FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The uranium mining company Energy Fuels Resources took me to one of its working mines north of Grand Canyon National Park for a recent story. Donn Pillmore, who oversees all the mines on the Arizona strip, and Pamela Hill, a lobbyist for the mining industry, spent the whole day with me. Pillmore was pretty guarded but grew warmer as the day wore on. Hill seemed friendly.
Before we reached the Arizona 1 mine, they took me to see a reclaimed mine site. We hopped out of the truck to take a closer look. Pillmore explained all they had done to remove any trace of the mine. They filled in the hole they had drilled, hauled away their equipment and reseeded the area so the vegetation matched, and conducted radiation surveys. All that remained was the dirt road. I don’t know what had been disrupted beneath the surface where the company had blasted the ore out of the breccia pipes, but from where I stood I really couldn’t tell a mine had been there.
When we got back in the truck I realized I hadn’t taken a picture, so I asked Pillmore to stop. I jumped out and walked to the back bumper to snap a photo. When I climbed back in the truck to continue the interview, I noticed I had left my recorder running on the front seat.
It wasn't until I got back into my own car and drove home at the end of the day that I listened to it.
"She seems pretty easy" Hill had whispered to Pillmore in my absence. He said he had previously done a radio story, and Hill asked him, "did you get screwed?" Pillmore said the reporter had taken some things out of context, and Hill replied as if that was to be expected.
Ugh. Pretty easy? This irked me. I wish people would just be frank with me about their concerns and how they may be represented in my story.
I know uranium gets a bum rap because of the legacy it left on the Navajo Nation years ago. The federal government and industry abandoned mine sites and many people who were exposed got sick and died. I also know that technology, regulations and ethics have improved.
So please know this reporter is going to do her best to be fair and accurate. Also know I am limited to four minutes to tell this complex story. Most people don’t have the patience or attention span to listen to anything longer.
And just what sort of spin is the industry pushing, anyway? When we got back to the office, I asked Hill if she could quantify how much uranium was estimated in northern Arizona. Is it quantifiable in terms of energy? She sent me a chart from the Nuclear Energy Institute. Their job is to promote the mining industry and nuclear energy policy. In my first version of the story I used one of the statistics, attributing it to the institute: Northern Arizona has enough uranium to power the city of Phoenix for 300 years.
I should have double-checked it first. Immediately after I posted the story online I learned that statistic hadn’t been substantiated. The U.S. Geological Survey refuted it. We made the correction to the story.
Correcting our mistakes in the sunshine goes a long way toward earning the trust of our listeners. And they trust us to learn which industry sources we can trust.
As journalists we’re aware the spin game is going on. So knowing a lobbyist is feeding me a line or embellished statistics, part of my job is learning how to filter out the truth.
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