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Media Complicit in Hyping Story of Potential Leadville Flood

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In "Leadville 'Disaster' Declaration Releases Cascade of Dissent," published by the Rocky Mountain News on February 25, staffer Todd Hartman reports that a recent announcement about the dangers of toxic water collected in a closed mine tunnel near Leadville was a carefully orchestrated affair conducted by Lake County commissioners and Castle Rock Senator Tom Wiens. In addition, Hartman quotes Leadville officials, as well as state and federal regulators, who argue that the risks of environmental catastrophe were overstated -- the implication being that the press was manipulated in order to goad the feds into action.

If so, the plan worked: Following a coverage blitz that drew responses from Governor Bill Ritter and other higher-ups, the Environmental Protection Agency pledged to install at least two pumps intended to remove as much water from the mountain as possible, thereby alleviating the prospect of a blowout that Leadville mayor Bud Elliott says never would have happened in the first place. Even if he's right, though, Wiens and his cohorts aren't the only ones who deserve criticism. The media must take responsibility, too, for hitting the panic button without thoroughly investigating whether or not doing so was justified.

The flood of reportage began on February 13 with a Channel 9 package whose web headline -- "Seeping Water is Sign of Looming Disaster" -- gives a good indication of its viewpoint. Only one dissenting voice is heard: Mike Collins, the area manager for the Bureau of Reclamation, who said, "I don't know if there has been any risk identified yet. There is nothing I would consider anything to be scared of." However, his opinion is immediately brought into question by a November 2007 letter from EPA Regional Administrator Robert E. Robert, who wrote, "Not only endangering human life, the sudden release of water, rock, sediment, and heavy metals to the Arkansas River would be an environmental disaster."

A similar tone pervades the vast majority of pieces that followed, including a February 15 article in the Rocky. Calming words from Jim Martin, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment's executive director, appear in the top third of the story: "There is no need to panic," he maintains. "There is a lot of planning going on here. Most of Leadville faces no risk at all." Still, these reassurances follow a screaming lead: "Colorado health officials estimate it will cost $5 million to launch an emergency water-pumping program next week to avert a potential catastrophic blowout at an old mine tunnel here."

It's no shock that Wiens and the commissioners carefully prepared before meeting the press, with the senator even launching a website dubbed SaveTheArkansasRiver.org. In today's media age, that's what politicians do, and editors, news directors and their charges know it. Moreover, no one's denying that something's rotten in that Leadville mine tunnel; the only debate is over the time clean-up crews have to tackle the problem. But either way, the press must play a critical role in getting accurate information to the public. Whenever journalists are handed what appears to be a steaming scoop, they need to thoroughly check the facts from every angle and report what they find -- and don't find -- rather than simply running with the sexiest stuff.

If they don't, they're worthy of blame, too. -- Michael Roberts

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