Public relations materials designed to reassure nervous landowners
Posters from Nunn open house available on web for first time
Posted September 10, 2007, Updated November 9, 2007
Two of Weld County's finest hired by Powertech to keep the peace. Nunn, Colorado - July 19, 2007
(In his letter of October 16, 2007, Dick Blubaugh, VP Environmental Health and Safety Resources, threatens to sue me for "defamation of the project". He takes issue with my criticism of the July "open house" put on by Powertech and its public relations firm:
(Blubaugh) "False I Misleading. The July 19, 2007 open house hosted by Powertech was an effort to provide a forum for interested neighbors to obtain information relating to the Centennial Project and ask questions of Powertech representatives. The above statements falsely and misleadingly suggest an ulterior motive. The open house format is a common, informal means of providing interested members of the public with project-related information on a more flexible time schedule for persons who may not be able to attend a traditional public meeting due to work, child care, or other commitments. The above statement regarding "floaters" is false. Powertech representatives made every effort to engage attendees to ensure their questions were being answered. The technical content of the posters presented at the open house were not "dumbed down" to oversimplify the mining processes proposed for use at the Centennial Project. They accurately depict the processes proposed while balancing the degree of detail with the technical knowledge of the audience and the time available for information exchange. Complete technical discussion of the mining processes proposed for the Centennial Project, along with Powertech's investigation and study of potential environmental impacts associated with the project will be made available to the state regulators and the public as required by the applicable permitting and mining regulations."
My comments below have been rewritten to clarify and support my opinion that the Nunn "open house" was a calculated effort by public relations professionals to sell the project to the media and the public. JW)
On July 19, 2007, Powertech Uranium Corp. executives, consultants, and public relations contractors traveled to the small town of Nunn, Colorado to make their case for mining uranium less than three miles from the town. Much of the proposed mining area lies within Nunn's proposed growth management area.
This was the first and so far the only public event held by Powertech since announcing their uranium mining proposal October 3, 2006.
Instead of making a formal presentation to the gathering of concerned farmers, ranchers, landowners, and interested folks from the surrounding area, Powertech and its public relations team chose to hold an "open house". The open house format is often utilized by public agencies and corporations when a proposed project is controversial.
A corporation that proposes a contentious project (such as uranium mining in a populated area) has typically already decided to pursue regulatory approval. Rather than "testing the waters" in a community before making its decision, the company sponsors public meetings for two reasons. Either public meetings are mandated by regulatory agencies, or the company needs to persuade citizens, media, and elected officials that the project should be approved.
Powertech was not legally required to hold the July 19 open house. However, the company was (and still is) facing a severe public relations problem. Virtually no one has expressed public support for the project. Opposition has been fierce and is growing daily.
Hence, the Nunn open house.
Powertech has a "risk communication" problem. No matter what company officials say, people still perceive that there are potential risks from the proposed project. In this position, companies hire public relations agencies to craft campaigns to alter this "risk perception". To be successful, the campaign must also positively affect what are called "source credibility judgements", that is, whether the public believes what company officials say.
From a uranium mining company's perspective, the traditional public meeting has many drawbacks. A company representative must make a formal presentation, and must then answer unpredictable questions from sometimes hostile audience members. The company's presentation as well as questions and answers may be recorded for a formal transcript and dissemination to the media and non-attendees. Opportunities abound for misstatements and embarrasing verbal exchanges.
Public meeting can provide many benefits to members of the public, however. Everyone hears the same presentation and the same questions and answers. There is a formal meeting record to refer to. Attendees do not have to submit comments in writing.
In contrast, the open house format is tailor-made for companies such as Powertech. Members of the public wander among dispersed stations with poster exhibits and handouts. A U.S. Department of Transportation website provides this upbeat description:
"Information is presented buffet-style, and participants shop for information, including graphics, maps, photos, models, videos, or related documents."
But requested information may not be available. While questions are taken by company employees or contractors, many times the answer is "ask that guy at the other table" who, upon questioning, doesn't know the answer either. Public comments must be submitted in writing, and are not seen or heard by others.
The USDOT website elaborates on why the open house format harms public participation:
"An open forum hearing without an audience session precludes debate on a proposalís merits. Parties do not hear opposing views first-hand -- nor do they have an opportunity to clarify stances or raise questions about opposing viewpoints. Some critics charge that agencies use open forum hearings as a "divide-and-conquer" strategy. If differing views are not heard, the public may be surprised to find a controversy exists. When people hear one another, they develop an improved understanding of a proposal and its implications for other people."
At the July 19 event, visitors to the open house were greeted by amiable young women in matching powder blue polo shirts and were offered cookies, lemonade, and free Powertech pens and note pads. While there were lots of goodies, there was no formal presentation on in-situ leach uranium mining and the Centennial/Indian Springs project.
Tables were set up around the perimeter of the gymnasium and were manned by Powertech employees and consultants wearing the same blue shirts. Each table focused on a particular aspect of the project. Public relations team members were assigned to be "floaters".
On the tables were several posters dealing with the project. The posters' technical details were moderated to balance "the degree of detail with the technical knowledge of the audience and the time available for information exchange", according to Mr. Blubaugh's defamation threat letter.
According to Mr. Blubaugh, "the complete technical discussion of the mining processes proposed for the Centennial Project, along with Powertech's investigation and study of potential environmental impacts associated with the project" will not be released until the company is legally required to by applicable regulatory agencies.
Photographs of the posters are included below. Please excuse the substandard photography.
Sent: Saturday, July 21, 2007 11:37 PM
Subject: C.A.R.D. - Meeting With Powertech Leaves Many Angry and Frustrated
Meeting With Powertech Leaves Many Angry and Frustrated
At a meeting in Nunn, Colorado on July 19th, northern Colorado residents got a chance to meet with Powertech staff and voice their concerns about Powertech proposed uranium mine near Nunn. Many of us, while amused at Powertech attempt to turn the session into an informal public relations fest complete with cookies and lemonade, came away angry and frustrated at Powertech's inability to provide accurate and consistent answers to our questions or assurance that their proposed mining operation will not cause irreparable damage to our water and land.
In addition to concerned landowners and citizens this event was attended by various county and state lawmakers. It was also covered by Fort Collins and Greeley newspapers and both the Denver papers:
The (Greeley) Tribune (July 20, 2007): Nunn residents voice their concerns about uranium mining by Rebecca Boyle
The Rocky Mountain News (July 20, 2007): Uranium plan raises concerns By Gargi Chakrabarty
The Denver Post (July 20, 2007): Uranium CEO finds mine plans unwelcome by Monte Whaley
The Fort Collins Coloradoan (July 20, 2007): Residents Grill Mine Company by Kevin Duggan
Here are some excerpts and quotes from citizens attending this meeting as reported in the above newspaper articles:
"This feels like a dog-and-pony show to me," said Larry Williams, who lives near Nunn. "You ask a question and they tell you to talk to someone else. Then you get an answer but you don't get a lot of specifics."
Some information presented by company officials and their consultants was contradictory, said Christy Staab, who operates an equine rescue center off Weld County Road 102. "It's more listening to what they don't say," Staab said. "If they want this community to be open and receptive to them and to their plan, they need to be open and honest and not give empty promises and sidestep the issues and give ambiguous answers."
"They're just saying, 'It's a safe process, and just trust us,'" said Daryl Burkhart, who lives between Nunn and Wellington, close to the site. "I don't trust anybody that wants to get rich."
When Dick Clement, President and CEO of Powertech told Gerrit Voschel"If I were mining toothpaste out there, nobody would care," Voschel countered:"Yes, but toothpaste doesn't kill me. It doesn't give my kids cancer 25 years down the road."
State Rep. Kevin Lundberg, R-Berthoud, said he was skeptical of any plan that gave more rights to the mineral owners or the surface owners. Working out a plan that everyone would accept would not be easy, he said. "We've got to strike a balance that's fair to all," he said.
"This is like taking a jar of marbles and pouring it on the floor," said Alex Rovang, 26, who drove from Fort Collins to attend. "The information is so scattered, there is no central focus."
The main concern, Nunn board member Dan Rapelje said, is whether the proposed uranium mine would contaminate the aquifer that runs through a big swath of northern Colorado into Nebraska. About 27,000 agricultural wells depend on the aquifer for their water supply. Uranium mining could free other radioactive elements, such as thorium and radium, and toxic metals, such as lead and cadmium, which could find their way into the aquifer and make the water too radioactive to use, Rapelje said.
"We don't want them here at all," said Shari Hiibel, who, with her husband, bought 70 acres in Nunn two years ago for a horse stable. "But there is no way we want to live here now," Hiibel said.
"We have repeatedly asked Powertech for one example of a uranium mine that did not pollute," said resident Robin Davis, "and they don't seem to have any examples to give us."
It is also interesting to note some of the comments to the The Tribune article:
by Anonymous on Friday, July 20 @ 06:10:13 PDT
As funny as that may sound to you, I live in Nunn and what is most troubling is the fact that the communities that could be affected by this project are sitting very quiet, if you think the ground water in Greeley would be safe with the Uranium project in Nunn, well good luck with that brilliant assumption, get involved, it is your water too. If you know of another water source lets hear about it!
by Anonymous on Friday, July 20 @ 07:27:26 PDT
Oh my gosh, I moved here from the LA area where one of the biggest aircraft companies contaminated the wells there with hexavalent chromiun and who knows what else. They paid out millions to the citizens after it was found out. Don't let it happen here, many people died and many live with Cancer and other problems. By the way, the aircraft company moved out of California.