Column Pooh-poohing Water Problems is Polluted with Inaccuracies

By Michael Fumento

The Washington Times, November 20, 1999
Copyright 1999 the Washington Times

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Michael Fumento’s Nov. 12 column about the so-called dead zone off the Mississippi River got it dead wrong ("Hypoxia hysteria," Commentary). It is selective of facts and grossly misleading in terms of the nature of the problem, its causes and solutions.

Mr. Fumento uses the common trick of demeaning the scientific experts as liberal darlings and quoting half-truths from contrarians supported by vested interests. Don’t be deceived. Such smoke-blowing rhetoric from consultants of the Fertilizer Institute is reminiscent of claims about the uncertainty of causes of lung cancer by Tobacco Institute consultants 20 years earlier.

Born and raised in Louisiana and having conducted early research on Gulf hypoxia (harmful reduction in oxygen), I can view the hard facts of the matter in personal terms. When I was a boy in the 1950s, oxygen conditions in the waters off the Louisiana coast were healthy. Now, the devastation of marine life on the seabed by hypoxia exceeds that caused by the Exxon Valdez oil spill in severity and extent — and this happens nearly every year.

When I returned to Louisiana in 1990, the amount of nitrate (the form of nitrogen fueling the depletion of oxygen in the Gulf of Mexico) flowing past my family’s home near the banks of the Mississippi had increased by a factor of three from when I left just 13 years before. Telltale data on nitrate concentrations in the river leave no doubt that this has been mostly due to the dramatic increase in the use of chemical fertilizers in the 1960s and ’70s, particularly in the Corn Belt.

All of this should come as no surprise. The problem of nutrient (including nitrogen) pollution of the Chesapeake Bay, where I now work, was recognized in the early 1980s, and concerted steps have been taken to reduce agriculture, sewage and urban runoff by 40 percent. The amount of nitrogen flowing down the Rhine into the North Sea has been reduced by 28 percent through similar actions. Multinational commitments have been made to reduce nutrient pollution in the Baltic Sea and the Danube River basin. These efforts have not had the negative economic impacts that Mr. Fumento warns about in his column.

Had Mr. Fumento actually read the federal Committee on Environment and Natural Resources report that he attacked, he would have learned that conservative economic analyses showed that a 20 percent reduction in fertilizer use and re-establishment of wetlands to trap nutrients over a small fraction of flood-prone land would not significantly diminish the nation’s agricultural production or damage the farm economy.

Through the kind of technological innovations he agrees will reduce water pollution and the use of the billions of dollars of federal agricultural subsidies to provide incentives rather than disincentives for pollution control, I am convinced that we can maintain a prosperous agricultural economy and restore the Gulf to the one I knew as a boy.

DONALD F. BOESCH
Annapolis

Criticism of ’Hypoxia Hysteria’ Column
Suffers from Lack of Oxygen

The Washington Times, November 27, 1999

Donald F. Boesch’s letter ("Column pooh-poohing water problems is polluted with inaccuracies," Nov. 20) attacking Michael Fumento’s Nov. 12 commentary about "Hypoxia hysteria" in the Gulf of Mexico is a classic case of replacing science with a false and damaging sentimentality. It also is a surprising ad hominem attack on Mr. Fumento, the Fertilizer Institute and respected researchers by a scientist who should know better.

Says Mr. Boesch: "Mr. Fumento uses the common trick of demeaning the scientific experts as liberal darlings and quoting half-truths from contrarians supported by vested interests."

Actually, neither "liberal," "left" nor any of their synonyms appear in Mr. Fumento’s piece. The source of his most important and damning quotes are the very report Mr. Boesch defends, that of the federal Committee on Environment and Natural Resources (CENR). All of Mr. Fumento’s remaining quotes come from the chief of the Illinois State Water Survey — hardly an industry dupe.

The Bubba Gump Shrimp Company is still safe and sound.

As Mr. Fumento noted, the first direct measurements of hypoxia (oxygen depletion) in the gulf were in the 1970s, but there’s evidence of periods of severe deprivation going back hundreds of years. Mr. Boesch’s rebuttal? "When I was a boy in the 1950s, oxygen conditions in the waters off the Louisiana coast were healthy." Very scientific.

" The devastation of marine life on the seabed . . . exceeds that caused by the Exxon Valdez spill in severity and extent," Mr. Boesch writes. Yet Mr. Fumento noted there’s no evidence of any harm to sea life and quoted the CENR stating, "Fisheries data failed to detect effects attributable to hypoxia."

Mr. Fumento proffered statistics from the U.S. Geological Survey that nitrate concentrations in the Mississippi have been declining since 1985. Again, Mr. Boesch counters this with his own personal, intuitive belief that it’s increasing.

Finally, Mr. Boesch states, "Had Mr. Fumento actually read the . . . report," he would have learned that its recommendations "would not significantly diminish the nation’s agricultural production or damage the farm economy."

Yet Mr. Fumento quoted the report, admitting there’s no evidence of harm to sea life, no explanation for why the hypoxic zone would be increasing even as fertilizer run-off is decreasing, and no evidence that the CENR’s draconian recommendations would reduce the size of the hypoxic zone. Yet it still wants to submerge 5 million acres of the nation’s best crop land and spend $4.9 billion each year to tilt at windmills.

Sorry, but to America’s farmers and consumers, that’s quite significant.

RON PHILLIPS
Vice president of public affairs
Fertilizer Institute
Washington

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Read Michael Fumento’s additional work on the environment.