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Ecologists are still trying to spin their phony save the whale campaign

Wednesday, Dec 12 2001
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It's my rule not to write columns based on my mail, because I write only 40 columns and a handful of cover stories annually, and within that limitation cannot possibly squeeze in all the bad deeds and selfish plots afoot among the power brokers. So I don't use my precious space to write easy and lazy columns that respond to mail, even when I received 1,100 e-mails about a column I wrote on Bill Maher.

But this time things are different.

I and my colleague, New Times editor in chief and reporter Michael Lacey, have caused something of a blowup in the environmental movement in Los Angeles and some other cities with our recent exposé on a fight over a proposed salt plant in Baja California that supposedly threatened the gray whale.

The story detailed how the Natural Resources Defense Council, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and other groups convinced the American public that the proposed salt plant would damage the last surviving pristine lagoon used by the gray whale for birthing, and put the species' health at risk.

New Times showed that the environmentalists had no evidence for their claim but made it appear that they did. We showed that the gray whale has thrived in a second lagoon, just up the Baja coast, where a salt plant has operated for decades. And we determined that the probable motive of environmental leaders was to protect the Baja desert from any form of development -- not to save the robust, 26,000-strong Eastern Pacific gray whale.

The story didn't sit well with environmentalists, to put it mildly. First, New Times received an urgent e-mail from San Francisco's city environmental director, Jared Blumenfeld, former honcho at the International Fund for Animal Welfare, demanding that we not publish the story.

Then, during my regular radio commentary in L.A. on KPCC's Airtalk, and again a few days later on KCET's Life & Times Tonight, I debated a clearly agitated Joel Reynolds, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council.

I cannot let the inaccurate claims by Blumenfeld, Reynolds, and others go unchallenged. I believe the environmental movement, growing ever stronger because it can tap the power of the masses via the Internet, is at a crossroads. It desperately needs to examine itself before stepping so surely along the path some of its leaders have chosen.

New Times' story looked at the problem of fighting fire with fire. The environmentalists obfuscated facts and duped the public, and I believe they did so because they faced a major corporation -- Mitsubishi, one of the world's largest -- which, like all major corporations, has obfuscated facts and duped the public.

Man, oh man, what a hubbub Lacey and I created with that premise.

Kevin Finney, an expert on global warming and climate change for the Coalition for Clean Air, tells me, "Everybody is trying to figure out what is up with New Times and Jill Stewart -- has she got a vendetta against environmentalists?" Finney, who is a friend of mine, says he has responded: "I am not saying Jill Stewart is right, but if that is what IFAW and NRDC did, it does seem to raise issues of credibility. This story is important for environmentalists to think about because there is a line that should not be crossed. The response they have given me is: "Well, the Republicans do that all the time.'"

How sad. Even now, as they slam us in an effort to take the heat off themselves, environmental leaders are crossing that line. Here are some of their false claims:

* Blumenfeld says the environmental impact assessment of the project was "never made public" and was withheld for six months because it would "never stand up to scrutiny."

This is false. Like other EIRs, the report took time to assemble after its 30 separate studies were done. The scientists who conducted the studies -- all top researchers from respected institutions -- say their findings were not altered.

Further, few environmentalists bothered to read the document, which is more than 3,000 pages long and has been publicly available for more than a year from ESSA, a joint venture of Mitsubishi and the Mexican government, which operates the existing salt plant. "None of the environmentalists has requested a single copy to date," says Mitsubishi attorney Jim Brumm.

* Blumenfeld also says the environmental assessment tried to make the project "look as good as possible," thus becoming "equivalent to pro-tobacco science paid for by Philip Morris."

False again. Mitsubishi infuriated the environmentalists when it asked top gray whale scientists and biologists to conduct the studies, instead of hiring the usual paid-off consultants. These scientists are all known for impeccable research work, and most have secure jobs at major universities. None of them would ever jettison their reputation to produce "pro-tobacco science" for a measly year or two of research funding. Paul Dayton and Cliff Winant of the Scripps Institute have published their work via UC San Diego, as they agreed to do before the research even began.

* Blumenfeld claims the scientists I quoted as saying the salt plant would not hurt the whales "were all paid for by Mitsubishi."

False. Steve Swartz, a leading gray whale expert who served on an independent blue-ribbon commission of globally respected scientists, was not paid by Mitsubishi and personally opposes the plant on political grounds. Yet Swartz agreed with other independent scientists with whom I spoke, that the saltworks would not have even mildly harmed the whales.

The only scientist who was paid to advocate a position on the salt plant was Roger Payne. Payne is an expert on the humpback whale, not the gray whale, and was recruited by IFAW and NRDC to vociferously fight the plant. Though often called an expert by Joel Reynolds, Payne has never conducted a single gray whale study.

* Blumenfeld further alleges that most of the 200 jobs at the new salt plant would go to "workers coming from Japan."

Wrong again. Why would Mitsubishi import expensive Japanese workers to perform jobs that have been performed well and cheaply for decades by Mexicans at the salt plant at Guerrero Negro? The company wouldn't. But it makes a nice rural legend, doesn't it?

* Blumenfeld attacks New Times for failing to quote him because we wanted to tell only the sexier story of the incredible gold mine reaped by NRDC.

False. I tried to reach Blumenfeld, and he made several efforts to reach me, but we did not connect. He then left his job at IFAW. I called him one last time the week before the story ran, leaving messages both in San Francisco and at IFAW. He did not call until the story was published -- and then refused to tell me which facts he disputed (aside from his insistence that IFAW, and not NRDC, recruited Pierce Brosnan to oppose the plant.)

Another member of New Times' whale reporting team, Susan Goldsmith, did interview Blumenfeld, however. I was free to quote from that shared interview, but chose not to because Blumenfeld repeated claims I'd already gathered.

* Blumenfeld says he never uttered a quote attributed to him by Goldsmith -- that the environmental groups felt "a moral obligation" to local residents to replace 200 jobs that would have been created by the saltworks.

False again. Blumenfeld offered that comment on the record, during a phone interview with Goldsmith.

* Reynolds says the existing salt plant at Guerrero Negro is a danger to the whales, as proven by a "turtle kill" in the lagoon there following a rare spill of toxic brine (a byproduct of salt evaporation).

Not true. No evidence could be found that the turtles died from a brine spill. Not one of the turtles had in its body a single one of the easily detectable toxins found in brine. Moreover, turtles do not congregate together in the vast lagoons at Guerrero Negro (which are far bigger than Santa Monica Bay), yet the creatures washed ashore in a group.

So how did the turtles die? They had to have died together in order to wash ashore together. The only people who gather endangered sea turtles are illegal poachers. Thus the strongest theory is that poachers killed the turtles, then dumped them when a patrol boat approached.

* Reynolds also claims the existing salt plant drove away the whales some years back, and that the whale population only recently rebounded at Guerrero Negro.

False. This absurd rural legend arose from a situation in the 1960s when ESSA stopped dredging the silt-filled mouth of Laguna Guerrero Negro because ESSA moved its salt-export shipping activities to a deeper lagoon. Whales that had taken advantage of the man-made channel into Laguna Guerrero Negro merely relocated to more accessible lagoons.

* Author and conservationist Serge Dedina says scientists, including Dayton and UC Santa Cruz whale expert Burney LeBoeuf, were pro-salt plant, and could not comprehend Biology 101: that ecosystem integrity and biodiversity around Laguna San Ignacio were threatened by the proposed project.

False. No scientist who agreed to conduct research for the environmental impact assessment ever took a position on the plant. In fact, those with whom I spoke privately opposed the project. Nevertheless, they refused, as serious scientists, to knuckle under to Dedina's patently absurd view that the area's biodiversity or ecosystem were at risk.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) took such claims by Dedina, Reynolds, Blumenfeld, and other salt-plant foes so seriously that it sent a team to determine whether a U.N.-designated whale refuge and adjoining desert at Laguna San Ignacio faced biodiversity or ecosystem damage from a salt plant.

UNESCO found no such thing. Instead, it announced that the existing salt plant at Guerrero Negro had been a boon to biodiversity. That's because saltworks are breeding grounds for protein-rich brine shrimp, which attract hundreds of thousands of migratory birds. Indeed, salt plants were permitted under UNESCO's existing guidelines for Laguna San Ignacio's protected zones because they do not harm ecosystems.

Need I go on?

One of California's top political consultants, Bill Carrick, attended a party a few days ago at which, he tells me, a number of environmentalists "were taking the name "Jill Stewart' in vain, if you know what I mean." Indeed I do. But I'd suggest that environmental leaders who are tempted to dismiss New Times' story take a closer look, and this time turn their critique on themselves.

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Jill Stewart

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