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Who has been Big Oil’s secret ally?

Who was cheated as federal contractors prospered?

Those were the questions the Center’s environment and labor team probed this year as part of its continued focus on the ways that pollution, global warming and other aspects of the environment affect health and livelihoods, and how dangerous workplace conditions put employees at risk.

See which stories made the list:

Death in the Trench: Jim Spencer suffocated under a pile of dirt in Nebraska — a grim reminder of the weakness of America’s worker-safety law

Courtesy of Cheryl Spencer

Jim Spencer, a plumber, had been on his knees outside a home construction project, laying sewer pipe in an eight-foot-deep trench, when a co-worker driving a backhoe inadvertently buried him in dirt.

The two companies managing the project were fined $24,800 and $16,800, respectively. “To me, that was nothing,” said Jim Spencer’s wife, Cheryl. “How is it you can kill somebody with a car and get charged with vehicular homicide, and kill somebody in a trench and get a slap on the wrist?”

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Natural gas building boom fuels climate worries, enrages landowners

Leanne Abraham, Alyson Hurt and Katie Park/NPR

They landed, one after another, in 2015: plans for nearly a dozen interstate pipelines to move natural gas beneath rivers, mountains and people’s yards. Together, these new and expanded pipelines would double the amount of gas that could flow out of Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, with cheap fuel that developers promised would benefit consumers and manufacturers.

But some scientists warn that the rush to more fully tap the rich Marcellus and Utica shales is bad for a dangerously warming planet, extending the country’s fossil-fuel habit by half a century.

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The United States of Petroleum: Government’s secret alliance with Big Oil

National Archives and Records Administration

Since its formation at the end of World War I, the American Petroleum Institute has embedded itself in the U.S. government. Decades ago, the institute embarked on a campaign to sell Americans on a fossil-fuel future, and that campaign has continued, despite dire warnings of climate change that API heard as early as 1959. The group now encompasses every sector of the oil and gas industry, from drilling to plastics manufacturing.

The industry’s influence has come at a steep cost to the public. The institute has helped block or stall action on climate change, consistently putting profit ahead of health. API is now working to undermine bedrock environmental laws that promise Americans clean air and water — all while promoting deeper and riskier drilling in places long off limits.

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Sunshine State lags on solar power, doubles down on natural gas

Jamie Smith Hopkins / The Center for Public Integrity

The irony is rich. The Sunshine State taps the sun for less than half a percent of its electricity while making two-thirds with natural gas — a fuel that Florida must pipe in from other states.

Many have called this a risky bet. A coastal state already suffering punishing effects of global warming shouldn’t keep building power plants that pump even more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the Sierra Club warned. But Florida’s power providers and their state regulators haven’t reconsidered their strategy. In fact, they’re doubling down on it.

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The invisible hazard afflicting thousands of schools

Courtesy of Stephon Litwinczuk

In traffic-clogged Southern California, plenty of people grasp the dangers of kids attending class close to busy roads and their largely invisible clouds of air pollution. But that’s not nearly so well understood in the rest of the country — even though the problem stretches from coast to coast.

Nearly 8,000 U.S. public schools lie within 500 feet of highways, truck routes and other roads with significant traffic, according to a joint investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting. That’s about one in every 11 public schools, serving roughly 4.4 million students and spread across every state in the nation. Thousands more private schools and Head Start centers are in the same fix.

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Maryam Jameel/Center for Public Integrity

Last year, the federal government spent more than $40 billion on contracts covered by the Davis-Bacon Act. But a Center investigation found that about 70 percent of the businesses caught violating the law in 2016 don’t appear in federal databases designed to track companies’ contracting records.

Weak oversight allows subcontractors in particular to shortchange workers on government projects with little fear of being caught or barred from future contracts. Meanwhile, their overseers often maintain clean labor records and continue to win government business.

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Elizabeth Fladung

Known nationally as a laboratory of progressive values and environmental protection, California is perhaps the last place one would expect Big Oil to hold sway. The state has passed some of the toughest energy regulations in the country and set aggressive new goals to cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Obscured by the headlines, however, is oil’s enduring power in the Golden State. Long before Silicon Valley, medical marijuana and sushi burritos, crude was king. Today, California is the third-biggest oil-producing state, behind only Texas and North Dakota.

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Illustration by Eben McCue

Decades of documents reviewed by the Center for Public Integrity reveal a tightly woven network of organizations that works in concert with the oil and gas industry to paint a rosy picture of fossil fuels in America’s classrooms. Led by advertising and public-relations strategists, the groups have long plied the tools of their trade on impressionable children and teachers desperate for resources.

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Eric Chaney/

Up close, the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases in the United States isn’t as big as you’d expect it to be. From most angles, you can’t even see it until you’re right on top of it.

To some, the plant is a pollution-belching monster harming both the environment and the health of communities. To others, it’s a a source of good-paying jobs, a means to raise a family in an area where economic opportunities are thin.

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Maryam Jameel/Center for Public Integrity

Each year, thousands of contractors enriched by tax dollars skirt federal labor laws and shortchange workers. In fact, U.S. Department of Labor data show that upwards of 70 percent of all cases lodged against federal contractors and investigated by the department since 2012 yielded substantive violations. But many of these violators go on to receive more federal contracts. An Obama administration effort to change that practice was derailed in late March by President Donald Trump. 

The Center for Public Integrity examined a subset of 1,154 egregious violators — those with the biggest fines, highest number of violations or most employees impacted — included in the Labor Department’s Wage and Hour Division enforcement database and cross-referenced them with more than 300,000 contract records from the Treasury Department.

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