"Minnesota farmer battles Gulf 'dead zone,'" screams the CNN story's headline.  It is now the end of August. Six weeks have passed since the BP well bore is capped shut on July 15, 2010. CNN files this Midwest farming story, by its reporter John Sutter, under a banner declaring it: "Part of the complete coverage on the Gulf Coast Oil Disaster."
Stories on the Gulf "dead zone,' a subject that had been off the main stream media's radar scope since 2008, began to surface en masse just after the BP well breech on April, 20, 2010. The spill's effluence was 40 % methane gas. On May, 7, 2010, less than three weeks after the flow of oil and methane began, the Discovery channel's web site featured a story on the now 25 year old "dead zone' and its alleged cause -- nitrate run off from Midwest farms. The explanation is attributed to a scientist from Texas. New culprits such as hormone and other "pharmaceutical runoff," and even perhaps "nanotechnology runoff," are also mentioned. They could be also stressing the "dead zone,' according to the same Texas scientist.  And on May 26, 2010, NOAA issues a pamphlet backing up its earlier statement, stating the BP oil and methane gas spilling into the Gulf has nothing to do with the established "dead zone.'
The August, CNN story about the Midwest farmer story does not concern the Gulf Coast "oil" disaster; it concerns what "new" measures farmers in the Midwest are taking to prevent fertilizer run off from traveling to the Gulf coast. According to Sutter's story, it is "nitrate," that causes the notorious, growing "dead zone,' an oxygen depleted area that is killing marine life in the Louisiana/Texas offshore area.
Following a classically vivid, journalistic description of the Minnesota farmer Sutter says: "So maybe it should come as no surprise that this wild-haired, icy-eyed farmer in southwest Minnesota is among the first people at this latitude to make an important intellectual leap," and he proceeds to outline in 2010, the "new" steps the farmer has taken . . . beginning in 1989.
The United States Department of Agriculture outlines the success of buffer crops and other efforts put into farming practice beginning in 1979.  New methods of farming to decrease fertilizer run off actually began with the "no-till revolution of 1974.  Between the years 1982 and 2003, American farmers using the no till method reduced the soil erosion that accompanies the fertilizer run off problem by 43%, and by 2004, America had well over sixty-two million acres under "no-till" cultivation.  In a report done by the University of Nebraska, in 1998, only 36.2 % of all American farm land was still practicing CTV (conventional tillage methods).  Conservation tillage in the state of
Louisiana itself began in 1980.
Other conservation practices and techniques such as riparian area management, strip cropping, and buffer and cover crop planting, all to prevent run off and fix nitrogen, were prevalent in the Mississippi River greater watershed area over 15 years ago. The same practices that prevent nitrogen run off to our rivers and streams improve soil quality and quantity and result in better and bigger crop yields. These practices produce higher profits. American farmers with government assistance, under the 1985 Food Security Act, have embraced these methods whole heartedly for decades.
The Minnesota farmer in CNN's end of summer story about "new" farming techniques does not represent the onset of a new farming intellect. He is not, as the CNN story describes him: ". . . among the first people at this latitude to make an important intellectual leap"; he is far from it; thirty six years has passed from the beginning of the onslaught of conservation practices in American agriculture. Only the use of the bioreactor technique for nitrogen removal is relatively new; however, in Illinois, one state whose watershed drains to the Mississippi, ten woodchip bioreactors are removing 60% of nitrogen runoff in the area. And this 2007 report on Illinois' efforts pointed out: "The systems are easy to construct, inexpensive, and almost maintenance free."
Perhaps the most flagrant yellowing of this CNN story comes when Sutter asserts with no attribution: "Scientists first recorded an oxygen-dead zone in the Gulf in 1972." His source may be a NOAA lesson plan put out for the use of schools on April 28, 2010, eight days after the BP spill began.  Sutter does not point to the year 1985 as the year NOAA previously pointed to as when they historically became worried enough about the "dead zone' to begin mapping it. Nor does he go back further than 1972 in his discussions of the sole source he attributes for the "dead zone' -- nitrogen runoff.
In a 1995 report of the United States government, entitled "Contaminants in the Mississippi River, US GEOLOGICAL SURVEY CIRCULAR 1133,' the contributing scientists to the report point out:
- Nitrate and nitrite can be toxic to humans in high concentrations.
- The EPA has established mandated levels of these substances in raw water sources such as the Mississippi River.
- The laws that mandate the levels are the 1966, Clean Water Restoration Act and the 1972, Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendments.
- Nitrate is the only one of four major nutrient compounds in the Mississippi river and its tributaries that approach the USEPA maximum contaminate levels (MCL), but even nitrate does not exceed it and concentrations of nitrite are insignificant.
- The estuarine regions along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico experienced eutrophication (increased algal production), in the early 70s and this fact merits concern only for "potential" further eutrophication. (The problem did not reoccur or was not noticed again until 1985.)
- There was a marked increase in concentrations of nitrate in the lower Mississippi beginning in 1915 and increasing 300-500%, between the year 1940 and the year 1985, the year the report cites for the beginning of the "dead zone.
- Nitrate concentrations, attributed to be 75% human induced, stabilized in 1985-- and have not changed. No "dead zone' appeared between 1915 and the height of Nitrogen runoff. Describing a nitrate level chart in the report, the authors say: "During the last decade and a half there has been no significant change in concentrations of nitrate and nitrite in the Mississippi River."
- Nitrate concentrations vary seasonably, being higher in winter, spring (snow melts), and early summer and lower in late summer and early autumn (NOAA describes the seasonal fluctuation of the "dead zone thusly': "The oxygen depletion, referred to as hypoxia, begins in late spring, reaches a maximum in midsummer, and disappears in the fall.")
- The statement that nitrate levels stopped rising in 1985 on page three of the report is repeated on page 5 of the report (". . . levels have been virtually unchanged.")
- The authors find one recent study of phosphorus levels in the river "questionable," because other agricultural reports said that "little to no application of P fertilizers," had been applied to Delta soils as they naturally had high levels.
- A graph in the report shows the levels of nitrate and nitrite concentrations for the entire river from 1970 through 1971 as an example of season variations. The levels in the lower Mississippi are the smallest and the entire river never exceeded the maximum EPA contaminate level guide lines for drinking water.
- The Mississippi River has been engineered to steer nutrient containing sediment away from navigation channels and into other areas of the river, thereby immobilizing the sediment
Develop a statement (here) which challenges the veracity of the Summer's report given the above observations. You only need one or two sentences to sum it up for this part. This statement should segue to Part II.
PART TWO: EVALUATING ETHICAL ISSUES THAT ARE PRESENT IN THE CNN STORY FOR FAIRNESS, APPROPRIATNESS AND IMPACT.
The stake holders are the oil and gas industry and the rest of the living breathing world. CNN takes a position of mediator between the two. They attribute the "dead zone' cause, not to similar oil and gas that came out of the bore holes "naturally," in past years, increasingly leaking out of 50 thousand bore holes, but rather to nitrate runoff. They do not mention researching their sources assertions or present alternative views. The government is accepted as a trusted source and do not verify what it or any other sought out expert says. This clearly favors the oil and gas industry's position that nothing they have done to the Gulf sea bed may be the actual cause.
The CNN report neglects to look for evidence that refutes the position that nitrate runoff that began in 1915 took 70 years to impact coast areas. A one sentence mention of the fact that the oil spill may result in possible further "environmental stress" that could make it worse," is the only mention of the effects the huge spill might have. During the Gulf crisis CNN repeatedly faulted the government for not catching the references to walruses in the safety reports for Gulf drilling. The oil industry was excoriated for submitting the Arctic reports for the tropical Gulf. CNN commits a more important error by reporting on the Minnesota farmer's not so "new" farming techniques. One has to wonder if the context of this story was suggested to CNN. And the reporter receives a tidbit of information that clearly points to an increase in the problem as one that should be researched more than he did: We learn from a Louisiana fisherman: It has only been since the 2003-2004 season that shrimp have been literally jumping out of the water to get out of it, despite the fact the report has stated that the oxygen problem began in 1972. The year 1972 was a blip on the radar screen, a first occurrence that was not built upon until 1985; however, this widely watched network has now firmly planted in the public's mind that the monster that is now the Gulf "dead zone,' arrived on the scene in 1972.
The network has relied on unverified established sources, the government and the industry itself. The oil industry has profit on its mind; the government has national security on its mind; the network has survival on its mind. Conoco Phillips was the sponsor of their planet in peril series. (Shell Oil is a major sponsor of the Discovery network).