When one of our mistakes gores your ox

Thinking Out Loud

Posted: Wednesday, April 25, 2001

On a recent Sunday, an article atop the front page of the Empire contained an error in the first sentence. Had the error involved spelling, grammar or punctuation, I would not be writing about it here. The error was one of fact. As I said, it appeared in the first - and therefore most important - sentence of the story most prominently displayed in our most widely circulated edition.

The sentence, as published, read:

Kennecott Greens Creek Mining Co. wants to double its mine tailings facility, already one of the largest in the country.

The sentence was accurate in explaining the mining company's desire, but it was wrong in describing the size of the tailings facility.

A mistake made in the first sentence usually has a greater impact than a mistake made anywhere else in the story. It is not a stretch to imagine readers thinking: "One of the biggest and getting bigger. I don't know if I like that..."

I hope I am stating the obvious when I say the mistake was not intentional. It was one of presumption: If the EPA ranks Greens Creek's output 15th among companies producing toxic wastes, then the tailings facility must be one of the largest in the country, right? Not at all.

First, the wastes from Greens Creek are potentially toxic. They are naturally occurring minerals without commercial value. Their potential for toxicity depends largely on the extent to which they interact with water and air. Even if they do interact with water and air, the tailings contain some minerals (calcium carbonates) that naturally neutralize acids.

By squeezing the moisture out of the tailings at the mill, by compacting the residue and by covering the tailings with clay, soil and gravel, the disposal mound is dense and water resistant. By stacking the tailings as high as is permitted, the disposal site has a disproportionately small surface impact.

Disproportionately small, not one of the largest in the country. We had it wrong. This mistake embarrassed the reporter, who is one of Alaska's best journalists. I felt bad for her and worse for the environmental engineers at Greens Creek who have devoted their professional skills and some years to containing the potential toxicity of the disposal site and to making the mine a model for their industry.

The mistake was corrected on page 3 in the next edition of the Empire. Because it was an important correction to an important story, I offer it again:

Due to a reporter's error, the comparative magnitude of the tailings facility at Kennecott Greens Creek Mine was wrong in the first line of a front-page story Sunday. The 40-acre facility is one of the smallest in the United States. Even if it doubles in size, as Kennecott Greens Creek Mine Co. is requesting, the tailings facility will be about 100 times smaller than the 7,000-acre tailings facilities found elsewhere, said Keith Marshall, Greens Creek mine general manager.

In an editorial published on New Year's Day, the Empire acknowledged the point readers make when they say the corrections we print on page 3 hardly seem to be in proportion to the mistakes we may have made on page 1. Keith Marshall drove that point home last week.

Marshall drove home another point, although he did not seek to do so explicitly. We do our best to provide you with accurate, useful information. The trust we work to establish, the trust necessary for a newspaper to be taken seriously and to endure, may be lost when your ox is gored by one of our mistakes.

As easily as I could imagine the thoughts of readers who encountered our erroneous reference to the size of the tailings pile, I can imagine the thoughts of the Greens Creek miners as they read the story.

I apologize for the error and for the heartburn. Our efforts to provide you with accurate, useful information and to earn your trust are renewed daily.

Steve Reed is managing editor of the Empire. He can be reached at streed@juneauempire.com.

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