Food Lobby Colossus Sues Vermont over GMO ‘Right to Know’

Powerful lobbyist groups claim ‘free speech’ as they file suit against law that says consumers should know what’s in their food

— by Jon Queally, staff writer
Photo by John Herrick/VTDigger

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin last month signed Vermont’s first-in-the-nation GMO labeling bill into law on the Statehouse steps in Montpelier.  Joining him was Brigid Armbrust, 11, of West Hartford (in black), who launched a letter-writing campaign in support of GMO labeling. 

Vermont’s Attorney General William Sorrellon has said his office is ready for a “heck of a fight” after some of the most powerful members of the nation’s food industry filed suit on Thursday challenging the state’s new law that requires the labeling of packaged food containing genetically modified (GMO) ingredients.

“Every U.S. citizen should be concerned when a multi-billion dollar corporate lobbying group sues in federal court to overturn a state’s right to govern for the health and safety of its citizens.” —Ronnie Cummins, OCA

Though not unexpected, the official filing of the federal lawsuit (pdf) against Vermont—brought by Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), the Snack Food Association, the International Dairy Foods Association and the National Association of Manufacturers—marks the beginning of a legal battle that could have far-reaching implications in the national fight over GMO food.

Vermont’s new GMO labeling mandate, passed by the state legislature in April and signed into law by Gov. Peter Shumlin in May, is the first of its kind in the nation and requires labeling of most products containing genetically-altered ingredients by 2016.

“The people of Vermont have said loud and clear they have a right to know what is in their food,” said Falko Schilling, a consumer protection advocate with the Vermont Public Interest Research Group.

Despite the public’s widespread support for the law, the food industry lobbyists are challenging the labeling requirement on free speech grounds.

“Act 120 imposes burdensome new speech requirements — and restrictions — that will affect, by Vermont’s count, eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store,” said the GMA in a statement on Thursday.

But Ronnie Cummins, executive director of the Organic Consumers Association, defended the Vermont law and said the industry lawsuit was simply an example of large corporate interests trying to intimidate other states who are now considering labeling laws of their own.

As Cummins told the Burlington Free Press: “Every U.S. citizen should be concerned when a multi-billion dollar corporate lobbying group sues in federal court to overturn a state’s right to govern for the health and safety of its citizens.”

Just last week, a national poll conducted by Consumer Reports showed an overwhelming majority of U.S. consumers (more than 90 percent) think that before GMO food is sold it should be labeled accordingly. Numerous other polls in recent years have shown similar levels of support and the “right to know” movement that supports labeling has focused on state-level laws as a way to forge progress outside of Washington, DC. where the food industry holds considerable power and influence.

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A Letter to Governor Sandoval

— originally drafted by Christian Gerlach and edited by Vickie Rock

Dear Governor Brian Sandoval,

Can you please explain why the Nevada Division of Water Resources has denied new water wells to farmers and ranchers due to drought in northern Nevada, yet that same Division has approved permits for oil companies like Noble Energy, a corporation that plans to use millions of gallons of our ground water to hydraulically fracture in a known seismic zone?

Farmers and ranchers actually return something of value to humanity.  Frackers, on the other hand, infuse our limited water resources with hundreds of nasty chemicals, including known carcinogens like benzene and glycol-ethers (precursors to plastics).  In that process, the water consumed by frackers is rendered unusable, except for more fracking.

Governor, you are allowing state agencies, that are supposed to protect our citizenry and natural resources, to disregard measures that ensure the public’s safety. SB390, as passed, makes it such that companies like Noble Energy can literally frack Nevadans, without any fear of recourse for any misdeeds or damage the create environmentally or ecologically.

The Desert Research Institute (DRI) is being paid by Noble Energy to do studies on the areas that are going to be fracked.  And, according to the Nevada Division of Minerals, the results of DRI’s study can be kept confidential at the request of Noble Energy for potentially, an undisclosed amount of time. Studies are NOT being done independently of Noble Energy, and the Nevada Division of Environmental Protection won’t be required until 2015 to come out with its own study of fracking’s impact.  How is this not a conflict of interest? Something that puts people’s livelihoods on the line? The people of rural Nevada don’t have the luxury of LakeTahoe or LakeMead. Northern Nevadans have water wells that could easily be poisoned through fracking processes.

On March 13th 2013,  KNPR’s State of Nevada had Rayola Dougher, a senior economic adviser for the American Petroleum Institute, as a guest. She misled KNPR’s listeners as to the safety of fracking.  Ms. Dougher failed to mention that the process is exempt from seven major federal regulations:

Really?  Please explain how SB390 which you signed into law will protect our municipal water supplies.  I’d love to hear or read that explanation.

Another fact, which was taken offline by Nevada Public Radio (@KNPR), is that a man by the name of David Focardi commented about the interview.  Mr. Focardi commented that he had worked on oil rigs in Nevada and that there was fresh water up to 14,000 feet deep. I reached out to Mr. Focardi, but he has yet to answer any of my correspondence.

According to Mr. Lowell Price of the Nevada Division of Minerals, fracking would take place in the 7000 to 9000 foot depth range.  And while our ground water aquifers may be at depths of say 14,000 feet, our “ground” is riddled with fault lines. Those fault lines mean that there may not be an impervious layer of rock between where hydraulic fracturing is proposed to take place and the actual aquifer feeding our communities with drinking water.  Those fault lines may also provide connections between subterraneous channels and the different aquifers of water supporting our communities.  Once that water is contaminated, what happens to our communities.  The only good that may come from fracking, if you really can call that “good” — is that I guess that would mean you won’t be grabbing any of that water from contaminated northern Nevada aquifers for use in Las Vegas and its suburbs.  But then, that’s a whole different letter for another day.

Fracking processes require thousands of gallons of water-laden frack fluid PER MINUTE pumped under high pressures into deep horizontally drilled oil/gas wells.  Frack fluid could be released through a fault line or a fracture created by fracking into municipal ground water. When I spoke to someone at the Desert Research Institute they said that a geological study is being done and any “study” would remain the proprietary information of Noble Energy.  So, even if Noble Energy or the Desert Research Institute found fault lines they won’t be required to tell anyone about it.  Reliance on secret and proprietary studies conducted by organizations that would have significant incentive to conceal any information that might have an adverse effect on approval, is tantamount to malfeasance in governance on your part.

I realize that if Noble Energy had to release information as to where the oil is, that could allow other oil companies to come in and undercut Noble Energy.  But there needs to be a work-around to ensure our water resources are not placed at risk.  The risk to human health and life should matter more than any sum of profit for a single corporation.

So I ask you Governor why frack with us or allow others to do so? There is already oil drilling in Nevada done without Fracking. Why must we frack? I say bring oil jobs to Nevada if you must, but don’t frack!  Now the reason I post this is because of what you promote, Governor Sandoval.  You keep saying it’s about jobs and that Hydraulic Fracturing would bring jobs to Nevada. The truth is, these jobs won’t be widespread nor will they sustainable lest there are thousands of oil/frack wells, like there are in Texas or North Dakota.  But, Mr. Governor, we do NOT have the water resources to make that happen.  And what water we do have, won’t be usable for human consumption once Frackers are done with it.  So. Mr. Governor, when all is said and done, what jobs you create would be for naught, as without drinkable water, Nevadans will no longer be able to live anywhere near the wastelands created by the Frackers.