MAC: Mines and Communities

"Objective" Rio Tinto Study Raises Eyebrows

Published by MAC on 2010-11-16
Source: Headwater News (2010-11-05)

"Objective" Rio Tinto Study Raises Eyebrows

By Gabriel Caplett

Headwater News

5 November 2010

Rio Tinto, accused of using bad science by detractors of its Eagle Mine project, is at it again. This time, the company is using two professors at Northern Michigan University, in Marquette, to do its bidding on a study on community concerns related to new mining activity.

On June 2, Tawni Ferrarini, director of NMU's Center for Economic Education and Entrepreneurship, distributed an e-mail asking about 25 people to attend a focus group session for a study on community perceptions of Rio Tinto's Eagle Mine project. Ferrarini urged members on the list, including Cliffs Natural Resources' local spokesperson Dale Hemmila, to "please invite someone to represent your professional interests or expertise if you are not able to attend."

The focus groups were facilitated by Ferrarini and her colleague, Marcelo Siles, as well as one of Rio Tinto's most vocal supporters, the Lake Superior Community Partnership. Ferrarini described the focus groups as "comprised of community representatives from Marquette County and other areas" that were "intended to objectively identify the strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats of mining activities." The study itself intended to "identify the issues of importance to the people who fall in the middle of the two extreme views on mining and the community."

But there's a catch: the project is funded entirely by Rio Tinto and the company's heavy hand in what was supposed to be an objective study is readily apparent.

On October 1, I contacted Ferrarini to obtain a copy of a statement a Rio Tinto employee handed to attendees at every focus group session. It struck me as odd that the company was able to not only interact with session attendees but had them read a carefully prepared statement on the Eagle project immediately before they were expected to answer questions related to the project.

Unfortunately, Ferrarini didn't have a copy of the statement. She'd have to wait until she met with Rio Tinto next week. But three weeks later, I finally got an answer.

Ferrarini explained that the statement read at each focus group session was "based on ... project facts posted on [Rio Tinto's] website." Although she was co-author of the study, and it was presumably independent, Ferrarini said the company "does not want to circulate this past document."

"Marcelo and I encouraged [Rio Tinto] to make any future announcements/documents available for public consumption at some point should we launch a new set of discussion forums for people falling the middle of the viewpoint spectrum," Ferrarini wrote. "[Rio Tinto] said they would consider this advice."

I couldn't believe it. Not only did Ferrarini not possess a copy of a statement that very well could have influenced the outcome of her focus groups, but the company didn't want it to be read by the public, although they would certainly consider being more transparent in the future regarding its direct interactions with and brainwashing of study participants.

On November 1, perhaps trying to prevent the public from seeing the obvious (that Rio Tinto has control over the study), the company's "community relations" manager, Matt Johnson, wrote Headwaters contributor Catherine Parker, that the statement "should be posted on our website by the end of the week."

As far as the results, unsurprisingly, the study found that employment was viewed as the most positive aspect of new mining, while environmental concerns were considered to be the most grave threat associated with it.

It appears Rio Tinto is attempting to use the study in order to define what majority opinion on new mining is in the area so the company, in the future, can claim to understand the needs and concerns of the public. According to the study's abstract, "The significant issues identified in this study will help in the preparation of a community for the advancement of new mining in the area. It will also help establish a social baseline and provide valuable information in the assessment of the [Rio Tinto] project's effects."

A blog created for the study a month ago currently has zero comments. According to the report's abstract, "Additional research on this topic is needed and the hope is that this report leads to it."

One can only hope the next step will be more transparent and truly objective and independent, as a study conducted by presumed professionals should be.

Additional research by Catherine Parker.

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