Hearts and Mines

Spin doctors tweak the Rosemont numbers

In its quest to lasso public support, a company hoping to mine copper in the Santa Rita Mountains hasn't enjoyed much luck. Augusta Resource Corporation has ruffled nearly everyone's feathers, from angry politicians down to everyday folks.

But recently, the Canadian-based company came up with a nifty new strategy: If it can't garner true public support for an open-pit ditch in the scenic Rosemont Valley, it can just conjure some up. That's exactly what Augusta appears to have done with a recent poll--bought and paid for by the company--showing that a hefty 64.5 percent of area residents have views that "were either very favorable or somewhat favorable" of the Rosemont mine, according to a company press release.

That sounds swell--until you peek under hood. It turns out the polling firm stacked up a list of promises, some pretty far-fetched, and asked people whether they'd support the mine if all those pledges were met.

"The company has been working hard to educate the community about our plan of operations," said the Dec. 5 press release, "and based on feedback, we've learned that people seemed to become more supportive of the project once they knew the details."

Those details, prefacing the polling question, suggest that Augusta will do everything but walk your dog if they get to dig their mine. Promises include revegetating the mine site, preventing toxic pollution and buying enough Central Arizona Project water to guarantee a water surplus. They also pledge to "minimize the effects of wildlife and recreation areas."

Others argue for extreme minimization--such as simply leaving Rosemont Valley be. And they call Augusta's poll a deceptive bit of puffery.

"It's like saying, 'If apple pie and ice cream and french fries and all these things were good for you, would you like to eat them?'" says Gayle Hartmann, president of Save the Scenic Santa Ritas, a group fighting the mine. "That's what this poll is--it's setting up some very unlikely circumstances and saying, 'If those are true, what would you think of the mine?'"

For example, she cites Augusta's promise to mitigate its extensive water use with recharge from the CAP--a notion loaded with enough complications to make your head spin.

Then there's the promise to revegetate the mine site. A drive down Interstate 19 will demonstrate how effective that concept tends to be, says Hartmann. "Look at all the attempts at revegetating the Duval Mine, on side of the mountains. They've been trying for years to revegetate those piles, and nothing has worked."

Nor is there a legal hammer forcing Augusta to fulfill that pledge on private land, she says. "At the moment, there's no requisite to do that under any law. It's never been done in the United States, and it would be very expensive for them to do it on their own--we're talking about a mile-wide pit. So I think there's absolutely no reason to believe they would do it."

Chris Baker is a senior research associate with Marketing Intelligence, the Tucson company Augusta hired to conduct its poll. Baker defends his numbers, saying they simply reflect how people would feel about the mine if Augusta did everything it promised.

He also says the poll germinated from comments gathered at public meetings by Strongpoint LLC, one of the PR firms working for Augusta. "What came out, from their previous research, was that people had concerns about whether Augusta was going to deliver on certain things being promised in its plan of operations. The question was, 'If Augusta does what they say they're going to do, would you support the mine?'"

Baker emphasizes that these notions weren't plucked from thin air. "The (poll) is based on somebody saying beforehand, 'We're not necessarily against the mine itself. It's just that we don't believe Augusta is going to do all these things.'"

Mary Rowley is president of Strongpoint. She says the poll and Augusta's other public-relations efforts are all about educating the public, "mostly to let people know what's being planned. The plan (of operations) was filed in June or July. Until that point, there wasn't a lot of detail to give to anybody. We're saying that people want to know about it, and we're trying to make people understand it."

But according to the poll, such public education may backfire: Hartmann notes that the lowest approval percentages came from people living closest to the proposed mine site. And by sheer proximity, they're the very folks likely to be most informed about the project.

Interestingly, poll respondents also named government agencies as the most credible sources of information about Rosemont. But government officials--from congressional representatives right down to the Pima County Board of Supervisors--vehemently oppose the mine.

Regardless of the findings, such hypothetical polls raise a slew of concerns, says G. Evans Witt, CEO of Princeton Survey Research Associates International in Washington, D.C. Witt has written extensively about polling integrity for publications and for the National Council on Public Polls.

"You can ask people, 'If I did this and this and this, what would you think of me?'" he says. "And the answer is, they'd like you. You just said three nice things to them.

"But does that mean they like you now? No. It means if you do those three things for them, then they'll like you. That's the fundamental problem with a hypothetical question. You're talking about a set of circumstances that doesn't exist."

It's also important to remember that Augusta paid for this poll, he says. "It was done as a part of a particular kind of marketing effort, and has to be judged within that context. They're not doing this for the good of mankind. They're doing this because they believe in their project, and they think this will push their project forward.

"If the poll results showed that a majority of people opposed the mine," he says, "you would have never heard a thing about it."

Meanwhile, mine opponents such as Hartmann are watching the spin doctors at work. Augusta "is clearly trying very hard to convince the public that this mine is a good thing," she says.

How much of that persuasion will include using muddy numbers? Looking at this poll, Hartmann isn't optimistic. "It's very cleverly designed," she says. "But to say that 64 percent of people support the mine is clearly misleading. If you asked a question about what would really happen as a result of this mine, I think the percentage of support would be a lot lower."

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