June 23, 2005

Fake But Accurate Environmentalism

Dan Rather will go down in history for bringing the damning phrase "fake, but accurate" into the vernacular. Apparently, we've had the journalistic phenomena long before Dan Rather squandered his credibility on fake memos to try to take down a president. Here's an environmental story that is common knowledge, but wrong.

The legend began in a 1998 commentary in Nature, a leading scientific journal. Graciela Chichilnisky and Geoffrey Heal, economists at Columbia University, stated, “In 1996, New York City invested between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in natural capital in the expectation of producing cost savings of $6–8 billion over 10 years . . . .” The authors explained that the city “floated an ‘environmental bond issue’ and will use the proceeds to restore the functioning of the watershed ecosystems responsible for water purification.” The article said that natural processes in the Catskills—“water purification processes by root systems and soil microorganisms, together with filtration and sedimentation during its flow through the soil,”—previously kept the water quality high, but “sewage, fertilizer and pesticides in the soil reduced the efficiency of this process to the point where New York City’s water no longer met EPA standards” (Chichilnisky and Heal 1998, 629–30). . .
Contrary to the article in Nature, the quality of New York City water has not declined in recent years. Water at the reservoir source and drinking water in New York City remained in compliance with standards set by the Safe Drinking Water Act, and “[t]he Catskill/Delaware water supply currently meets all necessary criteria” (National Research Council 2000, 200).

If its water had not fallen from compliance with Environmental Protection Agency standards, why did the city face a choice between 1) investing “between $1 billion and $1.5 billion in natural capital,” supposedly the cost of purchasing and restoring the watershed, and 2) “building and maintaining a water purification filtration plant” at a capital cost of $6–$8 billion, plus running costs on the order of $300 million annually? The significant change took place not in the city or its watershed but in Washington, D.C.

On June 29, 1989, the EPA promulgated the Surface Water Treatment Rule (SWTR). The SWTR required that every surface-water system serving more than 10,000 people, no matter how clean or safe its water, either filter that water or successfully petition to the EPA for a “filtration avoidance determination” (FAD). This requirement had nothing to do with New York City in particular; its water remained excellent. The SWTR applied nationwide and was intended largely to deal with Cryptosporidium parvum, a microbe that survives chlorination. Arguably, C. parvum could become a problem in the Catskills watershed, where 350 wild vertebrate species flourish, many of which can act as carriers. . .

To comply with the SWTR, . . . the city could—and did—petition for a filtration avoidance determination. To obtain the determination, the city, in a Memorandum of Agreement signed on January 21, 1997, committed itself to partner with landowners and communities to build infrastructure to make sure that future economic development would not impair water quality.

The legend of declining NYC water quality is likely permanently embedded in environmentalist lore. The bureaucratic waste of making NYC expend money to fix what wasn't broken is a story that is condemned to the obscurity of historical footnotes.

Fake but accurate is dishonest myth making and this episode makes me wonder how much of what I know to be true just isn't so. No wonder Dan Rather thought he could get away with it.

HT: crumb trail

Posted by TMLutas at June 23, 2005 05:43 AM