All For This?If you were to enter the word "Suterra" into your Google search bar, you'd get a long list of results, the third of which would read: Suterra Buys Bend Oregon - New Bio Weapon Factory... from a California based website. That's news to those of us living here in Bend who know Suterra as a small spinoff of one of Bend's longest running and most respected high tech companies, Bend Research.
The company, which employs less than 100 people, specializes in producing non-toxic chemicals that serve as an alternative to traditional pesticides by confusing breeding insects. But to hear Internet posters tell it, Suterra is a bio-weapons manufacturer on par with a pre-Gulf War Saddam Hussein whose operations are secretly funded by the Bush administration. This information is found on page after page of Internet material and the prolificacy of blogging on Suterra has increased in recent weeks after it became public that the company was working with the city of Bend on a deal that would sell the company a plot of land in the Juniper Ridge development.
It goes without saying that blogs have reinvented the way information is consumed by the public. But blogging has also allowed for a rampant spread of misinformation and it seems Suterra has been made into an Internet boogeyman of sorts. Suterra has been the target of a wide array of groups in Northern California where the company's pheromone-based pest control products were sprayed on entire communities. Now, with the company moving to Juniper Ridge, it seems that Bend's vocal group of bloggers have jumped on the Suterra blog bandwagon, in some cases teaming up with the California bloggers, creating a sort of perfect storm of unfiltered misinformation.
One blog post says that Suterra is funded by the Bush administration. Several state that the company bought 1,500 acres of Juniper Ridge - it bought eight acres. Another posts says Suterra, which is relocating to Juniper Ridge from its current Westside Bend location, will increase in size by 1,000 percent, which company and city officials say they don't expect.
To understand the blog posts raging against Suterra, one first needs to look at the controversy surrounding the spraying of pesticides in Northern California communities. Last year, the US Department of Agriculture sprayed a synthetic pheromone produced by Suterra over large swaths of several northern counties in an attempt to control an outbreak of the non-native light brown apple moth (LBAM), which was threatening that state's multi-billion dollar agricultural industry. The spraying took place in a widespread region that included residential areas, causing community uproar.
Critics claimed that the spraying caused respiratory problems, sending people to the emergency room, and poisoned pets and wildlife. While the USDA has ceased the aerial spraying program, a subsequent investigation by the state of California has confirmed that the product is unlikely to have caused an outbreak of illness because of its low toxicity.
Critics of the Northern California spraying were quick to lay some of the blame on Suterra, said president Steve Hartmeier - even though the company did not have anything to do with how or where it was sprayed.
"We didn't determine how it was to be applied or when it was going to be applied. That was all done by the government," Hartmeier says.
He stands by the safety of his company's product regardless of the application method.
Here's where basic science meets science "fiction." Suterra, creates "microcapsules," which not unlike technology used in prescription drugs, slowly release the pheromone to prevent the moths from mating. Hartmeier uses the analogy of a department store to explain the pheromone technology and how it prevents moths from locating each other, thus inhibiting the mating process.
"If you go into a Macys store blindfolded, you could probably make it to the perfume counter just with your sense of smell. But if you're blindfolded and someone sprays perfume all around the store, you wouldn't find the perfume counter," Hartmeier explains.
The state of California's announcement about its toxicity investigation sparked additional blogging about Suterra - which was already a hot topic on Bend-based blogs because of the controversy surrounding Juniper Ridge. Hartmeier has read many of the blog posts from activists in Northern California as well as here in Bend. Surprisingly, Hartmeier isn't all that fired up about some of the misinformation that exists on the blogs.
"The beauty of this country is that you can say anything you want and not be persecuted and can even put things on the blogs anonymously," Hartmeier says. "That's the right they have. There's nothing you can do in a blog to counteract that unless responsible people call up and we can address it."
At least one media expert says there actually are some things Suterra can do.
Dr. Tiffany Gallicano is an assistant professor of public relations at the University of Oregon and teaches courses that investigate the world of blogging. She says that it's worthwhile for a company or organization that is the victim of the dissemination of misinformation to become visible on a blog's comments feature.
"If someone says something about your organization, you need to comment back and correct this misinformation. When bloggers are posting misinformation and no one says otherwise, then it suggests that it's true. They need to enter into these conversations and respond in a reasonable manner," says Gallicano.
Suterra has developed a 1-800 number for the public to call if anyone is interested in discussing the company's products or the application thereof, which Gallicano says is a valuable asset, but in scanning even the most critical blogs, there doesn't appear to be any Suterra representatives speaking on behalf of the company in the comment sections. There are some posters calling into question the reality of some of the facts stated in the post, but no official word from the company.
"People who stumble upon these kind of blogs are going to be able to assess the credibility of the information," Gallicano says.
She's probably right, for the most part, but on the aforementioned "Suterra Buys Bend Oregon - New Bio Weapon Factory" post, which goes into depth about how the Juniper Ridge deal is tied to the Bush administration and mentions that Bend is 99 percent Republican, there are some comments suggesting that some readers bought the story as fact. Others, however, seem to be raising the BS flag.
One poster going by the name "Spike" wrote: "Juniper Ridge is not an area 51, it's a housing and commercial development...you sir should do your research."
Then there are others on this comment thread who seem to further spin the notion that Suterra is some sort of bio-weapons boogeyman. A commenter by the name "Rural Bend residents at risk also" wrote:
"We should expect to see some sort of backlash if this facility continues on the path of developing their genetically engineered viruses in Bend. Vigilante actions may be needed before this facility is completed construction to prevent another tragedy like Three Mile Island or another escaped GMO virus from escaping bio weapons facilities."
This blog post appeared on a site called Santa Cruz Indymedia (indybay.org) which is a clearinghouse of sorts for news stories and other information generated outside of the established media arena. The site is described on the page with the following statement: "Unlike a newspaper or other form of media, content uploaded to the website...is published directly to the newswire without being approved or edited...This system empowers anyone to become the media for the purpose of sharing information and views that are blocked out or misrepresented by the corporate media; that is, to stand with the oppressed against the oppressors."
In other words, indybay.org, is not producing news , but rather is merely a medium for others to place information.
Then, there are some claims on the Internet about Suterra that might seem on the fishy side, but ultimately prove true. On indybay.org, there is a post stating that the site received a cease and desist letter from Suterra's attorney after posting the names of "secret ingredients" in Suterra's products. This is actually true -the Santa Cruz Sentinel was also asked to remove the name of the ingredients from its website.
While there are certainly some wild accusations regarding Suterra and Juniper Ridge out on the blogs, there are some locals whose blogs accurately document what is going on. The site juniper-ridge-info.blogspot.com is quite critical of Suterra as well as many of the city's decisions regarding Juniper Ridge, but this site is somewhat unique in that the poster not only uses his actual name (Bruce Ewert), but provides documentation from city council meetings and other sources to back up his writing.
City Councilor Jim Clinton has long supported low-impact, green friendly businesses grabbing spots in Juniper Ridge - and he says Suterra falls into this category.
"They are the type of research-based company that is doing something different and appears to have a bright future. A lot of their features fit my vision for Juniper Ridge," says Clinton.
Clinton, who himself is a scientist, said he hasn't done much research about Suterra's products and actually says he has in the past been skeptical of widespread aerial pesticide spraying. He is, however, aware of the misinformation being spread on the Internet. He sees this as an extension of what he calls "mud slinging" being directed toward Juniper Ridge.
"There's a lot of mud slinging going on right now and if it turns out that a lot of this mud is crap then, well, I hope the crap doesn't stick," says Clinton.