06/01/04 — Hogwash - Cute characterization had one problem: It was wrong

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Hogwash - Cute characterization had one problem: It was wrong

Don Reuter, a tax-paid spokesman for a state agency, does North Carolina’s people a disservice when he mischaracterizes a review of scientific data on our rivers.

Reuter works for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The Associated Press asked him to discuss a report that had appeared in the News-Argus. The report, written by two researchers, had concluded that the growth in hog farms in eastern North Carolina did not appear to have significantly harmed the region’s rivers.

Reuter’s department had been reluctant to provide information for the study, even though it is a part of the public record.

In his interview with the AP, Reuter said his agency had established a good working relationship with the pork industry. He also noted that the industry is seeking better ways to dispose of hog wastes.

But, of the review of the data on the rivers, Reuter said, “It’s safe to say their assessment is hogwash.” That is where Reuter went wrong.

The data and the assessment are not hogwash. In fact, the information comes directly from the state agency for which Reuter is the chief spokesman. If it were hogwash, the producer of the hogwash would be Reuter and his colleagues. In fact, however, there is no reason to doubt its validity.

The report was written by the Center for Global Food Issues, an arm of the Hudson Institute. It was requested by the Cape Fear River Assembly, an environmental group interested in water quality in the Cape Fear watershed.

That is an environmental group, mind you, not an industry group. This study was undertaken without prejudice.

The report was written by the center’s director of research, Alex Avery.

The research was simply a review of the past 25 years of state-collected water quality data from all the monitoring stations in the creeks and rivers flowing into the Cape Fear.

That watershed, which includes Duplin and Sampson counties, is home to most of North Carolina’s hog farms.

Despite the 10-fold increase in hog numbers since 1985, there have been no significant changes in the concentrations of nutrients, dissolved oxygen, or sediment in the waterways running through hog producing areas. You can see this for yourself. The report is available free at www.cgfi.org.

An article about this issue by Alex Avery and his father, Dennis Avery, director of the Center for Global Food Issues, was published this spring by the Heartland Institute. That is the article that the News-Argus had printed.

It also referred to an analysis of state-collected water quality data for the Neuse River by Duke University researchers. They found that over the past 25 years nitrogen levels have fallen slightly and phosphorus levels have dropped “considerably” in the lower Neuse. The phenomenal expansion of hog production in the last 20 years had affected the rivers much less than had been feared, if at all.

To most of us, that is good news.

To some, it is not. Those are the people who profit by studying and stewing over the imaginary problem of the hogs’ effects on the rivers. These might be academics going after research grants, or they may be people who are politically motivated.

In his report on the Cape Fear, Alex Avery noted that Robert Kennedy Jr., president of the Waterkeeper Alliance, had said hog farms like those in eastern North Carolina are a worse threat to the nation’s security than is Osama bin Laden.

The Averys noted in the Heartland Institute article that the press has done little to diminish the misconception that hog farms are ruining the rivers, and much to promote it. The Associated Press story on its interview with Reuter attests to that.

The reporter who talked to Reuter and wrote the story should have been looking for facts only. Reuter told him the report was “hogwash.” That was a cute pun but it added nothing to the readers’ understanding of the story, and it might well have been omitted.

What we have here is the very combination that has produced a widespread misconception about the hog farms and the rivers — an environmental spokesman saying too much and a journalist all too eager to spread the word for him.

Published in Editorials on June 1, 2004 11:57 AM