Friday Fun: EPA Rumors Debunked, But Will They Ever Die?!
Winston Churchill once famously quipped that a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on. His observation is just as relevant today with the social-media-powered news media today, as demonstrated by a recent politically charged rumor that the Environmental Protection Agency is using drone flights to spy on farmers in the Midwest.
It makes a great “David versus Goliath” story, and it first surfaced in late May. The big, bad, overreaching EPA is spying on Midwestern
farmers by using the same type of aerial drones the U.S. Department of Defense uses to kill terrorists in foreign war zones. What are the drones supposedly looking for? Farms out of compliance with EPA rules, such as the Clean Water Act, or disposing manure and other farm waste improperly.
It sounds outrageous, which is why it made for exciting news. Prepackaged with righteous indignation, the story was seized and repeated on television news segments, blogs, social media and by at least four U.S. congressmen, according to the Washington Post.
Fox News reported on the issue, raising the ire of viewers. “Republican lawmakers are demanding answers today after learning the Environmental Protection Agency has been using aerial spy drones for years to spy on cattle ranchers,” Megyn Kelly reported. “These are the same drones we use to track down al-Qaida terrorists, flying over Nebraska and Iowa,” she added.
The report led to a firestorm of comments, condemnations, Facebook shares and “likes” and tweets, many of them from congressional members. Masses directed their ire at not only the EPA but the Obama administration, which was accused of using environmentalism as a cover for extreme government overreach.
“The Obama administration has, once again, stepped way over the line,” said Representative Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.). He reportedly sent a strongly worded letter to the EPA, complaining of “reports” about drone use.
“First, they wanted to expand their authority to regulate water, and now they want to use air drones to spy on American citizens,” he reportedly wrote. Representatives Todd Akin (R-Mo.) and Tom Latham (R-Iowa) picked up the torch, crafting letters of their own. Representative Jeff Fortenberry (R-Neb.) brought the issue up before the House Agricultural Committee, indicating that he had seen press reports that the EPA “has been using military-style drone planes to secretly observe livestock operations.”
There’s only one problem: It’s not true.
While the EPA does use small, manned planes to do flyover inspections — the agency says they cut down costs compared with on-site inspections — has never and will never use unmanned drones to inspect farms for environmental missteps. Most of the congressional members who jumped on the rumor have subsequently admitted to jumping the gun, and the media outlets that reported on the fictional story have also retracted it.
The social media sphere has not let it go, however, and the story has spread like mold on cheese. It will, no doubt, grow a life of its own for years to come. An “EPA Drones” Google search now yields nearly a million results, most of them not concerned with the retraction of the story.
A 13x Bigger EPA, Debunked!
It wasn’t the first time the Internet and news media have been set off by rumors of EPA overreach — and unlikely the last. In late 2011, the Web exploded with outrage about reports that the agency was planning to spend $21 billion per year to hire an additional 230,000 people to enforce greenhouse gas regulations.
The story appeared to have originated from the Daily Caller, which confided to readers that the EPA’s authority to move forward with the project was being challenged in court by petitioners who argued that such a decision should be left to Congress to make.
The Daily Caller report went viral, showing up on Fox News Channel, Fox Nation, National Review Online and Hot Air, said media watchdog Media Matters.
It sounded like a great story. After all, the EPA currently has only 17,000 employees and an annual budget of $8.7 billion. According to the the Daily Caller, the agency planned to expand its workforce by more than 13 times and budget by nearly 250 percent. While a little critical thinking should have shot down the thought that it’s unlikely a U.S. agency would be allowed to increase its workforce by thirteenfold, common sense didn’t stop the rumor from growing running legs and galloping around the blogosphere in record time.
Even the EPA had a sense of humor about this particular rumor.
“Much of what is said or written about the EPA these days is entirely inaccurate — but the Daily Caller’s report is comically wrong,” EPA spokesman Brendan Gilfillan told Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking organization Politico. “At least one job clearly needs to be created: They’re clearly in the market for a fact-checker,” he said.
EPA to Tax Cows Breaking Wind, Debunked!
Just writing about this one feels ridiculous, but a rumor surfaced that the EPA was requiring restitution from cattle and dairy farmers for the amount of methane — a greenhouse gas — being released into the atmosphere by their livestock. Yes, cow burps.
Story has it that the EPA was planning to require cattle and dairy farmers to purchase air-pollution permits like power plants and factories must do. The media began calling it the “cow tax,” and Internet jockeys all over the nation began expressing their anger. Stories were peppered with the phrase “cow farts.”
The White House, EPA and House Democratic leaders were suddenly finding it necessary to assure farm lobbying and other industry groups that they have no intention of taxing cow wind. And in a twist you just can’t make up, lawmakers and farm groups are now pressing for the opposite: Future climate legislation will guarantee that farmers be compensated for taking steps to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions.
Translation: Farmers could be paid by the government if they can find a way to make their cows pass less gas, the Associated Press reported. You can’t make this stuff up.
An EPA Crackdown on Milk Spills, Debunked!
We just can’t leave the cows alone. Last year, there was an EPA rumor involving milk — spilled milk, to be more precise — that purportedly originated from an unsigned editorial printed by the Wall Street Journal. The rumor mill began churning when reports emerged that the EPA would begin regulating spilled milk in dairy operations in precisely the same manner that it regulates oil spills.
In a newsletter, Representative Morgan Griffith (R-Va.) informed his constituents of the agency’s supposed plans, commenting, “Crying over and spending lots of our money on potentially spilt milk shows how serious the regulatory problem is here in Washington. Whether it’s milk or coal, it’s time to get harmful government regulations out of the way.”
The EPA made it clear that the new rule cited by Griffith and many media outlets would exempt dairy farmers and milk wholesalers from the same regulations that govern oil facilities — rules that have been on the books for nearly 40 years, according to the New York Times.
“It was our work with the dairy industry that prompted the EPA to develop an exemption and make sure the standards of the law are met in a common-sense way,” said Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA. “All of EPA’s actions have been to exempt these containers,” she said.
The reason that this rumor ran for so long, according to the EPA, was that its source refused to put it to rest. Jackson told the New York Times that she wrote a letter to the editor of the Wall Street Journal after it published the unsigned editorial, explaining that the agency exempted the dairy industry from the oil spill rules several months before but the paper declined to publish it.
Children to Become EPA Guinea Pigs, Debunked!
Although this one didn’t get picked up by the mainstream news media — apparently even they were able to spot the absurdity — a rumor that the EPA planned to engage in testing of toxic chemicals on children circulates via e-mail and social media to this day.
“The Environmental Protection Agency has announced plans to launch an outrageous new study in which participating low-income families will have their children exposed to toxic pesticides over the course of two years,” rages the Web-based scree. “For taking part in these studies, each family will receive $970, a free video camera, a T-shirt and a framed certificate of appreciation.” The study, entitled CHEERS (Children’s Environmental Exposure Research Study), purportedly was going to look at how chemicals can be ingested, inhaled or absorbed by children ranging from infants to three-year-olds.
Given the pattern of erroneous stories, it’s likely that we are only weeks or months away from the next big EPA rumor that will spread through media outlets, the blogosphere, social media and even the mouths of Congress. It’s clear that the debunked stories have not put the brakes on the enthusiasm of EPA-haters to keep churning out new myths.
You would imagine that, after being burned a dozen or more times, the media and bloggers would engage in a little more fact-checking. This, of course, is based on the presumption that they are looking to report the facts and aren’t simply seeking ways to fire up their listeners into a ratings-boosting rage. The EPA’s Jackson echoed that sentiment, placing additional responsibility on lobbying groups, which often use the rumors to aid their campaigns.
“We all have a responsibility to ensure that the American people have facts and the truth in front of them, particularly when fictions are pushed by special interests with an investment in the outcome,” Jackson scolded.