How Facebook hosted surge of misinformation and insurrection threats in months leading up to Jan. 6 attack

Facebook groups swelled with at least 650,000 posts attacking the legitimacy of Joe Biden’s victory between Election Day and the Jan. 6 siege of the U.S. Capitol, with many calling for executions or other political violence, an investigation by ProPublica and The Washington Post has found.

The barrage — averaging at least 10,000 posts a day, a scale not reported previously — turned the groups into incubators for the baseless claims supporters of then-President Donald Trump voiced as they stormed the Capitol, demanding he get a second term. Many posts portrayed Biden’s election as the result of widespread fraud that required extraordinary action — including the use of force — to prevent the nation from falling into the hands of traitors.

“LOOKS LIKE CIVIL WAR is BECOMING INEVITABLE !!!” read a post a month before the Capitol assault. “WE CANNOT ALLOW FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS TO STAND ! SILENT NO MORE MAJORITY MUST RISE UP NOW AND DEMAND BATTLEGROUND STATES NOT TO CERTIFY FRAUDULENT ELECTIONS NOW !”

Another post, made 10 days after the election, bore the avatar of a smiling woman with her arms raised in apparent triumph and read, “WE ARE AMERICANS!!! WE FOUGHT AND DIED TO START OUR COUNTRY! WE ARE GOING TO FIGHT...FIGHT LIKE HELL. WE WILL SAVE HER❤ THEN WERE GOING TO SHOOT THE TRAITORS!!!!!!!!!!!”

One post showed a Civil War-era picture of a gallows with more than two dozen nooses and hooded figures waiting to be hanged. Other posts called for arrests and executions of specific public figures — both Democrats and Republicans — depicted as betraying the nation by denying Trump a second term.

“BILL BARR WE WILL BE COMING FOR YOU,” wrote a group member after Barr announced the Justice Department had found little evidence to support Trump’s claims of widespread vote rigging. “WE WILL HAVE CIVIL WAR IN THE STREETS BEFORE BIDEN WILL BE PRES.”

Facebook executives have downplayed the company’s role in the Jan. 6 attack and have resisted calls, including from its own Oversight Board, for a comprehensive internal investigation. The company also has yet to turn over all the information requested by the congressional committee studying the Jan. 6 attack. Facebook said it is continuing to negotiate with the committee.

The ProPublica/Post investigation, which analyzed millions of posts between Election Day and Jan. 6 and drew on internal company documents and interviews with former employees, provides the clearest evidence yet that Facebook played a critical role in the spread of false narratives that fomented the violence of Jan. 6.

Its efforts to police such content, the investigation also found, were ineffective and started too late to quell the surge of angry, hateful misinformation coursing through Facebook groups — some of it explicitly calling for violent confrontation with government officials, a theme that foreshadowed the storming of the Capitol that day amid clashes that left five people dead.

Drew Pusateri, a spokesperson for Meta, Facebook’s newly renamed parent company, said that it was not responsible for the violence on Jan. 6. He pointed instead to Trump and others who voiced the lies that sparked the siege on the Capitol.

“The notion that the January 6 insurrection would not have happened but for Facebook is absurd,” Pusateri said. “The former President of the United States pushed a narrative that the election was stolen, including in-person a short distance from the Capitol building that day. The responsibility for the violence that occurred on January 6 lies with those who attacked our Capitol and those who encouraged them.”

To determine the extent of posts attacking Biden’s victory, The Post and ProPublica obtained a unique dataset of 100,000 groups and their posts, along with metadata and images, compiled by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The Post and ProPublica used machine learning to narrow that list to 27,000 public groups that showed clear markers of focusing on U.S. politics. Out of the more than 18 million posts in those groups between Election Day and Jan. 6, the analysis searched for words and phrases to identify attacks on the election’s integrity.

The more than 650,000 posts attacking the election — and the 10,000-per-day average — is almost certainly an undercount. The ProPublica/Washington Post analysis only examined posts in a portion of all public groups, and did not include comments, posts in private groups or posts on individuals’ profiles. Only Facebook has access to all the data to calculate the true total — and it hasn’t done so publicly.

Facebook has heavily promoted groups since CEO Mark Zuckerberg made them a strategic priority in 2017. But the ones focused on U.S. politics have become so toxic, say former Facebook employees, that the company established a task force, whose existence has not been previously reported, specifically to police them ahead of Election Day 2020.

The task force removed hundreds of groups with violent or hateful content in the months before Nov. 3, according to the ProPublica/Post investigation.

Yet shortly after the vote, Facebook dissolved the task force and rolled back other intensive enforcement measures. The results of that decision were clear in the data ProPublica and The Post examined: During the nine increasingly tense weeks that led up to Jan. 6, the groups were inundated with posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election while the pace of removals noticeably slowed. Removals did not pick up again until the week of Jan. 6, but even then many of the groups and their posts remained on the site for months after, as Trump supporters continued to falsely claim election fraud and press for states to conduct audits of the vote or to impose new voting restrictions.

“Facebook took its eye off the ball in the interim time between Election Day and Jan. 6,” said a former integrity team employee who worked on the groups task force and, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive internal matters. “There was a lot of violating content that did appear on the platform that wouldn’t otherwise have.”

Pusateri denied that the company had pulled back on efforts to combat violent and false postings about the election after the vote. He did not comment on the quantitative findings of the ProPublica/Post investigation.

“The idea that we deprioritized our Civic Integrity work in any way is simply not true,” he said. “We integrated it into a larger Central Integrity team to allow us to apply the work that this team pioneered for elections to other challenges like health-related issues for example. Their work continues to this day.”

The investigation also reveals a problem with the way Facebook polices its groups. Former employees say groups are essential to the company’s ability to keep a stagnant American user base as engaged as possible and boost its revenue, which reached nearly $86 billion in 2020.

But they say as groups have grown more central to Meta’s bottom line, the company’s enforcement efforts have been weak, inconsistent and heavily reliant on the work of unpaid group administrators to do the labor-intensive work of reviewing posts and removing the ones that violate company policies. Many groups have hundreds of thousands or even millions of members, dramatically escalating the challenges of policing posts.

With the administrators themselves steeped in conspiracy theories about the election or, for example, the safety of COVID-19 vaccines, reliable enforcement rarely takes place, say former employees. They say automated tools — which search for particular terms indicating policy violations — are ineffective and easily evaded by users simply misspelling key words.

“Groups are a disaster,” said Frances Haugen, a former member of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team who filed a whistleblower complaint against the company and testified before Congress warning about the damaging effects of the company on democracy worldwide, as well as other problems.

Many of the group posts identified in the analysis fell into what a March internal Facebook report, first published by Politico, defined as “harmful non-violating narratives.” This refers to content that does not break Facebook’s rules, but whose prevalence can cause people to “act in ways which are harmful to themselves, others, or society at large.”

The report warned that such harmful narratives could have had “substantial negative impacts including contributing materially to the Capitol riot and potentially reducing collective civic engagement and social cohesion in the years to come.”

Pusateri declined to comment on specific posts but said the company does not have a policy forbidding posts or comments that attack the legitimacy of the election. He said the company has a dedicated groups integrity team and an ongoing initiative to protect people who use groups from harm.

Facebook officials have noted that more extreme content flowed through smaller social media platforms in the buildup to the Capitol attack, including detailed planning on bringing guns or building gallows that day. But Trump also used Facebook as a key platform for his lies about the election right up until he was banned on Jan. 6. And Facebook’s reliance on groups to drive engagement gave those lies unequaled reach. This combined with the sag in post-election enforcement to make Facebook a key vector for pushing the ideas that fueled violence on Jan. 6.

Critics and former employees say this also underscores a recurring issue with the platform since its founding in Zuckerberg’s Harvard University dorm room in 2004: The company recognizes the need for enforcement only after a problem has caused serious damage, often in the form of real-world mayhem and violence.

Facebook didn’t discover the campaign by the Russia-based Internet Research Agency to spread hyperpartisan content and disinformation during the 2016 presidential election until months after Americans had voted. The company’s actions were late as well when Myanmar’s military leaders used Facebook to foment rapes, murders and forced migrations of minority Rohingya people. Facebook has apologized for failings in both cases.

The response to attacks on the legitimacy of the 2020 U.S. presidential election was similarly slow, as company officials debated among themselves whether and how to block the rapidly metastasizing lies about the election. The data shows they acted aggressively and comprehensively only after Trump supporters had battered their way into the Capitol, sending lawmakers fleeing for their lives.

The ProPublica/Post investigation “is a new and very important illustration of the company's unfortunate tendency to deal with safety problems on its platform in a reactive way,” said Paul Barrett, the deputy director of the Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University's Stern School of Business. “And that almost by definition means that the company will be less effective, because it will not be looking out into the future and preventing problems before they happen.”

The Trouble With Policing Groups

Facebook’s newly vigorous enforcement actions the week of Jan. 6 — which resulted in Trump himself being banned from the platform — marked such a stark contrast from the company’s previous approach that some Trump supporters took to Facebook to complain about the reversal.

“Facebook is Getting Real Brave and Vicious Now,” Jerry Smith, a retired police officer from Missouri who created and ran a group called United Conservatives for America, wrote the day after the Capitol attack. “They Are Removing Tons of Posts From My Groups!”

In a recent interview at his home, Smith said he could not remember writing that message or which deletions prompted his response. He said he opposed political violence and posts that called for it. But he acknowledged it was difficult for him to remove such content as United Conservatives for America’s membership swelled to more than 11,000, with the number of posts surpassing what one person could monitor. The typical group in the ProPublica/Post analysis had more than 1,000 members.

Smith, who showed a reporter that his Facebook account had received 116 violations for breaking company rules, said he found some of Facebook’s policies reasonable but disagreed on how they should be enforced. He posted in United Conservatives for America and other groups at a frenetic pace long before Election Day. As early as the summer of 2020, he warned about alleged Democratic party plans to steal the election and also shared false information about the pandemic, including a video from a conspiracy theorist about the origins of the virus.

“And DEMS Are Pushing For Vote By Mail. Another Way For Them To Steal The Election,” he wrote in August 2020.

In the interview, Smith said he believes that American elections often are rigged and worries that COVID-19 vaccines may be tainted. He has used Facebook groups to share these beliefs with tens of thousands of people — and thinks Facebook’s enforcement of its policies is overly aggressive and a result of political bias against conservatives.

“Are you going to do away with their free speech?” said Smith. “If someone thinks it’s not a fair election … why can’t they have their opinion on whether it’s a fair election or not?”

Facebook Cracked Down Before the Election

Facebook’s problems with groups had long been obvious to company employees, who gathered on a remote video conference in early September 2020 to figure out how to stop groups from spreading hate, violent threats and misinformation as Election Day approached, according to former employees.

Known as the Group Task Force, the new unit they formed consisted of members of Facebook’s Civic Integrity team, the specialized unit charged with protecting elections on the platform, as well as employees from engineering and operations teams who help oversee the contract moderators who review posts flagged by users or by automated systems, former employees said. The goal of the task force was to identify political groups with large numbers of posts and comments that violated the social giant’s rules against hate speech and calls for violence. Former employees involved in the effort said they wanted to apply the platform’s rules while respecting political debate and dialogue.

At the same time, Facebook’s Dangerous Individuals and Organizations team was identifying and removing QAnon groups ahead of the election. The results of the two teams’ actions were striking. All of the more than 300 QAnon groups identified by ProPublica and The Post had been removed by October 2020, when Facebook announced a total ban on the movement, the analysis found.

In the end, the Group Task Force removed nearly 400 groups whose posts had been seen nearly 1 billion times before Election Day, according to a post on Workplace, Facebook’s internal discussion tool. The document later was included in the Facebook Papers disclosed by Haugen to Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Still, members of the task force told ProPublica and The Post that the existence of such a team was an indictment of Facebook’s failure to police groups as part of its normal operations.

“The whole thing of the civic team needing to come in and do the takedowns was not a good state of affairs,” said one employee involved in the task force. “You could make a good argument that this should have already been done.”

On Nov. 5, Facebook banned “Stop the Steal,” a hugely viral group created on Election Day itself that quickly attracted over 300,000 members around a message rooted in attacking the legitimacy of the election. The company cited the prevalence of posts calling for violence and using hate speech in banning the group and all other groups using a similar name.

The next day, Nov. 6, the Group Task Force gathered virtually to celebrate its efforts, former employees said. Days later, a task force member published a Workplace post titled “Some Reflections on US2020” to bring attention to its work.

“Along with heroic efforts from other teams across the company, I truly believe the Group Task Force made the election safer and prevented possible instances of real world violence,” said the post.

But the focus on U.S. political groups and content undermining the election wouldn't last.

A Noticeable Drop in Enforcement

On Dec. 2, Facebook executives disbanded the Civic Integrity team and scattered its members to other parts of Facebook’s overall integrity team, reducing their influence. That resulted in the demise of the Group Task Force. The company also rolled back several emergency measures that had been put in place leading up to Election Day to control misbehavior in Facebook groups.

The Post/ProPublica investigation reveals the result: During the lull in enforcement, hundreds of thousands of posts questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s victory, spread lies about voter fraud and at times called for violence. Meanwhile, the company’s pace of group removals slowed to a crawl, the data analysis shows.

Among the content spreading in groups were videos in which former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn spread false claims of electoral fraud and called for martial law. (Through a spokesperson, Flynn declined to comment.) Another frequent post was a cartoon showing Trump chasing a masked Biden, who carried a bag labeled “election theft” with swing states depicted inside. It was posted more than 350 times in the political groups analyzed by ProPublica and the Post, attracting over 2,500 total likes.

One meme featured a photo of former Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., who rose to fame in right-wing circles by leading a congressional committee’s investigation into the deadly 2012 attack on the American diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, accompanied by the text “If you are ok with rigging an election to win, I am ok with martial law to stop you…” That was posted in groups at least 97 times, garnering over 3,500 total likes. Gowdy has denied saying the phrase.

Another meme showed a photo of Trump winking, with the text “Not Only Can Martial Law Guarantee a Trump Victory, It Also Allows Trump To Arrest Anyone He Wants!” It was posted at least 70 times, generating more than 2,400 total likes. The images and their spread in groups was identified using a CounterAction image analysis tool.

“Everyone needs to make a show of FORCE in DC on the 6th and any congress who doesnt follow the constitution or who doesnt stand up for our president (Pence included) needs to be ’corrected’ by WE the PEOPLE - on the front steps of the state house - for all the world to see!!! THIS IS HOW THE US DEALS WITH HER TRAITORS!!!” read one post from Dec. 27, 2020.

Ten days later, as rioters stormed the Capitol, the ProPublica/Post analysis shows, Facebook began taking down groups at a rate not seen since before the election. An internal Facebook spreadsheet from Jan. 6, which was included in Haugen’s disclosures, contains a section called “Action Items.” The top bullet point was a direction to conduct a “Sweep of Groups with V&I risk” — a term referring to violence and incitement. It had been 35 days since the Civic Integrity team, and with it the Group Task Force, had been disbanded.

Groups Still Active Long After Jan. 6

Months after the Capitol was breached, Facebook still was working to remove hundreds of political groups that violated company policies.

One of those was Smith’s United Conservatives for America, which continued to carry posts attacking the legitimacy of Biden’s election until Facebook removed it in May.

When Smith met with a reporter in his home in early December, he’d just finished a 30-day posting ban on Facebook. In spite of his account’s history of violations, he was still managing at least one Facebook group — also called United Conservatives for America.

Like its predecessor, the new United Conservatives for America group was racking up strikes for violations of Facebook’s rules, according to a post Smith made to the group in September.

That post included a screenshot of an automated message from Facebook informing him that eight recent posts in the new United Conservatives for America group had been flagged by fact-checkers. As a result, the distribution of his group’s posts was being limited.

Smith remained defiant.

“I'm Not Blaming Our Members,” Smith wrote. “I’m Blaming FakeBook!”

In late December, after being asked about Smith’s account and group, Facebook said it banned his profile and removed United Conservatives for America, citing unspecified violations of its community standards.

Methodology

Data analyzed for this article included posts and other public activity collected from over 100,000 public Facebook groups tracked between January 2020 and June 2021 by CounterAction, a firm that studies online disinformation. The data was obtained by ProPublica and The Washington Post.

CounterAction marked Facebook groups for tracking if group members had posted links to U.S. political websites. Additional Facebook groups were then marked for monitoring if they had any members in common with groups already under observation. This process was repeated over the tracking period to identify newly created groups and add them to the dataset.

Many of these groups disappeared from public view during the period of our analysis. To determine when groups focused on U.S. politics within our dataset went offline, we analyzed the more than 5,000 groups that had meaningful activity (more than 10 posts tracked) but that were no longer online as of Aug. 30, 2021. We hand labeled each group as political if its name and description showed that it was created to represent or support a U.S. political interest or group, to be a forum for U.S. political speech, or to represent or discuss a social or cultural movement with a strong connection to U.S. politics (whether national or local). We ultimately found more than 2,500 such groups, including those for and against various parties, candidates and issues across the political spectrum, groups for various kinds of political memes and discussions, and groups for movements such as the QAnon conspiracy theory, militia groups and Stop the Steal.

We then estimated the time of disappearance for each of these 2,500+ offline U.S. political groups using the latest date seen on their posts and other group activity. Based on our reporting and the timing of spikes in group disappearances, which often coincided with Facebook’s announcements of group suspensions, we believe the majority of them were removed by Facebook. However, some may have been deleted or removed from public view by their own administrators. We shared the list of more than 2,500 groups with Facebook and asked them to clarify whether they were removed by the company or taken offline by their own administrators. Facebook did not respond to our questions about these groups or any other of our quantitative findings.

We used these labeled offline groups to predict which of the still-online groups within our sample were also U.S. political groups. We used posts from the offline groups to train a text classification model to predict whether a post was from a U.S. political group and ran it against all the posts from each group in our dataset. We labeled a group as a likely U.S. political Facebook group when the mean prediction for its posts was over 0.5 (1.0 indicates that the model predicts with maximum probability that the post is from a U.S. political group). We used this labeling method to identify over 27,000 likely U.S. political groups with posts between Election Day and Jan. 6. We hand checked a sample of the groups to calculate an estimated proportion of groups that were actually U.S. political groups, and got a precision rate of about 79%.

To count the number of posts that specifically sought to delegitimize the election results, we examined 18.7 million posts from Election Day through Jan. 6 within the likely U.S. political Facebook groups. We separated out posts from groups with “Stop the Steal” in their name and calculated which keywords and phrases were disproportionately common in posts from those groups using a text-analysis technique called TF-IDF. Then, we handpicked the terms and keywords that were meaningfully linked to election delegitimization theories (e.g., “stop the steal,” “steal the election,” “every legal vote”). We had about 60 terms that indicated delegitimization on their own, plus 86 more in two buckets that, if terms from both buckets were present, indicated delegitimization (e.g., a reference to absentee ballots on its own did not indicate delegitimization, but a reference to “absentee ballots” and “fraud” did). We identified around 1.03 million posts that likely referenced delegitimization. Finally, we hand-checked a sample of these posts to estimate the proportion that actually sought to delegitimize the election, and got a precision rate of about 64%. (False positives included mainstream news articles, debunks of fraud claims and references to other countries’ elections.) We arrived at our final estimate of delegitimizing posts by multiplying the two together, to get an estimate of a bit more than 655,000.

Due to CounterAction’s sampling method, the groups we analyzed likely contain a greater proportion of right-wing groups than the platform as a whole. The activity of the right-wing groups we analyzed matches with the findings of our reporting, and group activity in our sample coincided with Facebook’s public announcements about group removals. However, we would need additional outside data to analyze whether groups in our sample are representative of the broader platform. We sampled and checked precision rates in our analysis based on a 5% margin of error and 95% confidence level.

New interviews shed light on the migration of fringe election conspiracies into the mainstream

Nearly a year after an angry mob swept through the U.S. Capitol, ProPublica, Berkeley Journalism’s Investigative Reporting Program and FRONTLINE will air an updated edition of the documentary “American Insurrection” on Tuesday.

The feature-length film, which follows right-wing extremists in the days leading up to the Jan. 6 assault, originally aired in the spring of 2021.

Now, with investigations into the attack still ongoing, the updated documentary draws on fresh interviews with law enforcement sources, congressional leaders and extremism experts to reassess the day’s events and to look to the future.

The new reporting tracks the migration of fringe beliefs into the mainstream and the enduring power of conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. At rallies around the country, correspondent A.C. Thompson found a growing movement intent on overturning the 2020 vote and altering the course of future elections.

The updated film showcases recently released footage of FBI agents interviewing Daniel Rodriguez, a California man accused of shocking a police officer with a stun gun during the battle for the Capitol, among other charges. “We felt that they stole the election,” Rodriguez said under questioning. “We felt that they stole this country — it’s gone. It’s wiped out. America’s over. It’s destroyed now.”

Rodriguez has pleaded not guilty.

In a new interview, Capitol Police Officer Harry Dunn said the men and women who stormed the building believed they were acting on the orders of then-President Donald Trump — and told police as much while the melee was unfolding. “They were there because Donald Trump sent them — according to them,” he said.

“My No. 1 thought was just to survive,” Dunn recalled. “We were fighting for our lives, fighting for democracy.”

In another new scene, Thompson asks Mary McCord for a status update on the militant groups implicated in the attack on the Capitol — the Proud Boys and militia organizations like the Three Percenters and Oath Keepers. “Within days, literally days, they started finger-pointing. Some dissolved. Some reconstituted themselves,” said McCord, who serves as legal counsel to the congressional committee investigating Jan. 6 and previously held a top counterterrorism role at the Department of Justice.

However, noted McCord, who also leads a legal clinic at Georgetown University’s law school, the movement that sought to reverse the 2020 vote is by no means dead. She pointed to recent polling indicating that tens of millions of Americans continue to believe that the 2020 election was plagued by widespread fraud as well as the vast amount of disinformation already circulating online about the next round of elections, in 2022.

The updated “American Insurrection” premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. EST, 9 p.m. CST, on PBS stations (check your local listings) and will be available to stream on FRONTLINE’s website, YouTube and the PBS Video App.

When dangerous strains of salmonella hit, the turkey industry responded forcefully. The chicken industry? Not so much.

It wasn’t the hog nuts that made people sick. Nor was it the deer heart and noodles, elk meatloaf, turtle stew or any of the other fare served at the Swisher Men’s Club wild game feast in eastern Iowa in February 2019.

Matthew Arjes, an avid hunter, had gone to the event with some friends. It was for a good cause — the group raffled off rifles and fishing coolers to raise money for the local fire department.

But two days later, Arjes woke up with cold sweats and started vomiting. His fever spiked to 104 degrees. Drifting in and out of consciousness, Arjes spent the next four days in the hospital, battling salmonella and a life-threatening complication from the infection known as sepsis.

“It was the closest to death that I’ve been,” said Arjes, then 32.

Arjes was one of 115 people who reported illnesses after the dinner in Swisher, which is between Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, so state and local public health investigators interviewed victims and tested leftovers. The source of the food poisoning, they found, was the most ordinary thing on the menu — turkey, bought at a supermarket and smoked at somebody’s home for the event.

“Go figure,” Arjes said. “It’s a wild game feed dinner. There’s pretty much anything you can think of there, and the thing that got most people sick was turkey.”

The event would turn out to be part of a nationwide outbreak of a rare type of salmonella known as Reading — except that this strain was far more virulent and less responsive to antibiotics, and it spread like wildfire through the turkey industry from 2017 to 2019. The outbreak led to recalls from grocery stores and to clusters of illnesses linked to potlucks like the one Arjes attended.

But it could have been far worse.

This fall, ProPublica reported that another strain of salmonella, known as multidrug-resistant infantis, has been running rampant through the chicken industry for nearly four years, sickening tens of thousands of people. The unchecked spread of infantis exposed stark gaps in the authority of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which has little power to stop dangerous strains of salmonella from making people sick.

The Reading outbreak in the turkey industry underscored some of the same weaknesses in our food safety system, but the response to Reading offers a clear view of some potential fixes — and why they won’t be easy.

What made the critical difference was the turkey industry’s decision to take it upon itself to hunt down the virulent strain. The National Turkey Federation immediately formed a salmonella task force to fight Reading and developed a strategy that involved vaccination of breeding flocks, increased sanitation of turkey barns and changes in processing plants to reduce cross-contamination. Critically, several turkey companies also enlisted the help of outside researchers to better understand the strain’s seemingly sudden transformation.

It was a striking contrast to how the chicken industry has responded to infantis. The National Chicken Council has met with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention several times to discuss infantis, but the CDC says the trade group has shared little with the agency about what it knows about the strain and its efforts to eradicate it.

“The industry runs the show on what information gets shared and what they are doing to clean up a problem,” said Thomas Gremillion, food policy director at the Consumer Federation of America. “We are at the whim of the industry and what they calculate is damaging to profits and what makes sense to deal with from a business perspective.”

So, while infantis has continued to proliferate in the chicken industry, the rate of Reading found in turkey during routine USDA sampling has gone down 73% since 2018, a ProPublica analysis found. And reports to the CDC of people getting sick from the strain have fallen by 65% compared with the outbreak period.

The U.S. chicken industry, led by some of the largest food companies in the world, has the size and political power to withstand the pressure of a public health crisis in its product. By contrast, the turkey industry remains relatively tightknit with top players who, while part of bigger food processors, remain primarily identified with turkey. It’s an industry whose image — and economic interest — has been carefully wrapped in the wholesomeness of annual holiday gatherings, while the chicken industry has pushed its way into almost every corner of the American diet.

There are also vast differences in scale and the logistics of solving the salmonella problem. The U.S. produces more than 9 billion chickens a year across more than 25,000 farms and 200 processing plants. In comparison, the country produces about 225 million turkeys a year (40 times fewer) across 2,500 farms and 40 plants.

The USDA’s response to the outbreaks has been different too. After the CDC opened its Reading investigation, the USDA immediately notified the public of the outbreak and later released a review of its efforts. But almost four years into the infantis outbreak, the USDA still hasn’t said anything to consumers about infantis, which has become the most common type of salmonella found in chicken and is one of the biggest public health threats in a product the agency regulates.

The USDA didn’t respond to questions seeking comment for this article. But this year, senior public health officials at the agency told ProPublica that because they couldn’t link infantis to a single chicken product, they concluded there was nothing they could tell consumers that would be helpful.

The National Chicken Council told ProPublica that the industry has worked to address infantis, and the group provided a list of steps that companies take to control salmonella in general, including vaccinating breeding flocks against some strains. But it couldn’t identify many changes the industry has taken to address infantis specifically or industry efforts to research the strain.

The strains of infantis and Reading have a lot in common. Both seem to have emerged out of the blue, and by 2018, they had infected so many people that the CDC declared them outbreaks. Unlike most outbreaks that are tied to a specific product or processing plant, both strains became widespread in the supply chain, affecting dozens of companies. And both are resistant to multiple antibiotics, though infantis is far more difficult to treat.

The two strains also revealed that consolidation in the poultry industry, already a concern for business regulators, may be a public health problem, too. Following a string of acquisitions and partnerships in the past few decades, nearly all the chicken and turkey that the world eats now descends from birds bred by two chicken companies and two turkey companies. According to researchers, that concentration in poultry breeding appears to be leading to global epidemics of foodborne illness.

Yet regulators in the U.S. don’t have the power to focus their efforts further up the supply chain, food industry consultant Mansour Samadpour said. “There’s plenty of chances for salmonella to creep in at different stages,” he said, “but if it’s happening at the very top, then it's a huge problem.”

The pervasive nature of Reading intrigued Tim Johnson, a poultry microbiologist at the University of Minnesota. In mid-2018, he began getting calls from veterinarians, farmers and others in the turkey industry. Something strange was happening. And they needed his help.

“I distinctly remember the first day that one of the vets from one of the companies came over and in not so many words told me, ‘We have a big problem on our hands,’” he said.

The proportion of Reading found in the company’s internal salmonella tests had more than doubled from a couple of years earlier, the veterinarian told him. People were starting to get sick from it. And they couldn’t figure out how to get rid of it. Some turkey farmers had resorted to tearing down barn walls and replacing them because they were still finding the bacteria after thorough cleaning.

Representatives from several companies came to the laboratory that Johnson worked out of in Willmar, Minnesota, in an old Spanish Colonial-style mental hospital that had been remade into a biotech center.

Up until then, Reading — which was first isolated in Reading, England, in 1916 — had been considered relatively benign. It had caused an outbreak in the U.S., mostly among children, in 1956-57, but since then, outbreaks had been rare.

The new strain was especially causing problems in ground turkey, where salmonella in general is found much more frequently. While USDA inspectors rarely detect salmonella in whole turkey during testing, last year they found it in 18% of ground turkey samples.

The companies wanted to know what was different about this Reading strain than the ones they’d seen in the past, Johnson said, and if there was something different, what could they do about it?

“I think it really opened their eyes to say we have to act on this as quickly and efficiently as we can and do more than we’ve done in the past to respond to it,” he said.

When he was younger, Johnson wanted to become a doctor, but a course in college got him hooked on studying disease-causing bacteria and led him to become a microbiologist. And having grown up in the state’s turkey-producing region in west-central Minnesota, Johnson knew turkey growers and kids who worked on poultry farms.

“As I got older and started to see how the family farm seemed to be going away,” he said, “it really got me interested in how could I take what I know and what I do and apply that to work that would benefit farmers.”

So when the opportunity arose to come back home to the area and focus his research on turkeys, Johnson, 44, jumped at the chance. Johnson, who prefers casual clothes and work boots to the tucked-in button-downs of the stereotypical professor, quickly gained the trust of the region’s turkey farmers. He spent a sabbatical year working at a company that makes feed additives for turkeys and visiting farms to better grasp the challenges they faced with bacteria like salmonella.

To Johnson, investigating Reading was the kind of project the lab was designed for. Surrounding the campus is an expanse of farmland that’s home to more than 100 turkey operations.

The research would result in the development of a tool to identify new and risky strains of salmonella on farms and to stop them before they lead to outbreaks.

But first Johnson had to answer a question that puzzled him: How could a strain of bacteria come out of nowhere and sweep through the entire industry?

After the on-campus meeting, companies started bringing petri dishes streaked with salmonella to the lab in Willmar.

Johnson’s first task with Reading was to test some of the theories that had farmers and turkey companies spinning their wheels. His team found, for example, that this strain wasn’t any more resistant to the disinfectants used to clean barns than other salmonella. Nor was it any better at forming biofilms, which are kind of like slimy force fields that help bacteria stick to surfaces and make them harder to kill.

There was nothing about the barn environment that was causing the problem, Johnson said. Something else was going on. And to find it, they’d have to extract the bacteria’s DNA and examine its genome.

The turkey industry’s response to Reading differed from the chicken industry’s reaction to infantis almost from the beginning, when the two strains were identified in raw pet food.

A year before the wild game feast, a 2-year-old girl and her 4-year-old sister tested positive for salmonella. The 4-year-old’s infection was so severe that it had spread to her bones.

The girl’s parents had no idea how their daughters had gotten food poisoning, but investigators believe they might have picked the bacteria up while playing with the family dog, who was fed raw turkey pet food that contained the same strain of Reading that had made the girls sick.

While the USDA regulates meat and poultry, the Food and Drug Administration oversees almost all other foods, including pet food, and the FDA quickly announced a recall of the tainted dog food.

Within two weeks, the turkey industry responded. At its annual convention in February 2018, the National Turkey Federation recommended that its members stop supplying turkey to producers of raw pet food unless the companies had a way to kill the bacteria. The infantis strain had also spurred a raw dog food recall, but the chicken industry hasn’t told its members to stop working with the makers of what public health officials consider a potentially dangerous product.

“Having a bowl of raw meat on your floor is a bad idea, especially if you have kids,” said Carlota Medus, head of the foodborne diseases unit at the Minnesota Department of Health. “Your dog is not using utensils. They’re putting their face in their food. And then that face goes everywhere. So you’re basically going to cross-contaminate your kitchen, your living room, your hands.”

But the case was far from closed. There were two other Reading cases in Minnesota, and neither had a link to the dog food.

Medus’ team of epidemiologists had noticed small clusters of the strain popping up as far back as 2015. The new rise in Reading cases added to the mystery. Perhaps if they could trace back where the pet food company bought its turkey, they’d find a common supplier. But they couldn’t connect the dots.

So they searched a national database of foodborne bacteria samples, known as isolates. “And when we did that, we realized that there were highly related isolates all over the country,” Medus said.

Medus called the CDC’s outbreak response team.

A few months later, in July 2018, Lisa Wallenda Picard was in the middle of the turkey federation’s Summer Leadership Conference when the trade group got a call from the CDC, which was due to deliver an annual update to the industry. Executives from nearly every major turkey company were in a room at a Washington, D.C., hotel awaiting the presentation.

“As the CDC was getting ready to talk to us, we got a phone call that, ‘By the way, we’re gonna have to tell you guys there’s an outbreak,’” recalled Wallenda Picard, the group’s senior vice president of policy, trade and regulatory affairs. “And we’re like, ‘What?’ And I like to think I didn’t say any other words, but that’s probably not accurate.”

Medus’ tip to the CDC had checked out. Reading wasn’t just a problem in raw dog food. It was sickening people who’d eaten whole turkey and ground turkey and who worked in turkey plants.

As disturbing as the news was, it came at a fortuitous time, said Wallenda Picard, who perhaps fittingly comes from a famous family of tightrope walkers known as the Flying Wallendas.

“Everybody who needed to be there was literally in the room,” she said. “And we basically locked the doors and said: ‘All right, what the heck are we gonna do, people? This is a big deal.’”

Starting at that meeting and over the next several weeks, the turkey federation worked with public health experts and regulators to hammer out a list of more than 100 potential strategies from the hatchery to the grocery store to prevent salmonella.

The turkey industry could have chosen to ignore the outbreak. Neither the USDA nor the CDC have much power to make companies cooperate or to reduce salmonella.

But as a smaller sector with a narrower variety of products, the turkey industry faced greater risk from consumer pressure than the chicken industry did from infantis. “As a result of that, outbreaks, recalls really impact them more significantly,” said Brian Ronholm, food policy director for Consumer Reports. “And so there’s more of a collective approach to tackle the problem.”

As the industry began devising a plan, the Reading outbreak continued to grow. Health and agriculture officials in Arizona and Michigan collected packages of Jennie-O ground turkey from victims’ homes. Both tested positive for the outbreak strain.

The findings led Jennie-O Turkey Store to voluntarily recall about 310,000 pounds of ground turkey. The two recalls coming just days before Thanksgiving and Christmas created an image crisis not only for the brand, which is owned by Hormel Foods, but for the turkey industry as a whole.

“In the public realm, Jennie-O got blamed for a lot of this when, in fact, it was not solely their fault,” Johnson said. “The industry definitely realized that we’re all at risk here, not just a specific company.”

The USDA knew that Jennie-O wasn’t the only company with the Reading strain. Its inspectors had found the strain at plants owned by nearly all of the country’s major turkey producers. State health officials had found it in turkey products being sold at supermarkets under several different brands. And Canada had announced its own Reading outbreak, noting that none of the products recalled in the U.S. had been imported or distributed in the country.

But under the USDA’s rules, finding an outbreak strain in poultry plants wasn’t enough to recommend a recall. Nor was it enough to find it in raw meat on store shelves. It had to be tied to a specific patient who was already sick.

So, the outbreak continued.

The night of the Swisher Men’s Club wild game feast, about 225 people crowded into the American Legion hall in Swisher, sitting at long banquet tables. Most of the food on the menu had been hunted, trapped or caught. There were goose kabobs and rabbit sliders, pheasant Alfredo and even raccoon. But the club had also purchased about 20 turkey breasts from a supermarket.

The menu didn’t faze Matthew Arjes. This was his third year going to the dinner. He had a plate of venison, fish and smoked turkey and tried the Cajun turtle.

The next day, he started feeling sick. “About 8 to 10 o’clock the following morning, I knew it wasn’t simple food poisoning,” said Arjes, who installs medical and dental equipment for a living. “It was full-fledged flu-like symptoms, extremely high fever, cold sweats, vomiting, diarrhea — the worst you could pretty much imagine.”

At the hospital in Cedar Rapids, Arjes was admitted to the intensive care unit. After the second or third day, he asked a nurse if he was going to live. “She’s like, ‘Well, we’ll just see how you feel,’” he recalled.

Arjes eventually recovered but was so fatigued from his bout with salmonella that he missed a month of work.

The Swisher Men’s Club worked with the state Health Department to identify the cause. Mike Brown, the group’s president, declined to comment but said the club decided to discontinue the game feast and host a catered banquet instead.

State investigators blamed cross-contamination and improper cooking, noting that a club member had only tested the temperature of half the smoked turkeys before putting them back into the same coolers that had been used to thaw and brine the raw turkeys.

Investigators also traced the turkey to a company that hadn’t been involved in the previous recalls. They notified the USDA, giving the agency another opportunity to take action to protect the public from Reading. Now that it knew the brand, the USDA could have issued a public health alert. Pulling the contaminated meat from stores would have required more evidence. But state records show the USDA “did not feel any regulatory actions were necessary” given the poor food handling.

The CDC closed its investigation into the nationwide Reading outbreak in April 2019, noting that 358 people had been infected and 133 hospitalized, including one person who died. But because the CDC estimates that for every confirmed salmonella case, about an additional 30 are never reported, more than 10,000 people had likely been infected by the outbreak. And since the strain was widespread, the CDC noted that “people could continue to get sick.”

Nearly a year and a half into the outbreak, it was clear that the source wasn’t the slaughterhouses. Just as in the infantis outbreak, it was somewhere higher in the supply chain in the turkey barns, feed mills or hatcheries. But the USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, whose 8,700 employees are charged with ensuring meat and poultry is safe, doesn’t have the power to regulate or investigate salmonella on farms.

“One of the things that was really frustrating during this investigation was to see very clearly the limits of FSIS’ authority,” Medus said. “I mean something happened, and if something happened, it could be something that we can take action on to get this under control. But basically the response we were getting was: ‘Well, this reaches the limits of our authority. This is as far as we can take it.’”

The story of Reading could have ended up like the ongoing infantis outbreak — if not for the turkey industry’s work with Johnson. By looking at the genome, Johnson’s team was learning a lot about the Reading strain.

After samples of the bacteria had been sequenced at the lab in Willmar, Elizabeth Miller, a research scientist at the campus in St. Paul, began analyzing the genomic data in early 2019, looking for mutations that might explain how Reading had become so dangerous.

She gathered data on nearly 1,000 other Reading samples going back nearly 20 years and began mapping the evolution of the strain.

Reading had indeed changed. The strain had acquired a virulence gene that made it more invasive to humans. It then developed another mutation that made it better at fighting other bacteria in turkeys’ guts, a process known as “microbial warfare.” As the new version of Reading emerged, it picked up genetic elements called plasmids that contained genes that gave it resistance to several antibiotics.

Armed with this information, Johnson’s team tested the strain in the lab and confirmed what it had seen in the genome.

Studying the findings, the researchers concluded in a paper last year that the new Reading strain had to have come “from a common source, likely through supply birds at the top of the genetic breeding pyramid.”

Johnson noticed that the timing of the strain’s emergence coincided with an outbreak of bird flu that had decimated turkey breeder supplies in the Upper Midwest in 2015. Early that year, at a 15,000-bird breeder farm in Minnesota, turkeys were found gasping, spastically arching their heads and necks and flapping their wings. Within days, more than 70% of the birds died. The disease quickly spread to hundreds of farms, according to other University of Minnesota researchers, affecting about 50 million chickens and turkeys across the country.

“All of a sudden they had to replace everything all at the same time,” Johnson said. And because of the timing and small number of companies supplying the breeding stocks, the new Reading strain spread quickly through the turkey industry.

The theory about Reading’s origin was one in a series of recent findings linking the concentration of breeders to outbreaks. This summer, University of Georgia researchers traced the worldwide spread of another type of salmonella to the international trade of chicken breeding stocks. And the CDC has pointed to breeding flocks as a potential source of the infantis outbreak.

Cobb-Vantress, a chicken breeder owned by Tyson Foods, said in a statement to ProPublica that it had “significant questions on the approach taken by the studies and the validity of the conclusions drawn.” But the company didn’t detail its concerns. Aviagen, the other major chicken breeder, declined to comment. And neither of the major turkey breeders, Hendrix Genetics and Select Genetics, which is owned by Aviagen and Life-Science Innovations, responded to calls or emails seeking comment.

Johnson’s findings not only provided a probable origin story. It also presented an answer for how to defeat the strain.

“It turns out the only way to really control it was to get rid of it from within the birds,” he said. That meant vaccines and other measures “to ensure that if we get a positive flock, we don’t allow that to be spread to other flocks,” he said.

Some turkey companies had already taken desperate measures to stop the spread, euthanizing entire breeding flocks. It’s a practice that’s almost unheard of in the U.S. because of the cost but commonly practiced in some European countries to fight salmonella.

“That’s the point they got to in some of these companies, where they just didn’t have a choice anymore,” said Johnson.

The aggressive measures, along with intense surveillance and a vaccine breakthrough, would help turn the tide of the outbreak.

Inside Confinement Rearing Room 19 at the University of Minnesota’s Poultry Teaching and Research Facility in St. Paul, the 6-week-old turkeys chirped softly in their pens. Anup Johny, a food safety microbiologist, opened a wire-cage door to one of the pens, knelt in the wood shavings and cradled one of the birds.

The size of footballs and covered in white feathers, the turkeys were test subjects in a research project to make food safer. In about six weeks, the turkeys would be removed from the pen and given Reading to assess the effectiveness of a vaccine, combined with a bacteria used in cheesemaking, against the pathogen.

The goal, said Johny, is to develop strategies to fight emerging salmonella strains should they ever become a problem in the future.

“It’s just like devising tools before an outbreak occurs,” he said.

The USDA recently announced that it’s rethinking its approach to salmonella in an effort to reduce an illness rate that hasn’t gone down in 25 years. Last month, the agency asked a key advisory committee for suggestions on how to improve its testing program to focus more on public health risks and on efforts to control the bacteria on farms. In early December, it also asked poultry companies for proposals to test new strategies for reducing contamination.

A close look at how the turkey industry controlled Reading and the ongoing work in Minnesota might provide critical clues.

As the Reading outbreak unfolded, turkey companies began developing custom vaccines and started testing if a commercially available vaccine developed for other types of salmonella could also protect turkeys against Reading.

Elanco Animal Health, which makes that vaccine, said it found that vaccinating newborn birds reduced Reading in ground turkey samples by 57%.

Michelle Kromm, vice president of animal health and welfare at Jennie-O, said the company had also seen reductions in Reading using the vaccine along with other measures. In the fall of 2018, it started vaccinating breeder flocks against Reading. It stopped reusing poultry litter, which lines barn floors, and started fumigating targeted barns between flocks. Later, it also began vaccinating the turkeys raised for food. In 2019, it required breeders to meet certain salmonella standards. And beginning last year, whenever Jennie-O detects Reading in flocks, it sends them to be made into cooked products to kill the bacteria.

“When we started seeing the birds that were able to have that whole program as part of their rearing process, we really started to see reductions pretty quickly,” Kromm said.

Since 2018, the percentage of Jennie-O ground turkey samples with Reading has fallen more than 90%, USDA records show.

Public health officials are hesitant to declare victory just yet given how COVID-19 has affected food poisoning statistics, but available data is pointing in the right direction. Wallenda Picard cautioned that no vaccine can protect against all strains.

Indeed, while available vaccines have been shown to have some success with infantis, the chicken industry has struggled to make a dent.

Alarmingly, while the strain has typically been found in chicken, it recently crossed into turkey, Johnson said. So with USDA funding, the University of Minnesota researchers are now setting their sights on infantis, using the same tools they used on Reading. If the approach works, it may one day end the infantis outbreak, which the CDC has deemed an epidemic.

Meanwhile, the team is continuing to test bacteria samples from farms, looking for the next dangerous strain to arise. Thanks to their work on Reading, the researchers now have a web-based tool, where companies can upload a sample and quickly get an initial indication if a strain is potentially risky, Johnson said, which would then prompt lab tests to confirm.

Your Free-Range Organic Chicken May Have Been Processed at a Large Industrial Poultry Plant

That will allow companies to make changes on the farm to prevent new strains from spreading. And in the not-too-distant future, companies might be able to use handheld genome sequencers on farms to make decisions to prevent contaminated birds from ever making it onto store shelves.

In the end, Wallenda Picard said, Reading might have had a “silver lining” by forcing the industry to focus on finding and controlling new strains.

“We just don’t ever want to go through the surprise that Reading was again,” she said. “I don’t think anyone will be so surprised again. At least that’s my hope.”

States are hoarding $5.2 billion in welfare funds even as the need for aid grows

When Congress passed welfare reform in 1996, states were given more autonomy over how they could use federal funding for aid to the poor. They could demand welfare recipients find work before receiving cash assistance. They could also use their federal “block grants” to fund employment and parenting courses or to subsidize childcare.

Twenty-five years later, however, states are using this freedom to do nothing at all with large sums of the money.

According to recently released federal data, states are sitting on $5.2 billion in unspent funds from the federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. Nearly $700 million was added to the total during the 2019 and 2020 fiscal years, with Hawaii, Tennessee and Maine hoarding the most cash per person living at or below the federal poverty line.

States have held on to more of this welfare money amid rising poverty. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 16.1% of children under age 18 lived in poverty in 2020, up from 14.4% the year before. The poverty rate also ticked up for people aged 18 to 64, from 9.4% to 10.4%. As unused TANF dollars have accumulated, applications to the cash assistance program have waned, though it’s not for a lack of need, say experts and people who have applied to the program.

Bonnie Bridgforth experienced the counterintuitive reality of a state, Maine, that is stockpiling more welfare money while using less to help those in need.

Two weeks away from giving birth near the end of 2014, the stay-at-home mom was thrust into the role of sole income provider when her then-husband was convicted and sentenced to jail time for possession of child pornography. Her family of five was left without a regular paycheck.

Bridgforth, then 35, turned to the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, where a caseworker looked past her pregnant belly and told her that to get aid she’d need to meet the state’s requirement that she get a job. After explaining that it would be difficult to find employment with her due date weeks away and four children at home, Bridgforth was approved for $981 a month in cash assistance with the understanding she would start working after she gave birth.

Soon, with two of her children in school and her infant, 2-year-old and 4-year-old in the care of extended family, Bridgforth started working at a gas station. She earned $8 an hour, 50 cents above Maine’s minimum wage at that time, later receiving a 50-cent raise. Bridgforth was also pursuing an associate degree in justice studies and taking a full course load.

Yet less than two years later, DHHS informed Bridgforth that she no longer qualified for assistance, including child care. The notice from the agency said her family did not meet the “deprivation” standard, a TANF requirement that assesses the extent to which children have been deprived of financial support from one or both parents. Bridgforth’s children no longer met the standard because her husband had been released from jail and they were now considered a two-parent household, even though the couple was estranged and he was not living with them. They divorced soon after.

In an email to a DHHS welfare specialist, Bridgforth asked for an explanation. “I think I have whip lash. It is exhausting,” Bridgforth wrote in the Aug. 30, 2016 email.

The specialist replied, “Sorry Bonnie. An eligibility worker was reviewing the case and it appears that a decision was made that deprivation does not exist, I am not an eligibility worker so cannot make this determination.”

Reflecting back on the rejection, Bridgforth told ProPublica, “No one seemed to care that we were living in significant poverty.” During this period, she said, she struggled to buy diapers, gas, clothing and her children’s school books. Her oldest daughter, who was 12, “felt very poor because we couldn’t buy the good shampoo,” Bridgforth recalled.

The same year Bridgforth was kicked off TANF, Maine was sitting on $111 million in unspent welfare dollars. It spent only $45 million on the program that year. The following year — as Bridgforth “fought to keep a roof over my kids’ heads” — the unspent welfare money continued to pile up, reaching $141 million. While its surplus has since declined, Maine continues to have one of the largest per-capita stockpiles of welfare money in the nation, $93 million as of fiscal year 2020. That comes out to $657 per person in poverty.

The unused welfare stash tells a larger story of how the 1996 welfare reform law has failed the poor: It allows states to not distribute cash assistance even when they have the money to do so.

Each year, the federal government awards states a block grant, or lump sum, of funding, with the intention that the money be spent to help poor people meet their basic needs, become employed and start two-parent families. States have discretion in how they can use, or not use, the money and have increasingly used it to fill unrelated budget gaps. Experts say it’s reasonable for states to have some TANF reserves, even as large as their annual block grant, but when they stockpile the money from year to year it’s cause for concern.

Tennessee has $790 million in federal welfare funding sitting around — the largest pool of unspent welfare dollars nationwide — though it has recently promised to spend it. Hawaii has $364 million idling in an account, equivalent to $2,923 per person living in poverty. And Oklahoma has $264 million, nearly double its annual TANF budget of $138 million.

Devin Stone, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Human Services, said, “Fluctuations in caseload and decreased participation in the state’s TANF program resulted in a surplus of TANF funds accumulating over a period of several years.” In fiscal year 2020, Tennessee reported its lowest-ever TANF caseload, about 17,000, down from 68,100 cases in 2006.

Jackie Farwell, a spokesperson for the Maine DHHS, gave a similar explanation for that state’s unspent TANF funds, saying it was caused by the Maine Legislature limiting lifetime welfare eligibility to five years. As a result, “Maine’s TANF caseload rapidly declined from 13,522 in January of 2012 to 4,320 in January of 2018,” she said. “This reduction in the number of people served by the program in turn led to an increase in Maine’s TANF block grant balance.”

Oklahoma’s Department of Human Services did not respond to a request for comment.

The coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic travails did not make a dent in states’ TANF reserves. Between June and November 2020, the national poverty rate made its largest jump since the government began tracking it 60 years ago, from 2.4% to 11.7%. Other parts of the federal government’s social safety net increased aid to help some of the 7.8 million Americans who fell into poverty, with stimulus packages and expanded unemployment benefits. TANF, conversely, is helping fewer people.

TANF acceptance rates have steadily declined over the past few years, with some states — Texas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Nebraska — denying about 90% of applicants in fiscal year 2020, according to federal data.

“During the COVID pandemic, when unemployment rates and hunger rates were skyrocketing nationwide, TANF funds were still sitting unused,” said Ashley Burnside, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a national advocacy organization for low-income Americans. The devastation wrought by the pandemic “is as much of a ‘rainy day’ as states could have had. If funds are still left unused, it makes me question what states are waiting to use this money for.”

Ty Bishop, a spokesperson for the Texas Department of Human Services, which has the nation’s lowest TANF acceptance rate at just 7% of those who apply, said most applicants there “exceed the income and resource limits.” To qualify, a family with two children and one caretaker must have less than $1,000 in assets and a monthly income of less than $188. Those requirements haven’t changed despite the state’s $281 million in unspent TANF funds in fiscal year 2020.

In 1995, Congress debated a precursor to the welfare reform law that ultimately passed the following year. Then-Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, a Democrat from Illinois, predicted some states would choose to not spend the federal dollars instead of distributing them to the poor. She proposed an amendment to prohibit states from carrying over unused welfare funds from year to year.

“If we send the states this money in a block grant, there is nothing to prohibit that state from saying we do not want to have assistance for poor children,” Moseley Braun said. “We are not going to address the issue of job creation. We are not going to train people to go back to work. We are not going to provide the children with any assistance. We are just going to further squeeze the amount of resources devoted to the whole issue of poverty in our state and we are going to take the money we get from the federal government and use that to go from year to year to year to year and not maintain our own effort. I think that would be a real tragedy.”

Moseley Braun’s “race-to-the-bottom amendment” — intended to prevent states from “trying to underbid one another” in assistance to the poor — did not make it into the final bill that President Bill Clinton signed in 1996.

Representatives of the human services departments in Maine, Tennessee and Hawaii said their states are working on plans to spend the welfare funds on new programs that will help families on the brink of poverty find greater financial stability.

Hawaii plans to use its surplus to extend employment services like job coaching and placement for noncustodial parents who have children receiving TANF and to provide diaper assistance to families that are eligible for the program, said Amanda Stevens, a spokesperson for the state. The state is also considering increasing benefits and offering monthly housing assistance, said Stevens.

In Maine, the money will be used to pay for a variety of programs and “system-wide improvements” to better serve the poor, said Farwell, the DHHS spokesperson. These include counting the pursuit of a high school diploma as an approved work activity for receiving benefits; updating the state’s application system so TANF recipients can recertify their eligibility online; and providing “coaches” to help families set goals and access resources.

Tennessee lawmakers passed legislation this year pledging to work with community “partners” to spend down the state’s $790 million in TANF reserves. The law, which went into effect in July, increased monthly cash assistance for a family of three to $387 a month, from $277. It also includes a two-year pilot program to allocate $50 million to community organizations that serve low-income families and to provide additional cash assistance to individuals pursuing educational opportunities.

Despite those efforts, advocates and state welfare caseworkers say, the steep decline in TANF applications nationwide shows the program has already irreparably lost the trust of the poor.

“Many families living below the poverty line are deciding that the benefits TANF provides are not worth the onerous upfront requirements to get on and stay on the program,” said LaDonna Pavetti, a welfare expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “Reserves are going up because caseloads are going down.”

If they qualify for TANF, applicants also risk losing any child support they might receive from a noncustodial parent, said Moriah Geer, a caseworker at Maine Equal Justice, a legal aid organization that assisted Bridgforth as she navigated TANF.

“There are so many unknowns and confusing parts about the program,” Geer added. “Families don’t want to go through the indignity of applying to this program again, even if more funds and programs are now being offered. I have many clients who choose poverty over having to go back and beg for cash assistance to be able to feed their families and keep a roof over their heads.”

Sky Arnold, a spokesperson for Tennessee’s Department of Human Services, said there are other explanations for the decline in welfare applications, including that “less families need the money. Our economy has been gangbusters in recent years and this is a sign of it.

“Decreasing applicant numbers speak to our state’s ability to build families who no longer need assistance,” said Arnold, who recently left the agency.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank that analyzes the impact of federal and state policies, disputes the notion that TANF’s decreasing numbers indicate families no longer need assistance. The organization designed a metric to show how many people living in poverty are actually helped by welfare. According to its “TANF to poverty ratio,” many states, including Tennessee, are largely failing to meet the needs of poor families. In 2019, the state assisted only 18 out of 100 poor families with children, down from 67 when the program began in 1996, according to the analysis.

A report this year found that TANF serves only one in four Maine children living at or below the federal poverty level, and that 84% of families in the state leaving the cash assistance program in 2019 were still living in poverty.

Today, Bridgforth, who completed her associate and bachelor’s degrees while remaining the sole breadwinner for her family (her ex-husband remains incarcerated; Bridgforth remarried in May 2021), works in special education. Her dream is to attend law school.

In September, she provided a written statement to the Maine Legislature about her experience with TANF and suggested how the state could improve the program.

“I made it despite the monthly attempts to kick me off TANF before I was ready,” Bridgeforth wrote in her statement. “I am no different from so many other women who find themselves on welfare.”

Your free-range organic chicken may have been processed at a large industrial poultry plant

Americans who want to buy the safest chicken and turkey have had little to go on beyond brand names and labels.

But those don’t tell the whole story, as we learned from the readers who’ve used our Chicken Checker app.

Nearly 900 people submitted details about poultry packages they found in grocery stores across the country, including the P-numbers, which are typically printed on the packaging or price tag and identify where the meat was processed. Submissions covering all 50 states and Washington, D.C., showed that your organic chicken from Whole Foods might be processed in the same facility that processes conventional chicken sold at a Kroger. Sometimes, poultry with the same label comes from different plants with very different levels of salmonella contamination.

At the end of the day, there’s no label or certification that guarantees you’re getting poultry that would have only a less-risky strain of salmonella or that comes from a plant with a low salmonella rate.

The majority of chicken in the U.S. is processed by five companies: Tyson Foods, Pilgrim’s Pride (JBS), Sanderson Farms, Mountaire Farms and Perdue Farms. Similarly, there are three main processors of turkey, Butterball, Jennie-O and Cargill. These large processors typically control every part of production, from hatching to slaughter to packaging, but the supply chain is almost entirely opaque to consumers.

Submissions we received underscore the level of consolidation within the poultry industry — nearly 50 submissions were for chicken that traced back to just one Perdue plant in Delaware. In different packaging and under different branding, chicken from that plant appeared on the shelves of a Trader Joe’s in California, a Walmart in New York state, a Whole Foods in Louisiana and a Kroger in West Virginia, as well as in packages from the ButcherBox meat delivery service.

Poultry products from the same plant weren’t necessarily raised with the same practices or on the same farms. Birds sold with specialty labels like organic, for example, are raised and processed separately from conventional birds, and equipment is sanitized between shifts.

Our information isn’t comprehensive, and it comes from a self-selected group of ProPublica readers — including one reader in Arkansas who submitted two dozen entries from local grocery stores — and from some freelancers who we hired to fill in regional gaps. But even this limited window helps us shine a light on a supply chain that has until now been largely out of view.

Here’s what we’ve learned about where your poultry comes from. (All the companies named here were asked to comment. If they did comment, their response is noted; if no response is listed, the company did not comment.)

Poultry Processed in the Same Plant May Be Sold Under Different Branding …

Chicken parts from a Foster Farms plant in Fresno, California, appeared at stores up and down the West Coast and as far east as Wyoming and New Mexico. Chicken parts processed at the plant were found by federal regulators to carry a high-risk salmonella, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says is more likely to make people sick. While the presence of salmonella doesn’t necessarily lead to illness — whether you get sick depends on the type and amount of salmonella in your food, the way it’s handled and cooked, and how your immune system responds — the bacteria hospitalizes and kills more people in the U.S. than any other foodborne pathogen. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture doesn’t currently differentiate between high- and low-risk salmonella when monitoring processing plants, and it doesn’t prevent raw poultry contaminated with salmonella from being sold.

Foster Farms plant in Fresno, California

  • At Albertsons, Safeway and Vons stores, these chicken parts appeared packaged with the Albertsons O Organics label or Foster Farms labeling.
  • At Kroger-owned chains, including QFC, Ralphs and Smith’s, chicken from the plant appeared with the company’s Simple Truth Organic labeling.
  • At Costco, chicken from the plant had Kirkland Signature Organic labeling. “Super bummed to now realize it’s just Foster Farm in Costco packaging,” wrote one reader.

… Even Within the Same Store.

At a Walmart in Little Rock, Arkansas, one reader found two different Cargill brands — Honeysuckle White and Honest Turkey, which is marketed as antibiotic-free — were processed in the same Springdale, Arkansas, plant. Ground turkey from that Cargill plant was found to have high-risk salmonella in 22.4% of samples over the past year.

Many Chains Get Their Store Brands From Multiple Plants.

Readers spotted the Trader Joe’s label on poultry from at least 15 different plants — some appearing to specialize in ground turkey, some in chicken parts, some in organic poultry and some in products with other specialized labeling — “heirloom” or “pasture-raised,” for example.

This means that salmonella rates can vary even between packages of the same product:

  • Readers in California, Oregon and New York found packages of Trader Joe’s Organic chicken thighs that had been processed at a Perdue plant in Milford, Delaware, where the USDA found no high-risk salmonella in the past year.
  • But another reader in California spotted Trader Joe’s Organic chicken thighs with nearly identical labeling processed at a Perdue plant in Petaluma, California. At that plant, 16.7% of samples had a high-risk salmonella rate, with all positive samples resistant to at least one antibiotic commonly used to treat food poisoning.

This pattern showed up at other grocery stores too. Some meat sold under Costco’s Kirkland Signature labeling came from Lincoln Premium Poultry, the company’s own chicken plant, while others came from a Tyson plant, a Pilgrim’s Pride plant and a Foster Farms plant that also processes organic chicken for Albertsons and Kroger store brands.

The chief operating officer of Lincoln Premium Poultry, whose plant had high-risk salmonella on 13.6% of its samples, said that the company and the USDA “have recognized that our business and the farmers who supply it have opportunities for improvement while we continue to operate, and Lincoln Premium Poultry has, with the aid of outside industry experts, been enhancing its processes accordingly.”

And Whole Foods appeared to source poultry for its 365 brand from at least six plants:

A Whole Foods spokesperson said that poultry sourcing varies by region and store, and said the company’s quality assurance team will continue to “review and assess” the USDA report for its suppliers.

Products from the same Perdue facility that produced Whole Foods-brand ground chicken also appeared at Kroger, Giant and Aldi supermarkets with standard Perdue branding, and at a Georgia Food Lion with generic branding.

A spokesperson for Giant Food Stores said, “The safety of the products we sell is our highest priority.”

A spokesperson for Perdue said that the company is committed to continuously improving poultry safety. “We maintain a stringent Pathogen Control Program throughout our operations,” a company spokesperson said, adding that salmonella sampling results have improved at some locations since the latest public data release by the USDA.

Stores Thousands of Miles Apart May Carry Meat From the Same Plant.

  • Kirkland Organic thighs and breasts from one Pilgrim’s Pride plant in Sanford, North Carolina, appeared in Costco stores in North Carolina, New York, Colorado, Minnesota and Texas. That plant had high-risk salmonella in 8.9% of samples.
  • Whole chickens from Cooks Venture Poultry in Jay, Oklahoma, appeared at Trader Joe’s stores as far apart as California, New York and Rhode Island under the label Trader Joe’s All Natural Heirloom. Ground chicken from that plant also arrived in Imperfect Foods grocery boxes delivered to Virginia and California.
At the Cooks Venture plant, which is part of a startup project from Blue Apron founder Matthew Wadiak, the USDA found high-risk salmonella in 50% of ground chicken and on 16.7% of the whole chickens it sampled in the past year.
John Handley, Cooks Venture’s director of food safety and quality assurance, said the company believed that the USDA was sampling its whole chicken incorrectly, but that it has been working on improving sanitary protocols within the plant. “The modifications and enhancements made to our system have reduced the risk and incidence of salmonella occurrence,” he said in a written statement.

“Organic” Doesn’t Mean It’s Salmonella-Free …

Under federal organic standards, poultry may not receive antibiotics, must be fed only certified organic feed and must be given “daily access to the outdoors.” Research has shown that the salmonella found on organic poultry might be less likely to be antibiotic-resistant, meaning severe illnesses caused by the bacteria may be easier to treat.

User submissions, however, showed that organic chicken may still come from plants with high salmonella rates: Organic ground turkey from a Plainville Brands plant in New Oxford, Pennsylvania, for example, appeared in stores such as Harris Teeter and Costco up and down the East Coast. The plant’s ground turkey had a high rate of high-risk salmonella and was also the source of a USDA public health alert for salmonella in April.
That plant didn’t process just organic chicken: Trader Joe’s, Wegmans and Hannaford stores also sold ground turkey from the Plainville Brands plant under labels for non-organic store brands.

Readers submitted some packages with kosher or halal certifications, which indicate that an animal was handled in accordance with Jewish or Muslim rules for slaughter. That poultry can come from plants with a wide range of high-risk salmonella rates:

… But Salmonella Rates Don’t Tell You Much Everything About the Meat.

Perhaps you’re looking for brands that offer organic products, limit antibiotic use or prioritize animal welfare. A plant’s low salmonella rate may not be an indication of the quality of the meat or how the birds were treated, but rather its success with the chemicals it uses to process the chicken. Because USDA regulations focus on the plants instead of the farms — and treat all salmonella the same — many large processors have developed an elaborate system of antimicrobial washes. “The easiest way to bring down salmonella overall is to do chemical dips and sprays,” said Sarah Sorscher, a consumer advocate at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Regardless of the poultry you choose, it’s a good idea to treat all raw meat with caution. Make sure you’re following the CDC’s food safety recommendations. Don’t rinse your chicken or turkey before preparing it. Pay attention to what you’re touching as you prep your meat, and make sure to wash anything your hands or the raw poultry come into contact with — surfaces, cutting boards and sink handles. Always make sure to cook your poultry to an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit.The most common disinfectant used is peracetic acid, known in the industry as PAA. While it’s washed off the chicken before it goes to stores, some worker advocates say it can be harmful to plant employees. That pressure has raised concerns in the industry about how much it depends on the chemical to reduce salmonella rates. “I think PAA will eventually be banned by OSHA or some other entity,” Robert O’Connor, a senior vice president at Foster Farms, said at a recent food safety meeting. “I think we are totally, completely reliant on that one compound in the plant, and we’re going to be really hurting when it does get banned.”

Sometimes Labeling Is Just Confusing.

Over and over, people reported struggling to find the plant identification number on their poultry’s packaging.
While the P-number is sometimes found near the USDA seal, it may also appear on the price tag or near the expiration date. One respondent noted that the plant’s number was stamped on the turkey’s metal clasp in such a small font that it was “nearly impossible to read.”
In some cases, people found that stores repackaged raw poultry and did not always transfer the plant number to the new packages. One reader reported success in asking for the plant number of a marinated chicken fillet from the butcher counter, as the information was not on the price label.

And, as many respondents noticed, if you’re purchasing turkey breast or leg cuts, you’re not going to find any turkey-part-specific information about salmonella — the USDA only conducts sampling on whole and ground turkey.

Readers Were Surprised to Find Out Where Their Poultry Came From.

One reader who purchased Draper Valley Farms’ Ranger brand chicken at a co-op in Washington state was surprised to learn from the Chicken Checker that she had bought meat from a major processor: “I had no idea that Perdue is now the owner of this property.”

Former Cargill executive Mike Robach told ProPublica that when companies acquire a poultry label, they often don’t change the name, as it already has brand recognition. “That’s what the consumer knows and is comfortable with,” Robach said.

That reader’s package of chicken breasts was processed at a Perdue plant in Mount Vernon, Washington, where 16.7% of samples had high-risk salmonella. All of the high-risk salmonella samples were resistant to at least one antibiotic that doctors frequently use to treat severe food poisoning.

Another user discovered that the store-brand organic chicken at Jewel-Osco supermarket in Illinois was processed by Perdue, writing that she planned to avoid the O Organics brand in the future. “I have never gotten ill from chicken purchased from this store. However I did not realize it came from Perdue.”

If you want to know more about where your chicken came from when you’re shopping for dinner, use the Chicken Checker!

Japan culls 42,000 chickens after second bird flu outbreak

Japan culls 42,000 chickens after second bird flu outbreak


The dirty secret of America’s clean dishes

Hollie Walker cherished the simplicity of her life in White Stone, South Carolina, a tiny community on the outskirts of Spartanburg. In the quiet of the country, she and her husband raised their two sons in a yellow house on 37 acres of secluded land, where they hiked in the woods and swam in their lake. Today, the area is home to a one-room post office, two churches, and a shooting range open three days a week. For years in the 1990s, Walker worked behind the counter at the post office.

There used to be a bar called the White Stone Mall on the same stretch of highway, where Walker would sip beers, shoot pool and chat with workers getting off their shifts from a chemical plant across the street. She didn’t know much about the German-owned company, BASF, that operated the plant. After BASF expanded its site in the 2000’s, demolishing the bar in the process, she had little reason to stop along that highway, except when the railroad gates halted traffic.

The passing trains carried tank cars of chemicals bound for White Stone’s BASF plant, a fleeting moment in an epic multi-state journey during which BASF transforms natural gas into specialized, secretive compounds that are the building blocks of ubiquitous cleaning products. BASF isn’t a household name like Procter & Gamble, but the ingredients it creates are essential to the success of that company’s products, allowing dirt stains to be lifted from clothes and egg yolk to be washed off plates.

The long, winding path from shale rock to the kitchen cabinet contributes to massive sales for BASF, the world’s largest chemical maker. But for the company’s neighbors, the journey leaves behind a trail of toxic pollution that has placed hundreds of thousands of people — including Walker — in harm’s way.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency aspires to minimize the number of people exposed to emissions that increase excess cancer risk above 1 in 1 million. That risk level means that if 1 million people in an area were exposed to toxic air pollutants over a presumed lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least one case of cancer on top of those from risks people already face. But a ProPublica analysis found that the EPA effectively allows two dozen BASF plants nationwide to expose an estimated 1.5 million Americans to elevated cancer risks greater than 1 in 1 million. EPA rules also say that plants should never expose people to an additional lifetime cancer risk that exceeds 1 in 10,000. Yet an estimated 2,800 people who live near BASF plants around the country face risks at least that high because of the company’s emissions, according to our analysis. Our analysis is based on an EPA screening tool that uses data reported by companies such as BASF. It cannot be used to assess the cause of individual cancer cases, but can identify geographic areas of potential concern.

BASF’s footprint of cancer-causing air pollution is larger than that of any other foreign-owned company in the U.S. and is the fourth-largest toxic footprint among all companies operating in this country, according to our analysis.

Bob Nelson, a spokesperson for BASF, declined to answer ProPublica’s questions about its chemical manufacturing and its emission of cancer-causing air pollutants. In a statement, he said that the “safety and well-being of employees, contractors, neighbors, and their families is the foundation of all we do.” Procter & Gamble spokesperson Maytal Levi, who declined to answer our questions, said in a statement that the company expects its “suppliers and business partners to uphold high standards that include consideration for the health and wellbeing of the communities where they operate.”

BASF, a multibillion-dollar corporation that employs over 110,000 people worldwide, is part of a larger story about the hidden costs of our nation’s supply chains. ProPublica pieced together the supply chain — and the environmental impact — of a single BASF-produced chemical found in one common household cleaning product during the period of our analysis, which examined data from 2014 to 2018. We reviewed thousands of pages of corporate filings; obtained internal documents through nearly 100 public records requests; and interviewed dozens of workers, supply chain experts and residents living near BASF plants. Our reporting offers a rare look at how the production of a single consumer good — Cascade dishwasher detergent — contributes to elevated cancer risk for an estimated nearly 1 million people in multiple communities across the South.

By the time millions of consumers purchase Cascade each month, the crucial chemicals that end up in the detergent have been crafted over the course of an 800-mile journey from a BASF facility in Port Arthur, Texas, to one in Geismar, Louisiana, to the one across from the post office in White Stone. From there, a final chemical product is hauled to an assembly line at a giant plant in St. Louis, Missouri, ending up in bold green packages that line grocery store aisles nationwide. By the time Walker pulls a container of Cascade off the shelf, she will have already paid an even higher price: chronic exposure to one of America’s most dangerous air pollutants, a sacrifice in order to manufacture the most popular dishwasher detergent in the nation.

The story of BASF’s dramatic American expansion began in Texas following the darkest chapter in the company’s history. Founded as a dye maker in the 1860s, BASF employed scientists who invented thousands of chemicals, from synthetic indigo, which enabled the mass production of blue jeans, to chlorine gas, which was used to poison soldiers in the trenches during World War I. In 1925, BASF helped found IG Farben, a German chemical cartel that would not only supply raw materials for the Nazi war machine but also operate a synthetic rubber and oil factory dependent on slave labor from Jewish people imprisoned at the Monowitz concentration camp. Among the cartel’s contributions to the Nazis was a pesticide known as Zyklon B, which they used to exterminate more than 1 million people during the Holocaust. At one of the Nuremberg trials, a prosecutor described the two-dozen IG Farben executives indicted for war crimes as the “magicians who made the fantasies of Mein Kampf come true.” (BASF declined to answer ProPublica’s questions about its past, but wrote on its website that IG Farben became part of an “autarkic, coercive system” that aided the Nazi regime.)

After 13 of its executives were found guilty, IG Farben was broken up into several companies. In 1949, an executive with the newly reformed BASF toured Dow Chemical’s plant in Freeport, Texas. Less than a decade later, BASF broke ground on a chemical plant there, the first the company opened outside of its homeland after World War II.

In the decades that followed, U.S. communities hungry for jobs courted the company, which was able to grow its profits at an unprecedented pace thanks in part to regulations that allowed its plants to operate with more lenient environmental protections than comparable plants in Germany. The extent of pollution allowed by U.S. regulators was particularly grave in southeast Texas. By the time BASF opened a plant in the coastal town of Port Arthur in 2001, nearby communities were so inundated with poisonous air that the arrival of BASF hardly stood out.

“There are plenty of places in the state of Texas where these industries could have been placed,” said Hilton Kelley, a local environmental justice advocate. “Why Port Arthur? It’s the area of least resistance.”

Standing on the top floor of Port Arthur’s City Hall, John Beard Jr. looks up from under his black wide-brimmed hat toward a horizon dotted with hulking industrial facilities. Six percent of America’s crude oil gets refined in this 54,000-person city along the Gulf Coast, where neighborhood subdivisions, elementary schools and playgrounds border petrochemical plants. Eighteen different facilities emit a variety of cancer-causing pollutants such as benzene, butadiene and naphthalene into the air of Port Arthur and its neighboring towns.

After clocking in at a refinery for 38 years, Beard Jr. came to realize that the industry had jeopardized the health of Port Arthur, a working-class community where the percentage of Black residents is nearly triple the national average. Since retiring in 2017, Beard Jr., founder and CEO of the Port Arthur Community Action Network, has sounded the alarm by demanding better emissions controls and challenging companies’ attempts to pollute more. He also offers a guided “toxic tour” to anyone interested in seeing the high price of living in “Energy City.” One of his stops, on the north side of town, is BASF’s steam cracker.

Inside BASF’s plant, a colorless, odorless gas known as ethane flows into a towering structure called a cracker, where the gas is moved through a tube, diluted with steam and pushed through a furnace heated to around 1,500 degrees. Within a second, heat “cracks” the bonds of each ethane molecule. The final product, ethylene, has been called the “world’s most important chemical,” a raw material for ingredients found in everything from plastics and PVC pipes to foam insulation and synthetic rubber, antifreeze and airplane wings.

The cracking process emits benzene, a carcinogen that studies have linked to leukemia. While the German government has long required BASF’s plants to be outfitted with pollution-reduction equipment, the EPA did not issue rules to adequately control toxic releases until the late 1990s. Instead of requiring larger chemical plant operators to regularly monitor benzene emissions like German facilities did, federal and state environmental agencies in the U.S. often took companies that operated chemical plants at their word that they would not emit more benzene than their permits allowed. Carroll Muffett, president and CEO of the Center for International Environmental Law, says that American environmental rules “have been out of step with the science of human health for decades.”

In the U.S., experts say the development of the rules governing how much pollution chemical companies can emit has been a notoriously fraught process. The EPA often allows engineers employed by the companies the agency regulates to help develop these rules. As an EPA engineer told Cary Coglianese, a University of Pennsylvania law professor who directs the Penn Program on Regulation: “We help them; they help us.”

U.S. environmental advocates say they are sidelined in the earliest stages of the EPA’s rulemaking process. To influence a rule, they often must sue the agency, alleging that its rule updates have failed to adequately protect the public’s health. By contrast, European environmental officials require advocacy organizations, trade groups and industrial engineers to work together to develop more protective standards for emissions-control technologies. Both the U.S. and Europe require rules for those technologies to be reviewed every eight years, but the EPA often chooses not to update its rules, while European officials require that new and more protective standards are passed during each review.

The EPA declined to comment on comparisons of its rule-making process with those in Germany. Nelson, the BASF spokesperson, said in a statement that the company “meets or exceeds applicable operating permit requirements established by regulatory authorities.”

But there is one major loophole that may further undermine pollution limits: accidental discharges. Such discharges happen regularly and may expose communities to much higher levels of chemicals than allowed under a plant’s permit. An Environmental Integrity Project report found that BASF’s Port Arthur cracker had emitted more than 887,000 pounds of air pollutants during unpermitted discharges from 2015 to 2018, the seventh highest out of 90 Texas plants analyzed. Last year, BASF’s steam cracker released 2,308 pounds of benzene in unpermitted events, fifth-most statewide.

Since the beginning of 2017, regulators have fined BASF $456,000 for air regulation violations at the plant. But advocates say that fines are issued for less than 3% of all accidental discharges in Texas, and those fines are small given the level of unauthorized emissions. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality determines fines by the size of an unpermitted release, potential harm caused to human health, and whether the company properly notified the agency, said Tiffany Young, a spokesperson for the TCEQ. In a statement, Young also said: “Funding and staffing resources limit the agency’s ability” to monitor emissions from accidental discharges at many individual plants.

Driving past the BASF plant, Beard Jr. spots steam billowing from the chimneys. On some days, he says, those clouds can get so thick that they can obscure the view of the adjacent state highway. He points out that some residents see the plant as a “necessary evil” to make the chemicals that support our everyday lives.

“When you know better, you do better,” Beard says. “But we’ve been doing this for so long that people don’t think there’s any other way.”

From its plant in Port Arthur, BASF pipes its ethylene past Texas marshlands and Louisiana bayous, to a rural community more than 150 miles east, the next stop in the supply chain.

Inside BASF’s plant in Geismar, Louisiana, workers manufacture ethylene oxide by heating Port Arthur-made ethylene and mixing it with oxygen, then passing the mixture through a reactor packed with a silver catalyst. Once the reactor has cooled, the chemical product is purified and processed. The plant, capable of making 220,000 metric tons of ethylene oxide each year, generates one of the country’s largest footprints of cancer-causing air pollution — exposing more than an estimated 800,000 Louisianans to excess cancer risk greater than 1 in 1 million. (The real number is certainly higher, but the plant’s emissions are estimated to disperse far beyond the geographic limits of the EPA’s modeling.) It also elevates the excess cancer risk above 1 in 10,000 for an estimated 180 of Geismar's roughly 7,000 residents.

Malaika Favorite, who is exposed to an estimated excess cancer risk of 1 in 16,000, wasn’t aware of the specific threat when she moved back to Geismar after decades away. But the foreboding scale of the industrial development in her hometown was immediately clear. The rural community, which sits at the heart of a 85-mile-long industrial corridor of Louisiana, hardly resembled the place in which she was raised. The levee overlooking the Mississippi River where she used to play had been blocked off by private roads and sown with natural gas pipelines. The trees that had lined the long road to her childhood home, forming a canopy overhead, had been replaced by barbed wire fences encircling chemical plants.

Favorite, a 72-year-old artist, was so dismayed by the changes that she decided to get involved in the decisions driving them. This past winter, she attended a public meeting to discuss the renewal and modification of a Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality permit for BASF’s Geismar complex, the company’s largest U.S. operation. She said that eight people attended the meeting, including several company spokespeople, and that when she asked about the air pollution that would be allowed by the permit renewal, a spokesperson underscored the importance of the company’s production of chemicals, including ethylene oxide. The versatile chemical is used not only to make products to clean households, but also to sterilize roughly half of the U.S. healthcare system’s medical equipment.

She also said that the spokesperson acknowledged that if BASF didn’t make its chemicals there, it would emit pollutants somewhere else. (Asked about Favorite’s recollections of the meeting, company spokesperson Nelson said: “BASF would not support such a comment you allege a BASF spokesperson made.”)

Chemical companies had transformed Favorite’s bucolic hometown into one of the nation’s largest “sacrifice zones,” a term advocates use to describe industrial corridors where certain communities bear disproportionate health costs from the manufacturing of products used across the country. According to ProPublica’s analysis, ethylene oxide contributes to more cancer risk than any other toxic air pollutant emitted by American industry. Our demand for ethylene oxide creates excess cancer risk above 1 in 1 million for an estimated 3.7 million people in south Louisiana. Studies have linked the chemical to higher rates of breast cancer, lymphoma and leukemia.

The LDEQ’s ethylene oxide standard, which allows concentrations of up to one microgram per cubic meter of air in communities near chemical plants, is 50 times the maximum concentration advised by the EPA. This allows companies to emit volumes of pollution that could elevate excess cancer risk to a level 30 times the EPA’s 1 in 10,000 standard. As a result, BASF’s Geismar plant emits more than nine times as much ethylene oxide as its larger plant that makes the same chemical in its hometown of Ludwigshafen, Germany. At that plant, companies licensed by German regulators conduct annual inspections to ensure that concentrations of the cancer-causing chemical at each emission point are below 0.5 milligrams per cubic meter — a rule designed to limit the pollutant’s spread into neighboring communities.

When asked why LDEQ approves permits that can enable cancer risk levels that high, department spokesperson Gregory Langley told ProPublica that cancer rates in the census tract where BASF operates are below the state average. The census tract where Geismar is located encompasses 66 square miles, and stretches into the neighboring rural communities of Dutchtown and Burnside.

Kimberly Terrell, a research scientist at the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic, said that in rural communities like Geismar it’s difficult to identify cancer patterns in the population, given the small sample size.

“If I survey the people on my block who smoke, I’m unlikely to see a link with lung cancer. But if I survey people across the U.S. who smoke, I most definitely am going to see a link with lung cancer,” Terrell said. “The LDEQ is basically using the fact that these communities are small against them.”

Favorite didn’t realize the specific threat posed by ethylene oxide until the LDEQ meeting. As she left the courthouse that evening earlier this year, she couldn’t stop thinking back to a time when BASF’s activity drew the attention of more than a small handful of locals. In the 1980s, environmentalists and labor organizers had traveled to Geismar to protest the company’s treatment of its workers. At the bargaining table, leaders of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union had voiced concerns about BASF’s safety record, which included a history of fires, spills and leaks that the union feared jeopardized the well-being of 370 members. When negotiations finally broke down in the summer of 1984, the company locked workers out of the Geismar plant and hired short-term contractors.

In the following years, union members applied for unemployment and struggled to feed their families. To pressure BASF, OCAW produced a 53-minute video on the locked-out workers and the company’s membership in a chemical cartel with links to the Nazis. One evening, as they batted around ideas of how to advance their campaign, the organizers discussed the area’s cancer rates. From that day forward, they described south Louisiana’s industrial corridor as “Cancer Alley,” and plastered the phrase on a billboard near the plant. The name stuck, and the organizers’ strategy prevailed.

After five years, BASF allowed the union members to return to the Geismar plant. To safeguard the workers, OCAW leaders built a coalition with environmental advocacy groups and longtime residents, including Favorite’s father, Amos, a World War II veteran and former chemical plant worker. While many of BASF’s workers resided in neighboring towns, Amos Favorite lived in Geismar’s predominantly Black community. White supremacists had tried to bomb Amos’ house after he supported Malaika’s decision to become the first Black student in the parish’s all-white high school. If he could face Ku Klux Klan sympathizers, he thought, he could stand up to BASF.

Together with OCAW, Amos Favorite secured funds not only to install an air monitor near BASF’s plant, but also to deliver clean water from Baton Rouge, so that his community would no longer have to rely on wells contaminated by industrial companies. But by the time Amos died in 2002, the momentum generated by the lockout had slowed. Two of the union’s chief leaders died from cancer. Funds for the union's coalition building efforts dried up. The OCAW merged with a larger union that prioritized labor concerns over environmental issues.

Today, thin strips of neighborhoods are sandwiched between sprawling chemical plants. Ethylene oxide billows invisibly from BASF’s plant toward the Favorite household. Shortly before Malaika Favorite moved back home in 2016, the EPA declared the chemical to be 30 times more toxic to adults and 60 times more toxic to children than the agency previously thought. In the following years, communities across the country began learning that they had been exposed for decades to one of America’s most potent industrial chemicals. Residents of a Chicago suburb protested until the medical sterilization plant emitting ethylene oxide near their homes was forced to shut down. But in Favorite’s corner of Cancer Alley, the protests have long quieted even as regulators have recently cleared the way for more industrial development.

Once the right hand of her father’s activism, typing up letters and speeches as he dictated them, Malaika now paints for a living. Much of her art is inspired by the winding Mississippi River that borders Geismar and the industries that have encroached on her hometown. After the LDEQ meeting with BASF, she painted an abstract pastoral, blending thick coats of greens and blues to reflect the vibrant landscape of her childhood. In the lower left corner of the painting, a faceless group of observers stares out over the land they hope to profit from. These observers inspired the name of the painting, “The Committee Will Decide.”

When Geismar residents develop cancer, they often feel torn about whether to blame the plants. In a local Rotary Club speech in 2017, a BASF executive downplayed concerns about the rates of cancer in the Geismar area, saying that “you can turn statistics any way you want.” A decade ago, one of Favorite’s brothers battled lymphoma. Another brother and his wife worked in the chemical industry in Geismar for most of their careers. When her brother’s wife died of cancer, Favorite said, he didn’t believe that her workplace had anything to do with it.

As BASF finishes making batches of ethylene oxide, workers load them onto rail cars that move the highly flammable product past Favorite’s art studio to chemical plants around the country, including the one near Hollie Walker’s house outside Spartanburg. Favorite knows these chemicals end up in consumer goods across the country, but doesn’t understand why that journey must imperil her community’s health.

“What is Geismar getting for all our suffering?” Favorite wondered aloud. “We are dying so that the chemical industry can exist here.”

South Carolina’s booming chemical industry lured the Walkers to Spartanburg. In the 1980s, Hollie Walker’s husband, Reed, received a job offer from Milliken & Company, where he stayed for the next three decades. He traveled around the world promoting Millad, a chemical product that is used to make plastic goods like Tupperware see-through. He sold so much of the chemical that his colleagues called him “Mr. Millad.”

By the time the Walkers settled into their home in the woods, about 10 miles southeast of Milliken headquarters and a few minutes down the road from BASF’s facility, BASF already was decades into the lucrative American expansion it had first launched in Texas. That expansion would help lead to billions of dollars of annual sales globally and earn BASF a spot on the Fortune 100.

In the 1960s, a sharp-dressed businessman named Hans Lautenschlager traveled across America to sell a more prosperous life. To civic boosters, he pledged better jobs. To farmers, he assured greater yields. To politicians, he promised stronger economies. They could achieve their American dreams, he explained, if they opened their towns to BASF. In selling those dreams, Lautenschlager helped BASF become one of the world’s largest chemical makers. To keep BASF expanding, Lautenschlager convinced South Carolina officials to let the company build a $100 million petrochemical plant near its coast, just outside the burgeoning tourist town of Hilton Head.

But an unlikely alliance of working-class Black shrimpers and rich white real estate developers emerged in the early 1970s to fight the BASF plant and its potential pollution. They protested, launched a national media campaign and threatened legal action. On the heels of their lobbying, a member of President Richard Nixon’s administration warned the company that he would oppose the plant unless the company’s plans protected South Carolina’s Lowcountry. BASF dropped the project, sparing Hilton Head from that threat. Soon after, though, a PR exec representing BASF told South Carolina Gov.-elect John West that the company hoped to operate a different chemical plant elsewhere in the state. West supported the plans. (He died in 2004.) With minimal fanfare, BASF acquired a chemical plant on the outskirts of Spartanburg, an inland city once nicknamed “Textile Town.” Since many of the region’s mills had shuttered, local officials embraced the chemical makers because they preserved jobs and tax dollars.

The plant marked a turning point in BASF’s national expansion strategy, a way for the company to avoid controversial plant constructions. Between 1970 and 2000, the company went from owning a handful of facilities across the country to operating more than two dozen, many of them occupying the footprint of former plants and some located in Southern states with more lax environmental regulations. BASF also divested from its manufacturing of consumer goods like cassette tapes. Now focused on chemicals, BASF aired a wave of TV commercials during the 1990s, in which the company proclaimed: “We don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.”

At its Spartanburg plant, BASF uses its Geismar-produced ethylene oxide to manufacture different kinds of surfactants, a type of chemical used in products that pave roads, fuel cars and wash clothes. Invented by a BASF scientist in 1916, the chemical reduces surface tension between two substances, enabling grime to come off of countertops and coffee rings to disappear from mugs. Freight trains traveling from Geismar pull cylindrical rail cars full of ethylene oxide past the tiny post office where Walker once worked, toward the BASF plant reactors. Inside, BASF workers mix the ethylene oxide with an alcohol and a catalyst, “cook” the batch for hours at a high temperature and cool it off. Surfactants known as alcohol alkoxylates are formed.

Each year, the plant releases hundreds of pounds of ethylene oxide into White Stone’s air. According to ProPublica’s analysis, the BASF plant emissions cause an estimated 96,000 South Carolinians to experience an elevated cancer risk level above the EPA’s target limit of 1 in 1 million. But because the EPA allows states to administer the federal Clean Air Act, its implementation varies widely across the nation. Some states have taken steps to reduce the number of people exposed to elevated cancer risk; Massachusetts, for instance, does not allow industrial pollution to generate an excess cancer risk above 1 in 1 million. Other states, including Louisiana and South Carolina, have permitted plants to emit cancer-causing pollutants at levels beyond the 1-in-10,000 limit that the federal government deems acceptable.

Ron Aiken, spokesperson for the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control, downplayed concerns about cancer risk found by ProPublica’s analysis. He also praised the company for its “well-monitored pollution control systems” and said that “no measured scientific data supports the assertion of increased cancer risk for residents living near the BASF facility.”

There is no measured data because the federal government doesn’t require companies to measure emissions leaving their smokestacks and does not routinely monitor the air in impacted neighborhoods for cancer-causing chemicals, leaving states to decide whether they will. State regulators in South Carolina have installed two monitors in Spartanburg, but the closest one is roughly four miles from the BASF facility, near a small medical sterilization plant.

EPA spokesperson Madeline Beal said in a statement that the agency intends to “advance the science around monitoring technology” and collect better emissions data. The agency has pledged $20 million in new funding for monitors.

“Only with that kind of information can you figure out how it’s going to impact the surrounding communities,” said Richard Peltier, associate professor with the University of Massachusetts’ environmental health sciences department. “If you don’t have that access to that data, or you refuse to get that kind of data, you're really just guessing in the dark.”

Walker didn’t know about the elevated cancer risk in White Stone — or the lack of monitoring near the BASF plant — until ProPublica showed her our findings this past spring.

But it made sense. In the mid ’90s, Walker learned that a malignant tumor had formed in her right breast. Three years later, another malignant tumor appeared nearby. Not only did she opt for a double mastectomy to dramatically reduce the possibility of another recurrence of the cancer, she also underwent testing to rule out a genetic predisposition and changed her lifestyle to incorporate activities linked to reducing breast cancer risk, eating vegetables grown in her own raised beds and training for long-distance races.

There was another risk she didn’t know to avoid. In the years between her first and second cancer diagnoses, Walker worked day after day in the one-room post office directly across from the BASF plant, which is subject to an estimated excess cancer risk of 1 in 3,200, three times the level that EPA considers unacceptable. Peltier said that continued exposure to ethylene oxide “is only going to amplify the risk” of a breast cancer recurrence.

In April 2019, one month after she ran a 10K race to celebrate her 60th birthday, Walker’s doctor spotted another tumor in a sliver of breast tissue under her left armpit that had not been removed during the double mastectomy.

“A part of your mind says, ‘I’m done with this, I’ve dealt with this,”’ Walker said. She hadn’t spent time worried about the possibility of a recurrence: “You don’t keep it in the foreground. You just keep on living. When it came back, 20 years later, that really threw me for a loop.”

In the weeks following, Walker found comfort in her routine walks with her husband around their lake. Ever since they’d gone on their first date nearly 40 years earlier at a University of Florida football game, he had always been there, from cooking her Italian food to driving her to doctor appointments. Now, he constantly worried about her and was at her side during those early months of treatment. “He was with me all the way, all the times when I was getting radiation,” Walker said. “He was worried about me, thinking how long am I going to live.”

Four months after her recurrence, a blood clot blocked one of Reed Walker’s arteries. He died unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism. Pulmonary embolism is the third leading cause of death brought on by cardiovascular disease, which researchers have linked to higher exposure of ethylene oxide. Walker now believes her husband’s risks could have been increased by air pollution from his decades in the chemical business, which included spending time in plants nationwide, including one in South Carolina that has emitted ethylene oxide. “Of course, it crosses your mind,” she said. “He may have been exposed more than the common person.”

And now, suddenly, she would have to fight cancer alone.

Once BASF cooks surfactants, the company ships batches of them to one of its most loyal customers. The shipment travels across the Mississippi River, past the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, to an industrial district near the city’s riverfront. This is where Procter & Gamble operates a large cleaning product manufacturing site, where it turns raw chemical ingredients into such well-known brands as Mr. Clean, Febreze and Swiffer. The chemical whose creation pollutes the air in Geismar and Spartanburg is ready to become part of one of America’s most recognizable household products: Cascade.

To Procter & Gamble employees, the company’s nearly-century-old plant resembles a giant kitchen. When BASF’s surfactants arrive at the St. Louis facility, workers transfer the chemicals into a vessel large enough to hold several backyard pools’ worth of liquid. The surfactant vessel stands near dozens of other ingredients, each waiting to be used in a recipe for different household cleaning products. As one former employee explained: “The products are easy to make. It’s literally just mixing. … You just stir it with your spoon, your big old manufacturing spoon.”

The Fortune 500 company — which makes Tide, Crest, Bounty, Pampers, Old Spice, Tampax and dozens of other popular brands — relies on petroleum-derived surfactants to manufacture its household cleaning products. ProPublica spent months identifying consumer goods that contain specific BASF surfactants; we were able to trace a full supply chain for Cascade, thanks in part to Procter & Gamble’s centralized production of its dishwasher detergent. Records obtained by ProPublica show that BASF surfactants typically compose a tiny fraction of Cascade products. But that small amount plays a large role in removing grime without producing a lot of foam, which is crucial for a detergent to limit suds from forming in a dishwasher. In addition, the surfactants allow for water to better clean glasses without leaving spots and help glasses sparkle more.

BASF’s surfactants are a crucial part of the recipe that differentiates Cascade from other detergents — and help Procter & Gamble control more than 60% of the nation’s $1.4 billion dishwasher detergent market, according to Chicago-based market research firm IRI. (Procter & Gamble declined to answer questions about Cascade’s formulation. Former employees say that the company typically uses multiple chemical suppliers to minimize supply chain disruptions. Records obtained by ProPublica show that Procter & Gamble has stored BASF surfactants at its plant over much of the past two decades.)

The rise of Cascade mirrors BASF’s nationwide expansion. In the 1950s, Procter & Gamble unveiled a “miracle” green powder, which it claimed could outperform all other dishwasher detergents. The earliest Cascade formulations were developed at a time when American products were beginning to incorporate surfactants, a technology that a Procter & Gamble scientist originally heard about during a meeting with IG Farben before World War II. Thanks in part to those surfactants, Cascade quickly became America’s most popular dishwasher detergent brand. Decades later, Procter & Gamble faced a major business threat when competitors first introduced liquid detergents, touted as more convenient than powder formulations. When Procter & Gamble finally debuted its liquid formulation in the late 1980s, the company began to consolidate Cascade production at its St. Louis plant.

Procter & Gamble has faced safety concerns regarding its cleaning products. In the 1970s, federal regulators required Cascade, along with other phosphate-based detergents, to have labels warning that people could be harmed if they swallowed the detergent or got it in their eyes. Lawmakers from Illinois to Florida then began to restrict the use of phosphates — a chemical that was effective at stripping grime from dirty plates but also polluted waterways — in dishwasher detergent. By 2010, 17 states had banned high-phosphate formulations, forcing detergent manufacturers to phase out the chemical nationwide. Customers grew so unhappy with the performance of the resulting dishwasher detergents that some bought trisodium phosphate from hardware stores — marketed as a mildew remover for patios, siding and other home exteriors — and mixed it with the phosphate-free detergent. Following those complaints, BASF representatives touted in 2011 multiple ingredients, including a low-foaming surfactant, that together could replace phosphate.

Procter & Gamble, which declined to answer ProPublica’s questions about its use of BASF surfactants, says on Cascade’s website that its employees are “improving product formulas to not just work better, but to be more in harmony with the world we live in (and love).” After a Procter & Gamble research director called for the company “to reduce its dependency on the use of petroleum” found in surfactants, its executives pledged in 2010 to “substitute top petroleum-derived raw materials with renewable materials as cost and scale permit.” Eight years later, Procter & Gamble told investors it had developed the ability to phase out its petroleum-derived raw materials. But ProPublica’s review of the company’s permit records found that petroleum-based ingredients remain widely used at some of its plants. For instance, the company still relies on surfactants made with petroleum-derived materials, which, as BASF’s plants in its products’ supply chain show, can elevate cancer risk for its neighbors.

Over the past three decades, consumer goods companies have begun to replace raw materials derived from petroleum with ones from agricultural sources, including oil from the kernel of palm fruit. That shift has slowed in part because the plantations that grow palm fruit have faced charges of human rights violations and environmental concerns over the deforestation of millions of acres of old-growth trees. America’s fracking boom has further “paused the swing” toward non-petroleum-based surfactants, said Neil Burns, a chemical industry veteran who organizes an international surfactant conference. He estimates that 60% of America’s surfactants still include raw materials derived from fossil fuels. Martin Wolf, director of sustainability for Seventh Generation, a cleaning product company owned by Unilever, one of Procter & Gamble’s competitors, told ProPublica the current production levels of surfactants derived from kernels of palm fruit are inadequate to immediately replace those derived from petroleum.

“You would need to have a transition — just like with electric cars,” Wolf said.

Procter & Gamble also declined to answer questions about how far along it is in phasing out petroleum-derived raw materials. Nelson, the BASF spokesperson, said in a statement that the company is focused on “creating chemistry for a sustainable future.”

But according to records obtained by ProPublica, BASF has expressed doubt about the possibility of a quick shift away from petroleum-based raw materials. In a 2014 meeting with investors, a BASF executive said that “it’s completely unrealistic to believe that this renewable piece will really change our industry in any dramatic fashion very, very soon.”

On a Monday afternoon in late October, Hollie Walker pushed her grocery cart down the detergent aisle of her local Ingles supermarket. The Cascade products she eyed had traveled by truck from Procter & Gamble’s St. Louis plant to the east side of Spartanburg. Staring at the wall of green packaging, she tried to figure out which product to buy this time. The powder boxes sat on the bottom. Right above them were the gel bottles. And at eye level were the individual pouches.

Walker found herself locked in an inescapable part of modern domestic life. She relied on detergent almost as much as she relied on the meals that dirtied her plates. She did everything she could to keep her cancer at bay, including taking medication daily to block hormones that could lead to a future tumor, but she still needed to clean the dishes.

Walker felt powerless to break the cycle of her own loyalty to a brand she had bought for decades. A “libertarian by heart,” she nonetheless believed that regulators need to better protect small rural communities like White Stone from “the brunt of this pollution.”

After a few moments in the detergent aisle, Walker headed to the register. She placed chickpea burgers on the conveyor belt, followed by a bag of organic red pears. After that came a shiny silver bag of Cascade “ActionPacs.” She made the best choices she could.


They were the pandemic's perfect victims

By the time Cheryl Cosey learned she had COVID-19, she had gone three days without dialysis — a day and a half more than she usually waited between appointments. She worried how much longer she could wait before going without her life-saving treatments would kill her.

The 58-year-old Cosey was a dialysis technician for years before she herself was diagnosed with end-stage renal disease. After that, she usually took a medical transport van to a dialysis facility three days a week. There, she sat with other patients for hours in the same kind of cushioned chairs where she’d prepped her own patients, connected to machines that drew out their blood, filtered it for toxins, then pumped it back into their fatigued bodies.

Her COVID-19 diagnosis in the pandemic’s first weeks, after she’d been turned away from a dialysis facility because of a fever, meant Cosey was battling two potentially fatal diseases. But even she didn’t know how dangerous the novel coronavirus was to her weakened immune system.

Had she realized the risks, she would have had her daughter Shardae Lovelady move in. Just the two of them in Cosey’s red brick home on Chicago’s West Side, looking out at the world through the sliding glass door in the living room, leaving only for her dialysis.

After Cosey’s positive test in April 2020, Lovelady had to take her mother to a facility that treated patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19. The facility fit her in for one of its last appointments the next day.

At that point, Cosey had gone more than four days without dialysis.

Four hours later, after Cosey completed her treatment, Lovelady returned to the nearly deserted building to bring her mother home, the sun having long disappeared from the sky. Cosey, dressed in a sweater and a green spring jacket, was disoriented, her breathing sporadic.

Alone with her mother on the sidewalk, Lovelady ran inside to ask workers for help getting Cosey out of her wheelchair and into her car.

“They offered no assistance,” Lovelady said. “They treated her as though she was an infection.”

(A spokesperson for the facility said employees aren’t allowed to help patients once they leave, for safety reasons.)

As Lovelady waited for paramedics to arrive, she grabbed a blanket from her car to wrap around her mother.

“My mother has COVID. I know she has COVID, but I didn’t care,” Lovelady said. “I hugged her and just held on until the ambulance came.”

Then she followed the flashing lights to the hospital.

In the three decades before the pandemic, the number of Americans with end-stage renal disease had more than quadrupled, from about 180,000 in 1990 to about 810,000 in 2019, according to the United States Renal Data System, a national data registry. About 70% of these patients relied on dialysis in 2019; the other 30% received kidney transplants.

The Midwest stood out as the region with the highest rate of patients with the disease, and Illinois had the nation’s third highest prevalence after Washington, D.C., and South Dakota, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A rare bright spot was the downturn in the death rate. Although diagnoses have been going up, death rates for patients who are on dialysis have declined since the early 2000s.

Then COVID-19 struck. Nearly 18,000 more dialysis patients died in 2020 than would have been expected based on previous years. That staggering toll represents an increase of nearly 20% from 2019, when more than 96,000 patients on dialysis died, according to federal data released this month.

The loss led to an unprecedented outcome: The nation’s dialysis population shrank, the first decline since the U.S. began keeping detailed numbers nearly a half century ago.

They were COVID-19’s perfect victims.

“It can’t help but feel like a massive failure when we have such a catastrophic loss of patients,” said Dr. Michael Heung, a clinical professor of nephrology at the University of Michigan. “It speaks to just how bad this pandemic has been and how bad this disease is.”

Before most patients reach advanced kidney failure, they are diagnosed with diabetes, hypertension or a host of other underlying conditions. Their immune systems are severely compromised, meaning they are essentially powerless to survive the most dangerous infections.

Many are old and poor. They also are disproportionately Black, as was Cosey. A 2017 study called end-stage renal disease “one of the starkest examples of racial/ethnic disparities in health.” Those inequities carried through to the pandemic. Dialysis patients who were Black or Latino, according to federal data, suffered higher rates of COVID-19 by every metric: infection, hospitalization, death.

Their deaths went largely unnoticed.

To get their treatments, the majority of dialysis patients in the U.S. must leave the relative safety of their homes and travel to a facility, often with strangers on public or medical transportation. Once at the dialysis center, they typically gather together in a large room for three to four hours.

The fear of contracting the virus was enough to keep many from venturing out for medical care, including those already on dialysis and those set to get the treatment for the first time. Exactly how long patients can go without dialysis depends on a number of factors, but doctors generally begin to worry if they miss two of their thrice-weekly sessions.

Dr. Kirsten Johansen, director of the United States Renal Data System, said the rates of people starting dialysis had been relatively stable until the pandemic. “Then the floor fell out,” she said in an interview.

COVID-19’s collateral damage played out in other ways as well. It meant that people delayed going to the hospital for everything from heart disease to cancer. For dialysis patients, whose life expectancy in some cases is three decades shorter than the general population, the results were calamitous. Hospitalizations of dialysis patients for reasons unrelated to COVID-19 dropped 33% between late March and April of 2020, federal data shows.

Dr. Delphine Tuot, a nephrologist and associate professor at University of California San Francisco and Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center who focuses on vulnerable populations, found herself pleading with some of her patients to come in for their regular dialysis appointments.

One of them was a 60-year-old man whose shortness of breath landed him in the hospital in February. Doctors scheduled dialysis three times a week, and though he was initially resistant, Tuot said, he came around once he realized he would die without it.

Still, he missed appointments. When Tuot followed up, he told her he was afraid to leave the house because he was caring for his wife who had cancer, and he didn’t want to contract COVID and bring it home to her. Soon a cycle began. He skipped treatments, fluid built up in his body and an ambulance rushed him to the hospital because he couldn’t breathe. He got dialysis, was sent home and got back on track.

When cases surged and the delta variant took hold this summer, the cycle restarted — until he skipped dialysis for three weeks in a row, so long that his heart couldn’t recover, according to Tuot. He died last month.

Despite early efforts to mask and isolate patients at dialysis facilities, one study found the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations of dialysis patients from March to April 2020 was 40 times higher than the general population.

Even with skyrocketing hospitalizations, it took three months after vaccines were approved before federal officials provided vaccinations to dialysis clinics, despite advocacy groups urging that this high-risk population be prioritized.

Although dialysis centers were swift to implement safety protocols in the pandemic’s early days, some facilities didn’t follow their own infection control policies, including washing hands properly, keeping workers home when sick or disinfecting equipment, federal inspection records show.

And home dialysis, which has been shown to be safer for patients during the pandemic, is out of reach for many, especially Black and Latino patients. Nephrologists had pushed for greater access to home dialysis before the pandemic; that need is more apparent now than ever, Tuot said.

“The fact that individuals had to go to a center with other individuals who are equally immunocompromised and had to get to that center, whether that was by public transportation or by van transportation, it’s clearly additional risks,” Tuot said. “Bottom line, they are very vulnerable. They’re very sick.”

The ambulance took Cosey to Chicago’s Rush University Medical Center. Lovelady filled in the staff on her mother’s medical history of end-stage renal disease, high blood pressure and asthma. The next day, Cosey called her daughter from her hospital bed. Lovelady noticed marked improvement from the night before.

“She sounded like herself,” Lovelady said. “We joked around a little bit. I asked her what kind of medicine she was on. She said they started her on dialysis.”

One by one, Lovelady added her sister, cousin and brother to the call. They told Cosey she had scared them, but now that she was doing better, they teased that they needed her to come home to bake her famous cheesecake. Her grandchildren hadn’t stopped asking about her either. They missed movie nights at Cosey’s house, when she made them popcorn and covered the floor with blankets.

Cosey’s boisterous laugh reassured them.

When Lovelady sensed her mother tiring, she told her she’d call her back the next day.

“Go ahead and get some rest,” she said.

While the arrival of the pandemic rocked the health care system as a whole, the effect on dialysis facilities has received little attention.

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services typically monitor the facilities through routine inspections and surprise visits to investigate specific complaints. But federal officials are two years overdue on more than 5,000 inspections at dialysis facilities across the country, Medicare data shows, and three years behind on more than 3,000 of them. Since the start of 2020, the number of inspections to dialysis facilities by government officials fell by more than 30% from the previous two years, ProPublica found. Complaints made up a larger portion of investigations. In 2019, 35% of total visits were in response to complaints. Last year, it jumped to 51%.

A spokesperson for the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said in a statement that the pandemic forced the agency to temporarily suspend or delay inspections for non-urgent complaints and routine inspections to focus on infection control and critical concerns that placed patients in immediate jeopardy. The agency is working with states, which act on behalf of federal officials, to address the resulting backlog, the spokesperson said, but “nearly all state agencies report insufficient resources to complete the required, ongoing federal workload.”

The spokesperson said “the COVID-19 pandemic has presented a unique challenge unlike any other in history and has impacted our routine oversight work,” adding that “complaint investigations remain our first priority to ensure we address the immediate needs of patients receiving care in dialysis facilities.”

Insufficient funding has compounded those challenges. The budget for inspections has “been flatlined” since fiscal year 2015, while the number of dialysis facilities has increased by 21% to nearly 8,000 today, according to the agency. After several years of requesting more money, the centers were approved to receive an increase for fiscal year 2022.

When investigators did inspect dialysis facilities, they found some violations specific to COVID-19 and others that involved general safety lapses, according to federal records from March 2020 to July 2021.

A dialysis patient who started treatment just before the pandemic died after a nurse at a Kentucky facility failed to properly dilute an antibiotic, according to inspection reports. Minutes after the medicine began dripping through an IV, the patient said: “My body is on fire! It’s going through my whole body,” records show.

At a New York facility, another patient died after losing more than 1 1/2 pints of blood when their catheter became disconnected, according to federal records. That same facility underreported its number of deaths in the first 11 months of the pandemic by 16 people.

Federal officials issued their most serious citation to an Indiana facility for refusing to provide dialysis to a patient suspected of having COVID-19. The patient’s previous dialysis had also been cut short because their assisted living facility did not provide them transportation after 9:15 p.m. So they did not receive a complete treatment.

An estimated 5% to 10% of end-stage renal patients live in congregate settings, such as nursing homes or assisted living facilities. The same factors that led to nursing home populations being decimated — age, health, difficulty isolating — applied to those dialysis patients. In the first months of the pandemic, they contracted the virus at a rate more than 17 times higher than those who lived independently, according to one study.

Workers at those facilities weren’t immune either. Oluwayemisi Ogunnubi, 59, worked as a nurse administering dialysis to patients inside a nursing home on Chicago’s South Side. A Nigerian immigrant, she had sent money home to pay for her children’s schooling until she was able to bring them to the U.S. Her smile and supportive nature made her popular among her coworkers, according to an official at Concerto Renal Services, the dialysis company where she worked.

On April 21, 2020, Ogunnubi’s body began to ache, and she was sent home early from work. She was later taken to a hospital, where she tested positive for COVID-19. She died three days later, federal and county records show.

Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials cited Concerto, and levied a penalty of $12,145. The company provided employees who performed dialysis on patients with N95 respirators, but investigators found that Concerto’s written procedures weren’t complete and that the company had failed to provide medical evaluations that ensured employees knew how to use the respirators.

Two other Concerto employees, including one who fell ill the same day as Ogunnubi, contracted COVID-19 at the time but survived. Within two weeks of Ogunnubi’s death, 10 residents at the nursing home died of complications related to COVID-19, according to Cook County Medical Examiner records. Half had kidney failure.

Kyle Stone, Concerto’s executive vice president and general counsel, said the first and only COVID-related death of an employee shook the company. Stone said Concerto “made a difficult choice” to use respirator masks without providing medical evaluations to employees, but it “was clearly the correct choice under the circumstances.”

If Concerto had been required to fulfill every aspect of OSHA requirements for a written policy that early in the pandemic, he said, the company would not have been able to provide the respirator masks, “almost certainly resulting in greater risk of harm and death.”

OSHA’s failure to “see and appreciate” the trying circumstances at the time, Stone said, “was “baffling and disappointing.” Concerto eventually settled with OSHA, which downgraded the violation and reduced the penalty to $9,000.

“We are quite proud of our work in 2020 during the eye of the COVID storm,” Stone said.

As devastating as the pandemic has been, many experts say it could have been worse. Dr. Alan Kliger, a clinical professor of medicine at Yale School of Medicine, co-chaired the American Society of Nephrology COVID-19 Response Team that held weekly calls with chief medical officers from 30 or so dialysis companies, including the largest two, DaVita and Fresenius. The facilities, Kliger said, implemented universal masking and patient screenings before the CDC recommended them. They also treated COVID-19 patients in separate shifts or at specifically designated isolation clinics.

“There’s been a tremendous amount of collaboration and sharing of information and uptake of best practices in this group of competitive companies,” Kliger said. “They really rallied together to protect patients.”

Epidemiologist Eric Weinhandl said that there’s another battle on the horizon with the omicron variant spreading rapidly, which he finds especially worrisome given how federal officials failed by not distributing vaccines to dialysis facilities in December 2020.

“It’s heartbreaking because you look at this, and much like nursing home residents, these patients are completely vulnerable. But they still have to go to a dialysis facility three times a week,” Weinhandl said. “Why wouldn’t you prioritize this population?”

The CDC said in a statement that “demand exceeded supply” when vaccines were first authorized and “as supply increased and states adopted CDC’s recommendations, older adults and those with underlying health conditions began being prioritized.”

It wasn’t until March 25 that the Biden administration announced it was partnering with dialysis facilities to send vaccines to patients at the centers.

Now, Weinhandl wonders if dialysis patients will be a priority if the federal government approves a second round of boosters for high-risk patients.

“Is there a plan? Because I think that there should be,” he said. “I think this is getting pretty predictable. Every time COVID surges, you see the dialysis population’s excess mortality surge with it.”

Sometimes the frailty of dialysis patients is no match for COVID-19’s brutality.

Oscar and Donna Perez were the kind of siblings who loved each other without judgment or condition. After Oscar began dialysis in 2018, Donna picked him up from his appointments three nights a week. She cut his toenails when his feet were too swollen for him to reach and massaged them when the pain woke him up at night.

He was her son’s godfather, her best friend who shared his love of music with her — especially the 1960s R&B singer Billy Stewart — and annoyed her in the way only brothers can, swatting her feet off chairs just as she got comfortable and pestering her with questions when she was deep into Instagram.

But Oscar Perez was sick. In addition to his failing kidneys, the 38-year-old Latino father struggled with hypertension, diabetes and congestive heart failure. In early January, doctors performed coronary bypass surgery. He was not yet eligible for the vaccine, but the hospital tested him for COVID-19 when he was admitted. He was negative.

He went home on Jan. 18, the same day as the wake for his uncle, who, his family said, died after he missed too many dialysis appointments. But the next day, Oscar collapsed at home, confused and mumbling in pain, with signs that the coronavirus was flourishing in his lungs. He was rushed back to the hospital. A doctor called to tell Donna Perez that her brother had tested positive and needed to be intubated.

On Jan. 31, doctors called Donna again and told her that her brother’s condition was declining fast. She picked up her parents, another brother and his girlfriend, and headed to the hospital to visit Oscar from outside the glass door of his room. They told doctors to try to resuscitate him if his heart stopped.

That night, after they returned home, Donna Perez’s phone rang one more time. Oscar’s doctor said he probably wasn’t going to make it through the night. This time, they could visit him in his hospital room in PPE.

Seeing her brother up close, swollen and helpless, she leaned in, hugged him, and said, “I can tell you’re tired. You can go.” Donna promised to take care of his daughter.

Her family pushed back and said she had to tell him to be strong.

Donna told them they needed to let Oscar go. He died a few hours later.

“This disaster is one that befalls dialysis patients, with diabetes especially, regularly,” Dr. David Goldfarb, clinical director of the nephrology division at NYU Langone Health in New York City, who reviewed Oscar Perez’s medical records for ProPublica.

“Of course, it’s possible to do better,” he continued. “Given his age, it’s really tragic.”

The advent of technology to filter a patient’s blood revolutionized kidney care in the 1950s, and people lined up to get access to the limited number of machines. In 1960, one hospital created its own admissions panel, later nicknamed the “God committee,” to review cases to decide who would receive the groundbreaking treatment.

Twelve years later, Congress approved legislation that created the Medicare End Stage Renal Disease program, which guaranteed coverage of medical care, including dialysis and kidney transplants. It remains the only disease-specific Medicare entitlement program, credited by some as possibly saving more lives than any other federal government program. Generally, Medicare only covers those over age 65 and the disabled, but this program is available to people of all ages with end-stage renal disease.

Total Medicare-related spending in 2019 on end-stage renal disease patients topped $50 billion. Even with that budget, the agency hasn’t been able to fix persistent health disparities. That year, Black patients were more than four times more likely than their white counterparts to have the disease.

Black patients also progressed from chronic kidney disease to end-stage renal disease three times as often as white patients. Yet they are less likely to start off their dialysis treatments on a waiting list for a transplant — or eventually receive one from a living donor — than white patients.

In a statement, Medicare said it is working to address the disparities and said it is “committed to ensuring the health and safety” of all its dialysis patients.

Another area of concern is home dialysis, which research has shown is cheaper than in-center dialysis and offers similar or better survival rates, enhanced quality of life and greater flexibility. Barriers to home dialysis affect all patients, but the percentages of Black and Hispanic patients receiving home dialysis in 2019 were 10% and 11% respectively, compared with white and Asian patients at 17% each.

The push for closing that gap has gained traction, bolstered by federal data that found COVID-19 hospitalizations rates of patients who underwent home dialysis from late March to June 2020 were between one-quarter and one-third those of patients traveling to dialysis facilities.

“We do have to figure out a way to do better because we’re really, in essence, causing harm, when we’re not able to divert proper resources to patients who most require them,” said Dr. Kirk Campbell, a nephrology professor and vice chair of medicine for diversity, equity and inclusion at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.

Some patients don’t have the space to store the supplies needed for home dialysis. Others are overwhelmed by the prospect of having to keep the area around the catheter clean to prevent infection. But, Campbell said, that’s where patient education comes in. The most common type of home dialysis, called peritoneal dialysis, often is done at night while the patient is sleeping and does not involve blood flowing outside the body.

While home dialysis isn’t possible for all patients, some doctors are hesitant to recommend it at all, in part because the clinicians lack the training, experience or a certain comfort level with it. That’s especially true, Campbell said, for patients of color and those from disadvantaged backgrounds. There’s often an unconscious bias that those patients won’t be able to handle it, he said.

Campbell and others said it’s critical that clinicians receive additional training in home dialysis. He leads one of the few nephrology fellowship programs in the country where doctors can spend an extra year specializing in home dialysis. The results have been so promising, he said, that they hope to expand.

In July 2019, the Trump administration issued an executive order aimed at revamping kidney care in the United States through the Department of Health and Human Services’ Advancing American Kidney Health initiative. The goals of the initiative were lofty — some say unrealistic — and included having 80% of new end-stage renal disease patients in the U.S. receive in-home dialysis or transplants by 2025. In 1972, the year the Medicare program passed, 40% of patients were on home dialysis. Currently, about 13% of patients are receiving dialysis at home.

Starting January, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services will offer facilities greater reimbursement for improving their home dialysis rates for low-income patients.

Some observers say the change doesn’t go far enough. In September, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, an Illinois Democrat, and Rep. Jason Smith, a Republican from Missouri, proposed legislation that would require Medicare to pay for workers to assist patients who need additional help with home dialysis. The measure, which was introduced without much fanfare, also calls for greater patient education around the treatment and a federal study analyzing racial disparities.

Hong Kong, where about three in four patients are on peritoneal dialysis, is a global leader in home treatment. Patients there receive peritoneal dialysis first unless there is a medical reason that would preclude it.

Dr. Isaac Teitelbaum, a nephrologist who has been the medical director of the home dialysis unit at the University of Colorado School of Medicine since 1986, said expanded training for clinicians and incentives for patients, including a reduced co-pay or a tax credit, could encourage more patients to dialyze at home.

“You don’t live just so you can do dialysis. You do dialysis so that you can enjoy life,” he said. “You do dialysis so that you can watch your children and grandchildren grow up and so that you can participate in family events and go on vacations.”

Cheryl Cosey was not offered home dialysis, her family said. Shardae Lovelady said it might have made all the difference for her mother.

Cosey’s health deteriorated quickly after the call from her hospital bed. Doctors transferred Cosey to the intensive care unit, put her on a ventilator and gave her medication to push the oxygen from her lungs into her bloodstream, according to hospital records.

The family braced themselves. Lovelady drove to Minnesota to pick up her sister. She gathered everyone for a big dinner the way her mother used to do.

Lovelady and her sister stayed up late talking, finally dozing off when the house quieted.

When the phone rang at three in the morning, Lovelady recognized the hospital’s 312 area code.

Everything she had done to prepare for that moment suddenly vanished, and she allowed herself to hope.

The call was short. She never even flipped on the bedroom light. She turned to her sister, who was asleep next to her, and nudged her awake.

“Mama gone.”

A Laredo,Texas plant that sterilizes medical equipment spews cancer-causing pollution on schoolchildren

Jennifer Jinot didn’t expect to retire early from her role as an environmental health scientist for the federal government. She’d spent 26 years assessing the dangers of toxic chemicals for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The job could be frustrating but, more than that, rewarding.

Early in her career, Jinot evaluated the health impacts of secondhand smoke exposure. It took four years — a pace she remembers thinking was “crazy slow” — to develop a final risk assessment, published in 1993, that determined secondhand smoke causes lung cancer in adults and impairs the respiratory systems of children. The tobacco industry sued the agency. But, in the end, her work spurred changes to the law. The victory was invigorating for Jinot, who had long dreamed of doing what she calls “socially useful” science.

In 2002, Jinot joined an EPA team that was evaluating new research to determine whether ethylene oxide, one of the world’s most widely used chemicals, caused cancer. A key building block for an endless array of consumer goods and a common product used for sterilizing medical equipment, the colorless, low-odor gas wafts out of at least 160 facilities across America. Jinot’s colleagues had already spent four years reading studies, scrutinizing data and consulting with experts. She was hopeful it wouldn’t take much longer. The team published a draft assessment in 2006 that found the chemical was significantly more carcinogenic than the agency had previously concluded and especially damaging to children.

Jinot believed the science begged for urgent action to strengthen existing environmental regulations. But industry lobbyists and company executives attacked the draft. Audry E. Eldridge, then-president of the Missouri-based Midwest Sterilization Corporation, argued in a 2006 letter that an “extensive database of toxicological and epidemiological studies” showed the EPA’s findings were flawed. Eldridge, who helped found the Ethylene Oxide Sterilization Association, a trade group that lobbies on behalf of sterilizer companies, didn’t name any specific studies, but said in the letter that the cancer risk posed by the chemical was “thousands of times less than portrayed in EPA’s risk estimates.”

Amid pressure from industry groups, the agency agreed to another round of scrutiny from independent scientists and the public before finalizing its findings. “They don’t want to put out anything that gets attacked,” Jinot said of the EPA in a recent interview. The EPA defended its process for evaluating harmful environmental chemicals as “strong” in a statement to ProPublica and The Texas Tribune.

A process that, according to a director for the U.S. Government Accountability Office, should last no more than four years ended up taking another decade. In 2016, the EPA published the final version of its assessment. It concluded that ethylene oxide was 30 times more carcinogenic to people who continuously inhale it as adults and 50 times more carcinogenic to those who are exposed since birth than the agency previously thought. The chemical, which alters DNA in the human body and increases the risk of certain types of cancer such as leukemia, is particularly harmful to children because their developing bodies can’t mend the genetic damage as effectively as adult bodies.

In the decade it took for the federal agency to finalize what its frustrated scientists already knew, Eldridge’s sterilization company dramatically expanded its new facility in the border city of Laredo. The facility, a ProPublica analysis determined, emitted far more ethylene oxide than any other sterilizer plant in the country that reports emissions to the EPA.

Simultaneously, families along its fence line were raising a generation of children who would grow up in the plant’s shadow.

Karla and Cesar Ortiz had a baby girl they named Yaneli, after a Spanish-language television character who embodied kindness and humility, traits they hoped their daughter would share. Through the years, their smiley, curly-haired little girl grew to love arts and crafts, became a fan of ’80s music and K-pop and watched over her two little brothers in their home, located less than 5 miles from Midwest.

Around the same time, Nidia and Rafael Nevares were raising their two boys, Rafael Jr. and Juan Jose, or JJ, about 2 miles from the plant. The younger of the two, JJ was more outgoing and quick to make friends. Among his favorite things to do was pulling his older brother away from the computer to play hide-and-seek in the front yard.

The EPA’s 2016 ethylene oxide report would not be legally enforceable until the agency incorporated it into new regulations. Even so, it inspired many states to crack down on industrial facilities that emitted the chemical — through lawsuits, stricter state regulations, air monitoring and cancer cluster studies. But Texas went in the other direction, becoming the only state to officially reject the agency’s conclusions. In August 2017, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, the state’s environmental regulatory agency, announced it would launch a review of EPA’s science; it eventually ruled that the chemical was significantly less toxic than the federal agency had found. That resulted in Texas enacting a new standard that could allow plants to emit more of the chemical.

In 2018, two years after the EPA published its final report, JJ was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a cancer that has been linked to ethylene oxide exposure. He turned 6 years old a month later.

“Have you seen a novela mexicana?” his mother, Nidia Nevares, said. “That’s what it was like, like a soap opera. Crying and crying, shock, shock, totally.”

Yaneli’s diagnosis came soon after. Doctors found that she had the same type of cancer as JJ in June 2019, three months before her 13th birthday.

By then, Jinot was no longer at the EPA. She had grown frustrated with industry’s increased influence over the agency and with a bureaucracy that stalled critical scientific research. So when the Trump administration sought to shrink the agency’s staffing in 2017 by offering employees buyouts, Jinot accepted.

“I couldn’t stand the process anymore,” she said. “There’s no reason it should take so long.”

In the dark

Communities such as Laredo, where the vast majority of the residents are Latino and more than a quarter live in poverty, have been left in the dark for years by regulators who had evidence of the dangers posed by ethylene oxide but never told the public about them.

Out of all the pollutants that the EPA regulates, ethylene oxide is the most toxic, contributing to the majority of the excess cancer risk created by industrial air pollutants in the United States, according to an unprecedented analysis of the agency’s most recent modeling data by ProPublica, in collaboration with The Texas Tribune. That risk is in addition to those Americans already face from other factors like genetics or lifestyle.

The EPA says it strives to minimize the number of people exposed to emissions that create excess cancer risk worse than 1 in 1 million — meaning that if a million people were exposed to the toxic air pollutants over a lifetime of 70 years, there would likely be at least one additional case of cancer. But the agency is far more permissive about the cancer risk it considers unacceptable: greater than one additional cancer death per 10,000 people.

ProPublica’s analysis of ethylene oxide assessed the impact of the chemical for an intermediate risk level, 1 in 100,000, which experts say is not sufficiently protective of public health. Using that threshold, the analysis, which examined data from 2014 to 2018, shows that more than 60% of the 6.9 million Americans who face heightened excess cancer risk from industrial air pollution are imperiled solely based on their exposure to ethylene oxide. (Though the analysis identifies elevated risk for geographical areas, it can’t be used to determine the specific causes of individual cancer cases.)

The risk is particularly acute in Texas, the nation’s top ethylene oxide polluter and home to 26 facilities that emit the chemical. The state stands out not just for the outsize risk its residents face but because it has emerged as a key ally for companies that emit or use ethylene oxide. Texas has fought stricter federal emissions regulations, even as many other states, including several led by Republicans, have enacted tighter controls on the chemical.

Laredo, home to more than 260,000 people, is among the 20 hot spots in the country with the highest levels of excess cancer risk, according to the analysis. Midwest’s Laredo plant released far more ethylene oxide on average than any other sterilizer plant in the country during the five-year period covered by the analysis, which used emissions estimates that Midwest reported to the EPA. The facility elevates the estimated lifetime cancer risk for nearly half of Laredo’s residents to at least 1 in 100,000, the analysis found. More than 37,000 of those are children.

Midwest said in a statement that the cancer risk posed by its sterilization plant is overstated, asserting that the emissions it reported to the EPA are “worst case scenarios,” rather than specific pollution levels. The law actually requires companies to report “reasonable” estimates of what they release into the air.

In 2019, the EPA directed its regional offices to warn more than two dozen communities facing the highest risks from ethylene oxide pollution, including those near Midwest’s sterilizer plants in Laredo and Jackson, Missouri.

Armed with that information, residents across the country organized and pressured their elected officials to act. Attorneys general in Illinois and Georgia sued sterilizer plants over alleged air pollution violations, and lawmakers enacted stricter regulations of the chemical. Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian Kemp, backed the effort. A bipartisan coalition of U.S. representatives from Illinois, Georgia and Pennsylvania formed to push the EPA to adopt stricter regulations on ethylene oxide that reflected the findings in the agency’s final assessment.

The meetings even prompted change at Midwest’s facility in Jackson, which “voluntarily installed additional controls to reduce emissions,” according to Ben Washburn, a regional EPA spokesperson.

But the EPA region that oversees Texas and Louisiana trailed behind. Despite being home to the most “high-priority” ethylene oxide facilities, the region had not scheduled a single meeting on the pollutant as of March 2020. “These communities have not been given the same opportunity to interact with federal and state regulators to become informed on the issue,” said an urgent alert that month from the EPA’s Office of Inspector General. The region didn’t hold its first community meetings anywhere in the two states until August 2021, two years after the EPA directive.

Laredo is still waiting.

More than 100 Laredo residents contacted by ProPublica and the Tribune said they hadn’t heard about the cancer risk posed by the plant. Only one even knew of the facility's existence. The EPA acknowledged in a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune this month that it hadn’t yet informed Laredo residents of the cancer risks tied to ethylene oxide. Madeline Beal, senior risk communication adviser for the EPA, said the agency recognizes “the critical importance of public outreach and engagement to inform impacted residents about risk and ultimately to address it.”

But Beal also suggested that the federal agency is not solely responsible for informing and protecting residents. She said states are in the best position to “conduct additional, more refined investigations, as well as carry out appropriate outreach with affected communities.”

Beal said, “These state-led efforts have already led to emission reductions and expected public health benefits in several areas.”

Children at risk

Nidia Nevares, an accountant for a freight shipping and trucking company in northern Laredo, was working in her office earlier this year when her cellphone began ringing. Her chest tightened when she saw the caller ID: The Children's Hospital of San Antonio. She was not expecting the call.

It had been almost two years since JJ had returned home from a 10-month stay at the Ronald McDonald House in San Antonio following his first round of treatment for leukemia. The journey had been brutal, as health care workers implanted ports — attachments for tubes to access the veins near his heart — into his chest almost weekly.

Eventually, the cancer cells that had multiplied in JJ’s small body were sufficiently sapped and he was allowed to return home to Laredo to finish out his treatment. JJ continued taking chemotherapy drugs and making biweekly trips to San Antonio, which many Laredo families have to travel to because their city doesn’t have a children’s hospital. He was doing well enough that his family started planning a trip to Orlando, Florida, where he could ride roller coasters with his older brother.

But the doctor on the other end of the phone that day delivered devastating news.

JJ’s cancer was back, and it had likely spread to his spine and brain. He would have to return to San Antonio for at least a year to restart a more aggressive treatment plan.

“It’s extremely hard. These are calls and moments that you don’t expect to happen,” Nevares said. “It’s just really, really hard.”

Dr. Susan Buchanan, director of the Great Lakes Center for Reproductive and Children’s Environmental Health at the University of Illinois Chicago, said ethylene oxide should not be ruled out as a factor in JJ and Yaneli’s diagnoses given their proximity to the Midwest facility and the amount of the chemical it releases.

Acute lymphocytic leukemia, the type of cancer JJ and Yaneli have, is the most common type of cancer among children, although pediatric cases remain rare compared to adult ones. One study also found the disease to be particularly prominent among Latino youth. Studies over the past decade have found links between toxic air pollution and higher rates of blood cancers among children, including lymphoma and acute lymphocytic leukemia.

“Kids are uniquely susceptible to anything that’s in the air,” Buchanan said. “We should not be putting day cares and schools near the plants that are emitting ethylene oxide.”

More than 40% of Laredo’s nearly 70,000 schoolchildren attend campuses that are located in areas with an excess elevated risk of cancer greater than 1 in 100,000 due to ethylene oxide emissions from the Midwest plant, according to the ProPublica and Tribune analysis.

JJ attended Julia Bird Jones Muller Elementary School, a campus that, like his home, is located less than 2 miles from the Midwest plant. ProPublica’s analysis shows the area the school is in faces an estimated elevated lifetime cancer risk of 1 in 3,700. That’s nearly three times higher than the maximum 1 in 10,000 risk level the EPA considers acceptable, making it the most at-risk school in Laredo and one of the most at-risk in the country.

The Nevares family was shocked and angry after learning from ProPublica and the Tribune of the cancer risk posed by the facility. From the EPA to state and local governments, officials at all levels should be responsible for protecting Americans, family members said.

“You think that you can trust in the authorities, and that before they allow companies so close to residents or schools, they should regulate it, and maybe move the company somewhere further away,” said JJ’s aunt, Sara Montalvo Saldaña, who has been one of his primary caretakers. “Maybe, since we are on the border, there just isn’t that much attention being paid.”

Leaders of Laredo’s United Independent School District said they “had no knowledge of the Midwest Sterilization facility or any potential risk it might pose to our students and staff” until the news organizations began asking questions. At the request of the district, TCEQ held a virtual meeting on May 14 with school leaders, telling them it had inspected the facility five times in the past four years as part of its routine checks and found no major violations.

School officials indicated that TCEQ representatives made no mention of a complaint they investigated last year that alleged Midwest’s Laredo plant falsified ethylene oxide emissions readings for a decade. The complaint alleged that a device Midwest used to determine how much of the chemical is in the air had produced readings of zero from 2007 to 2017.

The TCEQ investigator assigned to the case, Sheila Serna, obtained records from Midwest that confirmed the instrument hadn’t been picking up on ethylene oxide in the air. But she couldn’t determine the cause because the company had recently replaced the device. Still, Serna urged her manager, Arnaldo Lanese, to refer the issue to the agency’s criminal division for further investigation.

“It seems very unlikely that emissions readings before the installation of this new system were truly 0,” Serna wrote in an email obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune.

Lanese replied that the investigation lacked sufficient information to merit such action, but offered to discuss the matter with Serna in person. Records indicate that the complaint wasn’t referred for criminal investigation.

Midwest declined to answer specific questions about the complaint but said in a statement that the company meets or exceeds local, state and federal regulatory standards. TCEQ did not answer questions about the complaint and declined to make Serna or Lanese available for an interview.

After school leaders raised concerns, TCEQ purchased monitoring equipment that allowed it to take a single 10-minute air sample outside of the Laredo plant in June. The state agency told ProPublica and the Tribune that it found no violations of TCEQ air quality rules.

Todd Cloud, an air quality consultant who reviewed TCEQ investigative records at the request of ProPublica and the Tribune, called the agency’s air monitoring “garbage.”

“That is a PR stunt,” said Cloud, who worked for the fossil fuel industry for more than 20 years before becoming an adviser to environmental groups. “Going out there for 10 minutes with a handheld analyzer: That’s a joke.”

Industry’s defense: a medical benefit

Despite the health risks posed by ethylene oxide emissions, the sterilizer industry is pushing an argument that the chemical is a net win for public health.

The industry has for years fought against stricter environmental regulations by highlighting the role ethylene oxide plays in sterilizing medical equipment, which it portrays as vital to the health care system.

At a conference in Cincinnati in February 2020, a toxicologist named Lucy Fraiser presented preliminary findings of a study that sought to compare the risk of ethylene oxide pollution to the harm that banning it would cause to the medical industry. Fraiser told government and industry scientists that banning the chemical could lower exposure for a “relatively small number” of people living and working near sterilization plants. But she said that such a move would ultimately have a limited impact on overall exposure because the chemical is also present in automobile exhaust, cigarette smoke, food and consumer products.

“If EtO use in sterilizing medical equipment/devices were banned, the much more tangible risk of HAIs” — health care-associated infections — “could increase across the entire U.S.,” Fraiser said, according to minutes from the conference obtained by ProPublica and the Tribune.

When Fraiser completed her presentation, an attendee asked who had sponsored her research. Fraiser responded that she was working for Midwest Sterilization Corporation, which she referred to as a small, privately owned company out of Missouri. She later told ProPublica and the Tribune that she put the study on the back burner due to a lack of data, but may eventually revisit it.

Since opening its first plant in Missouri in 1976, Midwest has become the largest privately owned contract sterilizer in the country. It now sanitizes some 40% of all medical procedure trays nationwide, according to the statement it sent to ProPublica and the Tribune.

The company has been involved in fighting stricter regulations of ethylene oxide and the sterilizer industry for decades. On several occasions, the EPA has waived requirements that would have reduced ethylene oxide pollution from sterilizer plants even as it strengthened regulations for other types of facilities that emit the chemical. Among them, the agency has halted requirements that sterilizers install a particular type of pollution control equipment to reduce emissions from a certain type of vent. It also permanently exempted the industry from a federal permitting program that would have imposed an additional level of oversight.

Beal, the EPA adviser, said in a statement that sterilizer companies are still required to abide by a federal regulation that dictates maximum pollution levels from their facilities. But in 2006, the same year Jinot and her colleagues published their draft assessment, the EPA decided against updating that rule, saying that any additional requirements would result in minimal pollution reductions at a significant cost to companies.

Texas championed the medical benefits of the sterilizer industry in the early months of the coronavirus pandemic when it finalized a new ethylene oxide standard that is far less protective than both the EPA’s and the state’s own previous benchmark. On May 15, 2020, the TCEQ declared that people could safely inhale 2,400 parts per trillion of ethylene oxide over their lifetimes. In contrast, the EPA’s inhalation risk benchmark is a far stricter 0.1 parts per trillion. TCEQ said in a news release that the new standard “comes during a unique period of strain on the nation’s medical industry.”

Several scientists, including Jinot, decried the TCEQ’s conclusion as flawed. They pointed out that the review, which found that ethylene oxide had “little human carcinogenic potential,” wrongly excluded studies linking ethylene oxide exposure to breast cancer and drew on cherry-picked analyses of the same studies the EPA relied on.

TCEQ defended its assessment in a statement to ProPublica and the Tribune, saying it improved upon EPA’s work and that its “decision to exclude breast cancer as an endpoint was supported by peer-reviewed studies.”

“Using the most current science, the new limit remains protective for people living near facilities that emit ethylene oxide while providing flexibility for the medical sterilization industry to continue its own critical role in patient care in the state of Texas,” TCEQ stated in its May 2020 news release.

The biggest advantage for companies of the Texas standard, critics said, is that it prevents them from having to slash existing emissions, which they would need to do if the state followed the EPA’s assessment.

“It certainly stops the regulatory driver for massive statewide reductions, which we are seeing in several other states,” Cloud said. “It protected the existing EtO operations.”

Mustapha Beydoun, vice president and chief operating officer of the nonprofit Houston Advanced Research Center, which conducts air quality studies for local governments as well as industry, said it’s concerning that the TCEQ and the EPA are so far apart on such a crucial issue.

“TCEQ is going in the opposite direction, basically saying it’s OK if you shower in this stuff,” Beydoun said. “Where is the disconnect here?”

“Made it this far”

On a cool, sunny day in late September, Yaneli wailed as she stood in a royal blue ball gown at the entrance to the chapel at Iglesia Cristiana Misericordia. Whether the teenager’s tears were the product of the sharp pain shooting through her legs or the raw emotions on the occasion of her landmark 15th birthday celebration was unclear even to her parents, who rarely see her cry.

The steroid pills Yaneli took for nearly two years as part of her treatment for leukemia have killed off so much of the tissue in her hip bone that it hurts to move. Karla and Cesar Ortiz worried that their daughter would need a wheelchair to make it down the long aisle of the church for the traditional quinceañera blessing that welcomes a young girl to womanhood. They didn’t know if they would get to dance with her under the stars at the reception.

But Yaneli insisted on standing and, later on, dancing. Her parents walked arm-in-arm with her toward the altar that afternoon, and they held her steady as she swayed on the dance floor.

That night, Karla Ortiz recalled how she had nearly lost her daughter two years earlier.

Soon after Yaneli’s cancer diagnosis, the family moved to Corpus Christi, which has a children’s hospital. Yaneli developed a serious infection that her small body was having trouble fighting because the cancer had nearly depleted her healthy white blood cell count. Doctors had just finished two hourslong surgeries to rid her body of the bacteria that had proliferated.

Eventually, a surgeon arrived in the same room where Yaneli had been diagnosed with cancer weeks earlier. Through an interpreter, he told Karla and Cesar Ortiz that their daughter was not breathing on her own and offered them two options: They could keep Yaneli on life support, where she would likely stay for the remainder of her life, or remove her from the breathing machines, which he estimated would give her two or three days to live. Cesar Ortiz dropped to his knees to pray. In his hands was the Bible he always carried with him.

After four agonizing hours, the couple decided to remove the tubes that doctors said were keeping Yaneli alive. “We’ll suffer if she suffers, and we can’t let that happen,” Karla Ortiz recalled thinking. The parents called their families and asked them to make the 2 1/2-hour drive from Laredo to Corpus Christi to say goodbye, a recommendation from the hospital’s medical staff.

Karla Ortiz barely slept the night before doctors removed the tubes from Yaneli’s fragile body. She felt nauseous. But when the moment came, an unconscious Yaneli suddenly started breathing on her own. Three weeks later, she woke up.

It was a blessing for the couple, and it strengthened the mother’s resolve not to miss another moment with her daughter.

She quit her marketing job to take care of Yaneli full time. It would be the second job she’d left in the five months following her daughter’s diagnosis. The couple needed the money, but Yaneli needed them more. They returned a car they were still paying off to the dealership, taking a hit on their credit that hampered their dream of buying a home.

Two years later, back in Laredo, they were not only commemorating their daughter’s quinceañera but marking the anticipated end of her battle with cancer.

The Monday after her celebration, Yaneli was back at the children’s hospital in Corpus Christi. Her legs hurt so much, it felt like they were broken.

She would need to have both of her hips replaced, but the surgeon didn’t want to disrupt the final months of her treatment, which was set to end Dec. 3.

With the chemotherapy now done, Yaneli will have to return to the hospital for the hip surgeries.

“The doctors say after those she won’t really be able to run again,” Karla Ortiz said. “But at least we’ve made it this far.”

“Laredo can’t be a sacrifice zone”

More than 75 Laredo residents crammed into a city recreation center about 2 1/2 miles from the Midwest plant this month. Local leaders organized the meeting after reporters from ProPublica and the Tribune started asking questions about the Midwest plant. It drew so much interest that some residents listened from two nearby overflow rooms, while another 50 people tuned in via livestream.

“One of the biggest problems is we did not know,” said Tricia Cortez, the executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, a local environmental group that focuses predominantly on water pollution. They learned about the issue in the spring, she explained, from investigative reporters. “Once we did, we were truly stunned by diving deep into EPA databases and knew that people had to know about this, and we had to address this right away.”

Over the course of nearly three hours, residents expressed outrage that government officials had failed to alert them of the cancer risk posed by the Midwest plant. They listened to organizers from Illinois, who had mobilized to close an ethylene oxide plant in their community, and traded stories about loved ones who had recently been diagnosed with cancer. They also circulated a petition asking the EPA to hold a community meeting and strengthen regulations. “Let it be known that Laredo can’t be a sacrifice zone to serve the rest of the country,” one resident said.

A doctor with the city’s health authority raised the possibility of a pilot program that would collect blood samples from 3,000 Laredo residents to test for higher concentrations of ethylene oxide. A representative from the newly established Clean Air Laredo Coalition, which formed in response to the reporting, said its members are pushing the city council to request that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conduct blood testing on children attending school campuses in areas facing a high excess cancer risk. And Laredo City Council members assured residents that local government officials would rely on EPA’s final risk assessment, and not the more lenient view taken by TCEQ, to weigh cancer risks.

Some officials say that’s just the beginning of what’s needed. U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, has been pushing the EPA’s regional offices to finally hold the meeting they were asked to conduct years ago. “The worst thing they can do is hide this,” Cuellar said. In November, after ProPublica published a map that showed the spread of cancer-causing chemicals from thousands of sources of hazardous air pollution across the country, including Midwest’s Laredo facility, David Gray, EPA’s regional director for Texas, responded to Cuellar’s request. Gray said the EPA was discussing a community meeting with the local environmental group and that Cuellar could be involved in scheduling it.

Beal, of the EPA, said that the Biden administration has “reinvigorated its commitment to protect public health from toxic air emissions from industrial facilities.” And she said ethylene oxide in particular is a major priority. The agency has laid out a three-year timeline for strengthening regulations for a variety of pollutants and communicating the risks to the public. That includes proposing an updated regulation for ethylene oxide sterilizers like Midwest sometime in the coming months, which may require facilities to reduce ethylene oxide emissions.

Thomas McGarity, a professor at the University of Texas School of Law who once worked in the EPA’s Office of General Counsel, is skeptical that the administration will be as forceful as it is promising to be, particularly with states that are reluctant to follow its lead.

“The Biden administration has talked a big game, but let’s see what they will force states to do,” McGarity said. “The EPA has a lot of power, but it has always been reluctant to use it.”

Five years after Jinot and her colleagues published their updated risk assessment on ethylene oxide, the agency still has not incorporated the science into the majority of the environmental regulations that govern how much of the chemical facilities can emit. The one it has updated, which would reduce ethylene oxide pollution from certain chemical plants by an estimated 1 ton overall, is facing a lawsuit from environmental groups who argue it’s insufficient.

Meanwhile, the American Chemistry Council, which represents the chemical industry, formally asked the EPA to consider using Texas’ standard instead of its own. The group has suggested that the EPA’s assessment is outdated because it preceded the TCEQ assessment.

The EPA agreed to consider the request but hasn’t yet made a decision. “I don’t know what’s going on now that they think they should reopen it,” Jinot said. “There’s nothing new here. There's just this really flawed and error-ridden alternative. It’s very discouraging.”

Jinot said she has tried to unplug since her retirement four years ago, but she keeps getting drawn back in to defend scientific conclusions that could have already led to stronger regulations to protect vulnerable communities.


This scientist created a rapid test just weeks into the pandemic. Here’s why you still can’t get it.

When COVID-19 started sweeping across America in the spring of 2020, Irene Bosch knew she was in a unique position to help.

The Harvard-trained scientist had just developed quick, inexpensive tests for several tropical diseases, and her method could be adapted for the novel coronavirus. So Bosch and the company she had co-founded two years earlier seemed well-suited to address an enormous testing shortage.

E25Bio — named after the massive red brick building at MIT that houses the lab where Bosch worked — already had support from the National Institutes of Health, along with a consortium of investors led by MIT.

Within a few weeks, Bosch and her colleagues had a test that would detect coronavirus in 15 minutes and produce a red line on a little chemical strip. The factory where they were planning to make tests for dengue fever could quickly retool to produce at least 100,000 COVID-19 tests per week, she said, priced at less than $10 apiece, or cheaper at a higher scale.

Bosch’s prototype attracted a top Silicon Valley venture capital firm, which pitched in $2 million.

“We are excited about what E25Bio is capable of shipping in a short amount of time: a test that is significantly cheaper, more affordable, and available at-home,” said firm founder Vinod Khosla. (Disclosure: Khosla’s daughter Anu Khosla is on ProPublica’s board.)

On March 21 — when the U.S. had recorded only a few hundred COVID-19 deaths — Bosch submitted the test for emergency authorization, a process the Food and Drug Administration uses to expedite tests and treatments.

A green light from the FDA could have made a big difference for the many Americans who were then frantically trying to find doctors to swab their noses, with results, if they were lucky, coming back only days later.

But the go-ahead never came.

In the months that followed, Bosch responded to repeated requests from FDA reviewers for data and studies. When the agency finally put out guidance that summer about the performance over-the-counter home tests needed to meet, officials required that such tests be nearly as sensitive as the lab tests used to definitively determine whether a patient has COVID-19.

That standard proved difficult to meet. Rapid tests are usually sensitive enough to detect viral antigens when someone has enough of them to be able to spread the disease. Such tests are not as good at picking up cases in either earlier or later stages of infection, when viral loads are lower.

Bosch’s tests missed the FDA’s high bar. It wasn’t until the spring of 2021 that much larger companies were able to design similar tests — relatively inexpensive, over-the-counter rapid tests — that the agency found acceptable.

“You could have antigen tests saving lives since the beginning of the pandemic,” said Bosch, sitting in her lab at MIT. “That’s the sad story.”

As ProPublica recently detailed, many companies with at-home tests have been stymied by an FDA review process that has flummoxed experts and even caused one agency reviewer to quit in frustration.

While E25Bio’s test didn’t catch quite as many cases as those now on the market, it could have been used to catch superspreaders, with warnings that a negative result wouldn’t rule out infection. Experts told us that the test could have been a vital public health tool had it been produced in the millions in 2020 just as COVID-19 was racing across the country undetected.

“Since we didn’t have other options, it would have been a very good test,” said Michael Mina, an epidemiologist who followed E25Bio’s early progress. “If we were going to war, and somebody was invading us, and we had a bunch of revolver pistols, and we didn’t yet have the shipment of machine guns, hell yeah, you’re going to pick up the revolver pistol. You do what you can when you need to in an emergency.”

Three other experts reviewed Bosch’s submissions at ProPublica’s request and agreed that her test approached what is now considered acceptable for over-the-counter tests.

Mina and others have been calling for an embrace of rapid testing since the pandemic’s early days, saying that tests should be ubiquitous and cheap enough that people could stock them in their medicine cabinet, like aspirin or Band-Aids. Although not a panacea, rapid tests can slow the spread of COVID-19 when used repeatedly and when the infected follow instructions to isolate, many studies suggest.

After not showing urgency on the issue for much of the past year, the Biden administration has moved recently to boost production and lower prices. Facing a huge new wave of cases and an increasing outcry about shortages of tests, Biden announced Tuesday that 500 million more at-home tests would be distributed by mail, starting in January.

David Paltiel, a professor at the Yale School of Public Health, said a significant part of the problem is that the FDA created a detailed roadmap for tests that give patients a close-to-definitive answer on whether they have COVID-19, but never created a separate framework for rapid tests that serve a different purpose: helping people get frequent, fast evidence of whether they may be contagious.

“The former are tests of infection; the latter are tests of infectiousness,” Paltiel said. “They both share the same regulatory pathway — a pathway that was designed with diagnostic testing in mind and is littered with requirements that make no sense for the purpose they serve.”

He added, “It’s an outrage that rapid tests aren’t dirt cheap and plentiful on grocery store shelves.”

The FDA declined to comment on individual test submissions, but said in a statement that it has worked to authorize “accurate and reliable” home tests since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Unfortunately, many submissions the FDA has received for home tests include incomplete or poor data, and it is the FDA’s responsibility to protect the public health by declining to authorize poorly performing tests or those without complete data,” the agency said. “We have also worked interactively with many developers to resolve concerns when data was incomplete or unclear, or to find solutions to issues that arose during review. If the FDA received a home test that the data and science supported in early-to-mid 2020, we would have quickly authorized it.”

Bosch has since moved on to start a new venture focused on helping other test developers conduct trials that meet the FDA’s standards. This winter, she’s working with the housing authority in the high-poverty Boston suburb of Chelsea to conduct a trial using several tests that have been authorized in other countries, but not America. The goal: to demonstrate that such tests can be effective when deployed for free, in conjunction with education and outreach.

“The next thing is frequent testing for communities that need it,” Bosch said. “How do we flood the market with a $2 test that is as good as a $20? We’re doing it in Chelsea. We should be an example for the whole country.”

American medical device regulators have never been enthusiastic about letting people test themselves.

In the 1980s, the FDA banned home tests for HIV on the grounds that people who tested positive might do harm to themselves if they did not receive simultaneous counseling. In the 2010s, the agency cracked down on home genetic testing kits, concerned that people might make rash medical decisions as a result.

But the FDA wasn’t an obstacle to Bosch’s work on tropical diseases, since the tests were mostly needed in places like the Brazilian Amazon, where infected mosquitoes are hard to escape. The National Institutes of Health thought Bosch’s tests had enough potential to give E25Bio $1.8 million for the project.

So when the pandemic struck, the small company decided to use its expertise for the new threat. Within a few weeks, Bosch and her colleagues developed antibodies that could detect the presence of proteins attached to the new coronavirus.

In her previous work, Bosch had found that tests of this type could be validated in the lab, so she ordered up some samples of the SARS-CoV-2 virus and ran two different types of antigen tests on them. She found that both worked fairly well, and packaged up all her evidence and sent it to the FDA, with little guidance on what would pass muster.

Shortly after, an FDA reviewer told her she’d need to conduct a clinical trial, which would take months. “My first huge surprise was when they said, ‘Nope, none of your validations are going to pass for an EUA,’” Bosch said.

The next challenge was that the accuracy of antigen tests would be measured by how they compared to a different type of diagnostic: the polymerase chain reaction, or PCR, test, which is considered the “gold standard” for finding coronaviruses. Many see that as an unproductive comparison, given the fact that PCR detects remnants of the virus, which may persist for many days after the infection ceases to be a threat.

“When you’re PCR testing, you’re testing for the presence of viral genetic material,” said Hannah Mamuszka, the CEO of Alva10, a company that helps diagnostics manufacturers prove their value for insurers. “When you’re antigen testing you’re testing for presence of a protein on the surface of the virus,” she said. “Those are obviously not the same thing. So it’s really confounding that the FDA has had such a hard time communicating what they need, and defining what a test would need to look like to be used at home.”

Nevertheless, by April 2020, E25Bio had lined up a trial with three hospitals in Florida. They found the test identified 80% of the swabs that a PCR test had shown to be positive (known as sensitivity) and 94% of the negatives (known as specificity).

The FDA wanted to see fewer false positives, even though people who test positive on an antigen test are usually advised to confirm it with a PCR. And while the overall sensitivity of E25Bio’s test was lower than other tests would later demonstrate, it measured 100% for people with higher viral loads — those most likely to be infectious.

Bosch was in frequent contact with her assigned reviewer at the FDA, and even talked to Tim Stenzel, the head of the agency’s office that vets diagnostic tests. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gave E25Bio another $500,000 to continue research and development.

But at the end of July 2020, the FDA came out with a template that laid out the expectation that tests available for home use without a prescription would reach 90% overall sensitivity — that is, antigen tests would pick up nine out of ten positive tests that a PCR identified. Bosch knew her tests couldn’t meet that standard. And without an EUA for home use, they wouldn’t be able to serve their intended function.

Already, plenty of models had illustrated the importance of frequent testing, including one co-authored last year by Yale’s Paltiel with Rochelle Walensky, now head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In September 2020, as chief of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, Walensky argued that antigen tests were actually most useful for pinpointing people at their most infectious.

In fact, the utility of that approach was being tested at Bosch’s own former workplace. Beginning in the late summer of 2020, a coworking lab space in Cambridge where E25Bio had launched started a trial with 257 of its users who agreed to take both the antigen rapid test at home and a PCR test twice a week. (This was also closer to a home use scenario than the Florida hospitals study, in which COVID-19 was more prevalent and tests were administered by medical professionals.)

A peer-reviewed paper based on the results showed overall sensitivity of 79%, and that the rapid test picked up nearly all of the positives later detected by a PCR in the first few days after symptoms appeared, allowing infected people to stay out of the office as soon as they knew.

But the FDA does not consider test performance data broken out by how much virus the subjects have in their systems, saying the typical method for measuring it is inconsistent. Nor did the agency initially authorize tests on the condition that they be sold in packs of more than one, with instructions to use them sequentially to catch any fast-moving infections.

Bosch wasn’t the only one to be tripped up by the new standard. In mid-September 2020, Stenzel said on his weekly town hall call with test developers that his office had received zero applications for home use tests, a month and a half after putting out the template, despite his insistence that the agency was willing to be “flexible.”

Meanwhile, a $666 million NIH program to accelerate the approval and production of new COVID-19 tests funded mostly PCR tests in 2020.

The antigen tests that did make it into the NIH program in the first three funding rounds — including one made by Quidel, a public company that multiplied its profits by tenfold in 2020 over the previous year — generally had to be processed in labs or required expensive analyzers.

One of few simple antigen tests to win government support, made by Maxim Biomedical, still hasn’t submitted an EUA application, according to chief operating officer Jonathan Maa. Another grantee, Ellume, was authorized for nonprescription home use in December 2020. But it took months to go into widespread production, and still costs $39, if you can find it.

Toward the end of October 2020, Bosch received a 48-hour ultimatum from the FDA for a response to a request for additional data. She had answers to the agency’s questions, but didn’t quite make that deadline.

By the time she replied, the FDA had already closed her application. “You call and they say, ‘Oh sorry, the clock started and we can’t stop it,’” she said.

Soon after, the company’s leadership asked her to resign. The company continues to operate, but hasn’t obtained FDA authorization for any tests. “As we commercialize our COVID-19 rapid tests internationally, we are also focused on developing the next generation of rapid tests for consumer diagnostics,” an E25Bio spokesperson said, while declining to comment on Bosch’s departure or its current product pipeline.

“All our life, day in and day out, went to make antigen tests,” Bosch said. “It was tragic, because it was all because the FDA decided to be so harsh in their responses that investors said, ‘Oh, there’s no way she will pull it out.’”

E25Bio’s travails with the FDA didn’t stop Bosch from putting her expertise to use.

In early 2021, she started talking to the city of Chelsea about running a trial that could show how rapid antigen testing — even with the types of tests that the FDA had rejected — could be rolled out in a high-risk community. In the spring, when infection rates in Chelsea were among the highest in the nation, many residents had had a difficult time accessing PCR tests, because the places administering them often dissuaded immigrants by requiring identification.

Chelsea officials agreed, and Bosch secured donations of tests from five manufacturers that had been authorized in Britain, Germany, India or Korea, but none yet in the U.S. (They can still be used here for research purposes.) She said she has validated them in her lab and found them to be about as accurate as BinaxNOW, the FDA-authorized home test made by medical device giant Abbott Laboratories.

“If they have a budget for next year to do frequent testing, this will be an accomplishment,” Bosch said. “I wanted to show to the world that an experimental device is just as good as any other already-approved FDA test.”

So for the past few months, Bosch has canvassed three buildings owned by the local housing authority. Bosch, who is from Venezuela, puts on salsa music and explains in Spanish how the program will work.

The trial began in earnest last week, with study administrators walking newly enrolled subjects through using the tests. In a building reserved for elderly and disabled people, residents entered with walkers and in flip-flops to learn how to swab their noses, put the swabs in a vial of solution, squeeze a few drops onto a pad and wait anxiously for the single line to appear that would indicate a negative result.

Most were able to take a picture of the results with their phones and upload them using a special app, which they’ll continue to do in their homes each week.

The FDA frowns upon this kind of instruction in trials for at-home tests — users are supposed to be able to execute the test without training. But in reality, many need support.

For the nonprofit that helped launch the effort, the Center of Complex Interventions, the important part is demonstrating that rapid tests can work when used as part of a coordinated testing regime to address specific situations: right before people gather indoors or after an exposure to an infected person, for anyone in a high-risk job, for people in crowded living situations, or for those who have health risk factors. People in all of those situations are concentrated in Chelsea’s housing authority buildings.

“It’s a lot different than saying, ‘Let’s roll it out to everybody,’” said Karthik Dinakar, who is leading the project. “It all has to be connected in a way that makes people feel like they’re participating. The goal for us is to make the community safer, and also shift the mindset to a new equilibrium.”

Joshua Sharfstein, a vice dean at Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health who used to be principal deputy commissioner of the FDA, said that rapid tests could have been authorized earlier with these kinds of protocols in mind.

“There was no testing strategy,” Sharfstein said, outlining the opportunity that America missed to use a variety of tests for the purposes to which they were best suited. “What they could have done is to say, ‘Here are the six uses of tests. You’re sick, you’re exposed, you’re trying to maintain people on a campus. What’s the performance of test that you would need?’

“Just think how amazingly helpful that would be,” he finished, wistfully.

Meanwhile, the CDC and NIH have been studying similar programs in a handful of communities using Quidel’s at-home test. Governors have been catching on to the utility of rapid tests too. Last week, the state of Massachusetts bought millions of rapid test kits made by iHealth laboratories. The company’s chief operating officer, Jack Feng, told National Public Radio that the price was higher in the U.S. because of the expense of clinical trials that aren’t required elsewhere.

And since rejecting Bosch’s submissions, the FDA has been coming around to her way of thinking. In March, the agency published a template for tests that would be used serially and sold in packages of two or more, allowing the kind of frequent testing she had advocated for. And last month, it published a new template that lowered the sensitivity standard for over-the-counter tests to 80%.

Bosch had tests a year and a half ago that missed that bar by 1%.

'Get this thing out of my chest'

For the roughly 2,000 Americans who rely on it to keep their hearts going, the implanted pump is impossible to ignore.

They feel it pressing inside their ribs when they lean over. Or they ache from the weight of its controller strapped to their shoulders. Some can even hear the device’s whirring hum deep inside their chests.

Most of all, they now live with the stress of knowing the HeartWare Ventricular Assist Device has such serious issues — a higher rate of deaths and strokes than an alternative pump and a history of unexplained malfunctions — that the Food and Drug Administration and the device’s maker agreed this summer it should be taken off the market.

Those who already have the heart pump, also known as the HVAD, can’t simply get it removed or replaced. The required surgery is typically considered more dangerous than leaving it in.

They are now stuck in a medical dilemma that could have been prevented.

As we detailed in August, the FDA and HVAD maker Medtronic allowed the device to be implanted into thousands of people for years, even as federal inspectors found serious manufacturing problems, the company issued many high-risk safety alerts and people died after their implants malfunctioned. The FDA and Medtronic said they believed the benefits outweighed the risks for HVAD patients with severe heart failure, until this year when data was published showing a higher frequency of deaths and strokes compared to patients with a competing device.

The company has pledged to do everything it can to support the remaining HVAD users. Medtronic said it would provide patients with educational materials, financial assistance and technical support. “The wellbeing and experiences of patients are vitally important to us, which is why we’ve set up patient support programs, services, and feedback mechanisms,” a company spokesperson said in a written statement.

The FDA said it would “actively provide oversight of Medtronic to monitor their recall of the device and ensure that patient care remains a top priority.”

But when we spoke to people across the country who are living with HVADs, they said they'd experienced little of the promised support and had encountered financial and emotional hardships.

Here, in their own words, is what they told us.

(These interviews below have been edited for clarity.)

Alicia Warren started experiencing symptoms of heart failure at age 22, shortly after giving birth to her first daughter. “They said it came from the stress on my heart from pregnancy,” she said. “I went to the hospital one night telling them, ‘I’m not feeling good, something’s wrong.’ The emergency room doctor told me, ‘Your heart rate is racing, have you smoked crack or anything like that?’ You’ve got to be kidding me. My daughter was 1 month old.

“I did pretty well at keeping my health up and everything until around October of 2017. I was in end-stage heart failure and didn’t even know it. My kidneys were failing and my digestive system was shutting down. I’ll never say again in my life that I’m tired. Because I really know what tired is. My brothers were calling me and texting me asking what was going on, and I didn’t even have the strength to lift my finger to text back.

“The doctor acted like he was just gonna let me die. He was like, ‘I think we’ve reached the end of your life.’ I was 40 at the time. He told my kids that and everything.” Warren’s family had her moved to another hospital. Doctors there told her she only had about a month to live unless she got a left ventricular assist device, or LVAD.

LVAD is the general name for these heart pumps. Before June, there were two companies that sold LVADs in the United States, Medtronic with the HVAD and Abbott Laboratories with the HeartMate. The FDA found serious problems at the HVAD’s manufacturing plant in 2014 and labeled the device “adulterated.” But it continued to be implanted in patients for seven more years, even though dangerous issues persisted. In response, Medtronic said this month: “In 2014, the benefits of using the HVAD System for these patients significantly outweighed the known risks. Lives were saved and others extended.”

Warren and 13 other HVAD users said they weren’t told about those problems. Warren and many of the others also said they weren’t given a choice between the two devices. Sometimes that was because they had had an emergency implant with little time to research the options, or, as with Warren, their doctors only offered one device.

“I just think they should’ve went about it a different way, told the truth, and if people still want to get it, then fine. But don’t hold back the truth. Because people have died,” Warren said. “I was not informed about the issues, deaths or even the recall of the pump.”

Three years after she received the HVAD, Warren was surprised to find out it had been suddenly removed from the market. “Someone in the LVAD friends group posted a link, and I went and read it. And then I was like, ‘What?’ I’m sure if this was true, my doctors would’ve told me. They should’ve been straightforward with us about what was going on.

“I haven’t gotten a letter to this day from anybody saying anything about that recall.

“Now here I am with this thing in me, and there’s nothing I can do. It’s in me now. The only thing I can do is pray and hope I never have any issues with this thing until they get it out of me. I’m mad, but I’m still alive.”

Five other people who still have the HeartWare pump told us they first found out about the device discontinuation from social media or news reports. Some only received a letter from Medtronic after they contacted their doctors or after we reached out to the company.

The FDA said that Medtronic is required to inform every patient in writing and that the federal agency published a public notice of this. Medtronic wrote in December, “We sent letters to patients and set up a patient website and hotline. We’ve confirmed 90 percent of patients in the United States received our letter and we will continue to work with clinician offices to reach the remaining 10 percent who either declined delivery or for whom we had outdated contact information.”

When Kelly Sanchez first got the letter announcing Medtronic’s discontinuation of the HVAD, he assumed it was nothing serious. “I thought they were sending me another card in the mail for carrying in my wallet,” he said. Then he read closer. “I was in shock. And then, of course, I’m worried. Because how much are they telling me? And how much are they not telling? Yeah, they sent me this letter. But if they’re doing all this, there’s got to be more to it.

“Pretty much everything they said could go wrong with it has gone wrong with it, except for the death part. Neurological issues, the strokes, the clotting. The pump exchange.”

A pump exchange is a surgery to replace the implanted heart pump with a new one if it stops working properly and the benefits of the operation now outweigh the risks. Sanchez had the operation after a clot got stuck in the device in 2017. “It sounded like a cement mixer,” he said.

Then, in July 2019, he went golfing with his stepson Tyler Schmidt. He never got past the first hole. “I teed off, I turned around, took a step and then all of a sudden I got, they called it, stacked double vision. I was seeing a head on top of a head. Tyler rushed me up with the car and we took off to the hospital.”

Sanchez was taken in for brain scans and doctors found that not only did he have a stroke, but he had also had four or five earlier undiagnosed ones based on the damage in his brain. Much of the damage was in the optical center. “My cardiologist flat-out told me, if you have a major stroke you can lose your vision permanently,” he recalled.

When Medtronic discontinued the HVAD in June, the company said: “A growing body of observational clinical comparisons demonstrate a higher frequency of neurological adverse events and mortality.”

A study published in July found that HVAD patients experienced strokes and other neurological injuries more than twice as often as those with the competing HeartMate device. Medtronic said, “This study re-confirms our reasons for stopping sales and distribution of the HVAD device.” The company also noted the study compared the HVAD to the HeartMate 3, a newer version of the competing device. That device was approved by the FDA in 2017.

“I’m not gonna lie, we’ve been through so much stress after that first letter,” Sanchez said. “I love playing pool. I play pool three nights a week in leagues. It used to be a stress reliever. But it’s everywhere now. I mean, I can’t get away from it. With me, there’s no stress relief right now at all.”

“I have diabetes and I can’t get my sugar under control because of the stress,” his wife, Kim Sanchez, said. “Every day, that thing is in his chest. And I’m always waiting. I always have my phone, right by me. When my phone rings, and it’s his number, I’m scared to death that something else has happened.”

Sanchez’s cardiologist said they needed to get him a heart transplant as soon as possible, Kim Sanchez said. Patients no longer need HVADs once they receive heart transplants, but they need to be eligible and wait for a donor heart to become available. People who aren’t transplant candidates could have the HVAD for the rest of their lives.

“Right now, my entire thought process is to get this thing out of my chest as quick as I can,” Kelly Sanchez said. In June, he underwent bariatric surgery to lose weight to meet transplant requirements. He lost 56 pounds by November and thought he was finally below the BMI limits. Then he learned the medical staff measured his height an inch shorter than before, pushing his BMI higher.

“I’m frustrated, I’m angry and I’m scared because I still have this thing in my chest,” he said. “As long as I’ve lost 8 pounds by the 23rd of December, they’ll go back to the board. Now our hope is, I lose the 8 pounds, I get down to 225. And hopefully by the new year I’ll be on the list. That’s all we got right now.”

Dennis Partner had his first heart attack at 32, while playing softball. He’d go on to have about five more, each further damaging his heart. His doctor eventually recommended the HVAD, saying it could extend his life and give him more energy.

“I really thought the LVAD would bring back more and more movement. It never has,” he said. “I walk half a block and have to sit down and lean against something and rest. My legs just give out.”

After the HVAD was discontinued in June, doctors increased the frequency of his checkups. The additional attention also meant additional medical costs. Partner has to drive 125 miles round-trip to get to and from his doctors’ office, and each visit requires a co-pay. “Those costs all add up,” he said. Partner is thankful that his family downsized their home and paid off their purchase. “If we did have to pay mortgage or rent, I wouldn’t make it with my disability payments.”

Then, Partner’s device controller displayed a critical alert.

Before June, users were able to swap out their external device controllers at home if there was ever an issue. Patients told us that, after the recall, these controller exchanges are now done in hospitals. “They need to have a surgical suite and surgeon on call in case the pump wouldn’t start, to try to save me,” Partner said.

“It was a pretty nerve-wracking drive up there. I spent the night every five minutes having to quiet my alarm. My coordinator and her helper or trainee came into the hospital room and said, ‘You ready to change it out?’ And five minutes later it was done. Luckily mine started up just fine.”

When Medtronic discontinued the device, the company admitted there has been an issue since 2009 with the pump failing to start up. Medtronic said there had been 106 complaints related to the problem. Fourteen cases led to patients dying, and 13 others required emergency surgery to remove the devices. Medtronic said in June it still hadn’t been able to figure out the root cause of the malfunctions. The company said it was a rare problem, affecting only a small portion of devices based on the complaints submitted.

Partner received a bill for about $47,000 for the two days he spent in the hospital for the exchange. Medicare negotiated the bill down to $29,000 and covered most of the cost, but Partner still has to pay $2,556 — a significant amount for his family, which relies on disability income.

“I never even thought there was going to be a bill. I’m still having a hard time — I can’t get an explanation of why they installed this model when they knew there were tons of problems with it. I just don’t feel that’s my responsibility.”

After we recently told Medtronic about patients who are struggling with new medical costs, a company spokesperson said in an email, “We anticipated patients might have concerns about medical costs, so we expanded the HVAD System warranty and are encouraging patients to contact us (1-800-635-3930) for potential coverage of non-reimbursed medical costs.”

The expanded financial support is news to patients. The people we spoke to said they weren’t informed of it. When asked, Medtronic didn’t provide evidence that it had told patients about the expanded assistance. Days later, the company updated its patient support website, which now says it can help patients with newly incurred medical expenses.

Medtronic told us last week it had heard from four patients in total and covered costs for two of them since June.

Partner said he contacted the company more than two months ago to see if it could help with his medical bills. A representative said they would “see what they could do,” he said.

The company finally reached back out to him last week, asking for more information.

“It’s a nonstop lifestyle,” Buffy Shaw said about her job as an in-flight nanny for American Bully dogs. “I’ve built a bunch of clientele all over the world. It’s like I don’t ever stop.” So, when she learned she needed an LVAD, it was devastating.

“The first six weeks were extremely difficult. Very emotional. Very everything. Just learning how to do everything again. I couldn’t walk from the chair to the front door. I’d literally go to pass out. I couldn’t hold anything down as far as food. I got sick from everything. I couldn’t take a shower by myself. I couldn’t do anything by myself.”

Shaw said it took almost six months to adapt to having the device. She began carrying the external controller in a purse to avoid questions and was able to continue taking dogs around the world.

Then, her daughter found the recall online. “Once I started learning exactly what it entailed, it was very depressing,” Shaw said. “I feel like they’ve used us as guinea pigs.”

Shaw said she feels powerless as only one person — or even one of 2,000 people — up against Medtronic, a multibillion-dollar company, and the federal government. “You guys messed up,” she said. “You need to do something to correct this. We don’t really have a voice. That’s what I feel like. We don’t have a voice to make something happen. There are people that have died because of this machine.”

Another HVAD patient, who Shaw met on Facebook, started having problems with his device in October. He needed emergency surgery to replace the pump, but he never fully recovered. He died three weeks ago. “Death. Literally all you can think about is death,” she said.

“I don’t sleep a lot as it is, which is a side effect of having heart failure, you know, sleep issues. So now it’s just stress about the recall and them not really offering any solutions to it. There’s certain things you can do, certain things you can’t do. It’s a lot of stress, like, extreme stress.

“They should have offered something for that as far as counseling. I feel like right now, we have zero resources. My doctors always say that I’m a high functioning patient as far as this goes. I’m just super high functioning because I don’t feel like I ever want to — I’m not going to — sit home and die. I’m not going to be one of those people that just sits online and reads about people dying and all the stuff that goes on and I just have to get out of that space.”

Shaw has visited Hawaii, France and Ireland for her job since September. “To me, that’s ideal in my situation, because I literally could drop dead tomorrow,” she said. “Right now I’m just thankful that I am able to do what I’m doing. Until I get to where I can’t anymore. It’s a very fine line. That’s for sure. It’s a very fine line.”

The great inheritors: How three families shielded their fortunes from taxes for generations

President Franklin D. Roosevelt pounded on his desk and swore.

His treasury secretary had handed him a series of memos detailing the many ways the wealthy were avoiding taxes. Enraged by a rich businessman’s schemes, Roosevelt asked his treasury secretary to publicly denounce the man as a “son of a bitch.”

Roosevelt, himself an heir, earlier had warned that “economic royalists” had “carved dynasties” off the backs of America’s working men and women. Now he saw a chance to address the unfairness in the nation’s tax system.

“The time has come when we have to fight back, and the only way to fight back is to begin to name names of these very wealthy individuals,” Roosevelt told the treasury secretary, who detailed the May 1937 scene in his diary.

That summer, the Treasury Department released one name after another at a packed meeting of a joint committee of the House and Senate. Americans saw how many of the country’s wealthiest families gamed the tax system with tricks that Roosevelt described as “so widespread and so amazing both in their boldness and their ingenuity that further action without delay seems imperative.”

Some businessmen stashed their profits in secret accounts in the Bahamas. Ethel Mars, the widow of candymaker Frank Mars, was singled out for equine tax avoidance. She deducted the losses from her Milky Way horse racing stables from the candy manufacturer’s corporate taxes.

The internal revenue commissioner testified that the late E.W. Scripps and his son, whose newspapers championed the working man, avoided an estimated half a million dollars in taxes (nearly $10 million in today’s dollars) by directing income to holding companies — derided by the commissioner as “merely ephemeral subdivisions of the personalities of the individual owner” — to take advantage of lower tax rates and deductions.

The starring villain in Roosevelt’s crackdown on aggressive tax avoidance was the Mellon family, which controlled banks, aluminum production and oil interests.

Roosevelt summed up the stakes of this historic probe in a letter to Congress. “Taxes are what we pay for civilized society,” he wrote, invoking former Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes. He then added his own knife twist: “Too many individuals, however, want the civilization at a discount.”

In the more than eight decades since the hearings, tax avoidance has hardened into a way of life for the ultrarich. Over the past year, ProPublica has analyzed confidential IRS data covering thousands of the nation’s wealthiest people and revealed the largely legal strategies they use to drastically winnow down their tax bills, sometimes to zero.

The Scripps, Mellon and Mars families are living proof of the triumph of tax avoidance and the durability of dynastic fortunes: Their combined wealth today is pegged by Forbes at $114 billion. Over the years, members of all three families have played prominent roles in the modern anti-tax movement and have helped shape tax policy. And in a centurylong cat-and-mouse game, Congress has scrambled to keep up with their tactics.

Drawing on the trove of secret IRS data as well as letters, diaries, books, congressional records and court documents, ProPublica traced how these families managed to preserve their wealth over the last century despite congressional efforts to clip dynastic fortunes.

With each new rewrite of the tax code, the superrich deploy clever trusts and armies of lawyers and lobbyists to find ways not to pay. Even legislation specifically designed to prune fortunes before they pass to the next generation has not been much of an impediment.

Take the estate tax, which was established in 1916, and has never quite worked the way Congress intended. Over the years the rates have changed, but the goal of taxing the wealthiest Americans has remained. This year, the estate tax applies to couples worth more than $23.4 million.

Faced with taxes at death, some of the rich simply passed their fortunes to their heirs while they were alive. So Congress enacted a tax on those gifts. Enterprising parents got around the full bite of estate taxes by skipping their kids and giving their wealth to their grandchildren. Then came the 1976 tax imposed on gifts that skip a generation. Throughout, the ultrarich have stayed one step ahead.

The estate tax has eroded to the point that last year the estates of just 1,275 people in the whole country owed the tax — down from a peak of 139,000 in 1976 — despite historic amassing of wealth by the very richest.

The estate tax essentially has become voluntary for the ultrawealthy, paid only if “you’re unwilling to take the time and pay lawyers to plan around the tax,” said Alice Abreu, a tax law professor at Temple University.

Neither of the main levers the government has to rein in dynastic wealth and inequality — income and estate taxes — is working, she said, noting that their failure also deepens racial divides as the modern aristocrats, like their forebears, are overwhelmingly white.

“The ultimate consequence,” Abreu said, “is the very real threat to democracy that we’re facing right now.”

Worries about outsized wealth consolidated in the hands of a few date back to the Founding Fathers. When he was a Virginia legislator, Thomas Jefferson sought legal ways to prevent the perpetuation of great fortunes, fearing the rise of American-style feudalism. An “aristocracy of wealth,” Jefferson warned in his memoir, posed more “harm and danger, than benefit, to society.”

But throughout history, the aristocracy has pushed back. Andrew Mellon, the banker and industrialist who served as treasury secretary under three Republican presidents and whom the Roosevelt administration pursued for tax evasion, argued against wealth taxes to break up large fortunes. The continuation through generations of a single fortune “has been proven to be impossible,” Mellon wrote in his book about taxation. “It is an often quoted saying that ‘there are three generations from shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves.’”

The refrain meant that a fortune amassed by one generation will be frittered away by the third. E.W. Scripps used the same saying in his essays.

They were wrong. Just recently, one of Scripps’ great-great-grandsons posed on Instagram in shirtsleeves, holding stacks of cash, his arm festooned with diamond-encrusted watches. Private jets and a fleet of Lamborghinis ferry him between a mountain getaway in Aspen and a gun range in Miami, where he shoots a gold AK-47.

And this year Mellon’s grandson, Timothy, donated $53 million worth of securities to the state of Texas for a border wall with Mexico, The Texas Tribune reported. A railroad investor and major donor to Donald Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign, Timothy Mellon wrote in his autobiography that big government has made a record number of Americans dependent on government largess. “They have become slaves of a new Master, Uncle Sam,” he wrote.

The fortunes of Andrew Mellon and his peers have proved so durable over the past century that today one-third of the top 50 wealthiest Americans on the Forbes list are heirs. The cascading riches have minted multimillionaires and billionaires outside the top 50, as well. ProPublica’s analysis of confidential IRS data shows the youngest son of the late opioid magnate Mortimer Sackler took in more than $205 million by age 22; Bruce Nordstrom, grandson of the department store founder, collected more than $175 million in trust income through 2019; and William Wrigley Jr., the great-grandson of the chewing gum pioneer, raked in more than $570 million in trust income through that year.

Sackler, Nordstrom and Wrigley declined to comment. After repeated calls and emails, an executive at the railroad company where Timothy Mellon is a major investor said she could not reach Mellon and that he does not generally comment on media inquiries. A representative of the Scripps family said its members “have always complied with all tax laws.” Family members, he said, “do not attempt to manipulate, influence or change tax policies.”

A spokesperson for the Mars family said that it “prides itself on being responsible Americans” who “have always paid their taxes in full, including on all income received from the company.”

Today, the nation’s richest employ what are aptly known as dynasty trusts, tax shelters designed to allow them to avoid estate taxes not just for three generations, but for the next 1,000 years. Or even forever.

To understand the roots of America’s attempts to reign in family fortunes, it helps to start in the early 1900s with a whiskey-swilling, pistol-toting millionaire.

“RASCALITY OF THE RICH MAN”

E.W. Scripps Fights for Taxes on the Rich, Then Regrets It

That millionaire was E.W. Scripps. A man of contradictions, he preached radicalism and expressed sympathy for the labor insurgents who bombed the Los Angeles Times building and killed 21 people. He then spent much of his last decade sailing the world on his 172-foot yacht or puffing cigars at Miramar, his sprawling ranch outside of San Diego modeled after a castle in Italy.

Scripps co-founded a newspaper empire in 1878 aimed at the working class. In the late 1800s, when many newspapers cost 5 cents, Scripps sold his for a penny and published news that, he said, helped working men and women “protect themselves from the brutal force and chicanery of the ruling and employing class.”

The strategy made Scripps rich, and his writings show deep misgivings about his wealth. He feared his heirs might become “unutterable snobs.” And he worried that the laborers, incensed by the selfishness of America’s plutocrats, would rise up in a “violent, costly, and perhaps bloody revolution.”

Scripps wrote, “I didn’t count myself so much a friend of the poor as I counted myself the antagonist of the foolish members of my own economic class.”

He saw the tax system as a way to defuse that powder keg and took a leading role in campaigning for taxes that he said would “make the rich men pay.”

As World War I loomed, Scripps pressed President Woodrow Wilson: “I strongly urge that we should pay as we go in the war with income and inheritance taxes,” Scripps told Wilson in a telegram, adding that people who made more than $100,000 ($2.2 million in today’s dollars) should pay the most. “Such legislation would cost me much more than half my present income.”

In 1916, Wilson signed legislation creating the modern estate tax. As it is today, the estate tax was based on the value of a person’s assets before they were passed to heirs. That first year, the rate on wealth exceeding $5 million was 10%. The following year, the top rate was 25% and soon would jump to 40%.

Yet, from the earliest days of the income and estate taxes, it was clear that the wealthy found ways to duck them. Scripps’ newspapers ran an investigative series about tax dodging in 1916, and Scripps pressured Congress and the president to make income tax data public. Complaining to Wilson, Scripps said Treasury Department scrutiny of his own taxes was so inadequate that he could have paid half of what he owed without being discovered.

“The rascality of the rich man has been used to influence Congress to rig the tax law with purposeful defectiveness to provide loopholes for the wealthy,” Scripps told one of his editors.

His enthusiasm for progressive taxation, however, dimmed as his own taxes rose. Scripps complained to President Warren G. Harding in 1921 that he’d seen his taxes rise almost 30-fold — which he found “absurd” and “unreasonable.”

Even so, Scripps confessed to Harding that he had been successful in avoiding taxes by keeping profits inside his business and, as a result, would leave his heirs a much bigger estate. It wasn’t exactly tax evasion, Scripps said, but it was avoidance.

The following year, in 1922, Scripps put all of his newspaper stock in a trust for his heirs with his son Robert Paine Scripps as trustee.

By that point, trusts had already become a preferred tax-dodging tool of the rich, and they have remained so. The trust is a legal instrument so ancient that scholars still debate its precise origins. In the Middle Ages in England, they were used in part to get around a feudal form of taxation as well as rules requiring the first born son inherit a father’s property. With a trust, a landowner could pass an inheritance to a wife and younger children as well as preclude any payments to the lord.

Today, there are many kinds of trusts, from those created by cut-and-paste templates to bespoke versions crafted by boutique law firms dedicated to the defense of family fortunes. At their most basic, they are imaginary vaults for cash, stock, businesses or other things. The money made by what’s in the trust — say, dividends, interest or business profits — is still subject to income tax. But it’s possible to set up a trust so that what’s inside is protected from the estate tax. The person who sets up the trust writes instructions and designates people known as trustees to carry out those wishes. That’s where the mystical power of the trust comes in: In the eyes of the estate tax system, the person who created the vault and their heirs don’t actually own it. The wealth inside can exist in a limbo unreachable by the estate tax because the trustees technically control it. Still, the heirs can receive a massive stream of income from those stocks or properties for generations.

Scripps’ trust was a little different. Because he wasn’t willing to give up control of the shares in his trust during his lifetime, Scripps’ estate would later face a tax bill. But after his death, it automatically transformed into the kind that would allow generations of his heirs to avoid the estate tax that he had pushed to create.

Scripps, whom one biographer called a lifelong misogynist, also dictated that Robert’s female offspring were to receive half what the males did. He made sure his wife and daughter wouldn’t get any shares in his newspaper company. He wrote that he didn’t want them to turn what he considered “an instrument of power” into “merely an instrument to manufacture money to spend on things women want.”

A Scripps family spokesman said E.W. Scripps’ intention was to perpetuate and expand his company and that “the future prospects of his newspapers were far more important than the financial interests of his heirs.”

Scripps would later set sail on his yacht and die off the coast of Liberia with no family at his side. His trust lived on for 86 more years.

“THE GATES OF GOLD”

A Foe of Taxes on the Rich Takes Power

On Inauguration morning in March of 1921, the new treasury secretary arrived in Washington aboard a private rail car. With a bearing the San Francisco Examiner called “so shy that (it) is almost shrinking,” Andrew Mellon lacked the swagger of one of the most powerful businessmen in the world.

At 65, Mellon was the oldest cabinet member of the Harding administration and by far the richest. “Be assured, neighbors, your money is safe as long as your new Cousin Andrew of the tired eye stands guard at the gates of gold,” gushed a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Mellon came by his early fortune and antipathy for taxes the old-fashioned way: He inherited them from his old man.

Thomas Mellon had immigrated from what is now Northern Ireland, where, he complained in his autobiography, “oppressive taxes ... drove our people from their homes.” In the early 1820s, Thomas, then a child, visited Pittsburgh. He gaped at the power of a steam-driven grist mill and at the opulence of the mill owners’ home, a stately brick mansion. This was the Negley estate, owned by one of the most prominent landholders in Pittsburgh.

Mellon would live on that very property. Years later, after a calculated courtship, he married Sarah Jane Negley, who inherited a share of her father’s properties. As Pittsburgh boomed, Mellon became successful in his own right, building a law career, investing in real estate, becoming a judge and then an immensely wealthy banker. With success came fear, a nagging sense that his riches could be snatched away by the tax man, according to a biography of Mellon by one of his great-great grandsons.

Steeped in social Darwinism, Mellon viewed the acquisition of wealth as a mark of merit and poverty as a failure of character. Mellon wrote in his autobiography that voting rights were responsible for many of society’s ills, driving higher spending, borrowing and taxes. Not far below the surface of these fears was racism. After the Civil War, Mellon toured the South, where he wrote that he was disgusted to see Louisiana’s Legislature captured by what he called “stolid, stupid, rude and awkward field negroes, lolling on the seats or crunching peanuts.” These representatives, he declared, were puppets of white Northerners who were using “corrupt schemes to rob the property owners and taxpayers.”

In 1869, Mellon founded a bank where he was joined by two of his sons, Richard and Andrew. They were early venture capitalists. Companies that borrowed money from the Mellon bank — steel, oil, aluminum and chemical firms, among others — became Mellon companies as the family took stakes in each. Thomas Mellon soon began to transfer his business interests to his sons. In 1890, the Pittsburgh newspapers reported that Mellon had transferred his “vast estates,” including 1,000 dwelling-houses in Pennsylvania, to Andrew.

By the time Thomas Mellon died in 1908, his children were making money hand over fist, and their political power would soon match their wealth.

In Andrew Mellon, Harding found a perfect person to deliver on the president’s promise of bringing a country exhausted by the privations of war “less government in business and more business in government.”

Mellon would be dogged by allegations that he used his perch to advance his family’s enterprises. But Harding — and the next two presidents — didn’t care.

As David Cannadine would write in his biography of the treasury secretary, Mellon would later be beloved by conservatives as a prophet of “trickle-down” economics: Mellon argued that lowering taxes for companies and the wealthiest would spur investment that would lead to prosperity for the nation.

When he assumed his cabinet post, the top income tax bracket was 73%. Mellon argued that wealthy people increasingly saw taxes as punitive and sought ways to avoid them. “Taxes which are inherently excessive are not paid,” Mellon wrote in a book on taxation published while he was treasury secretary. He asked the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which he controlled, to put together a list of legal tax avoidance schemes. Later, Mellon admitted under oath to using five of the 10 tricks to reduce his taxes.

Mellon especially hated the estate tax, which he sought to eliminate. “The social necessity for breaking up large fortunes in this country does not exist,” Mellon wrote in his book. When lawmakers considered raising the estate tax on the wealthiest Americans to 40%, Mellon decried the move to a Senate commitee as “economic suicide” and likened the actions of the senators to “the revolutionists of Russia.”

After Mellon was reappointed by the next president, the press began describing him as “near to being the financial dictator of the United States.”

But Mellon still had to contend with Congress. And soon he found himself grappling with a major crisis.

“DISHONESTY AND CRIME THRIVE IN THE DARK”

The Tax Payments of the Rich Become Public

In late October of 1924 America’s richest and most powerful men woke to see their income tax payments splashed across the front pages of newspapers, just as E.W. Scripps had envisioned years earlier.

“The lid is off income tax secrets,” The Boston Globe declared.

Over Mellon’s objections, Congress had passed a gift tax and the so-called publicity amendment, which authorized the release of the names of taxpayers and the amount of income tax they paid.

The disclosures that followed contained some bombshells: J.P. Morgan, who dominated the banking world, paid an income tax of just $98,643, which was inexplicably nine times less than the junior partner at his firm. Oil magnate Harry Sinclair, who was embroiled in the Teapot Dome bribery scandal, paid just $213.

But there was no way to determine what their income was, which deductions they took or what loopholes they were exploiting. Newspapers published long lists of names and amounts paid but were unable to provide much context.

Still, as Duke Law professor Lawrence Zelenak recently pointed out, journalists who dug into the numbers back then identified a striking trend: those with the most money did not necessarily pay the most income tax.

“Persons supposed, or known to be among the very rich, in some cases paid a smaller income tax than persons supposed only to be in comfortable circumstances,” The Wall Street Journal reported in 1924.

Wisconsin senator and progressive presidential candidate Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette called the low payments a scandal. “Tax paying is public business, and public business ought to be public,” he said. “Dishonesty and crime thrive in the dark.”

Then came the backlash. Though The New York Times published the tax details on its front page, its editorial board called the law allowing publication of this data “foolish and even odious.”

Mellon, whose own tax payments were published in the Scripps-owned Pittsburgh Press, said the publication of tax payments was simply the “gratification of idle curiosity.”

The Department of Justice brought charges against the Baltimore Daily Post, a Scripps paper, for publishing information from tax returns, and it also charged editors of a Kansas City newspaper. The law, the attorney general’s office contended, made this information “open to inspection only” and didn’t allow for publication. When lower courts ruled in favor of the paper and editors, the solicitor general took the cases to the Supreme Court.

In 1925, the Supreme Court sided with the papers, finding that all forms of publicity, including publication in newspapers, were allowed under the law.

That victory was short-lived. In 1926, Congress limited the right to inspect the returns to its investigative committees. Under a new law, the information in tax returns only became public if the president ordered it so. Who did lawmakers put in charge of writing the rules for such disclosure? Mellon.

For Mellon, though, there was an even bigger victory to be celebrated. Congress passed his tax plan, which dramatically lowered income tax and estate tax rates and repealed the gift tax entirely.

One senator complained that Mellon alone got “a larger personal reduction than the aggregate of practically all the taxpayers in the state of Nebraska.”

In the 6 1/2 years before the gift tax was reinstated, Mellon gave his two children stocks and properties, avoiding millions in estate taxes when he died. Mellon wrote to his son in 1931, “I have good precedent in this respect as it was the course followed by my own father.”

“I AM NOT A TAX DODGER”

FDR and Congress Expose Tax Tricks of the Rich

In November 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt defeated Herbert Hoover in a landslide.

No longer did the country view Mellon as Cousin Andrew guarding the gates of gold. By then, more than 3,500 banks had failed. The unemployment rate would soon reach 25%. People who lost their homes moved to “Hoovervilles,” shacks made from scrap wood and metal. The Great Depression had swallowed the country.

Mellonism — and its central tenet of slashing taxes on the wealthy and business to spur growth — was in retreat. Before Hoover left office, he and Congress reinstated the gift tax and hiked estate and income taxes. At one point, the House even tried to impeach Mellon, though that was dropped after Hoover named him ambassador to Great Britain.

Roosevelt’s New Deal turned Mellon’s tax policies upside down. Under Roosevelt, whom one biographer hailed as a “traitor to his class,” the top income tax rates shot as high as 94% to raise funds for World War II. And the tax on the largest estates went up to 77%.

In 1937 Roosevelt’s desk-thumping anger prompted Congress to shame members of the Mars, Scripps and Mellon families, as well as many others. The chairman of the Joint Committee on Tax Evasion and Avoidance vowed “to unearth the various devices and subterfuges employed by tax dodgers.”

The Washington Post set the scene. “The arena was freshly sprinkled with sawdust yesterday to catch the heads of the victims, the guillotine was oiled to flashing perfection,” the reporter wrote, and then referred to Roosevelt’s treasury secretary as “the lord high executioner.”

Millionaires reacted with fury.

“I am not a tax dodger, never have been, and do not intend to be,” declared Ethel Mars, who was reeling from the Treasury Department’s accusations that her family’s candy company had used her horse racing stables and farm as “sort of a corporate hobby.” By claiming the Milky Way horse farm was an advertising vehicle, her family’s company was able to take a deduction of $288,477 (nearly $6 million in today’s dollars).

And after chastising E.W. Scripps Co. and Scripps’ son for using the holding company scheme to dodge taxes, Congress clamped down on that maneuver.

But as tax historian Joseph Thorndike noted in his book, “Their Fair Share: Taxing the Rich in the Age of FDR,” the Roosevelt administration’s pursuit of Mellon was more personal. He’d escaped impeachment under Hoover, but Roosevelt wasn’t going to let him get away.

First, the Department of Justice sought criminal tax fraud charges, but a grand jury voted not to indict Mellon. Then the administration fought him bitterly in civil court, seeking more than $3 million in back taxes and penalties for fraud, a case that would dog Mellon through his dying days. Among the more damning evidence the government presented: Mellon used his family’s interlocking webs of related companies to sell his stock at a loss when he needed a tax write-off and then have another arm buy it back later.

At one point during that case, the government challenged deductions Mellon wanted to take for paintings he said he would donate to a museum. But the government looked petty later when Mellon unveiled his plans to build the National Gallery of Art, which he promised Roosevelt “will rank with the other great galleries of the world.”

Months after Mellon’s death, the Board of Tax Appeals cleared him of the fraud charge but found he did owe some back taxes and penalties. In 1938, his estate paid $668,000 ($13 million today), a fraction of what the government originally sought. Between stock he gave to his children before he died and his gifts of art and a museum to the government, there was little left to tax in Mellon’s estate.

Mellon’s brother, Richard, wasn’t so lucky. He gave his two kids $75 million in stock not long before he died. That left a shrunken estate that claimed to be worth just $11 million. Roosevelt’s tax collectors cried foul. They slapped Richard Mellon’s estate with a massive tax bill. After a fight, the government prevailed and Mellon’s heirs ultimately paid more than $40 million in federal and state taxes, about $840 million in today’s dollars.

Even as the government was tangling with the family, Richard Mellon’s daughter, Sarah Mellon Scaife, was already trying to avoid a similar fate. She tucked shares of Mellon family bank and coal companies into a trust for her young son, Richard Mellon Scaife. She would later put Mellon family shares of Gulf Oil in a trust for her grandchildren.

She was in good company. Not long after that, Ethel Mars’ stepson, Forrest Mars Sr., and his wife, Audrey, created trusts for their kids and at some point deposited shares of the family candy company.

And once E.W. Scripps’ son Robert paid his father’s $1.2 million federal estate tax (about $19 million in today’s dollars), the trust would protect the family’s fortune for the next generations. Like his father, Robert died on his yacht.

With the three families’ defenses against the estate tax in place, money would pour out of those trusts for the heirs decades later.

“ISN’T IT GRAND?”

A Mellon Heir Uses His Trust Fund for Anti-Tax Causes

Andrew Mellon had been dead for nearly 40 years, but one of his chief antagonists would not let America forget about the power his family fortune still wielded at the expense of taxpayers. In the House throughout the 1960s, Rep. Wright Patman, the Texas Democrat who had tried to impeach Mellon, hammered away at how the superrich were using private foundations “as a loophole which enables them to avoid federal estate taxes and thus keep their businesses and large fortunes intact.”

Patman believed that the wealthy were siphoning assets that otherwise would have been subject to the estate tax and pouring them into tax-exempt foundations benefiting their niche causes.

Patman singled out a foundation created by a descendant of the Mellon family for funding esoteric research rather than causes that benefit the broader public, including the “origin and significance of the decorative types of medieval tombstones in Bosnia and Herzegovina.”

“If the Mellons are more interested in medieval tombstones than in Pittsburgh poverty, and care to spend their money studying 12th- and 13th-century church construction, that is the Mellons’ affair,” Patman said during a 1969 hearing. “However, there is no obligation upon either the Congress or the American citizenry to give the Mellons tax-free dollars to finance their exotic interests.”

Patman’s hearings led to major changes in the rules governing philanthropy.

Soon Mellon money was being used not for esoterica but to try to remake the tax system.

Sarah Mellon Scaife’s son, Richard, tapped his trust money to transform himself into what The Washington Post in late 1990s called “the most generous donor to conservative causes in American history.” The groups he funded grew into some of the most ardent and effective anti-tax organizations in the land, providing the Reagan revolution and the assault on the estate tax with intellectual firepower.

Long before that, Scaife had lived the life of a dilettante. Real penguins roamed the grounds of one of his childhood homes. Local journalists treated the Mellon Scaifes like royalty, describing their appearances at polo matches, horse races and fox hunts at Rolling Rock, a Pennsylvania estate that dated back to his great-grandfather Thomas Mellon.

During what he described as his “reckless years,” Scaife got kicked out of Yale. When he was in his early 20s, a jury awarded $105,000 (more than $1 million in today’s dollars) to a family after he crashed into them, critically injuring a young mother. Once he turned 25, the trust Sarah Mellon Scaife set up for him in 1935 began showering him with cash. (One of his wives in a divorce filing would later list his profession as “beneficiary.”)

Scaife recalled in his memoir, a copy of which is kept at the Library of Congress, that he was never told exactly why the trusts had been set up but he always assumed his mother was seeking legal tax avoidance in anticipation of the “confiscatory” tax policies of the New Deal. “You’d have to be in a coma not to hear the alarm bell like that,” Scaife wrote. “The rich are going to organize whatever the law allows to use their money as they see fit, out of reach of the tax collector. That’s just Economics 101.”

Two other trusts that his mother later set up for him required that the income go to charity for a number of years before the money flowed to her son. At one point, Scaife’s trusts had more than $1.4 billion in them, according to court records in one of his divorces.

“Isn’t it grand how the tax system is written?” Scaife wrote in his memoir.

When Scaife dipped his foot into national politics, it backfired spectacularly. At a time before political spending limits or donor disclosures, Scaife gave $1 million to the campaign of Richard Nixon. To avoid triggering the federal gift tax, Scaife wrote 334 checks for $3,000 or less, each written to a different dummy committee that fronted for the campaign, the Chicago Tribune reported.

After the Watergate scandal, Scaife largely shifted his donations away from individual politicians to the spread of conservative ideas, said Yale Gutnick, Scaife’s longtime attorney, in an interview.

Scaife gave so much money to the Heritage Foundation, the influential anti-tax, limited-government think tank, that his name in gold letters greets visitors as they walk through the door of its Washington offices. He would later fund conspiracy-fueled investigations of President Bill Clinton.

“Presidents might surround themselves with Secret Service agents and phalanxes of lawyers and operatives, but Scaife proved how hard it was to defend against unlimited, untraceable spending by an opponent hiding behind nonprofit front groups,” the journalist Jane Mayer wrote in “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”

A Columbia Journalism Review reporter described how when she asked Scaife why he funded conservative causes, he replied: “You fucking Communist cunt, get out of here.” He also told her she was ugly and had bad teeth.

Scaife also used much of the money he inherited to transform a suburban newspaper into the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. His goal was to provide a “second voice” to counter what he perceived as the liberal media dominating that city. At one point the Tribune-Review’s editorial page editor dubbed the estate tax “freedom robbing” and “un-American.”

The heir to another dynastic fortune — Nackey Scripps Loeb, a granddaughter of E.W. Scripps — co-owned and helped run one of the most influential right-wing newspapers in the nation, the Manchester Union Leader in New Hampshire. Because New Hampshire held the first presidential primary, the Union Leader had special sway in elections, and it pressed Republican candidates to sign pledges that they would not raise taxes. Loeb wrote in an editorial, “It is past time for a taxpayer revolt to force the Congress and the White House to stop taxing us more and more in order to support the monster that they have created in Washington.”

A Scripps family spokesman said that Loeb’s views do not represent the broader Scripps clan, which is made up of nearly 100 individual families with different social and political viewpoints. “With respect, it is quite clear to us that you are selecting facts and anecdotes to disparage the Scripps family to advance your viewpoints on tax policies,” the spokesman said. (The Scripps Howard Foundation, which is funded by E.W. Scripps Co. and members of the family, is a donor to ProPublica.)

Though Loeb’s and Scaife’s newspapers shared an animus for taxation, Scaife’s stood out for another reason. The Tribune-Review was a money loser, bleeding red ink even during times when many papers enjoyed fat profit margins. “The profit element was not uppermost,” Scaife wrote in his memoir. “My prime motive as a publisher was and is ideological.”

Ordinary Americans can’t deduct what they spend on passion projects. But for Scaife, the newspaper’s lousy finances created a windfall. Because the newspaper was a business in the eyes of the tax code, its losses helped offset the millions Scaife was receiving each year in trust income. As a result, Scaife paid zero in federal income taxes in four of the last seven years of his life, according to tax records in ProPublica’s trove.

Still, money thrown off by his trusts supported the lifestyle of a royal. He owned a DC-9 that flew him between his country estate outside of Pittsburgh and his seaside escapes in Nantucket and Pebble Beach. His 19th-century silver-gilt dinner service alone was worth more than the average home in Pittsburgh.

“MONEY, MONEY, MONEY”

Dynasties Try to Kill the Estate Tax for Good

The day after he signed historic tax-cut legislation in June 2001, President George W. Bush stood on a makeshift stage surrounded by hay bales and American flags on a century-old family farm in central Iowa. With a shiny green John Deere combine behind him and a vintage corn silo in the distance, the 1,300 acre setting was the perfect mix of modern and historic, a postcard of the heartland.

No longer, Bush told the applauding crowd, would hard-working families have to sell their farms to pay their estate tax bill. The new law phased out the estate tax over the next decade, doing away with it entirely (if momentarily) in 2010.

“The bill we worked on and I signed recognized the importance of the family farmer in America,” Bush told the crowd.

The notion that the estate tax was killing family farms became a powerful weapon in the fight against the tax. Yet, the same year that Bush touted his victory for family farms, David Cay Johnston of The New York Times reported on an unpublished IRS analysis of estate tax returns that found almost no working farmers owed any estate tax at all. A prominent Iowa State University economist told Johnston he looked hard but had never found a farm lost to the estate tax.

The farm owners more likely to feel the relief of Bush’s estate tax cuts weren’t those planting corn and soybeans in Iowa. They were the “gentlemen farmers” of Virginia’s Piedmont region. There, descendants of Andrew Mellon and Frank Mars owned properties in a historic district that describes itself as a place where “former working farms became gentry estates” and “horse breeding, racehorse training, and dressage exercises occurred, along with foxhunting by wealthy land owners.”

Bush’s action was the culmination of a decadelong PR and lobbying campaign by a coalition of wealthy families and business groups that cast the “death tax” as one of America’s great evils with a ghoulish government pursuing lowly taxpayers into the grave to secure a few extra nickels. The coalition, which was funded in part by Mars Inc., succeeded with the help of “money, money, money,” Yale professors Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro wrote in a book about the lobbying campaign.

Mars Inc. is among the largest family-owned businesses in the U.S. At the time of Bush’s announcement, Forbes pegged the wealth of Frank Mars’ three grandchildren at $27 billion. Jacqueline Mars, granddaughter of Frank and an award-winning owner of horses that compete in equestrian events, has received more than $1 billion in trust income since 1999, according to the tax data ProPublica analyzed.

A spokesperson for the Mars family declined to answer detailed questions but said that Mars Inc. has paid over $15 billion in corporate taxes over a decade and “continually creates good jobs, treats its people well, provides products and services people rely on, and uses its size to improve people’s lives and the planet.”

The anti-estate tax coalition shifted attention away from those most likely to pay it — the likes of the billionaire Mars heirs — to family farmers. When the Heritage Foundation, funded by Scaife, complained the tax had a “rapacious appetite for family-owned businesses,” the images that came to mind were farmers and mom-and-pop businesses, not the multinational Mars Inc. The coalition also successfully targeted state-level estate and inheritance taxes, with these taxes ultimately disappearing in 33 states.

Ray Madoff, a tax law professor at Boston College, said she is amazed at how effective the anti-estate tax campaign has been. “People won’t know what century Abraham Lincoln lived in,” she said, “and they will know that the estate tax is a double tax that hurts family farmers.”

The advocates of estate tax repeal even managed to turn a tax that overwhelmingly fell on white wealth into an issue of racial justice. Robert Johnson, the founder of Black Entertainment Television and the country’s first Black billionaire, became one of the most prominent backers of the effort. In a full-page New York Times ad, Johnson and others said that eliminating the estate tax would “help close the gap in this nation between African American families and White families.”

In 2006, an economist estimated that just 59 of 38 million Black Americans would pay the estate tax.

The Bush tax cuts phased out the estate tax until it was gone in 2010, but the tax came back the following year. By then, though, wealthy families had a way around it that had the blessing of the federal tax court.

Years earlier, a member of Walmart’s Walton family had tried to pass money to her children free of gift or estate taxes using a trust structure that pushed the boundaries of what was allowed. The IRS sent her a hefty tax bill, and the dispute wound up in U.S. Tax Court, which ruled against the IRS in 2000. The trust she used, the grantor retained annuity trust, or GRAT, morphed from exotic estate-tax dodge to routine estate planning for the wealthy.

Here’s how it works. The creator puts stocks or other assets into a GRAT, which pays back an equal amount to what was put in, plus a modest amount of interest. Any gains on the investments flow to the heirs free of gift or estate taxes. So if a person puts in $100 million worth of stock and its value rises to $130 million, the heirs receive about $30 million tax-free.

As ProPublica recently reported, more than half of the 100 richest Americans have used GRATs and other such trusts to avoid estate and gift taxes. Jacqueline Mars had more than 15 GRATs, the tax records show.

While they have major federal tax implications, trusts are actually governed by state laws. This jurisdictional difference has also tilted in the ultrawealthy’s favor. As the rich embraced trusts, states have furiously competed for their trust business, knowing that white-collar jobs and fees would follow. States began doing away with a centuries-old legal concept known as the “rule against perpetuities.” Under that rule, the creator of a trust had to designate people who were alive when the trust was formed (often grandchildren or great-grandchildren). The trust had to end 21 years after the death of the last of those people.

Once that rule was gone, this meant a billionaire could tuck wealth into a trust and create what University of Chicago law professor Daniel Hemel dubbed “a perpetual estate-tax-avoidance machine.”

That wasn’t possible when E.W. Scripps created his trust in 1922. After protecting the family’s riches from estate taxes for decades, the trust ended in 2012. The imaginary vault opened, and money and shares gushed out for his heirs.

Today, one of his great great grandsons, Sam Logan, is a personality on the MTV reality show “Siesta Key.” He also owns a cannabis startup and regularly posts on Instagram deplaning from a private jet or lounging atop a Rolls Royce. (His brother and fellow heir, Max Logan, is the Lamborghini and watch enthusiast; one red-gold-and-diamond Richard Mille timepiece he displayed on Instagram retails for $285,000.)

A spokesman for the brothers declined to comment. A separate spokesman for the rest of the family said the brothers are “rare exceptions to the low-profile culture” of the Scripps family.

“Almost all live lives that are low-key, dignified and in keeping with the communities in which they live and work," that spokesman said.

Another great-great-grandchild of Scripps received more than $210 million in income before her 19th birthday, the confidential tax records show.

Like the rest of the family, her financial affairs are organized by Miramar Services. Named after E.W. Scripps’ California ranch, the outfit is composed of tax lawyers, accountants and investment specialists devoted to perpetuating the family’s fortune.

Since E.W. Scripps’ trust was gone, the heirs had to worry about protecting their newfound wealth for the next generation. Lucky for them, GRATs were easy to come by: nine members of the Scripps family together had more than 125 of these trusts, the tax records show.

The great-great-granddaughter alone had already used at least 10 GRATs. And by the age of 17, she had her very own dynasty trust. That’s that kind that can last for centuries.

OF HOT POCKETS AND HORSE FARMS

The Rich Win Again

Though he loathed taxes, Thomas Mellon, the progenitor of the Mellon fortune, made an unintentional case for the estate tax when he worried about the corrupting influence of inherited wealth. “Where a family has enjoyed their career of wealth and prosperity for a generation or so,” he wrote in his autobiography, “we may expect ‘degenerate sons.’”

The very court system in Pittsburgh where Mellon presided as judge became the site of a public fight over Mellon family money. Indeed, the six-year battle over Richard Mellon Scaife’s trust could have been ripped from the pages of Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House.” Even the setting — Allegheny County Orphan’s Court — sounds Dickensian.

When Scaife died in 2014, his last will and testament asked that his dogs be taken care of but didn’t mention his adult son or daughter. Not that they were paupers. Court records show the trust that Sarah Mellon Scaife created just for them still had $660 million in it in 2020 after having spit out millions to both of them for years.

They sued for more.

A trust Scaife’s mother created for him would have passed to his children automatically, but Scaife emptied it to fund his newspaper business before he died in 2014. One of the children’s main arguments was that the trustees never should have allowed their father to fritter away the principal of a dynastic trust on a money-losing newspaper. Even after Scaife’s daughter died, the case plodded on. Ultimately Scaife’s estate agreed to pay $200 million in a court settlement, with the lion’s share returning to the trust for Scaife’s son David and his children, court records show.

David Scaife could not be reached for comment. Attorneys who represent him did not return calls or emails seeking his comment, nor did the head of his family foundation.

Despite the settlement and a hefty state inheritance tax bill, there still was plenty of money for Scaife’s anti-tax causes. Even from the grave, Scaife’s hand continues to influence the debate over how much America will tax the wealthy. He donated more than $736 million to two charities, one of which has given millions of dollars in recent years to the Heritage Foundation, Tax Foundation and FreedomWorks. A cartoon on FreedomWorks’ website shows the grim reaper, with an IRS briefcase in one hand and a scythe in the other, stalking a businessman at a bus stop.

The estate tax is now on life support. Annual revenues from the estate and gift taxes as a proportion of household wealth in the country have fallen more than 80% since the early 1970s, according to economists Gabriel Zucman and Emmanuel Saez.

Barring a major shift in tax policy, the number of self-perpetuating Mars, Scripps or Mellon-style dynasties will likely multiply and gain dominion over ever more areas of American life. Even the humdrum corners of capitalism are spawning intergenerational windfalls. ProPublica’s tax data shows family fortunes flowing to heirs of the founders of Public Storage, Family Dollar and even the company behind the microwaveable turnovers known as Hot Pockets.

For a brief moment this fall, it looked like the tide might finally turn against the ultrarich. Dynastic wealth faced a real threat for the first time in years. Congress was considering a special tax on billionaires, and expanding the estate tax and clamping down on the trusts that super wealthy families use to avoid the tax.

Elon Musk, then the world’s richest man, complained to his 61 million Twitter followers: “Eventually, they run out of other people’s money and then they come for you.”

Adding ammunition to the debate was the publication, once again, of the private tax information of the wealthiest Americans. ProPublica reported that Musk didn’t pay any income tax in a recent year. Financier George Soros paid zero federal income taxes three years running. And Amazon’s Jeff Bezos reported so little income one year that he qualified for a child tax credit, the tax records show.

But they needn’t have worried. The very same groups that fought the estate tax in the 1990s had never disbanded. With names like the Family Business Estate Tax Coalition, they mobilized to fight the proposals targeting dynastic wealth. A real estate company hired a former top aide to Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., a crucial swing vote on the bill, to lobby against the changes. And the old arguments were dusted off. Hard working families would have to sell their farms and businesses.

Even the American Horse Council cantered in: horse farms would be paved over for Walmarts, a lobbyist warned.

Just weeks after they were introduced, the tax proposals targeting dynastic wealth were gone, as dead as a fox eviscerated by hounds.


Storm drains keep swallowing people during floods

On the night of Sept. 1, Dhanush Reddy and his fiancee, Kavya Mandli, were returning home from a North Jersey mall when the remains of Hurricane Ida turned their drive perilous.

Rain pounded down, soaking the streets with so much water that cars stalled and police shut down traffic. They felt their own car rattling, and they abandoned it in a nearby lot. Deciding they’d walk to safer ground where Mandli’s brother could pick them up, they waded hand-in-hand into murky water “until we reached the middle point of the road,” Mandli recalled, “where it just sucked us both inside.”

They were both suddenly underwater, being pulled toward a large black vacuum that seemed to be guzzling anything and everything into its wide, open mouth. Mandli managed to grab part of a bridge railing, but Reddy clutched only her hand. She shouted for help as she tried to wrest her fiance from the vortex. But it was just too wet, too slippery. Reddy disappeared. Mandli was left holding his empty jacket.

As South Plainfield police searched for Reddy, who had been sucked into a 3-foot-wide stormwater drainage pipe that ran underground, they looked where they thought it might spit him out, on the other side of the road. Mandli’s heart jumped when they told her they found a man hanging from a tree branch and calling for help.

But it was 18-year-old Kevin Rivera, who had also been pulled into a drainage pipe. “I was completely underwater,” he told ProPublica. “I couldn’t grab a grip to hold on to anything. I just covered my head with my arms and just sort of tried to ride it out till I came out on the other side or maybe got a little gasp of air.”

Reddy’s body was found the next day in a wooded area, blocks away from where he got pulled in. The engineer and construction project manager was dead at 31.

During the same storm, in the same state, three others died the same way.

There’s no official count of how many Americans get pulled into storm drains, pipes or culverts during flood events, but ProPublica identified 35 such cases since 2015 using news accounts and court records. Twenty-one of those people died; nearly half of those lost were children. Thirteen of the deaths happened in the past three years alone. The numbers are likely an undercount, since reports of flood deaths often don’t give details other than the fact that someone was swept away.

Despite records of horrific cases that span the country and stretch back decades — and the scientific consensus that climate change will only worsen flooding — federal, state and local government agencies have failed to take simple steps to prevent such tragedies from happening, ProPublica found, after more than a dozen interviews with government officials, engineers and weather experts, as well as a review of documents including death investigations, government meeting minutes and emails, and academic papers. Officials are not surveying the nation’s aging stormwater drainage systems, which are being taxed beyond capacity by record downpours, to flag openings that could pose a hazard and install grates to prevent people from being sucked in.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, an arm of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, has recommended these steps, but it has no authority to compel cities or counties to act on that advice. It issued two reports on storm drain hazards after the near-identical deaths of firefighters during flood rescues. The first died in 2000. The second died in 2015. The first report did not reach the officials who could have prevented the second death.

ProPublica found instances in which local and state governments knew about a hazard but didn’t secure it. A man who died on the same night as Reddy, in Maplewood, New Jersey, was among a group of neighbors who had warned town and state officials that a storm pipe near their homes was dangerous; the man was pulled into the large opening while trying to clear out debris. That same night, in Passaic, New Jersey, two college students were sucked into the very same drain where, just one year earlier, a DoorDash driver had been pulled in. She had been dumped into a river and survived; they were expelled into the same river, but they died.

Some local and state government leaders have pushed back against recommendations to put in grates; they can be expensive to install, they trap debris and they can make flooding worse, opponents said. People can also become pinned to them and drown. But other municipal leaders and engineers said these problems can be overcome by using angled grates that provide victims an escape, and by investing in maintenance schedules so that covered drains don’t get clogged.

“It’s life or death,” said Ken MacKenzie, the executive director of Denver’s Mile High Flood District, who has for years tried to rally officials across the country to install grates and address the problem. He worked up his own count of deaths from 1996 to 2015, and he tallied at least 20 lives lost during that period. “It’s a hidden danger in nearly every community. And yes, it might cost a couple thousand dollars. But it’s worth it to not kill someone’s child in a culvert.”

Stormwater drainage is the type of infrastructure that people rarely think about until water is rushing down the road and cars are floating away. But when you walk around your neighborhood, you’ll see evidence of these systems all around you, from the small openings that run along curbs to larger pipes and culverts designed to channel rainwater into local waterways, retention ponds or stormwater treatment facilities. These systems are built to handle only so much water, and when the amount of rain exceeds the system’s capacity, it can lead to dangerous flooding in unexpected locations.

Many of these drainage systems were built decades ago and are designed based on historical rainfall data, which was used to help predict what capacity the systems should be able to handle. But Marouane Temimi, an associate professor at Stevens Institute of Technology who researches rainfall and flooding, said those predictions rely on one big assumption: “That the climate will continue to behave the same way it has been behaving for decades now,” he said. “If the climate changes — that’s what we are witnessing — then the past is no longer a good guide for the future.”

In the Northeast, for example, the amount of rainfall from heavy events increased by more than 70% from 1958 to 2010. Ida unleashed record-breaking rainfall on the region this year. So did the remnants of last year’s Hurricane Isaias, during which at least three good Samaritans were pulled into a culvert in Hockessin, Delaware, while trying to rescue a man trapped in his flooded car, and a 16-year-old boy in Bethlehem Township, Pennsylvania, watched a 6-year-old boy get sucked into a pipe and went in after him. They all survived.

The higher the floodwater, and the more of it that’s rushing toward a culvert or pipe in a maxed-out drainage system, the more dangerous the conditions can get. To get a sense of how much force can be in play at the entrance of these pipes, consider that every cubic foot of water weighs 62.4 pounds. So if someone is standing in 4 feet of water, that’s nearly 250 pounds of force. “And that's not including any velocity that's heading toward the pipe,” said MacKenzie, the Denver flood district director. “And so if you have a full-grown man at maybe 200 pounds, he’s up against 250 pounds of water pressure pushing into the inlet of that pipe.”

Rainfall has also increased in St. Louis in the past decade, said Jim Sieveking, a science and operations officer for the National Weather Service who’s based in the area. The city is particularly at risk for flooding because the Mississippi, Missouri and Illinois rivers converge around the same region, and urban sprawl and development have reduced the amount of permeable land that can absorb excess water. “We’ve seen our fair share of flooding in these past years,” he said.

On July 10 near St. Louis, Aaleya Carter and her family were on their way home after seeing the latest Fast and Furious movie. It was Aaleya’s birthday celebration. She had just turned 12.

There were heavy rains and thunderstorms that night as her aunt drove a small SUV along Interstate 70. The aunt spotted a flooded area in the road and turned around, but the wind and the slippery conditions made the car slide down an embankment toward a drainage culvert, which was filling with water.

Bridgette Carter, Aaleya’s mom, had to think and move quickly. Her three babies — including Skylar, 8, and Carter, 6 — were in the back seat, and water was starting to pour into the car. “My first instinct was to get out the car because the doors weren't opening,” Bridgette said.

It was a frantic rush to unbuckle all of the children and then climb out of the front driver’s side window, the only one that would open. While Bridgette was placing her two youngest on a roadway that was safely out of the water, Aaleya was clinging to the vehicle. “I was reaching for Leya,” the mother said. “And it swept her in the drain. The current was so strong.”

Aaleya, a goofy, funny kid who loved making TikTok videos and often helped her mom get dinner ready, was found a few hours later in a tree near a creek where the drainage pipe emptied. She had drowned.

Missouri’s Department of Transportation is responsible for the drain that Aaleya was pulled through. It was last updated in 1975. State officials wouldn’t say whether they have ever reviewed drains to determine if some should have safety measures like warning signs and grates. They pointed ProPublica to the Federal Highway Administration, which couldn’t name an instance when it had done such a safety evaluation, but noted that states have the autonomy to determine whether a grate is needed and to place flood warning and depth gauge signs at drains.

The loss of Aaleya was so unbearable that Bridgette decided to move her family to McKinney, Texas. “It’s hard,” she said in a conversation punctuated by tears. “It’s too much. … Everything just reminds me of my baby.”

The danger that large pipes and culverts pose to people during floods is not unknown to the federal government. NIOSH, the occupational safety arm of the CDC, issued a key recommendation two decades ago that could have saved lives. It came after a tragedy in Denver.

On Aug. 17, 2000, the city was drenched with up to 3 and a half inches of rain, causing flooding. Firefighter Robert Crump and his partner got an alert about a woman in distress. The water surrounding the woman appeared to be about waist deep. The firefighters didn’t know she was standing on the edge of a culvert near 10 feet of water. Crump’s partner, Will Roberts, jumped into the water to save the woman and was pulled under the surface by the drainage vacuum. Crump jumped in after his partner and was able to pull him to safety.

While his partner was trying to tie a cord to himself to attempt another rescue, Crump plunged back into the water to save the woman. He was pulled into the open drainage system that runs under the road. His body was found hours later, several blocks away from where he went missing.

NIOSH investigated Crump’s death and, in 2002, issued a report with recommendations for cities everywhere to prevent similar accidents, holding up as an example what it said Denver had done in the aftermath: covered the drainage pipe with a grate and then identified all similar open sewers, drains and culverts to start planning for more possible grates. (When contacted by ProPublica, Denver officials couldn’t find those records or say how much of that they wound up doing.)

Fifteen years after Crump died, another firefighter died after being pulled into an open drainage pipe during heavy rains, this time in Claremore, Oklahoma.

Jason Farley and his colleagues were wading through floodwater while trying to rescue people trapped in their homes when he stepped into a catch basin and was pulled into a drainage pipe. Another firefighter jumped in after him and was also pulled in. The other firefighter traveled almost 280 feet through the pipe and was expelled into a creek. Farley got tangled up in the pipe and drowned.

NIOSH once again released an investigative report, with recommendations that echoed those it had issued after Crump’s death: Government agencies should consider requirements for “identifying, marking, and guarding underground storm drains,” the report said. Sean Douglas, chief of the Claremore Fire Department, had requested that NIOSH investigate Farley’s death. He said he sees NIOSH reports from time to time in trade journals and firefighter magazines, but that he hadn’t seen the Denver report or its recommendations. “They’re not really in front of everybody all the time,” he said of the reports. “A lot of fire departments may not even talk to other fire departments, let alone an appendage of the CDC.”

A spokesperson with NIOSH said they post the reports on their website and send them out to 79,000 announcement and newsletter subscribers. The spokesperson also said that the group’s investigations have contributed to important safety improvements for firefighters. But fire agencies aren’t responsible for the stormwater drainage reforms that NIOSH proposed; city and county public works managers usually are. ProPublica could identify no federal agency set up to inform local officials directly of these safety hazards and recommendations.

At the spot where Farley died, Claremore put up guardrails but opted against a grate, out of a concern that people would get pinned against it during a flood, but also because it would need extra maintenance to keep it free from debris that could stop water from flowing in. Douglas said the city has identified areas prone to flooding, cleared out debris before and after storms, raised awareness of the hazards through signs and instituted road closures in problem areas. He said he continues to work with the city to install more markings of the open drains and where they may lead, and Garrett Ball, the city’s engineer, said Claremore began mapping its storm drain system, an effort he hopes will be completed in the next year or two.

A few communities have aggressively tackled storm drain safety in reforms that followed tragedy. Bolingbrook, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, reviewed more than 40 storm drain inlets and grated some of them after a 6-year-old boy was pulled into one and drowned in 1998; the community also settled a lawsuit with the boy’s family for $2.8 million.

And Cedar Rapids, Iowa, evaluated 18 inlets and decided to place grates at 15 sites, some of which were large culverts.

The city embarked on the improvements after Logan Blake, 17, was swept into a culvert in 2014 when he went after a Frisbee during heavy rains. Logan’s friend jumped in the water to attempt to save him and was also pulled into the drain. The two teenagers traveled more than a mile and a half through the drainage pipe before being dumped into Cedar Lake. Logan’s friend survived and was able to walk to a nearby hospital. Logan’s body was found about 19 hours later.

Instead of suing, the teen’s family reached an agreement with the city to ensure it would invest in safety upgrades so that another child wouldn’t die, said Mark Blake, Logan’s father. “We just wanted them to fix one at that time,” he said. “And they came up with a plan to fix three right away because they had two other ones right next to schools in the same exact situation.”

For guidance on how to evaluate which inlets needed safety grates and which needed less aggressive improvements, Mark Blake and the Cedar Rapids officials turned to MacKenzie, whose Denver district had developed a set of criteria for reviewing the safety of open inlets. They would assess the length of pipe, size of the pipe’s entrances, whether there were bends and turns in the pipe, and its proximity to schools and parks.

Cedar Rapids also used the Mile High Flood District’s latest design for grates that are installed at an angle, which are meant to prevent people from being pinned against them during a flood. “And the idea is that the bars would be spaced tightly enough that somebody couldn’t get in there, but they could also act as a ladder or a walkway for someone to get out,” said David Wallace, Cedar Rapids’ utilities engineering manager. For larger culverts, ones that Wallace said were simply impractical to grate, the city put up fencing and signage warning people of the danger during floods.

Cedar Rapids has put grates on 11 drains, with four more expected to be completed by the end of 2022. The city expects to spend a total of about $700,000 on the 15 locations. Flooding caused by debris clogs is a risk, Wallace said, but it can be remedied with a consistent maintenance plan. The city’s teams go out after every rain to pull debris from the grates. It takes one workday for two crews of three people with a backhoe to clear the debris after big storms. They have to do that several times a year, Wallace said. With the diligent maintenance schedule, the grates have not added any additional flooding.

“The idea is to prevent the tragedy that we had here,” Wallace said. “So sure, it adds to the maintenance activities and adds some costs that we otherwise wouldn’t have had to do, but the idea is to prevent what happened. … It’s just a safety, prevention measure that we think is necessary.”

The Mile High Flood District, Colorado’s Larimer County Dive Rescue Team, Colorado State University’s Hydraulics Lab and the engineering company AECOM have been researching how people are injured or killed in drainpipes and have been working on grate designs for different pipe and culvert configurations. The group created a physical model at the university to test its research in simulated flood waters. Part of the team’s work looks into pitch angles, bar spacing and how far away from the pipe entrance a grate should be placed — all aimed at making grates safer and less expensive. The group plans to release detailed data from its work at the World Environmental and Water Resources Congress conference in June. “What we found is really going to allow us to make the grates smaller, which will really bring down the cost,” said Holly Piza, an engineer for the Mile High Flood District. “Which is great because then local governments and municipalities will be more likely to put in safety grates where they’re appropriate.”

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investments and Jobs Act includes funding that could help communities upgrade their drainage systems’ capacity and safety. More than $50 billion in new spending from the bill will go to drinking water, wastewater and stormwater investments over 10 years. A spokesperson with the Environmental Protection Agency told ProPublica that $1.9 billion of that money was going to the Clean Water program, which allows awarded communities to install grates in addition to making other upgrades.

The storm drain accidents recorded across New Jersey during Ida show just how preventable these deaths can be.

Residents of Maple Terrace in the town of Maplewood had been complaining for years about the dangerous and inadequate drainage structure there, a 48-inch pipe sitting on three properties, one on the north side of the street and on two on the south side. Patrick Jeffrey and his wife, Beth, who lived next to one of those homes, had been among those voicing concerns. The flooding caused by the pipe routinely spilled into their yard, and they worried its large opening could be dangerous to adults walking around it or children playing near it.

Over the years, a group of the neighborhood dads developed a routine before and during rainstorms: They’d work together to remove debris from the two inlets to try to keep the flooding down. On Sept. 1, Patrick Jeffrey was doing what he always did; a neighbor was going to meet him near the inlet and help remove debris. But when the neighbor arrived at the hole, he couldn’t find Jeffrey. Fred Meyer, who lived across the street from Jeffrey, joined the search effort.

“There was like a 360-degree waterfall … charging down this hole. There was water everywhere,” said Meyer. “It was terrifying.”

The next morning, Jeffrey’s body was found along a neighboring roadway. He had been pulled into the drainage system and emerged out of a manhole. The father of two, who worked as a vice president and portfolio manager at U.S. Bank in New York, was 55.

“We were always thinking that a kid might fall into this thing,” said Meyer, Jeffrey’s neighbor. “I never thought something would happen to an adult and I never thought it would be someone dying. I still can’t believe it happened. The absolute worst thing that could possibly happen in this scenario actually has.”

One year earlier, in Pennsylvania’s Sewickley Township, a 38-year-old man died the exact same way, trying to clear debris from a pipe in his backyard.

Transcripts from Maplewood town meetings show residents had been asking since at least 2018 for the area where Jeffrey fell to be replaced by an underground pipe, but town leadership was resistant to the idea at the time. When town officials eventually came around to it, officials with New Jersey’s environmental department were against it because they said the area had a natural waterway designation that prevented such a move, according to emails. Had the problem been dealt with years ago, Meyer said, there would have been no open pipe for Jeffrey to remove debris from. He’d be alive to coach his son’s flag football team and cheer on his daughter’s softball team.

After Jeffrey’s death, state officials gave the town permission to install grates over the pipe and said they would grant an exemption that would allow the town to replace the area with an underground pipe, according to meeting minutes. The state didn’t directly answer ProPublica’s questions about why its officials had changed their minds, but in reference to the grates, a spokesperson told ProPublica the state and the town agreed that Maplewood would ask for permission to install the grates to “address the immediate concern for safety.”

The city of Passaic, too, had discussed a dangerous drain before best friends Nidhi Rana, 18, and Ayush Rana (no relation), 21, abandoned their flooded-out car and died after being sucked into the drain during Ida. In July 2020, DoorDash driver Nathalia Bruno had wound up in the same drain but survived after she fled her car during a flash flood.

Bruno recounted her harrowing story in news accounts, and city officials talked about grates and warning signs. But city engineers said that a grate would become clogged, leading to more flooding, and that people might get pinned to them. Mayor Hector Lora also said property owners voiced concerns about permanent flash flood warning signage because of what it could do to property values. Instead, the city focused on strengthening its barricades and moving them further away from problem areas. It also rolled out temporary LED warning signs with each heavy rain and began pursuing grants to elevate the roadway.

Lora said there wasn’t pressure for more urgent reforms back then because Bruno “miraculously survived.”

When asked if there was anything the city could have done more immediately after Bruno’s accident that could have helped save the two friends who later died, Lora said he believes the city did the best it could with the information it had and that no one could have planned or prepared for the devastation brought by Ida. “I think we did everything that municipalities are supposed to do,” he said. “Sometimes crisis and tragedy become the genesis for good policy and initiatives that come later.”

The city is now moving with more urgency, Lora said. He hadn’t heard of the idea of putting grates at an angle, but after speaking with ProPublica and being shown examples of the Denver design, Lora said he has asked his engineers to review the new model. “The tragedy compels me to explore every option,” he said. Officials with MacKenzie’s team in Denver reviewed an image of the Passaic culvert and said their early assessment is that a safe grate could be designed for the location.

Permanent warning signs have also been put in place near the culvert, and the city is pursuing grants to buy a sign that will monitor water depth and alert police and the fire department when it reaches a certain height. Lora is also looking for funds to surround the culvert with a large fence that curves at the top.

As for the pipes in South Plainfield, where Dhanush Reddy and Kevin Rivera were pulled in, it’s not clear if there are plans to do anything; Middlesex County officials, who are responsible for the maintenance of the pipes, declined to answer ProPublica’s questions.

Kavya Mandli no longer lives in New Jersey. She moved to the Atlanta area after the death of her fiance. “My life just went upside down since then,” she said. “I’m still really figuring out what to do. I had to move away from that place because I really couldn’t be myself there anymore.”

She hasn’t escaped the reminders of her loss. There was the trip they were supposed to take to Puerto Rico, two days after his death. There was what would have been his birthday gift — tickets she’d already bought to his first-ever Formula 1 race in October. Then there is their white labrador, Kush, whose name is a combination of their own first names. They were trying to get home to him quickly on Sept. 1; Reddy knew Kush would be frightened by the weather.

Every day, when Reddy got home from work, Kush would run toward the door and the two would tussle like kids. “Kush is so huge, he’s like 90 pounds, but Dhanush just picks him up like a baby and rocks him,” Mandli said.

“I sometimes think, ‘It’s around 5 o’clock, maybe he’ll come home.’”

Utah’s safety net is so intertwined with the Mormon church that individual bishops often decide who receives assistance

Near the start of the pandemic, in a gentrifying neighborhood of Salt Lake City, Utah, visitors from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints arrived at Danielle Bellamy’s doorstep. They were there to have her read out loud from the Book of Mormon, watch LDS videos and set a date to get baptized, all of which she says the church was requiring her to do in exchange for giving her food.

Bellamy, desperate for help, had tried applying for cash assistance from the state of Utah. But she’d been denied for not being low-income enough, an outcome that has become increasingly common ever since then-President Bill Clinton signed a law, 25 years ago, that he said would end “welfare as we know it.”

State employees then explicitly recommended to Bellamy that she ask for welfare from the church instead, she and her family members said in interviews.

Bellamy’s family was on the verge of homelessness. The rent on their apartment continued to rise — a result of Utah being the fastest-growing state in the nation, a trend driven in part by young, upper-middle-class people from California and elsewhere flocking to Salt Lake City’s snow-capped slopes to enjoy its outdoor activities, tech jobs and low taxes.

Worse, Bellamy suffers from a severe autoinflammatory disease and, barely able to stand, is regularly hospitalized for days at a time. Her younger daughter, Jaidyn, had to drop out of high school to care for her, helping her get up, lie down, bathe and change out the wound vacuums attached to her body.

Although maintaining a safety net for the poor is the government’s job, welfare in Utah has become so entangled with the state’s dominant religion that the agency in charge of public assistance here counts a percentage of the welfare provided by the LDS Church toward the state’s own welfare spending, according to a memorandum of understanding between the church and the state obtained by ProPublica.

What that means is that over the past decade, the Utah State Legislature has been able to get out of spending at least $75 million on fighting poverty that it otherwise would have had to spend under federal law, a review of budget documents shows.

The church’s extensive, highly regarded welfare program is centered at a place calledWelfare Square, ensconced among warehouses on Salt Lake City’s west side. There, poor people — provided they obtain approval of their grocery list from a lay bishop, who oversees a congregation — can get orders of food for free from the Bishops’ Storehouse, as well as buy low-priced clothes and furniture from the church-owned Deseret Industries thrift store. (Bishops can also authorize temporary cash assistance for rent, car payments and the like; recipients often have to volunteer for the church to obtain the aid.)

Welfare Square was built in 1938 amid the Great Depression, anintentional repudiation by church leaders of government welfare as epitomized by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. We “take care of our own,” they famously said.

But Bellamy, a Black single mother, is not one of the church’s own — and, unlike the government, a church is often allowed to discriminate based on religion.

The bishop of her local congregation, called a ward, decided that as a precondition of receiving welfare, she would have to read, understand and embrace LDS scripture, Bellamy told ProPublica. Church representatives came by her apartment to decide what individual food items she did and did not need while pressuring her to attend Sunday services, she said.

A church spokesperson, who was not authorized to speak on the record for this story, said that Bellamy’s is just one experience, and there are likely thousands of people across Utah who would swear by the help they’ve received from the church and the guidance they’ve been given toward a more self-sufficient life. He said that because some bishops are more rigid about providing aid than others, some people may wind up in situations like Bellamy’s, but that most in the church default to compassion.

The spokesperson also said that conversations about welfare are between individuals (like Bellamy and others whose stories also appear in this article) and their bishop, and that the church would not break what it regards as a sacred confidentiality.

Bellamy cooperated at first with what was being asked of her. She felt she’d go along “if that’s what I needed to do for some type of goodness to come to my family,” she said, adding that she knew that many in her community had benefited greatly from church welfare and their LDS faith.

Yet she ultimately balked, especially at the thought of being baptized in front of strangers. “I’m sorry,” she said, “I don’t believe in it. And it’s important what I believe in.”

For her refusal, she says, she and her family were denied welfare by the church, just as they had been by the state.

Utah After Welfare Reform

ProPublica is investigating the state of welfare across the Southwest, where the skyrocketing cost of living has made cash assistance for struggling families — an issue that has been brought to the fore again amid debate over President Joe Biden’s child tax credit — more desperately needed than ever.

What the 1996 welfare reform law did, in essence, was dramatically shrink the safety net for the poorest Americans while leaving what aid remained in the hands of individual states, issuing each a “block grant” of federal welfare funding and significant discretion over how to spend, or not spend, the cash.

Ever since, welfare has taken on each state’s personality.

There’s perhaps no better place to examine the past and future of public assistance than Utah, the only state with a private welfare system to rival the government’s. After all, the welfare program of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints served as a model for the welfare reform movement of the 1980s and ’90s, when it was spotlighted by then-President Ronald Reagan during a visit to LDS welfare facilities and in the writings of a young conservative named Tucker Carlson.

The first thing Utah did under the 1996 law was to become increasingly closefisted about helping poor people, creating a labyrinthine system of employment and self-improvement programs that applicants must partake in — including resume-writing seminars, screenings for drug use, counseling sessions and continual paperwork — as well as strict income limits they must not surpass. As of 2019, the state was providing direct assistance to about 3,000 families out of nearly 30,000 living in poverty, a precipitous decline from the mid-’90s, when Utah’s program served roughly 60% of these parents and children. (Utah denied welfare applications, on average, more than 1,300 times every month last year, including during the pandemic.)

A single mother of one here is eligible for $399 a month in state assistance, and only if she has a net income of $456 a month or less.

Utah doesn’t do more for those in need in part because a contingent of its lawmakers, the overwhelming majority of whom are Latter-day Saints themselves, assume the church is handling the poverty issue; they also are loath to raise taxes to do the state’s share, a review of Utah’s legislative history demonstrates.

Thanks to “the LDS Church’s welfare system, literally millions, tens of millions and maybe even hundreds of millions of dollars are saved by the state,” former state Sen. Stuart Reid said in 2011, when the Legislature passed a resolution honoring church welfare on its 75th anniversary.

Indeed, Utah has been counting millions in church welfare work every year as part of the state’s own welfare budget, as a way of meeting the minimum level of effort the state is required to put into addressing poverty so it can collect on federal dollars from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, or TANF. According to the memorandum of understanding between the church and the state, Utah takes credit for a percentage of the hours that church volunteers spend producing and packaging food and clothing for the poor at Welfare Square and similar facilities.

It also claims as state welfare a percentage of the church’s efforts to produce and ship out humanitarian aid in the wake of disasters — aid that may not even help Utahns.

Officials at Utah’s public assistance agency, which after welfare reform was named the Department of Workforce Services, said they do not know how long they’ve had this “third-party” understanding with the church. But they emphasized that it’s legal under the 1996 law and subsequent federal regulations, and that other states engage in the same practice. (That law was the first federal legislation to allow and encourage religious groups to be involved in the provision of government-funded social services, a policy championed by then-Sen. John Ashcroft and later by President George W. Bush.)

ProPublica found that the deal with the church was brokered in 2009 during the Great Recession, when Utah hired a for-profit company called Public Consulting Group Inc. to identify private organizations that could help the state spend less on welfare while still receiving full federal funding, according to Utah’s contract with PCG.

When the state denies help to low-income Utahns, state caseworkers sometimes, though not always, suggest that they seek welfare from the church instead, according to interviews with more than three dozen former caseworkers and applicants.

“You would explain to them, ‘Have you talked to an LDS bishop?’” said Robert Martinez, an eligibility worker for the Department of Workforce Services from 2013 to 2019.

Martinez said he always gave applicants other nongovernmental options to consider, and there was no coercion to go the religious route. Still, he emphasized to them, the church has a lot more money to offer than the minimal aid dispensed by the state. (In fact, the church appears to have more money than what is by most accounts the largest philanthropic organization in the world, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)

Liz Carver, director of workforce development at the Department of Workforce Services and the lead TANF official at the agency, acknowledged in multiple interviews that caseworkers might in some instances propose church welfare to customers, which is what the department calls citizens who apply for public assistance.

But, she said, welfare caseworkers not just in Utah but nationwide refer applicants to a range of community organizations, faith-based or not, all the time. It’s part of a larger conversation with these individuals about what brought them to ask for help that day, she said, and about which needs the government can assist with under the federal regulations and which it can’t.

Utah, Carver noted, is one of the most charitable states in the nation, characterized by a strong ethic of neighbors helping neighbors, which makes the agency’s public-private offerings stronger.

Regarding the state’s fiscal arrangement with the church, Carver said, “We’d have to ask the state Legislature for more money if we couldn’t count this partnership” toward state welfare.

“I mean, we could be counting millions of hours of [church members’] volunteer time, bishops helping their communities, all that stuff,” she continued, suggesting that the current amount of church assistance that Utah is claiming as the state’s is minimal and necessary.

Christina Davis, communication director for the department, added in an emailed statement that the fact that caseworkers may refer Utahns to the church and other private groups is a separate and unrelated issue from the state’s budgetary agreement with the church welfare program.

She also stressed that tens of thousands of low-income households in Utah receive other forms of help from the state, including food stamps and Medicaid.

Finally, Davis pointed out that the number of poor people who are provided direct assistance has been significantly scaled back not just in Utah but across the country.

The problem with Utah’s dependence on church aid to pick up that slack, civil rights advocates say, is that although the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith, once instructed his membership to clothe the naked and feed the hungry whether they arein this church, or in any other, or in no church at all,” the thousands of individual bishops who today run point for LDS welfare services may have different views.

Most are continually generous with aid. But some might feel justified in politely denying assistance to poor people who aren’t Latter-day Saints — or to LGBTQ people — even in some cases turning away struggling church members who haven’t been attending services or paying 10% of their income to the church in tithes.

“There’s this term in the church called ‘bishop roulette,’” said David Smurthwaite, a former bishop in Salt Lake City, referring to the differing choices about welfare that get made by each bishop in congregations across the state.

Smurthwaite said that church leadership did equip him with a slate of questions to ask low-income people who came to his office asking for help. But, he said, bishops are “not professional welfare providers, not professional therapists, yet we get put in the hot seat for these kinds of experiences.”

Bishops are called to their lay role on a temporary basis, typically for around five years. Unlike most clergy in other faiths, they often have day jobs. And like with anyone else, their politics can infuse their religion.

There’s also much less accountability than there would be for a government program. Welfare decisions by bishops are subject mainly to the broad tenets of the church’s “General Handbook,” usually with counsel from other church leaders but without oversight from the public.

“If a state’s premier social safety net is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” said W. Paul Reeve, chair of Mormon studies at the University of Utah, “what does that mean if you’re not one?”

Separation of Church and State

The very first words of the First Amendment are not about freedom of speech or the right to protest, but rather a warning against government establishment of religion.

That is why the state of Utah’s welfare-provision system being intertwined with the LDS Church is “troubling,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia and a leading expert on the separation of church and state. “I can’t think of anything at all analogous,” he said, adding that if someone sues, it would be a “novel” case.

Laycock noted, though, that if Utah’s granting and denying of welfare applications isn’t itself religious in nature, it may not matter legally that the state then tells some applicants deemed ineligible about a private source of aid — even one, like the church, that may judge them based on religion.

Nathan S. Chapman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Georgia, said a key question is whether Utah has “partnered” with the LDS Church to enough of an extent that the overall system for providing welfare in the state is “insufficiently religiously neutral” and thus denies vulnerable people “true private choice” as to whether to partake in religion so they can receive assistance.

But he also said the state could argue that it is not constitutionally obligated to provide welfare to citizens, and that there is a marketplace of private aid providers including not just the LDS Church but also others that are less publicized in Utah, like Catholic Community Services.

ProPublica interviewed more than two dozen low-income Salt Lake City-area residents about their experiences with Utah’s safety net. Almost all who weren’t active church members — and even many who were — felt that welfare in Utah is religiously prejudicial, at least in practical terms, because the state has left a vacuum of social services that’s filled by individual bishops and their potential biases.

Candice Simpkins, who grew up in the church, says she struggled to pay her bills and afford groceries after the birth of her daughter but knew from reading a state website that her income was slightly too high for her to qualify for public assistance. When she went to a bishop for help instead, she says, she was told that she wouldn’t be in her situation if she hadn’t had sex out of wedlock, and that she would have to start attending church services. (Feminist Mormons say that women especially are affected by the capriciousness of welfare in Utah. Bishops are all men, and some view both premarital sex and divorce, each of which can lead to precarious financial situations, as the fault of women, critics say.)

A close friend of Simpkins’, whom she called in tears after her interaction with the bishop, corroborated her description of what happened.

In another case, Jo Alexander, who is lesbian, says she was desperate for a hotel room during a period of homelessness. But she knew she couldn’t get public assistance from the state because she had received it around two decades ago as a young woman and therefore had exceeded her lifetime limit under another of the rules implemented under welfare reform. As a result, she went to a bishop.

Despite being raised as a member of the church, she was denied. She says it is known in the community that she is gay and she believes that was the reason for her rejection. (A friend confirmed her account, though there are no public records of these private conversations with bishops.)

And Miranda Twitchell, who is currently homeless, says the rules and procedures for obtaining state aid are so convoluted and seemingly endless that she had nowhere to turn except the church for immediate help when she needed food and a bed — and that’s when she decided to follow a piece of advice shared on the streets: “Get baptized, get help.”

Some low-income people in Salt Lake City say they have gotten baptized just to obtain welfare, even though they don’t believe in the ritual. Most who had done so were afraid to speak on the record for this story, believing the church would learn that their conversion stories were inauthentic and retaliate by not helping them in the future.

The LDS spokesperson defended the church’s approach to welfare in part by emphasizing that the church should not be confused with a government agency or considered a replacement for the government in the provision of public assistance. (Indeed, the LDS “General Handbook” clearly states that church members should turn to the government first for financial help, before going to their bishop.)

The church does look after its own membership, the spokesperson said, given that it is a religious institution. If a nonmember seeks help, there’s less of a preexisting relationship with that person, and a bishop may ask the individual to come to services to see firsthand what his or her needs are. There, relationships are established with church members, who then extend a hand of fellowship.

Finally, he said, one of the church’s larger goals is for people who are struggling financially to learn self-reliance and industriousness, not dependency. This may be one reason that some felt rejected when they asked for ongoing assistance.

Experts on charitable giving note that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and its members arguably do more than any other religious community to help people in poverty. (In Utah, the churchhasgiven tens of millions to fight homelessness.)

Several active Latter-day Saints in the Salt Lake City area said that when faced with financial hardship, they may actually have a better safety net than anyone in any state, because they can count on the church for help with food, clothes, furniture, rent, utilities, car payments and repairs, tanks of gas, medical bills, moving expenses, job searches and general life problems.

Benjamin Sessions, executive director of Circles Salt Lake, an anti-poverty community organization, said that a struggling family he works with recently called him in the middle of the night while huddling in their car with nowhere to go. Sessions called up a local LDS leader he knows personally, who simply said, “What do you need? Get me a list.”

Help from the church is “dramatic and it’s quick,” Sessions said. “If you ask me to choose between calling up someone at the state versus someone at the church, I would call the church 10 out of 10 times.”

Others say it is a strength of this country that there are so many religious groups, including the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, synagogues and mosques, that provide food and shelter to the poor.

“If someone has to listen to preaching to get free food, is it less than optimal? Sure,” the Cato Institute’s Michael D. Tanner told The Atlantic. “But it’s probably not the thing I’m most worried about.”

Yet most other faith-based organizations do not make religious rites such as worship or baptism a prerequisite of basic survival help, the way that some LDS bishops do, experts on religious charity say.

Even some lifelong church members in the Salt Lake City area told ProPublica that they were denied welfare by the church for religious reasons.

Amberlyn Robinson, who had been such a loyal churchgoer that she says she missed services only twice that she can remember during her entire childhood, fell deep into medical debt as a young woman after having a miscarriage that was nearly as expensive as it was traumatizing. She looked at her family’s finances and decided that the only way to pay the bills would be to be less consistent about tithing 10% of their limited income from her then-husband’s two jobs in retail, even though she worried God would smite her as a consequence.

Her bishop then denied her financial assistance, citing her failure to pay tithes as one reason — which left Robinson baffled as to how an inability to afford tithing could show anything but her need, she says, and made her so resentful that she ultimately left the faith.

Danilyn Levorsen, who was also born and raised in the church, struggles with rent and bills as the cost of living in and around Salt Lake City surges.

Her husband, who has severe disabilities that add to the family’s expenses, is a fan of the supernatural. He volunteers at a haunted house, Halloween is his Christmas, and he has intense tattoos.

When he asked a bishop for help, Levorsen says, the bishop responded by criticizing his alternative lifestyle and dark clothing.

“I hear on the news all the time that the church is shipping food to other countries,” she said, adding that she completely understands and supports those efforts, given the poverty in the world.

“But this is supposed to be their golden city, here,” she said. “And this is how they do us?”

It’s the State’s Responsibility

The onus to provide a safety net for America’s poorest families and children — and equal access to such services under the law irrespective of religion, gender, race or class — ultimately falls on the government, not a church that has a right to choose whom to serve.

Joel Briscoe, a former bishop in Salt Lake City and now a Democratic state legislator, said that as a bishop he always had people coming to him after they had tried and failed to get help from the state, especially food stamps. He could only do his best to make up for public assistance being “ludicrous, the amounts are so small,” he said.

Utah’s stinginess with aid stems in part from its focus on putting welfare applicants to work — no matter how much work a family is already putting into just getting by.

In Bellamy’s case, a state employee told her daughter Jaidyn that the family could get assistance only if she stopped staying at home to care for her mom and instead got a job, the family said. (She now works at a child care center. Bellamy’s older daughter, Imani, works overnight shifts as a home health care aide.)

Bellamy noted that the state has helped her with food stamps; she has also had many neighbors from the LDS church show her great kindness throughout her life, she said.

While denying so many families direct assistance, Utah was, as of a 2012 Government Accountability Office report, leading the nation in aid that its government was supposed to be providing the poor but was instead outsourcing to a third-party nongovernmental organization.

States do not have to report the extent to which they engage in this accounting maneuver, but a 2016 follow-up GAO report found that 15 others do it. By that time, Georgia was the outlier among several states that aggressively count as their own spending the charitable activities of groups such as United Way, the YMCA, food banks and domestic violence shelters.

Scott Dzurka, former president and CEO of the Michigan Association of United Ways, told the publication Bridge Michigan that his organization eventually decided to stop allowing its work to be counted by the state as welfare. “We looked long and hard at that,” he said, “and raised concerns that really our resources may in fact be working against what we were trying to do, which was to supplement state poverty efforts, not replace them.”

The LDS Church declined to comment on this issue.

For a brief period during Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration and Congress were both moving to prevent states from “gaming the system” by counting outside spending as their own. But Rep. Tom Price, who went on to briefly head the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Donald Trump, helped kill the legislation that would have ended the practice.

Because states are largely allowed to count welfare dollars how they want, Utah has also been able to spread this money around among its lawmakers’ favored projects, many of which are aimed at preventing low-income people from having sex out of wedlock rather than providing them with direct aid. (This is despite mounting evidence that cash assistance — money — alleviates poverty — a lack of money — much more effectively than less direct interventions like parenting classes.)

Welfare funding in Utah goes to the Utah Marriage Commission, among many other similar initiatives. These include a 4-H program called Teen Spheres of Influence that state budget documents say makes teens “3.4 times more likely to delay sexual intercourse through high school,” as well as a relationship program called “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk or Jerkette.”

Davis, the Department of Workforce Services spokesperson, reiterated that all uses of TANF funds in Utah are consistent with federal regulations implemented under welfare reform, which explicitly pressed states to reduce pregnancies among the poor unless they are in married, two-parent households.

Still, Utah continues to evolve, diversifying, becoming less of an LDS state centered on traditional family life. One area south of Salt Lake City is now so jammed with tech companies that it has been rechristened the Silicon Slopes. Meanwhile, thousands of the region’s residents have become homeless over the past decade and are being pushed from one up-and-coming neighborhood to the next by the police and the health department.

Farther up the mountainside, past the lovely houses around the state Capitol, you’ll find their latest encampment set against a cliff above the blazing lights of the Marathon Oil refinery to the northwest. Most here say they were denied survival help by the state first and the church second, or vice versa. Many say their rejection by the church was due to their unkempt appearance, their refusal to attend church services they find hypocritical, or an assumption by bishops that they would spend financial assistance not on food, but on drugs.

Michelle Low grew up in the faith but says she had a dysfunctional home life and became addicted to drugs while still a child, and then became homeless. She is now trying not to ask the state for help because of the strict lifetime limit on receiving aid; she wants to be able to apply for it down the road if she needs to. (But she says she could use the aid to buy warm clothes and shoes and to pay her cousin rent so she’d have somewhere to live indoors.)

Instead, Low asked the church for assistance, despite the many moral and intellectual questions she has had since childhood about church doctrine. But a bishop she spoke with said he couldn’t help her unless she made the choice to live together with and marry her child’s father, she says.

The bishop said they could be married right there in his office.

To which Low said, “He isn’t the right guy for me, and also I don’t want to get married in an office.”

“See,” she says, “it’s always ‘We’ll help you if.’”

Here's how Donald Trump and other ultrarich Americans have earned billions -- and also repeatedly avoided paying taxes

Here’s a tale of two Stephen Rosses.

Real life Stephen Ross, who founded Related Companies, a global firm best known for developing the Time Warner Center and Hudson Yards in Manhattan, was a massive winner between 2008 and 2017. He became the second-wealthiest real estate titan in America, almost doubling his net worth over those years, according to Forbes Magazine’s annual list, by adding $3 billion to his fortune. His assets included a penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park and the Miami Dolphins football team.

Then there’s the other Stephen Ross, the big loser. That’s the one depicted on his tax returns. Though the developer brought in some $1.5 billion in income from 2008 to 2017, he reported even more — nearly $2 billion — in losses. And because he reported negative income, he didn’t pay a nickel in federal income taxes over those 10 years.

What enables this dual identity? The upside-down tax world of the ultrawealthy.

ProPublica’s analysis of more than 15 years of secret tax data for thousands of the wealthiest Americans shows that Ross is one of a special breed.

He is among a subset of the ultrarich who take advantage of owning businesses that generate enormous tax deductions that then flow through to their personal tax returns. Many of them are in commercial real estate or oil and gas, industries that have been granted unusual advantages in the American tax code, which allow the ultrawealthy to take tax losses even on profitable enterprises. Manhattan apartment towers that are soaring in value can be turned into sinkholes for tax purposes. A massively profitable natural gas pipeline company can churn out Texas-sized write-offs for its billionaire owner.

By being able to generate losses — effectively, by being the biggest losers — these Americans are the most effective income-tax avoiders among the ultrawealthy, ProPublica’s analysis of tax data found. While ProPublica has shown that some of the country’s absolute wealthiest people, including Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk and Michael Bloomberg, occasionally sidestep federal income tax entirely, this group does it year in and year out.

Take Silicon Valley real estate mogul Jay Paul, who hauled in $354 million between 2007 and 2018. According to Forbes, he vaulted into the ranks of the multibillionaires in those years. Yet Paul paid taxes in only one of those years, thanks to losses of over $700 million.

Then there’s Texas wildcatter Trevor Rees-Jones, who built Chief Oil & Gas into a major natural gas producer over the past two decades. The multibillionaire reported a total of $1.4 billion in income from 2013 to 2018, but offset that with even greater losses. He paid no federal income taxes in four of those six years.

None of the people mentioned in this article would discuss their taxes or tax-avoidance techniques with ProPublica.

A spokesperson for Ross declined to accept questions. In a statement, he said, “Stephen Ross has always followed the tax law. His returns — which were illegally obtained and descriptions of which were released by ProPublica — are reflective of and in accordance with federal tax policy. It should terrify every American that their information is not safe with the government and that media will act illegally in disseminating it. We will have no further correspondence with you as we believe this is an illegal act.” (As ProPublica has explained, the organization believes its actions are legal and protected by the Constitution.)

A spokesman for Rees-Jones declined to comment. Paul did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

The techniques used by these billionaires to generate losses are generally legal. Loopholes for fossil-fuel businesses date back practically to the income tax’s birth in the early 20th century. Carve-outs for real estate and oil and gas have withstood sporadic efforts at reform by Congress in part because there has been widespread support for investment in housing and energy.

The commercial real estate and fossil fuel breaks have enabled some of the wealthiest Americans to escape federal income taxes for long stretches of time. Sometimes they amass such large losses that they cannot use all of them in a given year. When that happens, they fill up reservoirs of deductions that they then draw down bit by bit to wipe away taxes in future years. Before ProPublica’s analysis of its trove of tax data, the extent of this type of avoidance among the nation’s wealthiest was not known.

Typical working Americans do not generate these kinds of business losses and thus can’t use them to offset income or reduce income tax.

As long as there have been income taxes, there have been schemes to manufacture illusory losses that reduce taxes, and there have likewise been counterefforts by Congress and the IRS to rein them in. But ProPublica’s findings show these measures to prevent deduction abuses “aren’t doing what they are supposed to do,” said Daniel Shaviro, the Wayne Perry Professor of Taxation at New York University Law School. “The system isn’t working right.”

For decades, One Columbus Place, a 51-story apartment complex in midtown Manhattan, has looked like an excellent investment. Located a block off the southwest corner of Central Park, it’s adjacent to the Columbus Circle mall for shopping at Coach or Swarovski or for dining at the Michelin three-star restaurant Per Se.

Its 729 rental units have churned out millions of dollars in rental income every year for its owners, among them Stephen Ross. Mortgage records show its value has skyrocketed, jumping from $250 million in the early 2000s to almost $550 million in 2016.

Yet, for more than a decade, this prime piece of New York real estate was a surefire money-loser for tax purposes. Since Ross acquired a share in the property in 2007, he has recorded $32 million in tax losses from his stake in a partnership that owns it, his tax records show.

Tax losses from properties owned through a host of such partnerships are central to Ross’ ability, and that of other real estate moguls, to continue to grow their wealth while reporting negative income year after year to the IRS.

Their down-is-up, up-is-down tax life comes in large part from provisions in the code that amplify developers’ ability to exploit write-offs from what’s known as depreciation, or the presumed decline in the value of assets over time. Some of these rules apply only to the real estate business, letting developers take outsize deductions today to reduce their taxable income while delaying their tax bill for decades — and potentially forever.

Depreciation itself is a widely accepted concept. In most businesses, the depreciation write-offs come from assets, like machinery, that reliably lose their value over time; eventually, a machine becomes outmoded or breaks down.

When it comes to real estate, a common justification for depreciation relies on the idea that space in older buildings will tend to command lower rents than space in newer ones, eventually making it worthwhile for an owner to knock down a building and construct a new one. So, if a building initially cost investors $100 million, the tax code allows them, over a period of years, to deduct that $100 million.

But rather than losing value, real estate properties often rise in value over time, much like One Columbus Place has done for Ross and his business partners. (That value includes the cost of the land, which doesn’t generate depreciation write-offs.)

These depreciation write-offs, along with deductions for interest and other expenses, have helped many of the nation’s wealthiest real estate developers largely avoid income taxes in recent years, even as their empires have grown more valuable.

Former President Donald Trump, for whom Ross hosted a $100,000-a-plate fundraiser in 2019, is perhaps the best-known example of commercial real estate’s tax beneficiaries. As The New York Times reported last year, Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and 2017, and nothing at all in 10 of the years between 2001 and 2015. According to ProPublica’s data, Trump took in $2.3 billion from 2008 to 2017, but his massive losses were more than enough to wipe that out and keep his overall income below zero every year. In 2008, Trump reported a negative income of over $650 million, one of the largest single-year losses in the tax trove obtained by ProPublica.

New York-area real estate developer Charles Kushner, the father of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, also avoided federal income taxes for long stretches of time. Though he reported making some $330 million between 2008 and 2018, Charles Kushner paid income taxes only twice in that decade ($1.8 million in total) thanks to deductions. (Kushner went to prison in 2005 after being convicted of tax fraud and other charges. Trump pardoned him last year.)

A spokesperson for Trump did not respond to questions about his taxes. (The Trump Organization’s chief legal officer told The New York Times last year that Trump “has paid tens of millions of dollars in personal taxes to the federal government” over the past decade, an apparent reference to taxes other than income tax.) Representatives for Kushner did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Even relative to fellow real estate developers, though, Stephen Ross is exceptional. He didn’t start out in commercial real estate. He began his career as a tax attorney.

Ross, 81, grew up on the outskirts of Detroit, the son of an inventor with little business savvy. After getting a business degree from the University of Michigan, Ross decided to go to law school to avoid the Vietnam war draft. He then extended his education, earning a master’s degree in tax law at New York University.

He saw the tax code as a puzzle to solve. “Most people, when you say you’re a tax lawyer, they think you’re filling out forms for the IRS,” Ross once told a group of NYU students. “But I look at it as probably the most creative aspect of law because you’re given a set of facts and you’re saying, ‘How do you really reduce or eliminate the tax consequences from those facts?’”

After graduating, Ross went to work, first at the accounting firm Coopers & Lybrand, and later at a Wall Street investment bank, which fired him. Then, with a $10,000 loan from his mother, Ross went into business for himself, selling tax shelters.

In its early years, Ross’ Related Companies solicited investments in affordable-housing projects from affluent professionals like doctors and dentists with the promise that the deals would generate deductions they could use on their taxes to offset the income from their day jobs.

By the mid-1970s, such shelters had become big business on Wall Street. The losses frequently subsidized economically dubious investments in a range of industries. It wasn’t uncommon for firms to offer investors the chance to get $2 or $3 worth of tax savings for every $1 they put in.

As the decade wore on, regulators increasingly took notice. The IRS started programs to scrutinize loss-making businesses. Ross and some of his real estate partnerships were audited, according to a company prospectus, and in some cases, the IRS determined that the firm had been too aggressive in taking write-offs from the projects.

Lawmakers began to crack down, too. In 1976, Congress limited the tax losses investors could take if they borrowed money to invest in industries like oil and gas or motion pictures. But the change didn’t apply to the real estate industry, which successfully argued that without such tax shelters, investors wouldn’t back new low-income housing.

In 1986, Congress sought to rein in tax shelters once more as part of a major tax overhaul. This time the changes included rules to prevent affluent people from using the kind of investments Ross had been offering. The rules shrank who could offset their other income using business losses to only those who had important roles in the business, such as those who spent a certain number of hours on it; so-called passive investors were out of luck.

Several tough years followed for Ross and others in the industry, but the real estate lobby mounted a pressure campaign that yielded results in 1993, when Congress allowed real estate professionals once again to use losses generated from their rental properties to wipe out taxable income from things like wages.

After being pounded by the real estate crash of the early 1990s, the Related Companies reorganized itself with an infusion of cash from new investors. Related made use of new federal housing tax credits, as well as local tax breaks and tax-exempt public financing offered by New York City to propel development of affordable housing units. The firm also continued to branch out into more traditional office and luxury apartment deals.

In 2003, the $1.7 billion development of Time Warner Center catapulted Ross indisputably into the upper echelon of New York developers. Then the most expensive real estate project in the history of the city, the two shining glass towers beside Columbus Circle also helped elevate Ross into the the Forbes 400 for the first time in 2006.

Despite his growing fortune, Ross often owed no federal income tax. In the 22 years from 1996 to 2017, he paid no federal income taxes 12 times. His largest tax bill came in 2006, when he owed $12.6 million after reporting just over $100 million in income.

In the years since, Ross has used a combination of business losses, tax credits and other deductions to sidestep such bills. In 2016, for example, Ross reported $306 million in income, including $219 million in capital gains, $51 million in interest income and $5 million in wages from his role at Related Companies. But he was able to offset that income entirely with losses, including by claiming $271 million in losses through his business activities that year and by tapping his reserve of losses from prior years.

ProPublica’s records don’t offer a complete picture of the sources of each taxpayer’s losses, but they do provide some insight. That year, for example, in addition to losses from One Columbus Place, Ross recorded a loss of $31 million from a partnership associated with the Miami Dolphins. As ProPublica previously reported, professional sports teams provide a stream of tax losses for their wealthy owners. Ross also had a loss of $16.9 million from RSE Ventures, his investment company, which has owned stakes in restaurants, a chickpea pasta maker and a drone racing league.

After taking all of his losses, his records show that he would have owed a small amount of alternative minimum tax, which is designed to ensure that taxpayers with high income and huge deductions pay at least some taxes. But Ross was able to eliminate that bill, too, by using tax credits, which he’d also built up a store of over the years. That left him with a federal income tax bill of zero dollars for the year.

Since the early 2000s, when he had significant taxable income, Ross has turned to a conventional technique for creating tax deductions: charitable donations. He has made a series of multimillion-dollar contributions to his alma mater, the University of Michigan, which have earned him naming rights to its business school and some of its sports facilities. In 2003, a partnership owned by Ross and his business partners donated part of a stake in a southern California property to the school, taking a $33 million tax deduction in exchange. But when the university sold the stake two years later, it got only $1.9 million for it.

In 2008, the IRS rejected the claimed tax deduction. In court, the agency argued that the transaction was “a sham for tax purposes” and that Ross and his partners had grossly overvalued the gift. After almost a decade of legal wrangling, a federal judge sided with the IRS, disallowing the deduction, including Ross’ personal share of $5.4 million. The judge also upheld millions of dollars in penalties that the IRS imposed on the partnership for engaging in the maneuver. Both the tax attorney and the accountant who advised Ross on the deal pleaded guilty to tax evasion in an unrelated case. (In a 2017 article on the case, a spokesperson said Ross “was surprised and extremely disappointed by the actions of the two individuals, who have pled guilty, and has severed all dealings with them.”)

Ross’ core business, real estate, remains almost unmatched as a way to avoid taxes.

For most investors, losses are limited by how much money they stand to lose if the enterprise goes belly up, or how much money they have “at risk.” But not real estate investors. They can deduct the depreciation of a property from their taxable income even if the money they used to buy the place was borrowed from a bank and the property is the only asset on the line for the loan. If they buy a building worth $50 million, putting $10 million down and borrowing the rest, they can still deduct $50 million from their personal taxes over time, even though they’ve put much less of their own money into the project.

Savings related to depreciation and similar write-offs are supposed to be temporary; when you sell the assets, you owe taxes not only on your profits from the sale, but on whatever depreciation you’ve taken on the property as well. In tax lingo, this is known as “depreciation recapture.”

But two big gifts in the tax code, working together, can allow real estate moguls to push off those taxes forever.

First, commercial real estate investors can avoid paying taxes on their gains by rolling sale proceeds into similar investments within six months. This provision of the tax code, called the “like-kind exchange,” goes back to the years following the end of World War I and used to apply to other kinds of property owners. Now it’s available only to real estate investors, a provision that’s expected to cost the U.S. Treasury $40 billion in revenue over the next 10 years. Real estate moguls can “swap till they drop,” as the industry saying has it.

Then, there are even more tax benefits that can be used when they do meet their demise — at least to benefit their heirs. For starters, all the gains in the value of the moguls’ properties are wiped out for tax purposes (a process known by the wonky phrase “step-up in basis”). The tax slate is similarly wiped clean when it comes to the depreciation write-offs that were taken on the properties. The heirs don’t have to pay depreciation recapture taxes.

Real estate heirs then get another quirky benefit: They can depreciate the same buildings all over again as if they’d just bought them, using the piggy bank of write-offs to shield their own income from taxes.

As for Ross, after filing his taxes for 2017, he still had a storehouse of tax losses that ProPublica estimates exceeded $440 million. It was entirely possible that he’d never pay federal income taxes again.

If you’re looking to get richer while telling the tax man you’re getting poorer, it’s hard to beat real estate development. But the oil and gas industry provides stiff competition.

Privileged as the lifeblood of the economy, the energy sector has long been lavished with tax breaks. Provisions dating to the 1910s allow drillers to immediately write off a large portion of their investments, essentially subsidizing oil and gas exploration.

One special gift from U.S. taxpayers to oil drillers is called depletion. The idea is grounded in common sense: As oil (or gas or coal) is taken out of the ground, there’s less left to collect later. That bit-by-bit depletion — analogous to depreciation — becomes a tax write-off. Each year, oil investors get to deduct a set percentage of the revenue from the property.

But investors can keep on deducting that set amount indefinitely, even after they’ve recouped their investment, a benefit that had its critics almost from the beginning. The idea was “based on no sound economic principle,” groused the Joint Committee on Taxation in 1926. Yet only in the 1970s was the depletion provision meaningfully curtailed, and then mainly for the largest oil producers. Congress left it in place for independent operators like wildcatters, long venerated as a cross between plucky entrepreneurs and cowboys.

Today the ranks of billionaires are filled with these independent operators. They get the best of both worlds: legacy tax breaks from the days when oil exploration was a crapshoot and current technology that makes the business much less speculative.

These tax breaks have long outlived their initial purpose of encouraging drilling, said Joseph Aldy, a professor of the practice of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. Now “we’re just giving money to rich people.”

Billionaires in the industry collect enough deductions to dwarf even vast incomes. Of the 18 billionaires ProPublica previously identified as having received COVID-19 stimulus checks last year — they were eligible because their huge tax write-offs resulted in reported incomes that fell below the middle-class cutoffs for receiving payments — six made their fortunes in the oil and gas industry.

One was Trevor Rees-Jones, who rode the shale fracking boom to build a fortune of over $4 billion while shrinking his federal income taxes to nothing.

His tax returns show huge income, over a billion dollars in total from 2013 to 2018, but even more enormous deductions. In 2013, for instance, Rees-Jones’ company, Chief Oil & Gas, made a major move, acquiring 40 natural gas wells in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale for $500 million. Hundreds of millions in write-offs for that acquisition flowed to Rees-Jones’ taxes.

A spokesman for Rees-Jones declined to comment.

Another Texan, Kelcy Warren of the pipeline giant Energy Transfer, shows how the industry’s tax breaks, when blended with others that are more broadly available, can turn a wildly profitable company into a tax write-off for its owner, even as he reaps billions of dollars in income.

Warren, who co-founded Energy Transfer in the 1990s, is worth about $3.5 billion, according to Forbes. He built the company on a plan of aggressive expansion, through both acquisitions and building pipelines. “You must grow until you die,” he has said.

Warren’s aggressive strategy has allowed him to amass billions of dollars in income, only a small portion of which is taxed. (Representatives for Warren did not respond to requests for comment.)

Energy Transfer is publicly traded, but it’s structured as a special kind of partnership, called a master limited partnership. Only public companies in oil and gas, as well as a few other industries, can take this form.

Partnerships work differently than corporations. A corporation is a separate entity from its investors: The corporation pays taxes on its profits, and the investors pay taxes on the dividends they receive. By contrast, partnerships, including master limited partnerships, don’t generally pay taxes. Only the investors (the partners) pay taxes on their share of the partnership’s profits.

But when Energy Transfer sends regular cash distributions to its partners, these payments are, in most cases, considered a “return of capital” rather than a profit. They come tax free.

Warren’s stake in Energy Transfer — he is the primary general partner and holds hundreds of millions of units of the publicly traded limited partnership — has long entitled him to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in distributions every year, which have helped fund an outsize lifestyle. In addition to a 23,000-square-foot home in Dallas, which boasts a 200-seat theater, a bowling alley and a baseball field, he also has a fleet of private planes, an entire Honduran island, and an 11,000-acre ranch near Austin that has giraffes, javelinas and Asian oxen.

From 2010 to 2018, Warren was entitled to receive more than $1.5 billion in cash distributions, according to ProPublica’s analysis of company filings. During that time, Warren also disclosed an additional $500 million in income from other sources on his tax returns.

But in six of the nine years, he told the IRS he’d lost more money than he’d made. In four of them, he paid nothing.

Warren was able to wipe out his income tax liabilities because Energy Transfer provided him with huge deductions, not only from depletion and other tax breaks specific to oil and gas, but also from the way his company is allowed to account for depreciation.

After Energy Transfer builds a new pipeline, its value becomes an asset, one that will degrade over time, and thus produces depreciation deductions. All of that is standard. What’s unusual is that the tax code has long allowed Energy Transfer and its peers to treat the pipeline as if it lost more than half its value immediately. This “bonus depreciation” can wipe out billions in profits; indeed, in 2018, Energy Transfer reported $3.4 billion in profits in its annual public filing while simultaneously delivering big tax losses to its partners.

Lawmakers from both parties have supported bonus depreciation on the theory that the tax break, which is available across many industries, boosts spending on new equipment and juices the economy. But Trump and Republicans took the idea to its extreme in 2017 with two key changes that benefited aggressive companies like Energy Transfer in particular.

Under the new tax law, the “bonus” rose from 50% to 100%. In other words, for tax purposes, a shiny new pipeline becomes worthless upon completion. Second, the new law contained an even greater perk: It extended to the purchase of used equipment. This means that when a big company like Energy Transfer buys the assets of a smaller one, the value of all the smaller company’s equipment can be written off immediately.

Warren’s tax data reflects the benefits of this to individual owners. He entered 2018 already having built up an $82 million store of losses, and by the end of the year, he had increased it to over $130 million, ProPublica estimates.

Warren is a major Republican donor, having given $18 million to federal and state Republicans since 2015. Most of that went to supporting Trump, who was once an Energy Transfer investor.

Warren’s closeness to the Trump administration seemed to pay off. Days after taking office in 2017, Trump ordered the Army to reconsider a decision to block Energy Transfer’s Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned path under a reservoir and near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation had sparked strong opposition. Two weeks later, the pipeline was approved. Energy Transfer boasted record profits in the years that followed.

The company’s biggest quarter ever came last year. The reason? A $2.4 billion windfall from the worst winter storm to hit Texas in decades. Hundreds of Texans died. Utilities scrambled and prices for natural gas soared. San Antonio’s largest utility later accused Energy Transfer of “egregious” price gouging and sued to recoup some payments. The city’s mayor called Energy Transfer’s actions “the most massive wealth transfer in Texas history.” No company profited more, reported Bloomberg. (A spokesperson for Energy Transfer responded that the company had merely sold gas “at prevailing market prices.”)

It was a characteristic victory for Warren, who once said, “The most wealth I’ve ever made is during the dark times.”

Nobody knows just how many of the ultrawealthy are able to completely wipe out their income tax bills using business losses. The IRS publishes all sorts of reports analyzing the traits of taxpayers at different income levels, but its analysis typically starts with people who report $0 or more in income, thus excluding anyone who reported negative income.

But while the scope of the problem isn’t known, policymakers are well aware of techniques taxpayers use to game the system. Congress periodically seeks to tighten tax loopholes (often when it has ambitious spending initiatives it needs to pay for). For his part, President Joe Biden put forward plans this spring that would have axed a variety of oil and gas tax breaks, including percentage depletion. Master limited partnerships, the corporate form that Energy Transfer uses, were on the chopping block. In real estate, the special like-kind exchange carve-out was slated for elimination. The plans would have killed even the step-up in basis, the crucial provision that enables titans in both industries to reap huge deductions without worrying about a future income tax bill.

But as in the past, lobbyists for these industries rallied to preserve their privileged status, and these proposals were dropped.

A novel reform proposal still survives. Recent versions of Biden’s Build Back Better plan have contained a provision that would prevent wealthy taxpayers from using outsize losses from their businesses to wipe out other income in the future.

However, even if this proposal makes it into law, older losses that predate the legislation would still have a privileged status, immune to the new limitations. The biggest losers, it appears, will once again emerge unscathed.

How Steve Bannon exploits Google ads to monetize extremism

Almost a year ago, Google took a major step to ensure that its ubiquitous online ad network didn’t put money in the pocket of Steve Bannon, the indicted former adviser to Donald Trump. The company kicked Bannon off YouTube, which Google owns, after he called for the beheading of Anthony Fauci and urged Trump supporters to come to Washington on Jan. 6 to try to overturn the presidential election results.

Google also confirmed to ProPublica that it has at times blocked ads from appearing on Bannon’s War Room website alongside individual articles that violate Google’s rules.

But Bannon found a loophole in Google’s policies that let him keep earning ad money on his site’s homepage.

Until Monday, the home page automatically played innocuous stock content, such as tips on how to protect your phone in winter weather or how to improve the effectiveness of your LinkedIn profile.

The content likely had no interest for War Room visitors, especially since it was interrupted every few seconds by ads. But the ads, supplied through Google’s network, came from such prominent brands as Land Rover, Volvo, DoorDash, Staples and even Harvard University.

Right below that video player was another that featured clips from Bannon’s “War Room” podcast, which routinely portrays participants in the Jan. 6 Capitol riot as patriots and airs false claims about the 2020 election and the COVID-19 pandemic.

The video player running Google ads amid innocuous clips disappeared from Bannon’s website on Monday, after ProPublica inquired with Google, Bannon and advertisers. The change was not Google’s doing: Google spokesperson Michael Aciman said the player did not break the company’s rules. He said Google’s policies were effective in preventing ads from ending up on sites with “harmful content.”

“We have strict policies that explicitly prohibit publishers from both promoting harmful content and providing inaccurate information about their properties, misrepresenting their identity, or sending unauthorized ad requests,” Aciman said. “These policies exist to protect both users and advertisers from abuse, fraud or disruptive ad experiences, and we enforce them through a mix of automated tools and human review. When we find publishers that violate these policies we stop ads from serving on their site.”

A spokesperson for Bannon, who was indicted this month for stonewalling Congress’ bipartisan investigation into the Jan. 6 insurrection, declined to answer questions for this article.

Zach Edwards, the founder of Victory Medium, a consulting firm that advises companies on online advertising, said the digital ad industry, including Google, is rife with loopholes and bad behavior, and its complexity prevents advertisers from understanding what they’re funding. “A lot of times ad buyers just shrug their shoulders and are like, ‘It’s video ads, what can you do?’” he said.

Of Bannon’s dodge and Google’s acquiescence to it, Edwards added, “Nothing about this is aboveboard.”

The vast majority of online ads aren’t purchased through direct relationships with the sites on which they appear. Instead, brands use automated ad exchanges like Google’s that rely on real-time auctions to automatically place ads in front of people who fit a brand’s target audience. As long as Google keeps the War Room website in its network, and as long as brands don’t specifically block it from their ad buys, Bannon’s site can keep collecting money. Warroom.org draws between 450,000 and 1 million visits a month, according to traffic tracker SimilarWeb.

And Google takes a cut of each dollar from ads it places on the War Room site.

“For most advertisers, having an ad placed on a Steve Bannon-affiliated outlet is the stuff of nightmares,” said Nandini Jammi, the co-founder of Check My Ads, an ad industry watchdog. “The fact that ad exchanges are still serving ads should tell brands that their vendors are not vetting their inventory, and I wouldn’t be surprised if advertisers who have found themselves on War Room request refunds.”

Companies contacted by ProPublica said they didn’t intend to advertise on War Room’s site and would take steps to stop their ads from appearing there. Land Rover called the ad “an error.” Harry Pierre, a spokesperson for Harvard’s Division of Continuing Education, said the school is working with its ad buyer to update its list of unwanted websites. Adobe said its ad was a violation of its brand safety guidelines. “We worked with the ad partner to remove the ads from the site,” a spokesperson said.

DoorDash also blamed a third-party vendor. “DoorDash’s mission is to empower local communities and provide access to opportunity for all, and we stand against the spread of disinformation that undermines those principles,” the company said in a statement.

Spokespeople for Volvo did not respond to requests for comment.

Meanwhile, Google may have banned a different site affiliated with Bannon. Until recently, the site Populist Press earned money via Google’s ad network. The site, styled to imitate the Drudge Report, was prominently linked on the War Room homepage and draws roughly 5 million visits a month, according to SimilarWeb.

According to an online disclosure from a former advertising partner, Populist Press is affiliated with August Partners, a Colorado company registered to Amanda Shea, whose husband, Tim Shea, was a partner of Bannon’s in We Build the Wall initiative. Bannon and allies used We Build the Wall to solicit money to fulfill Trump’s campaign promise of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. Federal prosecutors accused Bannon, Tim Shea and other associates of misusing the money, and Trump pardoned Bannon before leaving office. An attorney for Tim Shea, who is awaiting trial, declined to comment, and Amanda Shea did not respond to a request for comment.

At some point during the week of Nov. 15, Populist Press stopped showing Google ads — and it stopped being promoted on the War Room homepage. Aciman, the Google spokesperson, declined to comment on whether Google had banned Populist Press, but said that the site “is not monetizing using our services.”

Bannon’s “War Room” podcast draws a massive audience, with more than 100 million total downloads across more than 1,000 episodes, available on platforms including Apple’s. A sort of far-right “Meet the Press,” it’s the go-to talk show for pro-Trump influencers and Republican hopefuls. Frequently using violent imagery, Bannon and his guests promote new ways of trying to overturn the election, such as demanding “audits” of the 2020 ballots. Since February, Bannon has inspired thousands to take over local-level Republican Party committees, unlocking influence over how elections are run from the ground up.

On his podcast in 2020, Bannon called for the beheading of Fauci and FBI director Chris Wray. On the eve of Jan. 6, Bannon said, “We’re on the point of attack” and “all hell will break loose tomorrow.” Bannon was also reportedly involved in the Trump team’s command center on the day of the riot, which is part of congressional investigators’ interest in his testimony and records. Since the insurrection, Bannon has taken up the cause of people held on charges related to the Capitol riot.

In addition to his podcast, Bannon has spun a complex web of political and business ventures. He co-founded a training academy for right-wing nationalists that got mired in a legal dispute with the Italian government over control of a medieval monastery near Rome. A media company he launched with Guo Wengui, a fugitive Chinese billionaire on whose yacht Bannon was arrested in 2020, was part of a $539 million settlement with the Securities and Exchange Commission in September for illegally marketing digital currency. Before advising Trump, Bannon had a wide-ranging career in finance and movies, and his pardon from Trump lifted a $1.75 million lien against his house in Laguna Beach, California.

Bannon’s megaphone is not just influential. It’s also lucrative. His show and website have promoted fellow election fraud evangelist Mike Lindell’s MyPillow business, as well as a cryptocurrency investing newsletter called TheCryptoCapitalist. (The marketers of an unproven COVID-19 treatment that Bannon promoted were sued by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission in April. The chiropractor behind the treatment denies the government's accusations.) The War Room site also contains ads from MGID, a network that places content ads that look like links to related articles and sometimes promote dubious health or financial products.

It’s not clear how much money Bannon makes from online ads. But industry data shows that the links placed by MGID are much less profitable than the video ads facilitated by Google. (MGID did not respond to a request for comment.)

The issue is that major brands likely have no idea that they’re advertising on the site of one of the biggest perpetrators of bogus election fraud claims. That disconnect between brands and where their ads and money end up is a failure of digital advertising and a concern for consumers, according to industry experts.

“Over the past few years, consumers have become really vocal about buying from brands that are aligned with their values,” said Jammi of Check My Ads. “When they find out a brand is funding toxic content, that matters to them.”

A similar scenario has played out with ads that aired during Bannon’s podcast airing on a right-wing website called Real America’s Voice. In March, for instance, an ad for prescription coupon company GoodRx appeared on Bannon’s show.

“We take the trust and reputation of our brand very seriously and have strict advertising standards in place, which include not participating in heavily editorialized news programming,” the company said in an emailed statement to ProPublica. “This placement was an error in the media buying policies.”

Bannon’s show also airs on Pluto TV, a streaming service owned by ViacomCBS that is available on Roku and other devices. This month, the show on Pluto featured ads for such major companies as Men’s Wearhouse, Lexus and Procter & Gamble, according to monitoring by the liberal watchdog Media Matters. As with the Google video ads on the War Room website, these ads are not placed directly, and companies were at a loss to explain why they had appeared on Bannon’s show. (Bannon’s podcast is available in the Google Podcasts app, but the company does not place ads in it.) A Lexus spokesperson said the company’s ad was briefly on Bannon’s site and taken down. A spokesperson for Procter & Gamble did not respond to a request for comment.

“Our marketing spend follows targeted customers, rather than choosing specific programs we want to appear alongside,” said Mike Stefanov, a spokesperson for Tailored Brands, which owns Men’s Wearhouse. “The team continually refines the criteria used, but the appearance of advertising on a specific program does not necessarily mean the company agrees with or endorses the views espoused.”

Clarification, Nov. 30, 2021: The figure for downloads of the “War Room” podcast has been adjusted to present a cumulative total.