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Book Review: ‘Merchants of Doubt’ and the Bay

In a new book, Merchants of Doubt, historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway document how special interests, including a few high-level scientists, purposefully mislead the public and denied well-established scientific knowledge. “Big Tobacco,” knowing full well their product was addictive and could kill people, as could second-hand smoke, established the playbook on how to do everything possible to confuse the issue and delay any action that would decrease their profits – lie, shoot the messenger, trot out “experts,” fund “research,” and fund “think tanks” with benign-sounding names like the American Enterprise Institute or the Heritage Foundation.

The energy sector and power plants used the same playbook to deny the environmental effects of acid rain, pesticide manufacturers used it to promote the continued use of DDT and chemical manufacturers used it to deny their products were responsible for the ozone hole. And of course it is being used today to combat action to address global warming.

There are many similar examples not covered in this well-written and well-researched book. Close to home, here in Chesapeake Bay, “Big Ag” uses the playbook to do everything possible to compromise understanding that inefficient crop fertilization causes most of Chesapeake Bay nutrient pollution and to delay any possible action to meaningfully reduce the pollution. The writing and passage of the Clean Water Act was successfully manipulated so as to essentially exempt farm practices from regulation.

We know that the disposal of animal waste (poultry litter, sewage sludge and manure) by land application in the guise of “free fertilizer” causes at least one quarter of Bay nutrient pollution, and NAPS has been opposing the practice for decades. The January 21 Rappahannock Record reported that ”Oversight of biosolid applications is sufficient, say Virginia farmers.” Of course they say that. They get free fertilizer but bear no responsibility for the massive nutrient pollution that results. As long as land application is “Nitrogen-based” and assumes that only 30% of the disposed Nitrogen is available to the next crop, less Nitrogen and Phosphorus ends up in the crop than is released to the environment.

The word “biosolid” was dreamed up to purposefully mislead people about the source of the waste, which is the solids resulting from processing municipal sewage – sewage sludge. The most “solid” “bio” I can identify is an elephant tusk, so the word is just plain stupid. The land application of all forms of animal waste today (sewage sludge, poultry litter and manure) causes more pollution than was once caused by the point-source discharge from wastewater treatment plants. After spending billions of dollars and reducing Virginia’s point source nutrient discharge by about half, no improvement in Bay water quality is apparent. Why not? Because inefficient crop fertilization, especially by using animal waste, has always been the largest source of Bay nutrient pollution and nothing has changed.

“Big Ag” continues to blame other sources of pollution, like fertilized lawns, and claim that it is too expensive to do anything with the animal waste except dispose of it by land application in the guise of “free fertilizer.” They never tell the public that if the cost of pollution is accounted (pollution is an “externality” or a consequence of economic activity that is experienced by unrelated third parties), a landfill designed for methane recovery is cheaper. If Bay water quality is ever to improve (the ecosystem can never be restored) the “Merchants of Doubt” must be recognized by society, their role in politics eliminated and the conclusions of mature consensus science accepted and implemented.

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