Trashing the earth, and the truth

  • Hal Herring

  • A report card from the Union of Concerned Scientists. For their full report, see scientific_integrity .


This is the last time I will ever tell this story. For an environmental reporter, the past eight years have produced a jungle of topics to explore at will, but the lessons learned there could not have been more unpleasant. This is the story of one of those lessons. 

In April of 2004, Field and Stream published a story of mine called "Don't Eat that Fish," which described a situation rich in irony: Even as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Food and Drug Administration were issuing dire warnings about the consumption of wild-caught, mercury-contaminated fish, the EPA was drafting new rules that would ensure that mercury pollution from coal-fired power plants would not be controlled in any meaningful way until the year 2018. 

Then-EPA Administrator Mike Leavitt (who had declined to comment for my story) responded with a letter to Field and Stream that said, in part, "Your article echoed many of the inaccuracies that have been used to criticize this proposal. The EPA is charged with writing a regulation that works for an entire industry. Technology is not capable of getting a 90% reduction of mercury for every type of boiler burning every type of coal."

I replied: "The technology exists, right now, to achieve tremendous reductions in mercury from power plants. ... So, what are we waiting for?"

It seemed like a civil exchange of ideas. At the time, I still believed that the administration's policies, whether I agreed with them or not, were legitimate attempts to solve problems. I was wrong. Like so much of what came afterward, I believe that the mercury policy was never intended to address pollution; it was simply a non-policy, a smokescreen written by industry to allow it to do whatever it wanted.  Such smokescreens cannot bear much scrutiny. So anyone who questions them must be addressed immediately, with more smoke. I was about to find that out. 

Later that year, I went on assignment for the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's Bugle magazine, for a story about the natural gas drilling boom and its effect on big game habitat. I called to arrange an interview with the Department of Interior's Rebecca Watson, who was then charged with "guiding" energy development on public lands (Ms. Watson later told me that big game animals "went somewhere else" while their habitat was being drilled). The same day I set up the interview, my editor at Bugle called me to say that Peter J. Dart, the Elk Foundation's CEO had called him, and asked why the magazine was doing a story on energy development, and why they were having me write it.

The answers to those questions seemed straightforward. Elk Foundation members, many of whom are outfitters and hunting guides, were concerned about the pace of energy development on public lands, especially on big game winter range, and were appalled that places like Colorado's Roan Plateau and Wyoming's Red Desert were being leased to energy companies with no apparent concern for the land, the watersheds or the wildlife. I had been writing for Bugle for five years and had also covered energy issues for the Economist and the Christian Science Monitor. But Dart, according to my editor, said that I was a "noted critic of the Bush administration" who had "taken many potshots at them in the past." This was untrue.

During my reporting, I was seeing something I had never seen before -- public-land managers who seemed to be working full-time for the energy industry, granting exemptions to almost all of the stipulations on drilling that were meant to protect wildlife or guarantee multiple-use of the lands. But I had not yet published any of my findings. Dart's concern was clearly inspired by his recent trip with other conservation leaders to President Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas. Upon his return from Crawford, Dart wrote a column in Bugle encouraging sportsmen to support Bush and his policies, a controversial stance for the leader of a nonprofit conservation group. Dart told my editor that my energy article must not criticize the Bush administration's energy policies, and stipulated that it could not run until after the elections.

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