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Revealed: How Syngenta Investigated the Press and Shaped the News About its Controversial Weed-Killer Atrazine

A new investigation shows the global chemical company spent millions spinning news coverage and tracking journalists as concern grew over potential health risks of atrazine.
 
 
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Documents obtained by the Center for Media and Democracy, recently unsealed as part of a major lawsuit against Syngenta, reveal how the global chemical company's PR team investigated the press and spent millions to spin news coverage and public perceptions in the face of growing concerns about potential health risks from the widely used weed-killer "atrazine."

This story is part of a new series about this PR campaign to influence the media, potential jurors, potential plaintiffs, farmers, politicians, scientists, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the midst of reviews of the weed-killer's potential to act as an endocrine disruptor, over the past decade or so.

Dealing with Meddlesome Reporters

Two years ago, on March 2, 2010, Huffington Post Investigative Fund (HuffPo) reporter Danielle Ivory contacted Syngenta Corporation Director of Corporate Communications-North America Paul Minehart and asked, as reporters do, a few questions.

Little did she know her questions to Syngenta—which reported sales of over $11 billion that year, almost half of which, $5 billion, was profit—would provoke the creation of a secret dossier on her.

According to emails discovered by St. Louis attorney Stephen Tillery in a class action to get Syngenta to compensate local water utilities for the cost of filtering Syngenta's weed-killer out of drinking water supplies, the Syngenta team did not simply respond to her questions with the usual PR spin. (Syngenta sought to keep this information out of the public eye in that case, "Holiday Shore Sanitary District v. Syngenta Crop Protection et al.," but a trial court in Illinois rejected the company's claims and "unsealed" some emails and materials last year, making them part of the public record.)

Ivory told Minehart she had been informed by a source that a new federal class action would soon be filed against Syngenta Crop Protection Incorporated (“Syngenta CP”), a subsidiary/division of Syngenta AG (“SAG”), a global holding company located in Switzerland.

Over a dozen municipal and county operators of water districts in Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Ohio, and Iowa were planning to sue Syngenta CP—whose U.S. headquarters is in Greensboro, North Carolina—and SAG for the costs associated with removing atrazine from their community’s drinking water.

Daring to Seek Answers

A few days later, on March 8, 2010, several water utilities would claim Syngenta deliberately withheld data indicating human health risks from the public, which the company denies.

The New York Times’ Charles Duhigg had reported in an August 2009 series called "Toxic Waters" on how huge spikes in atrazine concentration in drinking water were hidden from the American people and that scientists are concerned about atrazine’s potential as an endocrine disruptor to affect hormone levels. The Natural Resources Defense Council had issued a major report documenting these issues. And Ivory had written about this online for HuffPo.

According to emails obtained by CMD, in March, Ivory was seeking comment on a number of questions about the coming federal lawsuit.

She wanted to know Syngenta's response to the allegation that the company, although it had the resources to do so, was refusing to aid communities seeking to remove atrazine from their water supplies. What was Syngenta's response to water utilities that could not afford the cost of removing the weed-killer from their customers’ drinking water?

Ivory had previously reported that replacing the sand filtration system used by many water districts with carbon filters to remove atrazine were difficult for cash-strapped utilities to afford, especially after the Wall Street crash. She had noted that the conversion to carbon filtration could cost millions and that the carbon filters needed require annual replacement at a cost, for example, of over $100k for six filters.

 
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