WEB - OPINION - Cooper's column
"He used statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts; for support rather than illumination."
American Folk Singer
"Statistics are no substitute for judgment."
It has not been a good couple of weeks for Crook County in the statistics department.
Over Christmas, Bend media outlets were all over a report, which seemed to confirm the Bend stereotype of Crook County as an environmentally insensitive, culturally boorish and backwater part of the world.
The report at issue was a press release issued by the Oregon Dept. of Environmental Quality which asserted that Crook County residents' 2003 recycling rate fell by 50 percent.
This statistic is true, after a fashion. But it provides a valuable object lesson about the danger of checking one's judgment at the door when applying statistical data.
In fact, Crook County's residents' recycling rate did drop in 2003. It is also fact that year over year, Crook County increased the volume of material recycled at its landfill in 2003. How does one rectify these seemingly contradictory statements? More statistics.
In total, collection of recyclable by Crook County residents as reported at the landfill increased in almost every category between 2002 and 2003. Residents recycled an additional 10 tons of newspapers, 16 tons of cardboard, four tons of glass and 678 cubic yards of wood waste. An additional two tons of tires were taken to the landfill along with an additional 45 tons of scrap metal. Those are impressive achievements by any scale, and the citizens of Crook County, Crook County Landfill Manager Alan Keller and the hardworking crews of Prineville Disposal and Crook County Disposal who separate all that material deserve credit for their efforts.
What they don't deserve is the public spanking they got from a Bend Bulletin reporter who spoke to no one from Crook County before opining, "In Crook County, recycling dropped almost in half." Had she inquired, the reporter would have discovered the real facts:
Over 1,800 tons of tire rubber recycled in Crook County, previously counted against the countywide total, was redirected to other counties. The change has to do with how the "buffings" from the Les Schwab retread plant are accounted for. In years past, all those buffings, which were taken off used tires in Crook County, were allocated to Crook County. But DEQ changed the formula in 2003, and now Crook County gets credit only for the buffings from tires which originated in Crook County. Likewise, where DEQ once counted all scrap rims from used tires taken in by Les Schwab and disposed of in Crook County against the countywide total, now when a used rim comes in to Les Schwab on a used tire and is sold for scrap metal, DEQ gives credit for its disposal to the county where it came from.
Considering that Crook County's total recycling in 2003 was 6000 tons, removing 1800 makes a big difference.
Adding to the problem was a change in the way glass was reported. A single Deschutes-County based distributor collects all the recycled glass in Central Oregon. Traditionally, that distributor has reported the total glass collected on a county by county basis. For some reason, however, the distributor failed to break out county level collections in the 2003 report to DEQ. As a result, all of Crook County's glass was counted toward the Deschutes County total. That was very good for Deschutes County's recycling totals, not so good for Crook County's.
Crook County became aware of something funny in the numbers just before Christmas. We immediately informed DEQ that the data the agency was preparing to release misrepresented the true picture. Crook County asked for a delay in the release of the date until such time as the data could be adjusted for accounting changes. Unfortunately, DEQ officials were on a mission to rush their report to press and weren't willing to wait. The result was the agency's unfortunate report and a rash of Christmas headlines, bashing Crook County.
Only after the crush of bad media passed did DEQ agree to the requested meeting with Crook County officials. After a round of apologies, explanations about the impact of staff changes, a defensive assertion that "small injustices" like these didn't change the statewide total, the DEQ agreed to recheck its figures, rewrite and reissue its press release and try and do some belated damage control. To date, the numbers aren't out, and whether Bend media will be interested in the "rest of the story" remains to be seen.
I couldn't help but think of all this somewhat ruefully last week while I watched the Governor, the Senate President and House Speaker open the legislative session with forceful assertions about the importance of restoring the credibility of government with its citizens. I would have liked to have reminded each of them that credibility ultimately begins with honesty.
If state government wants to rebuild its credibility that might be a good place to start.
Scott Cooper serves as the Crook County Judge. His columns are on the web at http://crookcounty.blogspot.com