Why Fact Check?
Because we want to make sure everyone has their facts straight.
This is primarily for media stories that may inaccurately or unfairly report information about farmers and the environment. Sometimes this comes from anti-farm activists promoting stories critical of farmers. We don’t mind the criticism. We just want to make sure that the media reports the facts and demonstrates responsibility in their coverage.
Ecology’s New CAFO Permit and the effort to misinform the public
Is it “objective” journalism to give anti-farm activists a free-pass to distort the facts? For example, the Yakima Herald’s article on Ecology’s new Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit, gave free reign to anti-farm activists to continue their false accusations against dairy farms. Let’s set the record straight.
On January 18, 2017 the Washington State Department of Ecology issued its long awaited Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation permit. Anti-farm activists, led by lawyers who pursue lawsuits against dairy farmers, fought hard for provisions in the permit that would have eliminated most dairy farms from Washington state. Now that the permit is issued, they are making a number of false statements about the permit and pollution from dairy farms. Using environmental protection as a cover does not make false claims true. Instead, if regulations demanded by these activists were adopted, the result would harm our environment through the loss of most of our family dairy farms. We encourage all citizens, and particularly those concerned about the environment, to carefully weigh the facts.
1. Does the new CAFO permit give farmers the legal right to pollute our waters?
Andrea Rodgers of the Western Environmental Law Center is a lawyer and the leading spokesperson for the anti-farm activists. In a Capital Press article on January 19, Rodgers was quoted: “It is outrageous that Ecology has given permission for industrial agricultural facilities to dump pollution into our drinking water.”
Rodgers is well aware of the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act, one of the most stringent dairy farm regulations in the nation. It allows for zero discharges of manure to water. It specifically addresses the primary issue of contamination from dairy farms which is application of manure – organic fertilizer – to grow primarily feed crops for the dairy herd. Farm plans require application of manure only when it can be safely applied to avoid runoff and at times of the year when plants can take up the nutrients. Even minor spills or equipment failures can result in citations and fines. Dairy farms are regularly inspected and regulations are enforced. The Washington State Department of Agriculture reported in 2016 that more than 95% of dairy cropland was in compliance with nitrate-related regulations. There is NO permission to pollute and farmers did not need another permit to prevent pollution which has been effectively addressed by existing regulations and enforcement.
2. Are Washington dairy farms “industrial agriculture?”
Rodgers and other anti-farm activists like to use the term industrial agriculture. The Washington Policy Center points out that in our nation 97% of farms are family owned and operated and in Washington that number stands at 95%. Some are large, most are small. The average herd size of a dairy farm in Washington is about 500 cows, quite small by today’s global economics where efficiencies are gained by larger operations. For example, dairy operations in other places around the world such as Saudi Arabia and China have herds of 130,000 cows. Using “industrial agriculture” is an obvious attempt to generate public scorn on hard working family farmers.
3. Does the manure produced by cows mean vast pollution?
The press release issued on January 19 by a consortium of anti-farm activist groups states an oft-repeated “fact”:
The waste produced by the CAFO industry is vast. The more than 260,000 adult dairy cows in Washington state produce over 26 million pounds of manure each day collectively. Too much of this manure enters Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems.
Further on they state that “Much of this manure is getting into Washington’s surface and groundwater, causing significant public health and pollution problems.”
They might also have mentioned that Washington state has seven million citizens who produce, on average, a pound of “manure” per day. Most understand that our sanitary sewage systems prevent that waste from polluting. At least they are supposed to. Regulations applying to dairy farms are more stringent than those applying to home septic systems, which are a major if not the primary cause of water contamination. As mentioned above, dairy farms are allowed zero discharges under the law. The statement says “too much of this manure enters Washington surface and groundwater…” and later, “much of this manure” pollutes groundwater. What proof do they offer for this claim? There is no proof because it is a false statement. On the other hand, the EPA reports that just five residential septic systems can contribute up to ten times more pollutants to water than a one acre manure lagoon. The public health issues the anti-farm activists attribute to dairy farms are more appropriately attributed to contamination from human waste.
Water scientist Dr. Marylynn Yates published a study of contamination from septic systems which stated: “The majority of waterborne disease outbreaks are caused by bacteria and viruses present in domestic sewage. Septic tanks contribute the largest volume of wastewater, 800 billion gallons per year to the subsurface, and are the most frequently reported cause of ground-water contamination associated with disease outbreaks.”
4. Do CAFOs cause significant public health and pollution problems?
The last part of the accusation listed in item 3 says that the pollution they attribute to CAFO’s causes significant public health problems. This is similar to the false accusations made by the same source on the discredited “What’s Upstream” website. The press release further states: “The deficiencies in this permit play Russian roulette with our children’s health,” said Bruce Speight, director of Environment Washington.
Nitrates in groundwater are restricted to no more than 10 parts per million by the EPA. The reason for this is what was believed for years to be the link between nitrates in groundwater and methemoglobinemia, or blue baby syndrome. This is a very serious disease of newborn infants which affects their ability to take in oxygen. The link was first established by a science study in the 1940s that concluded the cases of blue baby syndrome studied were caused by high nitrates in contaminated wells. Now, numerous articles published on the National Institutes of Health website and in other respected science journals are questioning that link. This disease is now shown to be a genetic disorder affected by bacteria. The contaminated wells also contained high levels of bacteria, but for years the bacteria connection was dismissed. In California, an EPA scientist evaluated 42 cases of methemoglobinemia over 13 years. The Region 9 EPA scientist, Dr. Bruce Macler, stated: “None [were] specifically associated with nitrates.” “Only four of the 42 cases were in areas where there were wells.”
What makes the claims about the high danger from nitrates interesting is the fact that while the EPA says 10 parts per million in water is a significant risk, other branches of government actively promote nitrates in our diets. Leafy vegetables like beets, spinach and celery are high in nitrates and promoted as part of a diet good for heart function. Athletes consume beet juice before events to support cardiovascular performance because of the high nitrates. These vegetables contain 2500 times the nitrates that the EPA says are dangerous. It is true, that the only health risk consistently associated with high nitrates is blue baby syndrome, and newborn infants are not typically fed leafy vegetables. But, we wonder why there are no warning labels on baby food given the perceived risk of nitrates to newborn infant’s health.
While the evidence against a 70 year old science conclusion is fading, the EPA’s restriction stands. What is troubling in the anti-farm campaign is that claims of an extreme risk to public health simply do not accurately portray the state of the current questions about the risks versus benefits of nitrates.
5. Do CAFOs contribute to nitrate in groundwater?
The press release goes on to claim that Ecology blames nitrates in groundwater on CAFOs:
This new permit ignores Ecology’s own determination that confirms nitrate loading due to over-application of manure from CAFOs “contributes significantly to groundwater nitrate contamination.”
The comment referenced from the lengthy May 2016 study called “Nitrate Prioritization Process” is removed from context and demonstrates how the activists distort the facts. Here is the context of the quotation:
Nitrogen sources that can end up contributing to nitrate concentrations in groundwater include manure, chemical fertilizers, on-site sewage systems, land application of biosolids, and land application of food processing waste. Nitrogen sources, especially agricultural use of fertilizers, increased livestock densities and growth in human population, have increased for decades, leaving a legacy of nitrate in groundwater.
Nitrate loading from irrigated agriculture using chemical fertilizer and manure from confined animal operations contributes significantly to groundwater nitrate contamination. One recent USGS report on nitrates in private wells in glacial settings across the U.S. states: “A source variable such as the rate of nitrogen applied to farms was useful in predicting regional nitrate concentration” (Warner, 2010).
As the report points out, there are many causes of nitrates in groundwater, including some natural causes. It is indisputable that most areas in the nation with high nitrates in groundwater are in traditional farming areas. Putting more fertilizer on a field than a growing crop can take up can cause the remaining nitrates to seep into groundwater. Which is why farm regulations, such as the Dairy Nutrient Management Act specifically address this concern. What is seldom if ever mentioned in these dishonest attacks on farming is that farming has changed, farmers are continually improving their environmental practices through regulations and pro-active approaches. All the areas identified in the Ecology report showing high nitrates are areas of heavy agriculture and have been for many years. Nitrates in soil and groundwater remain for a long time and nitrate levels have been elevated in about 30% of wells in farm country for over forty years. To place the blame for historical practices that have been and are changing is dishonest and unfair. To misquote the Ecology report which accurately points out the multiple causes and use that quote to accuse dairy farms exclusively is inaccurate and dishonest.
In Yakima, dairy farmers were required to significantly reduce nutrient application to fields and soil test show reduced nitrates in soil. However, groundwater tests continue to show high nitrates. Other areas where there is no dairy farming also show high nitrates. Why? Because past farming practices on land used for sugar beets and potatoes used far more chemical fertilizers than the crops could take up, resulting in excess nitrates in the soil and groundwater. To blame this on dairy farms and current farm practices is simply not accurate.
6. Does a state discharge permit fail to protect citizens by preventing lawsuits?
The press release states: Instead of issuing one permit that prevents discharges of pollution to surface and groundwater in accordance with federal law, Ecology adopted industrial ag’s unsuccessful legislative attempt to require a state-only permit that authorizes groundwater discharges. This regulatory regime blocks transparency and prevents citizens from protecting their right to clean water.
The activists, led by the lawyers with a history of suing dairy farms, are upset that the Department of Ecology provided a state discharge permit that protects permit holders against third-party lawsuits. If you are curious why lawyers from Eugene, Oregon are in Washington fighting so hard against this permit, this issue will provide a clue. When an industrial facility or a municipal water treatment plant is issued a discharge permit by the state, this permit puts the responsibility on the state to enforce the laws and regulations. In the same way, when your city puts up a stop light, it is up to the police to enforce the laws on running red lights. Citizen enforcement of traffic laws and water treatment laws is not appropriate. That’s not the way the lawyers suing farmers want it. They want the right to sue farmers even though that right does not apply to any other state permit holder. Why are Oregon lawyers suing Washington farmers and not Idaho or Oregon dairy farmers? Is it because we have bad farmers here and good farmers there? No, it is because the law of those states provides for government enforcement, not citizen enforcement. What is actually behind all the complaints against the CAFO permit is exposed here: it is about money. The money that can be extracted by threatening lawsuits or successfully suing farmers.
7. Do manure lagoons pollute to groundwater?
The anti-farm activists claim: Ecology has previously acknowledged that all CAFOs with manure lagoons discharge to groundwater.
Charlie Tebbutt, the former Western Environmental Law Center attorney, now in private practice in Eugene, Oregon stated: “Even after proving in a court of law that lagoons built to the standards allowed by Ecology in this permit leak millions of gallons of manure water each year into the groundwater, Ecology has chosen to allow industrial dairies to continue polluting tens of thousands of people’s drinking water. This is both inexcusable and shameful.”
It is true in the early drafts of the CAFO permit, Ecology took the position that all manure lagoons pollute and to a limited degree they still do. However, this position was shown to be contrary to best available science. Whether or not a manure lagoon leaks and how much depends on a number of factors. What is very clear is that manure lagoons lined according to the standards provided by the National Resources Conservation Service, the national experts on these issues with the US Department of Agriculture, are effective in preventing any significant leakage. Another fact, never acknowledged by the anti-farm activists, is that soil testing beneath lagoons has demonstrated that, depending on soil conditions, the small amount that leaks does not pollute because of the biological process called denitrification. A detailed explanation of this can be found here.
Contrary to the statements by these activists, manure lagoons are recognized by environmental experts as an essential and beneficial element in protecting water. They store the nutrients during the wet seasons and non-growing seasons so that the fertilizer can be applied to minimize runoff and when the growing plants can absorb the nutrients.
Attorney Tebbutt asserts that one judge’s decision constitutes irrefutable proof. A review of outrageous court decisions demonstrates that a judge’s decision alone does not always constitute proof or even good judgment. The vast majority of Americans appreciate the dairy products produced, the quality and safety of home-grown products and the way in which farmers have improved farming practices to be sustainable and responsible stewards of the environment.
8. Does the public support more regulations that will harm farmers without addressing real water quality problems?
Bruce Speight, director of Environment Washington is quoted in the press release as saying:
“More than 4,400 of the 4,600 public comments submitted to Ecology called on the agency and Gov. Inslee to require groundwater monitoring and clear and enforceable limits on nitrate pollution. This solution-oriented approach would identify contamination and reduce the risk of toxic nitrates in drinking water. Despite overwhelming public support for these recommendations, Ecology disregarded them and the critical public health protections they would provide.”
He fails to mention that almost all of the 4000 comments referenced from supporters of these anti-farm groups were form letters supporting “solutions” they knew little if anything about. Not so for the comments submitted by those expressing concern over unneeded and burdensome regulations. There is not overwhelming public support for regulations that will force farmers out of business but not improve the environment. That was made clear in the public opinion polling done by these groups as part of the “What’s Upstream” campaign. Their own voter polling showed that of all the concerns about the environment listed, farming’s impact on the environment was rated the lowest. Further, it showed that farmers and ranchers are held in higher esteem than any other group or individual listed including President Obama, Governor Inslee or the native American tribes.
Their frequent complaints about the powerful ag lobby are interesting in the light of these anti-farm activists’ success in the 2016 legislative session to defeat a widely supported bill that would have provided the third party lawsuit protections for permit holders that this new permit provides.
Rational Discussion? Our response to the Rodgers/Cladoosby op-ed in Seattle Times
On June 2 Seattle Times published a guest editorial written by Andrea Rodgers of Western Environmental Law Center and Brian Cladoosby, Chairman of the Swinomish Tribe. Their organizations are sponsors of the illegally-funded anti-farm campaign called “What’s Upstream.”
The guest editorialists call for a rational discussion on the issues of farming and water protection. But, what stands in our way?
Response to Seattle Times Op-Ed on “What’s Upstream” by Andrea Rodgers and Brian Cladoosby:
Yes, Let’s Have a Rational Conversation
In their Guest Editorial in the Seattle Times published on June 2, Western Environmental Law Center’s Andrea Rodgers and Swinomish Tribal Chairman Brian Cladoosby call for a rational conversation about agriculture and clean water.
We support that call wholeheartedly. But can a rational conversation happen when one party insists on calling black white and white black?
Let’s look at a few of the statements made by Rodgers and Cladoosby:
“It is undeniable that farming to the very edge of our streams allows pesticides, fertilizers and land-applied manure to enter into our waterways and raises water temperatures to harmful levels for salmon.”
It happens, but when it does it violates federal, state and local laws. This is like saying “We have to have laws because drivers run through stop signs.” Yes, an irresponsible driver will on occasion. But we have laws and those laws are enforced. If you want to see the laws that prevent this go to https://www.savefamilyfarming.org/farm-regulation-facts.html.
“...the dairy industry produces so much manure that it is over-applied to farmland and is stored in leaking manure lagoons, polluting the water and causing a public-health crisis of the first order.”
If manure is over-applied, farmers can be fined. A berry farmer in Sumas was just fined $20,000. Properly designed manure lagoons leak very, very little, and what may be leaked does not pollute. Get the facts at https://www.savefamilyfarming.org/do-manure-lagoons-pollute.html. Regarding over application, statistics just released by the Washington State Department of Agriculture show that just 3% of the dairy farmland in the state shows evidence of over application.
A public health crisis of the “first order?” The authors are referring to elevated levels of nitrates in some groundwater. This is an issue facing most of the nation, particularly in farm country. Nitrates comes from multiple sources including, past over-application of manure and other fertilizers. However, regulations for dairy farms now control that, and further, the preponderance of scientific evidence now shows that nitrates do not cause the harm that was once thought. If they did, you should avoid all leafy vegetables such as celery, beets and spinach as one helping can contain 2500 times more nitrates than is currently allowed in groundwater. For more information on nitrates: https://www.savefamilyfarming.org/nitrates-and-human-health.html
“Requiring polluters to control chemicals and other toxins they send into our streams — even if they are farmers — is not anti-farmer. It’s anti-pollution and pro-clean water, things we should all support.”
Yes, we all support that. Farmers are required by law to do exactly those things. Again, refer to the page listing dozens of federal, state and local laws. What is anti-farmer is to claim we need new laws, more laws, and laws that will drive farmers out of business without improving environmental protection–the very things Rodgers and Cladoosby advocate.
“Agriculture is the largest source of stream pollution in Washington and in the nation. This is not an inflammatory statement meant to demonize farmers. It is a mere statement of scientific fact, according to a study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.”
No one disputes that agriculture over the past 10,000 years has impacted the environment. But, rational discussion about this will show that the many laws, regulations, enforcement plus voluntary actions of farmers have dramatically changed the picture. The document that the authors used to support this strong assertion on their website actually places no such blame on farmers. It refers to agriculture along with many other sources as causes of pollution.
“…our state has no system in place to regulate many agricultural practices. Unlike other industries, protecting our waterways from polluted runoff is voluntary for the agriculture industry, and farmers are merely encouraged to use “best management practices” that do not protect water quality.”
The authors are very aware of the numerous regulations in place, in particular the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act. The Washington State Department of Agriculture conducted over 3000 inspections of the approximately 600 state dairy farms under this act from 2007 to 2015. The law specifies “zero discharge.” Protecting our waterways is not voluntary. Laws and regulations exist, are enforced and are effective. For more information: https://www.savefamilyfarming.org/thanks-for-protecting-water.html
“We would see significant improvements on all accounts if the agricultural industry as a whole was taking better care of our waterways.”
Family farmers, along with legislators and regulators, are working very hard to address pollution from farms and have made more progress than perhaps any other source of pollution. The authors here and other places continue to try to place the blame on farmers, dairy farmers in particular, for issues with salmon and shellfish. Rodgers insists on using reports dating back to the 1990s before the current regulations and enforcement were in place. To find out what is happening now in water quality analysis, view this video: https://vimeo.com/169266762. What this will show is if you drive all the farmers out you will do very little to improve the bacteria contamination affecting the shellfish beds. In fact, since most contamination comes from urban and semi-urban sources, it will exacerbate the problem by speeding conversion of increasingly precious farmland into more residential, commercial and industrial development.
“Readers are encouraged to visit our campaign website at whatsupstream.com for more information and to draw their own conclusions. They will find no hyperbole, inflammatory rhetoric, mischaracterization nor demonization. Instead, they will find well-referenced, science-based material detailing both the extent of the problem and the steps we can take to turn things around.”
Is showing a video of a farmer spraying a field and then grotesque images of a dead, clearly spawned out salmon not hyperbole, inflammatory and mischaracterization? Is buying an image online of cows in Amish country and in England standing in streams and putting them on the website and billboards claiming agriculture is unregulated not dishonesty? Is using outdated data and statements by state agencies that apply to situations in the past but implying they are current not dishonesty and distortion? Is twisting the results of a public opinion survey to make it look like the public supports an extreme position when their own survey tells a completely different story not mischaracterization? Is placing a “Call to Action” button with a form letter and a promise that these messages will be sent to elected officials “whose votes we hope to influence” generally considered political lobbying? And if so, is calling it “public education” not just a tad bit dishonest?
Farmers want a rational conversation about farming and the environment. Fortunately, they are having them. For example, in Whatcom County farmers in the Laurel Watershed Improvement District are working with a local citizens group plus Re-Sources, a Bellingham environmental group, to cooperatively conduct intensive water quality tests in the Ten Mile drainage to help identify sources. Numerous farmers and farm groups are working positively and constructively with tribal partners to better understand concerns and address specific issues. Farmers are committed to build on the strong progress made.
We agree with the Seattle Times editorial which called the “What’s Upstream” illegal political attack on farmers unhelpful in this cause. To have the rational conversation called for here, the false accusations, hyperbole, distortions and references to outdated science must stop.
Crosscut repeats WELC’s false accusations
Crosscut, a Seattle online news channel, has written several articles supporting Western Environmental Law Center’s (WELC) false accusations against farmers, including this latest article published May 13. WELC recently published a 155 page “white paper” which accuses agriculture in Puget Sound of destroying salmon runs and preventing their restoration. The claim is outrageous and completely unsupported by current science which focuses on the Four Hs: Hydropower, Habitat, Harvest and Hatcheries. What’s worse, the legal group prescribes solutions to this manufactured problem that, if applied to urban areas which are a primary cause of habitat loss, would result in massive depopulation.
We responded to the Crosscut May 13 article with this, and requested the managing editor consider publishing our response:
I write on behalf of Save Family Farming, a statewide coalition of family farmers dedicated to working with the public and government to protect water and the environment. In response to your article “Report Faults State On Groundwater Pollution” posted May 13, we would like to point out two fundamental problems with the Western Environmental Law Center report you quoted extensively:
1. The entire 155-page paper is founded on the false premise that agriculture is to blame for declining salmon stocks in Puget Sound. The Puget Sound Partnership’s Action Agenda directly contradicts the WELC report.
2. The prescriptions proposed are entirely out of step with our state’s adopted strategy for dealing with Puget Sound water quality issues and would have absurd implications if actually implemented.
Our State agencies have spent decades and millions of dollars studying declining salmon stocks and concluded that the four H’s: hydropower, habitat, harvest, and hatcheries are the primary causes. To imply to the public that there is one most significant source of pollution (conveniently, not directly related to Crosscut’s readers) is an egregious oversimplification; the suggestion that there’s one simple, Puget Sound-wide solution belies the conclusions of a broad consensus of scientists and policymakers that the task is extremely complex and will require patience, long-term commitment and significant resources. As well, the Action Agenda is based on targeted, collaborative strategies on a watershed by watershed basis, not a one-size-fits-all solution as suggested by WELC.
The WELC report calls for “A 280-foot buffer width, as measured from the farthest edge of the stream at flood stage, or from the outer edge of the floodplain—whichever results in the largest width of the buffer…” Farmers support buffers as evidence by their participation with the Washington Conservation Commission in establishing over 800 miles of buffers along Washington streams. Buffers are one of many important tools farmers use to protect water and the environment. Given the reality that our cities, such as Seattle and Eugene are built on traditional salmon streams and that these streams and rivers have been degraded by urban development and that this development is well established as the primary cause of habitat loss (the second of the four Hs), then it makes sense to apply the WELC prescription to the primary causes. Note that the buffers proposed are to extend from the farthest reaches of the stream or river at its greatest flood. Eugene, of course, has the Willamette river running through it. Rodgers’ prescription would erase major parts of the City of Eugene and likely all of the campus of University of Oregon. Before Husky fans jump on that bandwagon, we suggest looking at where the historic salmon streams run through the City of Seattle.
In fact, farms are carefully regulated by federal, state and local governments. State programs such as the Dairy Nutrient Management Act, the Washington Department of Agriculture’s pesticide management program and the Voluntary Stewardship Program (VSP) have been in place for many years with active farming community involvement and significant improvements in pollution control and water quality. You can find more information about water quality studies and the impact of agriculture in “Solving the Water Quality Puzzle” at savefamilyfarming.org.
We encourage you and readers to get the facts on our Washington state family farmers and their efforts to grow our food and protect our water and environment. As a Seattle Times editorial recently pointed out, we do not need to sacrifice clean water to protect agriculture. We must protect our family farmers against simplistic, possibly economically devastating “solutions” that don’t comport with established State policies.
Save Family Farming
Yakima Herald Editorial wrong to say EPA action a “miscue”
The Yakima Herald editorial, while supportive of the concerns, mischaracterizes the EPA’s involvement, buying their story that it was all the fault of the grantee. We don’t buy it. Here’s the Letter to the Editor we submitted:
Washington’s farmers thank you for your support for Representative Newhouse and the other members of Congress who have called out the EPA for its support of the attack on farmers called “Whatsupstream.”
EPA’s involvement went far deeper than just failing to screen the ads. The official reports show the EPA’s intensive review and involvement in the campaign’s content. Further, when first questioned about it, EPA officials stated their attorney determined it was not a violation of law. Remarkable, given the fact that any fair-minded person looking at it can see its blatant political intent if not its dishonesty. The Call to Action button now removed urged specific legislative action, a clear violation.
The congressional leaders who pointed out two other relevant facts: Region 10 was chided in 2014 for its lack of oversight of subawards including this one, and in 2015 the GAO found the EPA had violated federal law against lobbying. This, it appears to them and many others, is not simple oversight as your editorial suggested, but a deeply disturbing pattern.
EPA was actively involved in this vicious attack on farmers and cannot foist the blame on others.
Farm Press gets Whatsupstream story right. Sadly, Seattle Times and its affiliates do not.
Since the story about the EPA funding the false and malicious political attack on farmers broke in the ag industry press, there has been little attention paid by mainstream press. Now that the Seattle Times has reported on it in its May 1 Sunday edition, it is interesting to point out the differences in coverage of this very important story. The story was also published in the Yakima Herald on May 2.
Let’s dissect their story a bit and see what it tells about their coverage:
Headline: Putting “anti-farm” in quotation marks.
Apparently the reporter or headline writer (often not the same) doesn’t seem to see this campaign as anti-farm. The quotations are included so that they can say that it is reported as anti-farm. Subtle, but an important distinction. If they do not see it as anti-farm, where else do they think the blame is falling for the pollution the campaign is concerned about?
Sub-head: “Recent advertisements…have taken a pointed approach to discussing the link between farms and water pollution.”
We don’t think providing intentional false information or intentionally misleading readers is properly called “a pointed approach.” By stating it this way, Mr. O’Sullivan implicitly agrees with the false statements and suggests that the campaign is not false, malicious and misleading but only a sharp presentation of the link. This is one indication the report should be on the editorial page and not the news section.
He talks about the tractor, muddy water but does not mention that the tractor is spraying and that the muddy water video is followed by very close-up video of a rotting salmon. Why would he not mention this rather critical element of the opening? Is that because it is so obvious in its dishonesty (the salmon is spawned out and died naturally) and attempt to create disgust and outrage focused on farmers?
Reference to Elected Officials complaining:
We are not certain why he seems it appropriate or necessary to comment that Senator Ericksen is “a vocal critic of Democratic environmental proposals.” First, we don’t think is true, second it is an unsupported characterization, third, it has nothing to do with the EPA funding of a political campaign. The reporter seems to want to make this into a partisan issue, but as the editor of Capital Press stated, this is not an issue between Ds and Rs, but between Rs and Ws–right and wrong.
Misstatement of Government Report:
The reporter doesn’t do his homework on the facts about farms and pollution, instead simply repeats some of the same misleading or factually incorrect statements. The report used as a basis for much of the whatsupstream sponsor’s accusations is provided in a link in the Seattle Times report. The link is to a Government Accountability Office report titled: NONPOINT SOURCE WATER POLLUTION: Greater Oversight and Additional Data Needed for Key EPA Water Program. The report’s purpose is to criticize the EPA for lack of effectiveness in dealing with all nonpoint sources of pollution. In fact, the very first sentence makes this clear: “Pollution from nonpoint sources—such as runoff from farms or construction sites—remains the leading cause of impairment to the nation’s waters.” The “research” used by whatsupstream uses this reference to two sources of pollution as an example to state that the government has concluded these are the primary sources. The most basic web search will provide clear answers about the primary sources of groundwater pollution. Farming has been one of many sources of pollution, but as information on this website will show you, regulation and environmental stewardship by farmers has changed this picture substantially–unlike most other sources.
Using the quotation “this is our Flint, Michigan.”
No question of the media savviness of the provider of this quotation. But including this without rebuttal of the extreme and illogical accusation demonstrates either the carelessness or intention of the reporter.
The denial of EPA official:
A little more research into the EPA involvement in this story would have revealed that the quotation of Mr. Dunbar of EPA Region 10 does not tell the real story. In earlier Capital Press reports, Mr. Dunbar stated that EPA Region 10 attorneys had reviewed the campaign and determined that it did not violate federal law because it did not promote a specific piece of legislation currently being considered. This somewhat outrageous defense is in direct contradiction to the Government Accountability Office finding in late 2015 that the EPA had violated federal law when it used social media to lobby for the Waters of the US Rule and the EPA in defense stated they considered it legal because it was not an effort to influence state or federal legislators. The whatsupstream campaign, of course, was specific to influencing legislators.
It’s a little hard to believe that this part of the story escaped the reporters as nearly every news article and congressional letter refers to both the GAO finding, plus the report by the Office of Inspector General in 2014 for Region 10s lack of oversight of its subawards. Further research, again readily available in previous reports, would show that the tribe’s reports to the EPA make it clear that the EPA was deeply engaged in reviewing and even adjusting content on the website.
The dismissive approach to a very serious violation of law at a fairly deep level within the EPA is not something appropriate to serious journalism.
What about the Amish cows?
Given the national press coverage of the fact that the cows on the billboard and website are stock photos of Amish cows and English cows, it’s a little surprising that this aspect of the campaign escaped the reporters attention.
Our biggest concern: where is the farmers’ perspective?
There are numerous quotations from the campaign sponsors stating farmers are resistant to acknowledging pollution and restating the accusation that farms are a big part of our water quality problems. Where is the information to counter this? Where is the quotation from farmers or farm industry leaders about the truth of these accusations? Presenting only one side of a very controversial issue in the news section does not seem appropriate. The facts are quite different from what the sponsors of whatsupstream have been saying.
Let’s provide just two simple examples: “Unregulated agriculture….” Does the reporter not see that this is a complete falsehood? If there is any doubt about the depth and breadth of federal, state and local regulations affecting farming, we suggest a quick review of this summary on savefamilyfarming.org.
The entire campaign is focused on communicating that farmers are not regulated and that requiring 100 foot buffers would address the water quality problems. This ignores two important points: 1) Farmers are already participating in numerous state and local programs to put in buffers. In fact, farmers working with the Washington State Conservation Commission have put in over 800 miles of buffer with an average width of 142 feet. They planted over 550,000 trees and shrubs and 280 miles of fencing. 2) State environmental experts make it clear that mandatory 100 foot buffers would be detrimental. Again, all this is readily available on our website.
We have a simple request for Mr. O’Sullivan and the editors at Seattle Times: next time you write about critically important farm issues, talk to farmers.
Here’s an example: the KOMO TV “Investigative Report”
We now know that this very damaging report was generated by Strategies360 as part of the Whatsupstream campaign against farmers. It was part of their strategy to use news media to report the false accusations and distortions they presented. They found a willing taker in a seriously discredited TV journalist working for KOMO TV.
A video was prepared to provide a rebuttal using the KOMO TV report. KOMO TV was asked for permission to provide the video on a farm advocacy website, whatcomfamilydairies.com, but that request was denied.
Here is the media fact check report originally published on whatcomfamilydairies.com.
On November 22, 2014 KOMO TV (ABC affiliate Seattle) ran an investigative report on Whatcom County dairy farmers. The reporter, Jeff Burnside, made no attempt to present a balanced account of water quality issues in Whatcom County and ignored the good information presented to him by experts including Virginia Prest of the Washington State Department of Agriculture and Fred Likkel of the Washington State Dairy Federation.
This report, sadly, illustrates why trust in the media now stands at about 20% and represents a strong example of how media reports focused on creating audience interest through outrage can hurt innocent people.
We prepared a rebuttal video highlighting the numerous errors in facts presented as well as exposing the manipulative techniques used to paint the worst possible picture of Whatcom County’s family dairy farmers. Unfortunately, as of this time KOMO TV is refusing to grant us permission to air that video because it contains their copyrighted material. Instead, we are highlighting the concerns we have with the report and providing a link to the report so you can view it for yourself.
“Shellfish, swimming beaches and drinking water are being contaminated by pollutants from farms.”
All the details about water quality issues relating to farms are on our website at www.whatcomfamilydairies.com. But this strong statement designed to attract maximum attention isn’t even close to being true.
“Government regulators are failing to stop that pollution…none of Washington’s dairy farms have a permit to pollute.”
All dairy farms are required to get a permit to farm and are regulated by the Washington State Department of Agriculture. Failure to meet the terms of that permit result in citations and fines. The report even mentions the citations and fines even while it denies that farms are regulated.
Mr. Burnside begins his report by showing farmers asking him to go home and stop hiding in the bushes. Actually, the person who asked him to go home and mentioned the word “nitrates” is a friendly neighbor, but not a farmer. He says the dairymen are “agitated” at the sight of the camera. Most people would be if a TV crew is seen hiding in the bushes. Why does he spend valuable air time showing this “agitation”? These farmers and neighbors gave Burnside exactly what he came looking for here: farmers are bad guys wanting to do their dirty deeds out of view of the public and snoopy reporters. To set up this agitation and lead the story with it shows his manipulative intent.
“Nitrates, a threat to human health. They come from cow manure when they move into the ground water…”
A simple online search would have shown Mr. Burnside that his claims about human health risks are no longer supported by the best science. Nitrate levels in groundwater are under review by the EPA, which is understandable when most nutritionists including those in the federal government recommend diets high in nitrates from fruits and vegetables. More information about the confusion surrounding nitrates and health risks versus health benefits is available on our website.
Despite the confusion, nitrates are still considered a contaminant by the EPA and we support the efforts to address contamination. However, the flat claim they come from cow manure is completely out of line. The EPA states there are many sources. In Whatcom County primary concerns are the growth in residential septic systems and impacts from Canada since groundwater flows from the lower mainland of British Columbia — a relevant fact never stated by Mr. Burnside.
Burnside then repeats the government health claims about nitrates including cancer, birth defects and blue baby syndrome.
Unfortunately, this appears to be outdated health information. Numerous documents on the National Institutes of Health website make clear that previous studies leading to conclusions about blue baby syndrome were faulty and the most recent studies suggest there is no scientific basis for concerns about nitrates in drinking water. However, until the EPA completes its mandated review, nitrates remain a legal contaminant and we respect that. We just think honest reporting would have made some of the conflicting reports about this more clear.
Manure lagoons leak up to 500 gallons per day and are not required to be lined.
The truth is almost all lagoons are lined and comply with the federal standards of the Natural Resources Conservation Service. The clay lining of the lagoons is made up to 10 times more impervious by the curing of the manure in the lagoon according to the NRCS. Extensive study by the University of California, Davis showed that only about 1% of the cows’ manure leaks from the lagoon. The Whatcom County Conservation District has researched this issue and found that five residential septic systems can leak up to ten times as much nitrates as a one acre manure lagoon.
“Sometimes lagoons overload and break…”
It has happened but it is very rare. And if it does happen, those regulations that Burnside says don’t exist will result in citations and significant fines for the farmer.
“those nitrates get into drinking water from wells…”
Whether or not nitrogen applied to fields and crops gets into groundwater depends on many things including rainfall, the rate of application, and the degree the plants can take up the nutrients. That’s why farmer must file and comply with nutrient management plans. These provide very detailed controls over when farmers can apply and how much. The goal is “zero discharge.” The regulators can fine farmers for not having a certified nutrient management plan which specifies how much nutrients they can apply and when, for discharging to waters of the state, and for not maintaining proper nutrient management records. And if farmers apply beyond the crops nutrient requirements and discharge to state waters, they can be fined for that as well. Failure to comply or even keep proper records, can be very expensive.
“29% of wells in Whatcom County are contaminated…the most contaminated in the state..”
Yes, that is true. But what Mr. Burnside doesn’t say is that these levels of contamination have been with us since testing began and that the nitrates in agricultural areas are typical around the nation. It is not a new phenomenon, and certainly lagoons have nothing to do with these levels. He also doesn’t mention that much of our groundwater, particularly in the area he references, flows from Canada where high nitrates have been tested for a long time. There is no question that farming over the years has contributed to higher than currently allowed nitrate levels and that dairy farm nutrient management practices in the past before regulations have contributed more than they should. But, his finger pointing at dairy farms on this issue is completely wrong and inappropriate. (Then there is the question of the health benefits vs. health risks of nitrates as discussed earlier.)
“I am outraged!” “is suing polluting dairies.”
Andrea Rogers is the source of many of Mr. Burnside’s accusations and it is quite clear when you look closely at this that his intention is to highlight her claims alone and help her show anger and emotion toward farmers. Note how this segment starts. She says “I amoutraged,” but in a way that can only be in response to a question: “Are you outraged?” This is not journalism. It is manipulation and propaganda.
He points out that Andrea is suing polluting dairies. Did this not trigger a concern on his part that maybe her story wasn’t quite the whole story, and that she had a dog in this hunt? Namely, the hundreds of thousands of dollars of fees–or much more– to be gained if a suit is successful.
“She believes well water contaminated from factory farms is one of the most significant public health threats facing Washington state.”
Apparently Mr. Burnside thinks this claim to be credible enough to repeat it. We wonder if he had bothered to ask state health officials if they thought well water was the greatest public health threat what they would say. “Factory farms?” Yes, that’s a term the anti-farm activists like to throw around. All Whatcom County dairy farms are owned by families, most have been farming for multiple generations and hope to pass their farm on to their children. Unjustified attacks like this from fee-seeking lawyers amplified by audience-seeking “journalists” represent one of the greatest threat to the future of our family farms.
Authority to regulate taken from Ecology and given to Department of Agriculture whose mission it is to promote agriculture…”their job is not to protect the environment, they don’t have the expertise..”
Here is what Andrea Rodgers really objects to. She thinks the Department of Agriculture shouldn’t be the regulator. Has she really looked at the Dairy Nutrient Management Act? You can find it at www.wadairyplan.org. Does she think the Department of Ecology has the expertise needed to review, approve and implement the highly detailed nutrient management requirements of the law? These requirements get into the deep weeds of how to run a farm. Note, the operating assumption is that manure is a waste product. Nothing could be further from the truth. It is organic fertilizer in increasingly high demand. Mostly used by the farmers to help their feed crops grow it is even finding wider applications to produce electricity, clean bedding and has use even in the automotive industry.
..the law says you cannot pollute the water…but the Department of Agriculture says it prefers voluntary compliance rather than fines.”
Ask the farmers who have hefty fines whether the Department has any teeth. But the claim here is the farmers are polluting the water with the full support of the Department. Another ludicrous claim and offensive to the Department. First, farmers are not polluting the water. Second, the regulations that ensure that are comprehensive, detailed, and enforced. The same cannot be said for many other sources of water contamination.
Ok, this may be a bit petty but Fred Likkel spelled his name out to Mr. Burnside twice. “Ikkel” must have sounded more appropriate given the topic. The real problem here is that Fred gave him much more than the ten minutes offered and provided great detail about the proactive measures the farmers have taken to prevent water contamination as well as details about the regulations that Burnside insists don’t exist. Was that used? No. Only the off the record comments about having limited time. Since a separate video was shot of this interview, we have record of the important information about farmer’s regulatory compliance and proactive measures that was provided. Instead of using any of that, which didn’t play into Burnside’s desire to create blame and outrage, he focused on Fred’s time limitation and then twisted his comments about lack of knowledge of lagoon leakage to conform to his storyline that farmers are just denying, running and hiding.
“all that manure is pumped out and put on fields as fertilizer, sometimes waaay too much of it just to get rid of it…as a result the fecal coliform gets into the Nooksack where it empties the contaminants onto swimming beaches and prime shellfish beds in Puget Sound”
First, dumping manure on fields in excess of what the plants can take up is not allowed under the Dairy Nutrient Management Act. If farmers did as Burnside says they do, they would be violating the regulations he insists they don’t have and subject to citations and fines. Second, if Burnside had done his research he would have seen that after the 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act was passed fecal coliform testing showed reductions in the rivers and streams from 40 to 80%. Now they have increased again, resulting in Lummi shellfish bed closures. But testing makes very clear the primary contribution is now from urban areas such as Lynden and Ferndale. This data is very consistent with state information which shows other shellfish beds far more compromised across the state, and there are no dairy farms near those areas. The state has said that residential growth into farmland and near marine areas is the cause of the fecal coliform contamination of shellfish beds in Puget Sound.
“Ballew [Lummi Nation Chairman] is inclined to blame the dairy industry this time, too…”
Based on conversations with Chairman Ballew and tribal leaders, we are not convinced that Burnside accurately presented Chairman Ballew’s view on this.
Whatcom family dairy farmers are very sad and concerned about the shellfish bed closures and are committed to doing what they can to identify the sources of fecal coliform and help address this issue. But water testing makes clear that placing the blame on farmers is simply wrong. The 1998 Dairy Nutrient Management Act was a game changer and water testing since then makes clear that dairy farm contribution to current fecal coliform contamination is limited.
“So even though all experts and even dairy regulators agree that all dairies pollute…”
This is simply outrageous. The only “expert” quoted by Burnside is no expert but a lawyer looking for fees. And dairy regulators agree that dairies pollute? The regulations specify “zero discharge” and the regulator in charge said that dairies are doing an excellent job. There is simply no basis for Burnside to make this outrageous claim.
“just one percent of Washington’s dairies has a permit…”
The truth: 100% of Washington dairies must have an approved nutrient management plan which specifies zero discharge.
Our question: is Jeff Burnside a trustworthy journalist?
The record suggests not.
In April 2012 Jeff Burnside was fired from a Miami NBC affiliate for editing a tape of George Zimmerman’s 911 call. The edits made it look like Zimmerman was a racist and completely changed the character of the actual call.
The quotation from Mr. Burnside following his firing that “something that seems very clear is often very, very complicated” is appropriate given his unwarranted attacks on Whatcom County’s family dairy farmers.
We have great respect for our news media. They have a tough job to do. But they have an obligation to tell the truth as best they are able. We firmly believe that KOMO TV failed us in that obligation and in hiring Jeff Burnside with a known record of editing to leave a false impression they needed to show additional editorial fact checking.
All Whatcom dairy farmers want is for you to know the truth.