Winners and losers: The human price of Olympic gold

The metal for the 2012 medals will come from Salt Lake City and the Gobi desert. Richard Harkinson introduces activists fighting Rio Tinto plc’s hazardous mines

December 22, 2011
4 min read

In Salt Lake City, Utah, Rio Tinto plc operates the world’s largest open pit copper, molybdenum and gold mine. It will provide 99 per cent of the metals for the medals at the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics, advertised as the most ‘sustainable’ Games ever. The remaining 1 per cent will come from Rio Tinto’s mine in development in the south Gobi desert in Mongolia.

The headline 7.75 kilograms of gold for the Games will cost in the order of US$100,000, a staggeringly low price for the massive branding exposure. The Games, broadcast to four billion people over 29 days, provide Rio Tinto with a huge platform from which to promote its claims of sustainability, which it conflates with a notion of product ‘traceability’ – ‘from mines to medals’.

Jonathan Edwards, London 2012’s leading official athlete, may believe the medals are ‘worth going to bed with’. But organisations representing people living downwind and downstream of Rio Tinto’s mines know the cost is far too high.

Brian Moench, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment

Utah residents will find it easy to hold their applause for Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto’s Kennecott open pit copper mine and smelter are on the edge of the Great Salt Lake wetlands and Utah’s largest urban area, Salt Lake County. There is no comparable geographical juxtaposition of urbanisation and heavy duty mining and smelting anywhere in the world. 

Salt Lake City has severe air pollution problems. The American Lung Association gives it the rank of ‘F’, ie ‘red’ for ‘unhealthy’, for ozone and for small particulates. Rio Tinto is the largest contributor, responsible for over 30 pert cent of the particulate air pollution. This pollution comprises heavy metals contamination of our air, water, and soil. Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, using American Heart Association guidance, calculate that Rio Tinto’s air pollution is responsible for about 150 premature deaths every year. Its copper production has been estimated to result in two gallons of highly contaminated water for each pound of copper produced. Its contamination of underground aquifers in the Salt Lake Valley and discharges into the Great Salt Lake constitute the largest mining-caused water pollution in the world.

Rio Tinto made about US$15 billion after-tax profits last year, more than enough to make a genuine commitment to air and water pollution reduction in Salt Lake City. It won’t do it.

Sukhgerel Dugersuren, Mongolian NGO Oyu Tolgoi Watch

Water is scarce in the Gobi desert ecosystem. Rio Tinto (which has majority ownership of the mine here) has not demonstrated the availability of water resources, yet plans to operate the mine, an international airport, and a coal-fired 480 megawatt power plant.

The mine construction process has already depleted the water resources. The company is pumping water from the central well of Khanbogd soum, the nearest settlement with a population of around 9,000. It is taking away drinking water from local communities at a daily rate of 25 tons per well. In August the company refused to show its water approvals and to allow site entry to inspect documents. Khanbogd soum is running out of water and this will eventually force the families there to vacate the land and join the homeless poor in Ulaanbaatar.

The company wants no public discussion of toxic emissions, chemical exposure and health risks, so there are no public Oyu Tolgoi project health impact assessments. Local communities, especially nomadic herders, are not aware of the chemical exposure and health risks the mine will have for them and their livestock. They guess the meat of the animals they herd and consume may also be contaminated, but have no information and no choice.

In a sign of things to come, in 2004 the company relocated 11 nomadic households using individual contracts. These prohibit public disclosure and require the displaced to absolve the company of any liability for relocation. Oyu Tolgoi Watch interviewed eight of the relocated households and found that all have suffered loss of herds due to frozen land without animal shelter, inadequate water supplies and poor grazing. This is in violation of internationally accepted norms requiring that companies support relocated communities through the transition and ensure there is no lowering of living standards.

The nomadic herders in the south Gobi region are carriers of an ancient culture. However, Rio Tinto and its investors refuse to recognise them as indigenous to this area, and because of loss of pasture land, their lifestyle is under threat of extinction.

To find out more about the campaign visit the London Mining Network or the Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment


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