Wyoming’s War on Microbiology

Well, they’re not calling it that, but this Wyoming law is definitely not going to make our water cleaner, or stop the spread of antibiotic resistance genes (boldface mine):

the new law makes it a crime to gather data about the condition of the environment across most of the state if you plan to share that data with the state or federal government. The reason? The state wants to conceal the fact that many of its streams are contaminated by E. coli bacteria, strains of which can cause serious health problems, even death. A small organization called Western Watersheds Project (which I represent pro bono in an unrelated lawsuit) has found the bacteria in a number of streams crossing federal land in concentrations that violate water quality standards under the federal Clean Water Act. Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem, Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist. And under the new law, the state threatens anyone who would challenge that belief by producing information to the contrary with a term in jail.

Why the desire for ignorance rather than informed discussion? The reason is pure politics. The source of E. coli is clear. It comes from cows spending too much time in and next to streams. Acknowledging that fact could result in rules requiring ranchers who graze their cows on public lands to better manage their herds. The ranching community in Wyoming wields considerable political power and has no interest in such obligations, so the state is trying to stop the flow of information rather than forthrightly address the problem

The Wyoming law transforms a good Samaritan who volunteers her time to monitor our shared environment into a criminal. Idaho and Utah, as well as other states, have also enacted laws designed to conceal information that could damage their agricultural industries—laws currently being challenged in federal court. But Wyoming is the first state to enact a law so expansive that it criminalizes taking a picture on public land.

The new law is of breathtaking scope. It makes it a crime to “collect resource data” from any “open land,” meaning any land outside of a city or town, whether it’s federal, state, or privately owned. The statute defines the word collect as any method to “preserve information in any form,” including taking a “photograph” so long as the person gathering that information intends to submit it to a federal or state agency. In other words, if you discover an environmental disaster in Wyoming, even one that poses an imminent threat to public health, you’re obliged, according to this law, to keep it to yourself.

While this law will probably be ruled unconstitutional, its intent is horrendous:

The state government is sending a simple message to groups: If you want to point the finger at us for the degradation of public lands, you have to get our permission first.

This law isn’t about trespassing; it’s about transparency, and the government of Wyoming’s preference to avoid lawsuits from would-be environmental activists over how it treats public lands. “Rather than engaging in an honest public debate about the cause or extent of the problem,” Pidot argues, “Wyoming prefers to pretend the problem doesn’t exist.” Under the new law, the state threatens any upstanding citizen who could present evidence of environmental malfeasance with jail time.

For me personally, the timing is ironic, as I’ve spent the last week involved in various agriculture-related microbiology meetings, and the constant refrain was “we need more data on what people are doing” (e.g., how are they using antibiotics?). In the areas of food and water safety, we desperately need more data. As I read it, this law would criminalize any microbiologist who collected E. coli from a water sample and then submitted its sequence data, of any kind, to NCBI’s (NIH’s) Genbank.

It also reinforces my skepticism about the supposedly honorable intentions of some of the players in agriculture–and their political sponsors (or should it be sponsored politicians…).

This entry was posted in Conservatives, E. coli, Public Health, The War on Science. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Wyoming’s War on Microbiology

  1. Ande says:

    it’s all about Money…but you knew that mike.

  2. Crprod says:

    Unfortunately, this reminds me of North Carolina’s attempt to prevent physicians from talking to patients about firearms, which in many states now rival vehicular accidents as a cause of death.

  3. realthog says:

    And this is supposed to be the land of the free? This Wyoming law is positively Stalinist. Who are these creeps?

  4. Pingback: Friday links: statistics vs. TED talk, #scimom, Jeremy vs. Nate Silver, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. The law is bad; but the complaints about it are exaggerated. First, for any public lands that are not closed or otherwise restricted, one already has “or other legal authorization to enter or access the land…” If it is private land, the landowner has a right to deny access anyhow.

    Where this law oversteps is that if you get access to the land (e.g. as a visitor or employee) under conditions that forbid collecting “data” or “photographs” and you do so and become a “whistle blower”, you can go to jail for a year and neither you nor the state nor anyone else can use the data for any sort of legal action.

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