Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Twice-weekly editor who won Pulitzer for editorial writing also did a lot of reporting on the issue

Art Cullen
Art Cullen, co-owner of The Storm Lake Times, a 3,000-circulation, twice-weekly newspaper in Storm Lake, Iowa, on Monday was awarded the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for a series of columns he wrote about agriculture and freedom of information from March to November. But as the Pulitzer board noted, Cullen also did a lot of reporting.

Cullen partly wrote about the battle between Des Moines Water Works and the rural northwest Iowa counties of Sac, Calhoun and Buena Vista to pay for cleaning up nitrate runoff from farms to the Raccoon River, part of the watershed that provides drinking water for 500,000 central Iowa residents served by the utility. Storm Lake is in Buena Vista County.

The Times also dug into who was paying the counties' legal bills to defend the lawsuit. "The counties refused to say, other than that they would ask their friends to contribute. Somehow Des Moines lawyer Doug Gross got involved, and set up the agricultural legal defense fund for the Agribusiness Association of Iowa," Cullen wrote. The newspaper discovered that the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation was a secret donor for the counties' legal bills, and that discovery helped lead to the AAI bailing out.

Cullen told the Poynter Institute's James Warren, "It's all about transparency in the funding of the environmental lawsuit [defense]. We took on the state's biggest agricultural players and said their donations should be made public. The biggest players: the Koch brothers, Cargill, Monsanto were all conspiring to fund the defense of the county. We found out they [elected officials] had met with Monsanto executives and Koch executives."

Cullen wrote in March 2016, "Anyone with eyes and a nose knows in his gut that Iowa has the dirtiest surface water in America. It is choking the waterworks and the Gulf of Mexico. It is causing oxygen deprivation in Northwest Iowa glacial lakes. It has caused us to spend millions upon millions trying to clean up Storm Lake, the victim of more than a century of explosive soil erosion."

"Everyone knows it’s not the city sewer plant causing the problem. And most of us recognize that this is not just nature at work busily releasing nitrates into the water," he writes. "Ninety-two percent of surface water pollution comes from row crop production—an incontroverted fact from the court case."

"What’s more, the public probably suspects that it should not cost billions of dollars to fix the problem," he writes. "It doesn’t. The solution demands that we quit farming into the ditch and over the fenceline. If we left 10 percent of Iowa’s marginal land fallow the nitrate problem would disappear. Iowa State University research proves it."

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