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A mining company's PR people make another gaffe

Most of us dig the notion of neighborliness—that friendly wave, those dog-walking chats, the sense that you belong, however loosely, to some sort of community.

This concept is not lost on those who tweak facts for a living. Indeed, when it comes to a potential strip mine in the Santa Rita Mountains, public-relations professionals have missed few opportunities to toy with simple truths.

They've packed public meetings with "mine supporters" who actually turned out to be poor schmucks who were promised a free meal, cheap T-shirts and hypothetical jobs.

The PR team behind Canadian-owned Rosemont Copper—which hopes to dig the Santa Rita pit and dump its tailings on the neighboring Coronado National Forest—has prodded economists to paint lipstick on their plan. They've also fashioned an image with a pigtailed little girl gazing toward the sky that's eerily reminiscent of Lyndon Johnson's 1964 "Daisy Girl" campaign ad that concluded with a mushroom cloud—and obliterated Barry Goldwater's presidential bid.

If that weren't enough, Rosemont officials have enjoyed ongoing, cozy confabs with folks from the Coronado itself—a pattern that recently sparked a lawsuit by mine opponents.

All said, this has been a heady performance for a mining company without a mine to its name, but with all the publicity that money can buy. Consider the card that company honchos hand out at public events, touting the potential pit and asking recipients to state their own feelings about it.

"Tell Us What You Think," reads the card. Then folks are offered two choices.

Choice 1. "I support your plan to bring new jobs and an economic engine to Arizona."

Choice 2. "I have comments or questions about your plan."

Curiously, these cards offer no third option, such as, "I think your plan stinks."

That omission irks Rosemont opponents such as Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. She presumes that results from the manipulated survey will eventually be tapped by Rosemont to proclaim its broad public support. "The card really didn't give you any choices," she says, "except that the mine is great, and I want to know more about it."

But Pete Zimmerman, of Zimmerman Public Affairs, one of the agencies working for Rosemont, says the cards simply offer insight into community sentiments. "We're not collecting the names of people who don't support Rosemont. We are trying to make sure the issues are well-understood by everyone."

Perhaps less well-understood are the letters generated by Rosemont that blanketed select parts of Tucson last fall. One such missive, dispatched to midtown's Miramonte and Palo Verde neighborhoods, tapped a little trickery to make its case. This sleight-of-hand was compounded by the bumbling of its authors, who were PR people rather than mere residents, as the letter suggests.

"As your neighbors here in Miramonte and Palo Verde," the letter begins, "we are reaching out to you to share some information about Rosemont Copper.

"After carefully reviewing the proposed project, we have all come to the same conclusion: Rosemont Copper will set high standards for resource protection, water conservation, and reclamation ... ."

The letter ends with the names of nearly a dozen neighbors, along with their signatures. But there's a catch: Though the names are real enough, nearly all of the signatures were faked by Rosemont. While the "signees" had apparently given permission, it's a bit disconcerting to picture Rosemont employees huddled in their offices and tapping out a bogus letter filled with false signatures—and then peddling it as a friendly note from the neighbors.

Among the letter's recipients was Brian Beck, whose wife happens to be a board member of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas. Even if he didn't have a stake in this fight, Beck says he'd find the letter appalling. "It wasn't a spontaneously generated, grassroots thing. (Rosemont) went out and found some people, and then did the work on it.

"I think that's kind of representative of both sides in this issue," Beck says. "A lot of opposition (to the mine) is coming up from the grassroots. And a lot of the support is coming top-down, from Rosemont."

Hartmann calls the letter misleading, "because it speaks so glowingly of the mine and the 2,900 jobs it will bring. The real number of jobs it will bring is 400. I think they just keep exaggerating the good effects for Tucson, and forgetting about the negative impacts."

Among a half-dozen Miramonte and Palo Verde letter "signers" contacted by the Weekly, all pledged support for the mine. But as it happens, at least two of them lived far beyond the boundaries of either neighborhood.

For instance, Frank Barreca's home is on Tucson's eastside, near Kolb Road. He says the mailing he originally approved didn't even include specific neighborhoods. "The letter that had our names on it was unfortunately missing a paragraph that some of the other letters had. ... I was under the impression that it would be just to the people in my area."

So why all the flubs? To find out, we called Rosemont's Tucson office, and we finally reached CEO Rod Pace, who immediately fell on his own sword. "We were working with some PR companies," he says. "But ultimately, I reviewed the letter. It's my responsibility, and when it goes out wrong, I'm the one to blame."

Meanwhile, on Feb. 7, Save the Scenic Santa Ritas—in conjunction with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Sahuarita pecan company FICO—filed a lawsuit against the forest. They contend that the Coronado violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which mandates that all committees created by a federal agency must be open to the public.

It seems that the forest has been holding ongoing, closed-door meetings as it cobbles together an environmental impact statement for the mine. While mine opponents haven't been invited to attend, those doors have been opened for Rosemont officials.

The forest contends that Rosemont staffers were invited solely to provide technical information. But when contacted by the Tucson Weekly, Coronado spokeswoman Heidi Schewel declined further comment, citing the ongoing litigation. However, she did say that those meetings with Rosemont staffers would continue.

To Hartmann, the issue is quite simple. "It's really all about fairness," she says. "A public agency should be treating a complicated project like this fairly. And if they're going to allow mine proponents to sit in the room during most of the meetings, then they need to have people of other perspectives there as well."

More by Tim Vanderpool

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