whom are currently enrolled in the company's insurance plan. Trijicon did not respond to interview requests or emailed questions.
In West Virginia, Joe Holland, a born-again Christian who owns a local car dealership, is taking on the contraceptive mandate in court even while publicly touting his company's support for women. Joe Holland Chevrolet, which filed suit against the Obama administration in June 2013, is closed on Sundays; on Monday mornings, Holland conducts an informal prayer session that's open to his 150 employees. Holland is proud to have women filling positions throughout his dealership, all the way up to the management level. "When we think of women in the automotive industry, most of us see a receptionist or someone behind the desk doing paper work and other behind the scene tasks," says a company webpage created in 2011. "Not at Joe Holland Chevrolet & Imports of South Charleston, WV…At Joe Holland we understand the need for women to feel they are receiving trustworthy information and advice when it comes to service on their vehicle or the purchase of a vehicle."
Ohio-based companies Freshway Foods and Freshway Logistics, a produce processor and distributor run by brothers Philip and Frank Gilardi Jr., are also taking on Obamacare over the contraception mandate. "[A]s the two owners with controlling interests in the two corporations," the Gilardis, who are Catholic, argue in their legal complaint, "they conduct their businesses in a manner that does not violate their sincerely-held religious beliefs or moral values, and they wish to continue to do so."
Some Freshway workers might beg to differ. In 2011, former Freshway employee Lilia Trujillo-Salas sued the company for sexual harassment, after allegedly enduring multiple incidents of "unwelcome sexual comments, sexual innuendo, and physical contact," according to court documents. Trujillo-Salas complained to her supervisors and asked to transfer jobs after a male coworker allegedly held her in a storage room and told her she wouldn't be released until she kissed him. Another time, a coworker allegedly propositioned her for sex. Eventually, Trujillo-Salas was suspended then fired after injuring herself at work. Freshway denied the sexual-assault allegations but settled the case with an undisclosed payout.
"I don't care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel's or birth control."
One company NWLC's Borchelt was particularly surprised to see on the list is Eden Foods, the Michigan-based organic food company, which she says has an "outstanding record of social and environmental responsibility."
The company filed suit against the Obama administration in early 2013, eventually losing its case at the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals. Eden Foods did not respond to interview requests, but when Salon reporter Irin Carmon interviewed the company's CEO, Michael Potter, about the case last April, he argued:
"I don't care if the federal government is telling me to buy my employees Jack Daniel's or birth control. What gives them the right to tell me that I have to do that?…I'm not trying to get birth control out of Rite Aid or Wal-Mart, but don't tell me I gotta pay for it."
This interview, the 6th Circuit's Judge Martha Craig Daughtrey later wrote in her opinion on the case, showed that Potter's "deeply held religious beliefs more resembled a laissez-faire, anti-government screed."
Even after a string of bad press and considerable customer backlash, Potter defended the lawsuit: "We believe in a woman's right to decide, and have access to, all aspects of their health care and reproductive management. This lawsuit does not block, or intend to block, anyone's access to health care or reproductive management. This lawsuit is about protecting religious freedom and stopping the government from forcing citizens to violate their conscience. We object to the HHS mandate and its government overreach."
Borchelt doesn't see it that way. "These companies are not hiring based on the religious beliefs of the workers. Imagine being someone applying for a warehouse position at an organic food company. Why would you ever think, 'Oh, I need to research this owner's religious beliefs to know whether or not I'm going to get access to birth control insurance'?"
Below is a full list of the pending cases, as tracked by the NWLC. Watch this space for periodic updates. Look up individual court documents at the American Civil Liberties Union's website.
New states are recognizing same-sex unions at an astonishing clip.
Jaeah LeeMar. 21, 2014 10:02 PM
Jayne Rowse (left) and April DeBoer talk to reporters outside the Federal Courthouse before a judge heard arguments on their lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Michigan's ban on same-sex marriage and adoption by same-sex couples.
Update, Saturday, March 22, 2014, 5:05pm ET:A federal appeals court has issued a temporary stay of Judge Friedman's ruling until the 26th. That means that the issuance of marriage licenses to same-sex couples in Michigan is suspended until at least Wednesday.
Same-sex couples may soon be able to wed in Michigan, following a ruling by US District Judge Bernard Friedman finding the state's ban on gay marriage unconstitutional. Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has asked the courts to freeze Friedman's ruling while the state pursues an appeal. Since December 2013, courts have also ruled against gay-marriage bans in Texas, Utah, Oklahoma, and Virginia.
The animated map below shows how marriage equality is spreading across the country. Read more about that here.
Female athletes have been trying to break into the Brolympics for years. It hasn't been easy.
Jaeah LeeFeb. 6, 2014 7:00 AM
The 2012 London Olympics were huge for female athletes, with more women competing than ever before in Olympic history. In 1900, just 2.2 percent of Olympians were women; by 2012, that number had jumped to 44.3 percent. This week's Sochi Games will offer even more medal stand opportunities, with ski jump including womenfor the first time since the Winter Olympics began in 1924.
But even while more women are competing in the Olympics today than ever, they're "still not equal in any way," says Eleanor Smeal, president of the Feminist Majority Foundation, a women's advocacy group focusing on issues including sports.The modern Games have carried on a long-standing tradition of keeping women on the sidelines. Weightlifting, boxing, cycling, wrestling, and water polo all were men's-only sports for much of Summer Olympics history, some excluding women for more than a century. The same goes for bobsled and ice hockey, which shut women out for much of the Winter Games' 88-year run. Here's a closer look at each Olympic sport's track record (more after the chart):
"Every new sport has been a fight for years," Smeal says. She notes that even ski jump—which had been the last Winter Olympic sport to exclude women—was the result of a long battle that wound up in court.
Women ski jumpers petitioned to compete in every Olympics since the 1998 Games in Nagano, Japan. (Men have been competing since the Winter Olympics began.) There were lame excuses along the way: In 2005, Gian-Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation and a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), said that women hadn't been allowed to participate in the Olympic ski jump because jumping from high heights year-round "seems not to be appropriate for ladies from a medical point of view."
In 2009, an international group of female ski jumpers sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee in the British Columbia supreme court for gender discrimination. Justice Lauri Ann Fenlon agreed that the Vancouver committee was guilty of discrimination, but asking the IOC to include women's ski jump in the Olympics fell outside of the court's jurisdiction.
"It's old-fashioned, traditional European men who have their extreme sport," said ski jumper Jessica Jerome. "They don't want women diluting it. It's an all-boys' club. It's all bullshit politics."
Two of this year's female Olympic ski jumpers, Jessica Jerome and Lindsey Van—who in 2010 set the record for longest jump (105.5 meters) at Vancouver's Whistler Olympic Park for both men and women (the world record is 246.5 meters)—were among the plaintiffs in the 2009 Vancouver lawsuit. "When it comes down to it, it's a dick-swinging competition," Jerome said in the documentary Fighting Gravity, which publicized the 2009 case. "It's old-fashioned, traditional European men who have their extreme sport," Jerome added. "They don't want women diluting it. It's an all-boys' club. It's all bullshit politics."
Kathy Babiak, an associate professor and director of the Sport, Health, and Activity Research and Policy Center at the University of Michigan, says that in the past, excluding women from an Olympic sport made it harder for those aspiring Olympians to secure the sponsors and funding necessary to hold competitions at the international level. At the same time, the IOC requires that a sport be administered by an international organization before it can be considered for inclusion the Olympic program. "It's a chicken and the egg problem," she says.
Smeal and Babiak note other persisting gender gaps. Not every national Olympic team sends women, and even for those that do, different rules may apply: The Japanese women's soccer team and the Australian women's basketball team flew coach while their male colleagues cruised in business class to the 2012 London Games. That year, men's events outnumbered women's 162 to 132. And women are often subject to a different set of regulations. In Sochi, women ski jumpers will compete in one event, the individual normal hill, whereas men will compete in three. The low share of women in leadership positions on national and international Olympic committees and international sports federations, Babiak and Smeal say, is another reason why, after all these years, women remain underrepresented in the Games.
Beyond that, they say, blatant sexism is still a serious problem, and continues to perpetuate the misconception that women aren't as good at sports as men. Just last month, Alexander Arefyev, who coaches Russia's men's ski jumping team, toldIzvestia: "If I had a daughter, I would never allow her to jump—it is too much hard work…Women have a different purpose: to raise children, do the housework."
"We have to worry that the gains for women in sports, while impressive in the US and the world, nothing is really secure," Smeal says. "We keep making gains, but we have to fight. It's never quite equal."
This article has been revised.
Front page image: Valery Sharifulin/ITAR-TASS/ZUMA Press