Mountain States

Rolling Stone Leverages Anti-Vax Activist to Blame Infant Deaths on Drilling in Utah

Rolling Stone magazine is out with a new article, offering a rehashed take on the heart-wrenching story of an uptick of infant mortality rates in the small northeastern Utah community of Vernal. Under the sensationalist headline “What’s Killing the Babies of Vernal, Utah?”, the article mimics previous shoddy reporting that was seized on by anti-energy activists, who rushed to lay blame on the area’s burgeoning oil and gas industry.

But as EID reported last year, the primary source behind the efforts to politicize these infant deaths is a paranoid political activist named Dr. Brian Moench, who believes the oil and gas industry is run by “psychopaths” who are guilty of “treason” and pose a bigger threat to the United States than “Al Qaeda, Russia, China or Iran.” He believes “zombie-like” corporations have become a “gang of Frankenstein monsters” who are “dragging us into the abyss of an apocalyptic, uninhabitable world.” The same activist even suggests mammograms may cause breast cancer and defends the discredited theory that vaccinations have caused autism.

Now, Moench appears as a key player in Rolling Stone’s story, arguing that babies “are being born now pre-polluted.” And despite being recently chastised by the Columbia Journalism Review for its lapses in reporting judgment, Rolling Stone has elevated the voice of this fringe activist over public health experts, granting him a platform to drive a political agenda while concealing his extreme ideology from readers.

Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

The story centers around a concerned Vernal-area midwife who reached out to a “local advocacy group” and was put in touch with Salt Lake City anesthesiologist, Dr. Brian Moench. From the Rolling Stone article:

“Frantic now, Young called a local advocacy group, who connected her with Dr. Brian Moench. Moench, an anesthesiologist in Salt Lake City who co-founded Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, is a cross between Bill Nye and Bill McKibben, a science-geek activist and erudite spokesman for a growing clean air coalition.”

Moench, whose role in the Rolling Stone story ranges from tour guide to health expert, is presented as a medical professional and co-founder of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment (UPHE). What the author glosses over is that UPHE is an activist group that actively opposes energy and mining projects, including the Keystone XL pipeline.

In fact, Moench’s work on environmental issues appears driven by his extreme ideology. He has made his views clear, having published dozens of op-eds on the left-wing website Truth-Out.org, including a May 2014 column about his work in Vernal. In that column, “Dead Babies and Utah’s Carbon Bomb,” he spells out his opposition to the oil and gas industry:

“With jobs, increased tax base, new community recreation centers, burgeoning store fronts on Main Street, people with money to spend – what’s not to like? Well, dead babies perhaps…

This drama is also a larger metaphor with global implications. Eastern Utah could be considered ground zero for the battle to keep the world’s fossil fuels in the ground…

[I]t means dramatically more drought, shrinking snow pack and water resources, more wildfires and dead forests, unsustainable agriculture, and apocalyptic dust storms – a complete collapse of the human carrying capacity of the Western United States. And it means more dead babies, a lot more.”

EID has highlighted Moench’s fringe views before. In fact, a search of his background reveals a history of extreme positions grounded in a political ideology. With that information so easily available, it is troubling that readers of the Rolling Stone article are not presented with the background knowledge they need to differentiate whether he is speaking as a medical professional or an anti-energy activist.

Health Experts Tell a Different Story

The story in Vernal began when a reported spike in infant mortality emerged in the Tri County Health District (TCHD), which covers Daggett, Duchesne, and Uintah counties. In response, the TCHD requested a review by the Utah Department of Health (UDOH). With the UDOH review complete, the state’s top epidemiologist responsible for the review and a Vernal-based pediatrician have gone on the record with their results.

Addressing a recent TCHD board meeting, Sam LeFevre, Environmental Epidemiology Program Manager with the Utah Department of Health, dismissed activists’ claims that environmental issues arising from oil and gas development were connected to the problem. According to the Vernal Express:

“The bottom line from the state is, you don’t have a problem,” LeFevre said. “We were charged to answer two questions. Number one, is the observation reported to us true? We are going to say, yes, it is true, there was more than should be expected. Is it a problem? We don’t think so.”

Also disputing the claim that oil and gas development contributed to the problem was Vernal-area pediatrician, Dr. Daniel Kwak. From the same article:

“If you notice, the highest percentage of stillbirth is involving placenta and cord,” Dr. Daniel Kwak said at the meeting. “One of the concerns was, could our increased rate of stillbirths be due to environmental factors; pollution, toxicity. If that were really the case, then you would expect to see those other areas, maternal health conditions like asthma, those would be the areas you would expect to see more percentage.”

Conclusion

While others have already thoroughly debunked many of the more shocking assertions in the piece, it bears repeating that elevating the claims of activists like Moench over those of objective scientists and researchers who are studying the problem is a disservice to readers. In fact, when the author spoke to researchers at the Utah State University campus – the folks who have been actively researching the issue – the article breezes through their findings as such:

“They concede that the region has an ozone problem, particularly near the gas fields in the low-elevation areas south of town, and agree that there have been established health risks associated with this contamination, such as low birth weights and an increase in asthma symptoms. However, they question its impact on stillbirths in Vernal, noting that in 2010 and 2011 there were many high ozone days, without a significant jump in dead infants. “Ozone here is a long-term problem, and a lot of work has to be done,” says Lyman. “But a lot of smart people here are working on solutions.”

And that is the key takeaway. Despite there being “a lot of smart people here,” “working on solutions,” along with a bevy of ongoing research into the issue, Rolling Stone dedicated the bulk of the article to Moench and other activists who opportunistically malign the oil and gas industry.

With its longform reporting already under fire, it appears Rolling Stone may now have even more egg on its face.

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