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


✹ Try our new pay-as-you-feel subscription — you choose how much to pay.

Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports

On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.

Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns

The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections

In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines

Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.

West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective

How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences

The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally

Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.

Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change

Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself

#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces

Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'

Confronting Brexit
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond

On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network

Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter

#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement

Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union

Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.

Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees

Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides

The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari

Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next

Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace

Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill


7