Source: SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, Date: 3/22/93, Title: “The Killing Fields,” Author: Robert H. Boyle
SYNOPSIS: “It’s hard to believe, but the ecological disasters caused by the oil spills from the Exxon Valdez, in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1989 and the Braer, off Scotland’s Shetland Island, in 1993 seem to pale when compared with the chronic environmental nightmare being wrought by selenium contaminated drain water flowing from irrigated lands in California and 13 other Western states.” The strident warning comes from environmental writer Robert H. Boyle, president of the Hudson Riverkeeper Fund.
“Although selenium runoff is also a problem in Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming, no state has been hit as hard as California, where agricultural interests wield clout out of all proportion to their importance to the state economy.”
Ironically, selenium is not a new problem; poisoned water holes and sinks have existed for years in the West. The first recorded case of selenium poisoning was in 1857, in Nebraska. A mysterious livestock disease in Mississippi in 1933 was found to be selenium poisoning. Now, however, man-made “lakes” and ponds saturated with selenium from agricultural run-off are threatening our drinking water and wildlife.
In the 1960s, at the cost of $1.4 billion, the U.S. Interior Department began constructing a canal to carry off drainwater in the San Joaquin Valley, but for lack of funds the project only got as far as the old Kesterson Ranch, a tract of land that contains 1,280 acres of gouged-out ponds, now called the Kesterson National Wildlife Refuge. All was well until 1978 when drain-water began flowing into the ponds. By 1982, the hardy mosquito fish, the only fish still living in Kesterson, was found to contain the highest selenium levels ever found in any fish anywhere.
In 1983, Harry M. Ohlendorf, a wildlife research biologist, studying nesting birds at Kesterson, found a high incidence of dead adults, dead embryos, deformed embryos and deformed young coots, ducks, eared grebes, black-necked stilt and killdeers. When he reported these findings to the regional deputy director at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, he was told to delete those references in his report since the subject was “totally out of context-does not lend anything but a red flag to people.” In 1984, virtually no nesting birds were seen at Kesterson; instead, 16,000 adult birds died from selenium poisoning.
Boyle estimates that tens of thousands-some say hundreds of thousands-of birds have died or have been born dead or with grotesque deformities. But the calamity has not attracted the media or even the environmental group attention it demands. Lloyd Carter, an environmental activist who has been trying to sound the alarm about selenium for years now, said, “It amazes me that not a single major environmental group has done anything to stop the killing.”
However, Carter also points out the hazards of blowing the whistle. “Anyone in Interior who dares speak the truth about what is really happening will be swiftly punished or driven from government service. The people in charge have abdicated their responsibilities to protect wildlife in favor of careerism, big agribusiness, and political expediency.” While the selenium crisis has now grown to extraordinary proportions-in California alone, the selenium runoff now threatens the entire 500-mile-long Central Valley as well as the water supply for Los Angeles-it has yet to attract the mainstream media.
SSU Censored Researcher: Paul Chambers
COMMENTS: Author Robert Boyle said, “In no way has the calamity of toxic drainwater, which involves criminal violations of federal law, received anywhere near sufficient exposure in the mass media, be it in the last year or the several years before that. In point of fact, drainwater has received next to no exposure, aside from the reporting of Lloyd Carter, (formerly) of UPI’s Fresno bureau, Russell Clemmings of the Fresno Bee, and Tom Harris, recently retired from the Sacramento Bee. Their readership, alas, is pretty much limited to the San Joaquin Valley.” Boyle believes that if the “general public knew the extent of the damage and threats posed by toxic drainwater. .. thinking people would demand that the federal government end the problem, prosecute those responsible, and reform, if not cauterize, the government agencies involved.” He also noted that those who benefit from the lack of coverage include “agribusiness interests who get a free ride from subsidized water, the politicians who lustily suck upon the teats of agribusiness (among them some of the biggest names in both parties), and the ass-kissing bureaucrats in the federal government who get ahead by denying that problems exist and by harassing and punishing scientists who attempt to come up with the facts.”
When I asked Boyle whether he had any additional comments to make about his efforts to get his story published, he said, “You bet.” Given the extraordinary experiences Boyle had in getting his toxic drainwater story printed, and the insights they provide into the media’s “selection process,” his comments are reprinted in full. Robert H. Boyle: `A bit of background that may be pertinent: I went to work for Sports Illustrated (SI) in 1954 when the magazine was only four issues old, and in 1986, 32 years later, I took early retirement as a Senior Writer and accepted a contract with the magazine as a Special Contributor. “While on staff, one of my fortes was environmental reporting, which I pioneered for the magazine starting in 1959 with a story that foiled the attempted rape of Tule Lake in Northern California, the single greatest gathering spot in the world for migratory waterfowl, by a bunch of farmers and a schemer in the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation. “For years afterwards, SI ran hard-hitting environmental pieces from time to time because the magazine covered participant sports, such as fishing, hiking, mountain climbing, sailing, hunting, camping, etc., along with spectator sports, and the editors figured that if someone was messing up a trout stream, or a mountain, or an ecosystem, the readers ought to know. This editorial stance started to change 10 years ago as the magazine became more and more jock-oriented, and that’s the major reason I chose early retirement.
“Mind you, in the old days we didn’t preach about the environment every week-it’s easy to turn people off-but we did run anywhere from three to six compelling articles a year.. I think of Jack Olsen’s articles on the deadly 1080 “coyote-getter” poison, and pieces by Robert Cantwell and Bill Gilbert. A piece I did in 1970 first reported the presence of PCBs in fish in North America (I collected or arranged for correspondents to collect fish that I then had tested by the leading analytical laboratory in the country), and this was five years before the federal government finally owned up to a pervasive PCB problem. In a 1984 piece I offered the hypothesis, based on chemical evidence that I had gathered, that acid rain was largely responsible for the lack of reproductive success by striped bass and five other important Atlantic Coast species of fish that spawned in rivers tributary to Chesapeake Bay. This hypothesis, since proven, prompted a scientific conference, and the papers presented were published in a special issue of the peer review international scientific journal, Water, Air & Soil Pollution.
“I first offered the drainwater story to Sports Illustrated in July of 1991. After five months of batting it around, editors, off into deep jockdom, rejected it.
“In February of 1992, I offered the article to Audubon magazine. The editor, Michael Robbins, said he would publish it as soon as possible, which I took to mean at once. “In the meanwhile, I offered Audubon another article, this one on edible insects that were to be served at the banquet celebrating the 100th anniversary of the New York Entomological Society, to which I belong. Robbins published the edible insects article immediately after I turned it in, but he kept postponing publication of the drainwater article even after researchers called me up to check and double-check the facts.
“Finally, Bruce Stutz, an editor at Audubon and an old friend, phoned to say that the drainwater article would be in the November/December 1992 issue. Then, at the last minute, Stutz called again to say that the article was being yanked in favor of an article on Roger Tory Peterson, but that it would finally appear in the January-February 1993 issue. I said, `Bruce, you are a dear fellow, but I want my article back. NOW! Go tell Michael Robbins that he has turned Audubon into the People Magazine of the environment. What is Audubon going to tell us that’s new about Roger Tory Peterson??? How the penguins hop up and down with joy when Peterson, binoculars at the ready, sets foot on Antarctica once again with a troupe of blue-haired ladies from a Lindblad cruise ship??? The National Audubon Society was founded specifically for the protection of birds. By the way, Audubon still owes me anywhere from $500 to $1,500 for the extra reporting Robbins asked me to do. Don’t bother to send it: I don’t want Audubon’s goddamned money.’
“I got the article back, but not, of course, the money due me. What to do now? I had a world-class scoop and nowhere to place it. I decided to send the article to an editor I knew at The New Yorker because the magazine had recently run two `Talk of the Town’ pieces I’d written. I got two responses from The New Yorker. One was that Tina Brown, who had just taken over the editorship, wasn’t interested, and the other was that my drainwater article conflicted with a piece the magazine was going to run.
“I tried Harper’s. The magazine rejected it because the article was too regional. By this time my wife was saying `Do you have to devote your life to an article about drainwater?’
“My wife and I then went to SI’s Christmas party at the Hard Rock Cafe on Manhattan’s West 57th Street. We had a good time, and just as we were leaving, Mark Mulvoy, who had returned from being publisher to managing editor, stopped me and said, `I want you to see me after the holidays.’
“We met in Mulvoy’s office in the Time-Life Building after the holidays. `I want a strong environmental piece for the March 22nd issue,’ he said.
“Mark, I sent one in a year and a half ago. The magazine turned it down. My wife says I’m ruining my life making a career about it, but it deals with toxic drainwater in the West, selenium poisoning in California in particular.
“`Never heard about it, but it sounds great,’ Mulvoy said. Turning to subordinates, he announced, `March 22nd issue, 400 lines, close it two weeks ahead.’ Turning to me, he said, `Okay, Bob?’
“`Mark, you’ll have it,’ I replied. “And thus Sports Illustrated finally published it.”