Cory Gaines, Media, Uncategorized

Gaines: What the Colorado Sun left out of lopsided feedlot story

When I emailed Colorado Sun reporter Michael Booth about his recent article on feedlots, I had some rather simple questions.  While the article didn’t disappoint in the sense that it doesn’t give you what is printed on the label, I did come away wondering whether Booth spent any time walking around a feedlot, or even talking with anyone associated with feedlots.

The article spends an inordinate time discussing what environmentalists (including giving the perspective of a group that Mr. Booth admits seeks to “ban factory farms altogether”) think about runoff water from feedlots.  The sense one gets from hearing the environmentalists’ take is that no one is minding the store, that feedlots could be discharging waste into streams and groundwater, and no one would be the wiser.  In terms of counterpoint, we get nothing other than a passing reference to what the trade group Colorado Livestock Association says in opposition to the environmentalists’ lawsuit.

That struck me as patently unfair.  Shouldn’t feedlot operators have a say?  Shouldn’t they have an opportunity to explain how their operations run, what they monitor, what regulations they must meet?

I wrote to both Mr. Booth and the Sun’s editor, Larry Ryckman, asking whether Booth or anyone else at the Sun ever toured a feedlot or spoke to anyone who runs one.  I asked whether the lack of comment from the folks who do was intentional.  I asked whether Mr. Booth planned to follow up with an article giving industry a chance to offer its side.

Mr. Booth wrote back with a non-answer (here copied in its entirety per the wishes of Mr. Booth, and I never heard from Mr. Ryckman):

“I encourage you to do your own reporting Cory, thanks for reaching out.”

He sent the following after I double checked this is what he wanted to say (and offered him the chance to say nothing on the record):

“Cory — don’t you think your readers would be better served by you doing original reporting on the topics you are interested in rather than re-reporting what others have already done? You of course are free to include or not include any of this in your further writing, but I do request that you use full quotes if you use anything.”

Mr. Booth must have read my mind because while I awaited his response, I did what he didn’t or wouldn’t do and spoke to a couple of gentlemen, Mr. Brett McAendaffer and Mr. Steve Gabel, both of whom actually run feedlot operations near Wiggins, on Colorado’s Eastern Plains.

The picture they paint is decidedly different than one of no oversight.  In order to run a feedlot, you must have a permit from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) at a cost of about $4000 or $5000 dollars to ensure your compliance with Regulation 81, which dictates how animal feeding operations handle runoff.  You’re welcome to read it yourself, but I can give you a quick summary.  First, you — as the operator of the feedlot — must plan to contain runoff for any precipitation that hits your land up to an amount that could easily be characterized as a flood, a dump of rainwater that would be enough to overwhelm a city’s sanitary sewer system.

When I say contain, I’m not just referring to getting the loader out and digging a perimeter ditch.  These are purpose-built containment ponds which, per CDPHE requirements, are designed by an engineer to meet spec.  They must be designed to have 2 two feet of freeboard and be lined such that seep and/or evaporation is minimal (a maximum of 1/32″ drop in a day).  Operators then must log precipitation events and do routine (weekly or monthly) checks on these retention ponds to ensure that they’re not leaking.  These logs go to CDPHE as yearly reports and CDPHE comes to audit about every three years.

This is a substantial amount of monitoring and time, so it was little surprise to me that both gentlemen I spoke with told me they spend about $14,000 per year to hire a third-party group to ensure their compliance.  In case you’re keeping track between permits and compliance, that’s about $20,000 per year (not including the costly riders some feedlot operators put on their insurance in case of a flood event or accident).

And, again, this is only to comply with runoff regulations.

None of this, not one word, appeared in Mr. Booth’s writing.  Given what we know now, I hope you join me in looking askance at the repeated claims by environmentalists that there is no monitoring going on, that a general permit such as the state has for runoff is somehow inadequate.  Environmentalists have their take on the matter to be sure, but adding in the perspective of those who actually live the life changes the narrative.

Why Mr. Booth chose not to include these voices is beyond me.  This is basic, and relevant, information, and all it took me was a few minutes on the phone.  Interestingly, too, both gentlemen I spoke with invited me to tour their operations. This is not some sort of closed society here.  Regardless of the reason, “journalism” such as this does a real disservice, and not just to those who don’t get to be heard in the news. It unfairly allows one side of an issue to manipulate the public. There are a tremendous number of transplants who live here now, especially in the Front Range, who may have come here without any sort of base knowledge about the industries that play a large role in our economy like agriculture or oil and gas.

If they read efforts like this and assume they’re getting a full picture of the issue, it is not a big leap to imagine how they might join the environmentalists in saying “somebody ought to do something here.”

Moreover, this is simply not what the Sun claims they were offering readers when they identified the piece (in the box at the bottom of their articles) as an “explainer,” which they say “Provides context or background, definition and detail on a specific topic.”

Cory Gaines is a regular contributor to Complete Colorado.  He lives in Sterling on Colorado’s Eastern Plains and also writes at the Colorado Accountability Project substack.


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