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The trouble before 'Troubled Waters'

A flier for the since-canceled premiere of 'Troubled Waters'
A flier for the since-canceled premiere of 'Troubled Waters'

Last week, the Twin Cities Daily Planet broke the news that the University of Minnesota canceled the premiere of “Troubled Waters,” a documentary on Mississippi River pollution.

The U’s explanation morphed several times. The initial explanation focused on the scientific review process, but Ag School dean Al Levine eventually condemned “Troubled Waters” because it “vilified” agriculture, and University Relations Vice President Karen Himle criticized it for praising specific organic farmers.

Both critics listed ties to the Agri-Growth Council, an agriculture lobbying group, but denied agri-business had pressured them. Himle’s husband John runs the P.R. and crisis management firm Himle-Horner, which represents the Agri-Growth Council. He denies any involvement.

However, “Troubled Waters” is likely not the first sensitive agricultural story that ran aground at the state’s land grant university.

The second time is not a charm
In January 2008, the alumni magazine “Minnesota” asked local writer Greg Breining to report on U-funded energy research. He says he turned in a story that “wasn't an investigative or highly critical piece by any means.” Among his subjects: David Tilman, a University ecologist who has criticized crop-based ethanol’s environmental effects, and who appears in “Troubled Waters.”

Breining had profiled Tilman for a 2007 “Minnesota” story entitled “Five Reasons Corn Ethanol Won't Save the Planet.

That unsparing and extensive piece included passages such as:

Corn ... is addicted to chemicals. ... Trouble is, these chemicals don’t stay put ... Runoff of soil and phosphorus causes algae blooms in nearby lakes. Nitrogen and phosphorus from the Midwest Farm Belt flow down the Mississippi River, feeding algae growth and decomposition that create "hypoxia" — an oxygen-depleted "dead zone" roughly the size of New Jersey in the Gulf of Mexico.

After the story ran, Breining says, “From what I understand, there were unhappy people at the U, though I never dealt with any fallout directly.”

Breining received his the energy-research assignment in January 2008. The following month, the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council announced they would suspend $1.5 million in grants; they cited a new Tilman study critical of ethanol and soy-based biodiesel.

The group vowed to relent only after meeting with Levine, who now criticizes the documentary that includes Tilman.

Breining says when he filed the energy-research piece, "I also included a few grafs about a paper Tilman and associates had just published. The research undermined corn ethanol on an even more fundamental basis than Tilman's previous work. It seemed like important research that had garnered a lot of play nationally. I couldn't very well ignore it; nor did I want to."

In Breining's story, Tilman also specifically referenced soy.

Breining says after he submitted the piece, he “heard there were big discussions about it. Eventually, it was spiked. To my knowledge, scientific accuracy was not an issue.”

Breining — who still writes regularly for “Minnesota” — emphasizes that he never heard the specific objections, nor does he know who was responsible for killing the story.

'Definitely not common'
Phil Esten — CEO of the University of Minnesota Alumni Association that oversees “Minnesota” — says the story’s demise had nothing to do with Tilman, whom the magazine has been featured “many times.”

Esten is less specific about the cause of death. He says the Alumni Association, not the U, canceled the piece. He says editor Shelly Fling (who is on leave) recalled it as “an evolving story ... later canceled because the timing didn’t make sense,” adding “this is a common occurrence in publishing.”

However, Esten acknowledges something that was “definitely not common”: the story “was requested for review by the Vice President of University Relations” — Himle.

Via spokesman Dan Wolter, Himle says she “does not recall reviewing this specific piece, as she was in Norway at the time. Having been included on feedback provided by someone else, she did ask that whatever was published be balanced as this is an institutional publication.”

Wolter adds, “It's important to note that it is a function of her job to ensure that institutional communications provide balance (which is different than academic works).”

It’s true that no one should mistake an alumni magazine for a scientific publication — or a documentary where U overseers have invoked scientific review. However, Himle also used the term “balance” to explain why the documentary premiere was canceled.

What was written
At this point, we don’t know if the original version of “Troubled Waters” will see the light of day, but Breining did pass along his 2008 Tilman paragraphs:

It’s no secret among scientists that corn-based ethanol and soy-based biodiesel, two mainstays of America’s current bio-energy industry, won’t replace oil and other fossil fuels. We can’t produce enough corn or soybeans, even if we grew them on every available acre.

As if that weren’t limitation enough, in February several Minnesota researchers including world-renowned University ecologist David Tilman threw down another challenge to the biofuel industry and researchers. In a report published in Science, the scientists concluded that conventional biofuel production on prime agricultural lands produced vast amounts of greenhouse gases — a “carbon debt” that would take decades or centuries to pay down. Since preventing global warming has been one of the prime reasons to move from fossil-fuels to renewables such as ethanol and biodiesel, the study challenged the very foundations of the industry.

The problem: The current demand for biofuels is causing the destruction of forests and grasslands, whether it is the clearing of rain forest to plant sugarcane in Brazil, or plowing Conservation Reserve Program grasslands to plant corn in southern Minnesota.

“The dilemma is when you clear land you release immense amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere,” said Tilman. “Look at a tree. And a lot of the land being cleared is forest, including tropical rainforest. Huge, huge trees. If you get rid of the water in a tree—just dry it out—half of the weight that is left is carbon. And all of that carbon become carbon dioxide once that tree has been cut down.”

The challenge: To develop biofuels and other forms of alternative energy that don’t clear or plow up new land. “From what we now know, I say there are still can be and should be a very viable and vital biofuels industry, but we just have to be wise in how and where we grow that biomass,” Tilman said. ...

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Comments (20)

I think you put your finger on it in noting that an alumni magazine is exempt from the usual considerations of journalistic independence. So, in a sense...big deal.

That said, nothing about this story passes the smell test. And the University of Minnesota should not be in the business of suppressing magazine stories or films without better reasons than they gave you here.

Dave Tilman is one of the world's most influential and respected ecologists, and the work of Tilman and his colleagues at the U's Cedar Creek station has been groundbreaking and a source of immense prestige for the University. Dismissing a finished magazine story reporting on research Tilman had already published in the peer-reviewed journal Science as "evolving"...as if the information wasn't nailed down...is ridiculous.

It is also not true that stories in any kind of magazine are routinely killed after submission for "timing" reasons. Stories are scheduled when they are planned and assigned. They are often shifted from one issue to another depending on a lot of things, and sometimes events can cause a completed story to be killed...but this is rare, not common. Or if it is common at "Minnesota," that would seem to be another thing they're doing wrong. And it's frankly hard to imagine what kind of "timing" problem a story like this would present.

I haven't seen "Troubled Waters" so have no idea if it is balanced. But agricultural contamination of the Mississippi River, and the resulting "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, are extensively studied scientific facts that are not in question.

What's really going on here is an old story...at least as old as the environmental movement itself. Back in 1962, after "Silent Spring" was serialized in the New Yorker, author Rachel Carson ran into a concerted effort to discredit her anti-pesticides polemic. Her opponents included the joint forces of the agriculture industry and its friends in Washington...among them Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman, whose first instinct was to send a memo around the office wondering how best to undermine Carson's work. Carson wryly noted at the time that the number of people who blasted her book as unscientific, hysterical, and egregiously misleading was far greater than the number of people who had actually read it.

Oh...and it turned out she was right about pretty much everything.

Because of its historical connection to agriculture as it currently exists, and its need for corporate underwriting (due to King Timmy's massive budget cuts), the U of M, in blocking the release of what is likely a far-too-accurate-for-comfort film is responding to important consituencies (and selling its soul not to upset the folks who might stop writing those big checks).

This is all part of a very large picture designed to support those who make an obscene amount of money running the current system by which our day-to-day energy needs in this country are fueled (big oil and big coal).

The same people who have registered record annual profits over the past few years, but who couldn't be troubled to worry about safety enough to avoid blowing out a well in the Gulf of Mexico, or killing underground coal miners in Apalachia (because getting the coal out was more important the worker safety) are not about to let the US switch to alternatively-fueled homes (especially self-sufficiently fueled) or electrically fueled cars which only need to plug in to the electric grid (or their own wind or solar generators) and drive right by the local gasoline-fuel station.

Sadly, although they have increased profits for our farmers, ethanol additions to fuel and biodiesel fuel are really just greenwashing designed to prop up the oil industry by convincing the public that the fuel they buy at their local service station is now much "greener" than it used to be.

Biofuels, although they have been good for my farmer friends (less good since Cargill and ADM began buying up the formerly-cooperative ethanol plants), are part of the reason that at the present time, when we desperately need to be switching our nation to REAL alternative fuel sources (which, being far more localized and dispersed also threaten to pull the rug out from under our local power utility companies and the coal industry which fuels so many of their plants), we have countless efforts on the part of oil and coal profiteers seeking to prevent that from happening. The U of M is clearly responding to the demands of these groups and of the agribusiness folks who are currently making good money off biofuels.

The oil and coal folks believe themselves to be entitled to their breathtakingly obscene profits and resulting incomes and, even moreso, to what they expect to collect when the worlds' oil demand begins to outstrip available supply and prices for oil and coal both go up to heights never seen before.

Misinformation about global climate change (largely due to the burning of the fossil fuels through which they make their profits), nuclear power plants (which the existing utility companies could continue to control and profit from) and biofuels are all part of their massive effort to hold off the move to alternative energy sources (and away from their expected personal profits).

If we look closer at the big picture, the energy companies are simply acting in their own self interest (and against that of the rest of us): ensuring that the profits derived from power and control of energy distribution remain in the hands of those who already profit from them so that they can collect massive profits as the price of energy rises (which it IS going to do unless we, as a nation, follow the lead of the Chinese and put massive effort into pursuing other alternatives).

If the good people of Minnesota would rather have the University of Minnesota concentrate on facts, accuracy, and telling us the most important truths: truths upon which the life of our state, our nation, and even we, ourselves, need to be able to depend, even when we'd rather not hear them, perhaps we need to increase funding for the "U" so that it no longer finds it necessary to go begging to large corporate contributors and the wealthiest among us (who have their own interests to protect) to keep itself going and, inevitably, finds it necessary to respond to their concerns by shaping the information it distributes and even it's teaching to keep them happy.

Okay,Greg, you have piqued my interest. Just what are these REAL alternative fuels you speak of, and where can I buy them?

Great article, David.

I expect that the ethanol lobby is especially sensitive about this kind of thing because it relies on the public's misperception of ethanol as an environmentally friendly product. The ethanol industry is dependent on subsidies and mandates, and the subsidies and mandates are justified, in part, by the idea that ethanol is a "green" product. Unlike the coal and oil industries, which can and have survived with the perception that their products are not environmentaly friendly, ethanol needs to be seen as green. Once the truth about ethanol becomes widely known and the fraudulent "green" claims are fully exposed, the ethanol industry is going to have some real problems.

The most logical movement toward "real" alternative fuels, which although it would involve considerable up front investment (but would still be cheaper than continuing to use oil and coal both environmentally and, within a few short years, financially) involves moving toward powering our vehicles with electric motors and fueling them with rechargeable batteries.

The real progress for the public will come in the form of cheaper (on the way) photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines that they can own and install themselves, coupled with the development of higher density, longer lived, lightweight batteries for use in their cars and for home energy storage.

Of course if there's an energy company with half a brain, they should already be investing heavily in the development of high density storage devices to store electricity from the grid when all the distributed systems (people's own solar arrays and wind turbines) are putting out excess supply and sell back to the individual users at night and/or when the wind isn't blowing.

But, as much as I have loved them, cars with internal combustion engines powered by fossil fuels are, for the most part, going to become a thing of the past, as is the local "service" station with gas pumps (although, this being America, individual cars will likely be around for a very long time to come).

IMHO the environmental and eventual cost savings benefits would more than make up for the initial cost required to accomplish converting the nation's energy supply in this way. Perhaps we would even develop technology that we could sell to the rest of the world (as it is, we're way behind in this area, buying much of this technology off shore).

Thanks, greg. My organization (the American Lung Association in Minesota) is working with a public-private partnership to bring some plug-in EVs to the Twin Cities. It will be just a few vehicles at first (if funding can be obtained), but it will be a useful look at things to come.

To your point about service stations becoming a thing of the past, I should point out that the new Kwik Trip station in Coon Rapids has an electric vehicle recharging station, as well as an E85 pump, B5 biodiesel, and traditional gasoline blends.

So change is already happening, albiet slowly.

"...she did ask that whatever was published be balanced as this is an institutional publication." and...

“It's important to note that it is a function of her job to ensure that institutional communications provide balance (which is different than academic works).”

Balance? Just what is "balance", anyway? What are the out-of-balance things here that need "balance" restored?

From all the facts above in this case, it doesn't appear there is any need to balance inaccuracies against more accurate information.

It appears that the U of M sees a need to balance political and economic interests, one against the other. When did that become part of the role of our University in its mission?

Here is an excerpt from the University of Minnesota's published mission statement:

"In all of its activities, the University strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that embodies the values of academic freedom, responsibility, integrity, and cooperation;..."

One wonders whether the P.R. role described above is consistent with the U's mission. Or is this mission mere window-dressing?

The U's explanation certainly did morph several times. By the time an official, company line explanation for pulling the film was announced, it bore little resemblance to the Himle's immediate reaction and concerns.

Himle's concerns had nothing to do with science, but instead were that “typically, in an institutional documentary you wouldn’t see a commercial interest,” and that the film had not enough river and too much "commercial conversation." Apparently the funders, the state legislature and McKnight Foundation, had no such concerns.

So Himle phoned Levine, presumably to discuss her concerns about the film's commercialism. But Levine, who acknowledged he's "not a scientist in this particular area," told her "questions were raised about the impartiality and the scientific accuracy of the documentary."

Presumably someone else was raising the questions. Maybe even scientists in this particular area. But who knows? None of the university officials quoted -- Himle, Levine, Cuomo, Ponce de Leon -- appear to be scientists "in this particular area" of ecology.

Voila! A supposedly science-based reason to pull the film was crafted. But heck, at least it's more substantial than "there's not enough river..."

From today's "Daily Planet":

"Late Friday, the University PR machine shifted its story on pulling the film from one being about need for an additional "scientific review" to one being about concern over political tone."

So all that stuff about science being the basis for the decision to pull the film and review it further?

Never mind, I guess. It was a sham. Who knew?

I wonder if any of our resident "green" experts realize what manufacturing a battery, any type of battery, entails?

I wonder if any thought has been given to what we'll do with all those spent storage cells?

I wonder if any thought has been given to what it is that all those teh kewl electric cars ("Be home in an hour, hon...I'm charging up "the Leaf"), are "plugging into"?

Truth be told, I don't really wonder about either of those things.

I'm all for examining any and all forms of energy sources, I just object to politics directing the show.

When that happens, we end up with vehicles essentially burning coal, hauling batteries that weigh half as much as the vehicle itself being sold to unwitting believers as environmentally sound.

It's nuts.

I am well aware of the the rare earths and metals currently needed to make advanced batteries, Swiftie. A also know which countries have these resources, and what that means to our security.

As they were first coming out, critics of hybrid vehicles raised questions about batteries needing to be replaced, how durable they would be, disposal issues, etc. It turns out they last longer and work better than many expected.

A shift from coal to natural gas will reduce a lot of emissions. So would more nukes, although I don't see that happening in MN anytime soon.

I don't want politics to lead the show, either. I want leadership and forward thinking. I could care less which party label they come from.

Some of the techniques used in the Progressive Automotive X Prize winner might be transfered to more tradional vehicles. That experimental car could seat 4, travel 60 mph, and average more than 100 mpg (on E85, no less). Ready for the showroom? Of course not! Some good use of lightweight, but super-stong materials? Heck, yes!

Very relevant comments Thomas. I certainly take pause when I read condescending, overly simplistic comments that our energy problems could be solved 'financially in a few short years' if we just make the upfront investment. Trust me, if it was that financially feasible, capital would be pouring into the sector. The reality is, there is no short term silver bullet. The ability to scale renewable projects on a cost effective basis takes research and innovation, not mere implementation. When the breakthru is there, it gets rolled out and consumers respond, but not if the cost is still prohibitive. Electric cars are merely coal fired (hello carbon) eletricity generated cars and don't foget the dilemma that Thomas pointed out as well. Wind, solar and Hydro now account for less than 10% of our energy supply in the U.S. I hope it continues to grow steadily, but we will be driving carbon burning cars and powering our A/C with electricity from coal fired generating stations for decades. And guess what, we'll make the transition when technology catches up. Meantime, I'll continue to do those activities that help reduce energy use and are cost effective (recycling, smaller home, riding my bike/walking more).

"In all of its activities, the University strives to sustain an open exchange of ideas in an environment that embodies the values of academic freedom, responsibility, integrity, and cooperation;..." ...part of the UofM Mission Statement from minnpost.com.com posting.

The University seems to be in need of reviewing its mission statement. Nowhere does it say the University should try to stifle public awareness and/or public discourse on a very controversial problem like Mississippi River pollution issues.

Since when does a journalistic documentary that has been an open undertaking, though funded by various public sources, get "scientific review" postponed premiere?

I haven't seen "Trouble Waters" but I now want to see it for a legion of reasons. What is the University afraid of in this documentary? Is the U afraid that I might learn something new in environmental issues or science without paying course tuition?

If "Trouble Waters" gets credit for public controversy or discourse before its showing, then so be it! It sounds like a 21st century "Catch-22" or "Silent Spring" brouhaha is in the making. It's ironic how history keeps repeating itself; we humans never seem to learn from past lessons of controversy.

Without going off a tangent relating to what hasn't been seen yet, I think it's time the University lets this film be seen. Let all who will see "Trouble Waters" formulate their own opinions and discuss its merits or demerits. What has society or the UofM have to fear or lose with some healthy academic/civil discussion on Mississippi River pollution? We all might learn something new with taking the corrective, decisive, and informed actions to better our environment.

p.s.:
"The sky is falling! The sky will be falling!"...Chicken Little. The sky did fall--IT RAINED! Who listened?

So much for "Driven to Discover". Himle Horner is the PR firm for the Minnesota Agro Growth
Council. Karen represented them on the Pollution Control Agency Board. The corporatists are in charge of my dear Alma Mater. Screw science.

C'mon, folks.

Let's remember the salaries that Maturi and "Brew" are takin' down, fielding a team of larcenous drunken buffoons (from out of state), in the half empty "Vault".

This is one GREAT Big Ten school. Principled. Upstanding. Heritage. Etc.

Even South Dakota thinks so!

Ski U Mah!

Concerning the spiked Breining energy-research piece, Himle, via the U spokesman said she “does not recall reviewing this specific piece, as she was in Norway at the time. Having been included on feedback provided by someone else, she did ask that whatever was published be balanced as this is an institutional publication.”

How does being in Norway affect one's memory regarding reviewing an article? Obviously someone contacted her in Norway, "having been included in the feedback." Might it therefore be possible, since Himle can't remember, that she actually did receive an electronic version and read it? Conspicuous by its absence is a statement that she was vacationing. If she was not vacationing, then she was working for the U while in Norway. If she was working for the U while there, then it's even more likely that, as part of her apparent responsibilities, she read the article. If she read the article, then is it possible that she has forgotten additional recommendations besides being balanced?

Finally, being balanced does not equate to letting those with different ideas present them. To be balanced, the opposing ideas must be scientifically based, not based on an industry's economic interest.

Tom S:

"I'm all for examining any and all forms of energy sources, I just object to politics directing the show."

You mean you're against politics directing the show, if the show is directed away from the currently dominant sources of power?

That must be the case because the oil and gas industry is one of the most powerful political forces in our country, ranking right up in the top levels of big spenders to influence the policies of our federal government.

That industry spent over $175 Million on lobbying in 2009.

"Individuals and political action committees affiliated with oil and gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates and parties since the 1990 election cycle, 75 percent of which has gone to Republicans."

The contribution total for just 2008 was over $35 Million.

Is your position that they are spending such large sums with no hope of return on their investment?

Isn't this "politics directing the show" in a much greater way than anything seen so far with respect to alternative sources of energy, conservation, or environmental protection?

http://www.opensecrets.org/lobby/indusclient.php?year=2009&lname=e01&id=
http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/indus.php?ind=e01
http://www.opensecrets.org/industries/totals.php?cycle=2010&ind=e01

This, from MPR yesterday (9/22/10): "Levine said he did not ask for the premiere to be postponed. Levine said he and some other faculty members do think the film is unbalanced."

So despite Himle's efforts to use the supposedly science-based concerns of Levine and others as cover for her decision to pull the film (despite the fact neither Levine nor the others are biologist or ecologists), it's now clear the deicsion was hers alone. It's also fairly clear now the decision was NOT primarily based on concerns about the accuracy of the film's science claims.

Glad that red herrring has been put to rest.

This matter puts the University in a really bad light. In fact it stinks like an overripe algae pond, and Bruininks must be having some thoughts about Himle's tenure.

I wish someone would publish an energy balance around just one ethanol plant. Account for the fuel used to run the plant, which is presumably natural gas, the fuel used to get the corn to the plant and the waste products away. It would be nice for the public to know; if the plant were to use its own ethanol for running its plant, would there be any ethanol left over to sell? Without that assurance, I look at an ethanol plant as just one more contribution to monoculture farming with government subsidies.

I am amazed that the entire discussion about this documentary focuses on agriculture. This comment is not intended to attempt an assignments of responsibility to any segment of society. It is intended to note that there is no reference in the article or in the comments about other sources of pollution than agricultural.

Traditionally farmers have not done a good job of educating the American people about changes in agricultural production that benefit the environment and their own bottom line. Writers and publications frequently find that a story about production agriculture is not going to create interest, and the reality is that most readers do not care unless a good controversy is in the making.

The countryside is not all tillable, and some rural homes with septic systems carry waste straight from the bathroom into a tile line, the county ditch, the Minnesota River and to the Gulf of Mexico. Throw in some drain and household cleaners and it’s not a pretty picture. Restrictions are spotty and usually done in connection with a real estate sale. Livestock systems that are often blamed provide a source of fertilizer used in place of commercial agriculture

However, if we focus on the sins of the countryside and fail to acknowledge other sources, we have not only been unfair to farmers and have been dishonest; we have not effectively dealt with the problem. The Ecological Society of America suggests that protecting waters from hypoxia includes proper use of fertilizer, but interestingly enough explains, “Excess fertilizer washes off lawns and farms . . .” Scriptural exegetes will appreciate the significance of order in lists.

Households in the metro area use massive amounts of lawn fertilizer each year. According to the National Golf Foundation, Minnesota has 498 golf courses including private clubs. One can only imagine the amount of fertilizers that is luxuriously spread on these emerald green playgrounds.

Abandoned wells in the metropolitan and rural area, highways covered with salt, parking lots, highways and streets covered with oil and grease wash away in the rainfall to the river. In addition, overflow permits to cities that combine sewer systems and runoff have been issued.

None of this suggests that agriculture is “off the hook” but based on this article and on the comments, the entire issue has a focus that is not only unfair, but fails to acknowledge the reality of our troubled waters.