Sunday, April 17, 2011

Updated: Utah Moms for Clean Air lead protest against Rio Tinto at company's AGM in London

LONDON, ENGLAND -- Last Thursday, April 14, 2011, British mining giant, Rio Tinto, the parent company of Kennecott Copper (and of Kennecott Eagle Minerals), held its AGM (annual shareholders’ meeting) in London, England.

Outside the AGM, Utah Moms for Clean Air led a peaceful protest rally against the company. Approximately 150 colorful balloons were popped one at a time, each representing a premature death because of air pollution spewing from the company’s operations in the greater Salt Lake City area.

As in previous years, the company’s highly questionable environmental and social record came under public scrutiny from campaigners around the world. As proxy shareholders, community activists Chalid Muhammed, Meg Townsend, Cherise Udell, Patricia Feeney and Roger Moody were able to attend the full shareholders' meeting and speak directly to the Rio Tinto Board and CEO.

Chalid Muhammad, a prominent Green activist from Indonesia, demanded to know why the company had not fulfilled its undertakings to fully compensate local people for human rights abuses (rape and burning down a village) and loss of their land at Rio Tinto’s now-closed Kelian gold mine in Kalimantan.

Activists challenge Rio Tinto on rights of children, indigenous peoples

Meg Townsend, who works for a prominent New York law firm, declared the company had failed to observe the religious rights of Native Americans at one of its prospective mine sites in Michigan (Kennecott Eagle Minerals' Eagle Mine near Big Bay) and may contaminate the entire Lake Superior watershed with byproduct waste from their planned mining operation of nickel.

"You claim that you strive to benefit local communities," Townsend said at the meeting, "but in your construction of the Eagle Mine, in fencing off the sacred Eagle Rock from the Anishinaabe people, you are violating treaty rights established in 1842 by the federal government. This sacred site is no longer able to serve as a site of worship for the tribal people. Even if they could access Eagle Rock, blasting from mine activity would interfere with prayer and important ceremonies at the site."*

Also from North America, Cherise Udell, representing Utah Moms for Clean Air, pointed out that residents of Salt Lake City, and in particular young children, were grievously suffering from toxic emissions at the company’s massive Bingham Canyon copper mine. She said between 1,000 and 2,000 Utahans die prematurely every year due to chronic air pollution exposure. Since Kennecott is the area's number-one pollutor and responsible for aboout 30 percent of the pollution in the Wasatch Front airshed, they are also responsible for about 30 percent of the premature deaths. Furthermore, she challenged Rio Tinto's CEO as to why the Bingham Mine does not have a bond.

When Udell asked for a public debate in Utah abut the costs and benefits of the Bingham Mine expansion, Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese replied that Rio Tinto does not need need a citizens' majority as to whether the company can mine or not.

"You have a regulatory process," Albanese was quoted as saying, "to decide whether we can have a permit to expand."

To which Udell replied, "That is true, but the system is broken; otherwise I would not need to be here in London defending the rights of Utah children to breathe clean air."

Patricia Feeney, director of Oxford-based Rights and Accountability in Development (RAID) raised urgent questions about the impacts on water quality of the company’s proposed Oyu Tolgoi copper-gold mine in Mongolia.

Other questions related to the company’s position on the rights of Indigenous Peoples to withhold their consent for mining projects, including those that would be affected by the Pebble project in Alaska. The issue was also spotlighted in a letter by a leader of the Aboriginal Mirrar people in Australia, who fear for the consequences of the company’s uranium extraction on their territory.

Rio’s empty promises

The question and answer session lasted two hours -- one of the longest since Rio Tinto first became a "battle ground" between communities and the company in 1981.

Asked for his assessment of who had "won" and who had "lost" at this year’s AGM, Roger Moody, co-founder of Partizans (People against Rio Tinto), said, "It’s not a case of winning or losing. On the one hand, Rio Tinto has certainly made some concessions to its opponents -- for example, selling some of its more dubious coal mines. On the other hand, the gap between its promises and actual performance is as wide as ever. For example, the company says it’s in contact with aggrieved Indonesian communities still suffering from lack of compensation for the impacts of its closed-down Kelian gold mine. But, as Chalid Muhammad pointed out today, their grievances have remained unaddressed for the past couple of years."

For photos of the protest see
http://galleries.shatziephotos.com/RTZAGM/index.html
and also londonminingnetwork.org (origin of most of this press release).

*Editor's Note: Last year at this time Jessica Koski of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community spoke about the Eagle Mine and Native American treaty rights during the 2010 Rio Tinto AGM. See her Letter to the Editor posted on Apr. 14, 2011, on her recent letter to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder concerning long-term impacts of the Rio Tinto / Kennecott Eagle Mine.

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