Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

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

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.
Share this article  
  share on facebook     share on twitter  

What is ‘free movement plus’?
A new report proposes an approach that can push back against the tide of anti-immigrant sentiment. Luke Cooper explains

The World Transformed: Red Pepper’s pick of the festival
Red Pepper is proud to be part of organising The World Transformed, in Brighton from 23-26 September. Here are our highlights from the programme

Working class theatre: Save Our Steel takes the stage
A new play inspired by Port Talbot’s ‘Save Our Steel’ campaign asks questions about the working class leaders of today. Adam Johannes talks to co-director Rhiannon White about the project, the people and the politics behind it

The dawn of commons politics
As supporters of the new 'commons politics' win office in a variety of European cities, Stacco Troncoso and Ann Marie Utratel chart where this movement came from – and where it may be going

A very social economist
Hilary Wainwright says the ideas of Robin Murray, who died in June, offer a practical alternative to neoliberalism

Art the Arms Fair: making art not war
Amy Corcoran on organising artistic resistance to the weapons dealers’ London showcase

Beware the automated landlord
Tenants of the automated landlord are effectively paying two rents: one in money, the other in information for data harvesting, writes Desiree Fields

Black Journalism Fund – Open Editorial Meeting
3-5pm Saturday 23rd September at The World Transformed in Brighton

Immigration detention: How the government is breaking its own rules
Detention is being used to punish ex-prisoners all over again, writes Annahita Moradi

A better way to regenerate a community
Gilbert Jassey describes a pioneering project that is bringing migrants and local people together to repopulate a village in rural Spain

Fast food workers stand up for themselves and #McStrike – we’re loving it!
McDonald's workers are striking for the first time ever in Britain, reports Michael Calderbank

Two years of broken promises: how the UK has failed refugees
Stefan Schmid investigates the ways Syrian refugees have been treated since the media spotlight faded

West Papua’s silent genocide
The brutal occupation of West Papua is under-reported - but UK and US corporations are profiting from the violence, write Eliza Egret and Tom Anderson

Activate, the new ‘Tory Momentum’, is 100% astroturf
The Conservatives’ effort at a grassroots youth movement is embarrassingly inept, writes Samantha Stevens

Peer-to-peer production and the partner state
Michel Bauwens and Vasilis Kostakis argue that we need to move to a commons-centric society – with a state fit for the digital age

Imagining a future free of oppression
Writer, artist and organiser Ama Josephine Budge says holding on to our imagination of tomorrow helps create a different understanding today

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament


7