Lithium Liabilities

About Lithium Liabilities

As an investigative newsroom, the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University pushes our students to have a “documents and data state of mind.” We need to see the evidence, we tell them. When 15 of our investigative reporting students coalesced into the Lithium Liabilities team in fall 2023, they took that message to heart.

Their research binders grew in thickness and number throughout the fall, taking over reporter desks inside the second floor offices of the Howard Center, which is a part of ASU's Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. One reporter spent months pouring over thousands of pages of regulatory disclosures for just one lithium mine, the only active one in the United States.

After countless public records requests and attempts to analyze thick technical reports, she came across a document that created a nearly universal “oh my goodness,” jaw-dropping response from the entire team. The document, written by a veteran hydrologist who has worked for the federal and local governments, linked America's only active lithium mine to “de-watering” throughout Clayton Valley, where the mine operates. The report's author had never spoken to a reporter about the problems he had documented. The Howard Center became the first newsroom to dedicate time and significant resources to understand the previously unreported water issue and eventually win the trust of this key scientist, who is on the front lines recording evidence for the government.

Another reporter trying to accurately track the growing wealth of a specific lithium mining executive, turned to a well-known financial research database that typically contains information so reliable that Wall Street hedge fund managers rely on it to make decisions that move markets. But there was a problem. The financial database displayed conflicting valuations from what the reporter had discovered in official government disclosures from Canada. Not knowing whom to trust, the reporter ran the discrepancy down and contacted both the Canadian regulator and the financial firm that provided data for subscribers. It turned out the Howard Center reporter had found the right information from the Canadian source, and the well-known Wall Street research firm updated its numbers to reflect what she discovered.

During one now famous or perhaps infamous reporting meeting within the team, when editors challenged several journalists to produce any actual proof that a specific lithium project might harm groundwater levels, a science reporter on the team who overheard the conversation came running across the room and screamed out loud, “I have the evidence!” She had her own annotated binder in hand, flipped to page 375 of a report that had been filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, and produced for editors a colorful map showing the lithium mine in question told the SEC its mine would likely cause water levels to drop by 130 feet.

The evidence-based reporting of the investigative reporters at the Howard Center caught the attention of the PBS NewsHour and USA Today. NewsHour invited us to produce an in-depth video report that aired nationally. Senior producer Phil Maravilla, along with NewsHour senior leaders Sara Just and Richard Coolidge helped shepherd us through the process. Associate producer Madison Staten and even science correspondent Miles O'Brien, who has reported deeply on climate-driven water shortages, helped students find related video. Amy Pyle, Managing Editor of Investigations & Storytelling at USA Today, offered to share the team's written stories nationally through the USA Today Network, which serves 200 local markets in addition to their national brand.

Telling any version of this story, for any platform, would also not have been possible without the generosity and skills of the truly world-class support network inside the Cronkite community. Leonard Downie Jr., the longtime executive editor of the Washington Post who oversaw 25 Pulitzer Prize winning stories, is a D.C.-based professor who consulted with us throughout the project. Steve Doig, a Pulitzer Prize winning data journalist, met throughout the project with our lead data journalist and helped develop a methodology that mapped proposed lithium mines in the U.S. against already stressed water sources. Sarah Cohen, the Knight Chair in Data Journalism at the Cronkite School, another Pulitzer winner, and a former journalist at The New York Times and The Washington Post, took time away from leave to review the plan.

Shea Lemar, Senior Project Manager for Geospatial Research at ASU's School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, along with her colleague Yeuling Li, helped teach our lead data reporter how to use powerful mapping software to do the needed analysis.

When one student reporter wanted to engage readers in a creative and fun way about regulatory problems the team discovered, Retha Hill, executive director of Cronkite's New Media Innovation and Entrepreneurship Lab, helped the reporter design the “Mine Your Business” interactive game, where readers can try their hand at navigating the challenges of opening a lithium mine. When two student reporters needed help unpacking financial reporting challenges in Argentina, Jeffrey Timmermans of the Reynolds Center for Business and Juan Mundel of Cronkite's Global Initiatives program, both at Arizona State, stepped in. Jim Jacoby, and his team of students, helped produce digital graphics and clean up colors in our video. Maud Beelman, the Howard Center's former executive editor, who now serves as collaborations editor, was also one of two professors who oversaw early research last spring.

At one point, half way through our story research this fall, even Dean Battinto L. Batts Jr., of the Cronkite School came into the Howard Center unannounced and energized reporters with smart questions that shaped new, fruitful reporting.

When it came close to publishing time, Miranda Spivack, who spent 20 years as an editor and reporter at The Washington Post, provided copy editing and smart polish across the project. Many thanks to Eric Ferrero at the Fund for Investigative Journalism for connecting us.

It really does take a village to produce a major investigative project like Lithium Liabilities. It is difficult to find the words to express how grateful we are to have so many people come together to support students who, we are certain, are on their way to becoming the future leaders of our industry.

Mark Greenblatt is the executive editor of the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at ASU and can be reached at [email protected]. Lauren Mucciolo is the Howard Center's executive producer and can be reached at [email protected].