Rio Tinto is providing the metal that will go into making all 4,700 gold, silver and bronze medals at the 2012 London Olympic and Paralympic games.
Metal for the medals will come from the company’s Bingham Canyon (Kennecott) mine in Utah, USA, and its Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia, where major concerns exist over air and water pollution, deadly health impacts, water scarcity and indigenous rights.
On its website Rio Tinto claims: “We are right behind London 2012’s commitment to delivering the most sustainable Games” and that providing the medals “is a good way for us to tell our story with a global audience and share more about what we do and the sustainable way we do it.”
Yet visitors from communities directly impacted by the mines themselves travelled to London for the Rio Tinto AGM on Thursday 19 April to confront the company and present a different story. Evidence exist that, while the company reports multi-billion dollar profits for its shareholders, the legacy it is leaving for communities is causing grave dangers to public health, the environment and human rights.
Oyu Tolgoi Mine, Mongolia
Oyu Tolgoi is a rich copper and gold deposit in the Gobi Desert in Southern Mongolia. One of the key concerns is that the mine will use enormous quantities of water in a desert region and the company has failed to demonstrate the availability of sufficient water needed for production, infrastructure and the social needs of the project. The deposit lies in close proximity to the Gobi Small and Galbyn Gobi Strictly Protected Area zones, overlapping Important Bird Area and Critical Natural Habitats. This fragile arid ecosystem does not have enough water to carry this huge mine.
Mongolian campaigners say the company has not shared vital information with the public. Impacts assessments omit issues of toxic emissions, chemical exposure and human health. Local communities, and especially nomadic herders, are not aware of the chemical exposure and health risks that this mine will have for them and their livestock.
Trucking of minerals from mines in the region is already causing significant dust pollution, affecting human health and the environment. Opening the Oyu Tolgoi mine will worsen this.
The nomadic herders in the South Gobi region are carriers of an ancient culture known to the world as Mongolian nomadism. However, Rio Tinto and its investors are not recognising them as people indigenous to this area and carriers of a traditional culture and lifestyle that is under threat of extinction.
Bingham Canyon Mine, Utah, USA
The Rio Tinto Bingham Canyon mine is the single largest open pit mining operation and the deepest excavation of its kind in the world. There is no other mining operation in the world this large that is so close to a population of 1.8 million – possibly making the direct adverse impacts on public health unique. Groups in Utah are protesting about air pollution from Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon operations, which contributes to hundreds of premature deaths each year in the Salt Lake City area.
In February 2011, Forbes business magazine ranked Salt Lake City as the ninth most toxic city in the United States, and the largest contributor to that ranking was the Rio Tinto open pit copper mine. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory revealed that Rio Tinto/Kennecott Bingham Canyon copper mining and processing complex is the largest single source of the 650 toxic compounds tracked in this database. The waste rock piles, fugitive dust and tailings emissions further increase the community’s overall exposure to toxic heavy metals, and a planned expansion will certainly increase these heavy metal releases. In fact, the coal power plants currently operated by Rio Tinto continuously emit mercury and radioactive elements like uranium and thorium into the air. Local children’s exposure to them steadily increases year after year. The mine is also accused of creating massive mining-related ground water contamination involving the Great Salt Lake and the ground water adjacent to it.
According to the Utah Department of Workforce Services, as of 2009, Rio Tinto emitted about 14,500 lbs of air pollutants per employee, far more than any other business. Currently Rio Tinto provides less than one quarter of 1% of the jobs in Salt Lake and Utah Counties, but about 30% of the pollution.
Dr Brian Moench, of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, reports that the American Heart Association’s formula indicates that between 1,000 and 2,000 Utah residents die every year because of air pollution. Rio Tinto’s contribution to it means that between 100 and 200 Utah residents die every year because of air pollution created by Rio Tinto.
Dr. Moench pointed out in December 2011: “They made profits of $15 billion dollars this year. They have more than enough money to put serious pollution mitigation measures in place, and they refuse to.”
Utah Moms for Clean Air and Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment are taking the mining company to court for violations of the Federal Clean Air Act.
But these are not the only concerns about Rio Tinto.
The company’s Ranger Uranium Mine in Australia is spilling radioactive water into the surrounding area and is opposed by Aboriginal communities. Uranium from the Ranger Mine was used at the Fukushima nuclear power station in Japan.
In 2000, the Indonesian government’s National Human Rights Commission investigation into allegations of abuses at Rio Tinto’s now closed Kelian Gold Mine found gross violations. Since the mine opened in 1992, the Commission revealed, the Indonesian military and company security had forcibly evicted traditional miners, burned down villages, and arrested and detained protestors. Kelian employees have also been named in a number of incidents of sexual harassment, rape and violence against local women between1987 and 1997, including abuse and rape committed by senior company staff against local Indigenous Dayak women.
The Kelian Mine’s cyanide heap-leaching process has left behind a toxic time bomb of contaminated tailings ponds which threaten villages in the area and have polluted the Kelian River where local people say they cannot drink or bathe in the water.
Rio Tinto is also accused of human rights abuses around the Grasberg copper and gold mine in Indonesian-occupied West Papua. Rio Tinto paid mine owner PT Freeport Indonesia to expand operations despite the opposition of local Indigenous Peoples and the long-standing conflict in the area between the Indonesian military and independence fighters.
The mine has caused “massive environmental destruction” in West Papua due to the dumping of waste, including toxic metals, into the local river system. According to WALHI, a leading Indonesian environmental group, the mine has already disposed of one billion tonnes of tailings into the local river system, resulting in copper concentrations in local rivers that are double the Indonesian legal fresh water limit. Over the life of the project, the mine reportedly will dump up to 3.5 billion tonnes of waste .
In Bougainville, in the Pacific, the company hopes to reopen a copper mine which caused such catastrophic pollution that local people closed it down. Vicious repression of anti-mine protesters by the Government of Papua New Guinea sparked a war for independence.
The QMM Mine in Madagascar provides yet another example of Rio Tinto’s apparent disregard for the communities and environment in which it operates. The mine reportedly contains at least 75 million tons of ilmenite deposits, which are found in mineral sands, and could be operational for up to 40 years.
Thousands of people have already been affected by the mining operation through displacement, loss of lands, disruption to fishing, flooding to agricultural areas and dust pollution over food growing and pasture areas, affecting livelihoods and food production. Those who have already been displaced have received inadequate compensation and local people have also lost free access to their forest resources which act as a survival mechanism when crops fail. These are some of the poorest people on the island, being subsistence farmers dependent on the land, and earning less than a dollar a day. The influx of workers from elsewhere has increased demand for food and housing, driving prices up beyond what local residents can afford.
The company is accused of violation of Indigenous treaty rights at the Eagle Mine site in Michigan, USA. Persistent local citizen opposition against Rio Tinto’s Eagle Mine includes concerns that waste water-injection into aquifers will impact local water quality, potential for irreversible acid mine drainage, ecosystem degradation and the technical likelihood of mine collapse.
Also in the USA, the company is under attack for continuing water pollution at its now closed Flambeau mine in Wisconsin, and of planning the Pebble copper-gold project with Anglo American plc, which would threaten the pristine waters of Bristol Bay, Alaska, and is opposed by Indigenous Peoples and salmon fishermen.
The company has a poor record on labour rights around the world. In addition to a history of disputes in Australia, the company locked out workers at its Borax plant in Boron, California, in early 2010, has been in dispute with workers at the Grasberg Mine in West Papua in recent months, and in late December 2011 illegally locked out 780 workers (24 hours before it had the legal right to do so) at the Rio Tinto Alcan plant at Alma, Quebec, Canada. The Alma workers, represented by USW (the United Steel Workers union)remain locked out in late April 2012. They are not demanding higher wages or greater benefits, but trying to ensure secure jobs for the future. Rio Tinto wants to use more subcontractors to replace the jobs of unionised workers as they retire. Subcontracted workers are paid significantly less than unionsed workers, and the union believes in equal pay for equal work. For the history of the dispute, see http://www.justiceforriotintoworkers.ca/the-lockout/. For further information, see http://www.justiceforriotintoworkers.ca/.
Rio Tinto is bad news for many communities around the world. It is a scandal that it should be providing the metal for the London Olympic medals!
You can read much more at http://londonminingnetwork.org/docs/Rio-Tinto-background-information-2011.doc.
For an account of the complaints made against the company at its 2011 AGM in London, see http://londonminingnetwork.org/2011/04/london-events-around-the-rio-tinto-agm/ and watch the interviews with activists from Utah and elsewhere at http://londonminingnetwork.org/2011/04/rio-tinto-the-movie/.
For a complete list of LMN’s archive on Rio Tinto, see http://londonminingnetwork.org/tag/rio-tinto/.
For further background on the company, you can also buy a copy of Plunder!, a history of Rio Tinto up t0 1991, by sending a cheque for £10 made out to Partizans to: Partizans, 41a Thornhill Square, London N1 1BE, England.
You can vote for Rio Tinto as worst 2012 Olympic corporate sponsor at http://www.greenwashgold.org/.