Debunked: KOMO blames dairies for pollution

Link: KOMO TV “Investigative Report” by Jeff Burnside, Nov. 22, 2014

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 at the time 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,, but that request was denied.

Here is the media fact check report originally published on

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.”

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 expectation 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 am outraged,” 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 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 (watch this Toyota video).

…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.

Fred Ikkel…

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 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.