Hold On a Minute!

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 on Los Angeles station 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 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 to that has been: Well, the Republicans and corporations 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 EIAs, the report took time to assemble after its 30-plus 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. (I refer to the 2000 report, not the useless and misleading 1995 Environmental Impact Assessment that environmentalists rightly forced the government to toss out -- but still obsess over as if it were written yesterday.) "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.

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Jill Stewart
Contact: Jill Stewart