Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Updated: Big Bay residents report on Rio Tinto AGM in London

By Michele Bourdieu

MARQUETTE -- Two Big Bay, Mich., residents concerned about air pollution from Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine went all the way to London -- to Rio Tinto's April 19, 2012, Annual General Meeting (AGM) with shareholders -- to request an independent, third-party air quality monitoring program for the mine.

During a rally preceding the Rio Tinto Annual General Meeting (AGM), Big Bay residents Cynthia Pryor (far right, holding sign) and Carla Champagne joined other groups who protested against Rio Tinto's projects and practices around the world, as well as their corporate sponsorship of the Olympic Games. Groups pictured here include the Utah Moms for Clean Air (with banner) and United Steel Workers Union members from Quebec (in orange shirts). See below for their comments at the AGM. (Photo © 2012 by Sallie Dean Shatz of www.shatziephotos.com. Reprinted with permission.)

When Cynthia Pryor of the Yellowdog Watershed Preserve and Carla Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay finally had their chance to speak at the AGM -- near the end of the question session -- the shareholders in the audience and the board members in the front of the large hall in Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center, just minutes before, had heard from a woman representing Utah Moms for Clean Air -- a Salt Lake City mother whose son had nearly died from asthma. According to Utah Moms, he is one of many children affected by air pollution attributed to Rio Tinto-Kennecott's huge open-pit Bingham Canyon mining operation near Salt Lake City.

That young mother, Alexandra Allred, was nearly in tears as she told the story of rushing her son to the hospital -- and of the many funerals of children she has attended in her community. Addressing both the shareholders and the company executives, Allred asked in a voice choked with emotion, "Can all of you please make a vow to me that you will put environmental issues in the forefront ... that you will become socially responsible for air quality and the environment -- not just where I live but around the world?"

Her request was answered with applause from the audience. Jan DuPlessis, Rio Tinto board chair, assured her he was sensitive to her "highly personal" question and was aware of the air quality problem in the Salt Lake City basin.

"I believe that Rio Tinto probably is the most responsible company in our sector when it comes to dealing with the environment," DuPlessis said.

They may not always get it right, he added, but they "will always try to do better."

At the very end of the question period DuPlessis took a question from Cherise Udell, also of Utah Moms for Clean Air. Udell said Salt Lake City has been cited by the conservative Forbes magazine as being the ninth most toxic city in the U.S., and it gets an "F" grade year after year from the American Lung Association.

"Rio Tinto," Udell stated, "is the number-one point-source emission in Utah and responsible for about 30 percent of the air pollution. This is a liability for you shareholders."

Tom Albanese, Rio Tinto chief executive, blamed the air pollution on their subsidiary Kennecott's vehicles as well as automobile traffic in the Salt Lake Valley. He said Rio Tinto is committed to reduce emissions "from Kennecott" with "extended light rail" and to begin converting vehicles from gasoline to natural gas.

That statement might make Marquette residents wonder why Rio Tinto's subsidiary Kennecott, after obtaining for the Eagle Mine a permit based on their original plan to haul the ore by rail, has since been allowed to change that plan to a haul route through Marquette (for an estimated nearly 50 trucks a day, each way) -- unless their alternative, CR 595 through the woods, should be approved by the federal agencies that have twice opposed it because of potential impacts to wetlands and streams.

Rio Tinto-Kennecott's Eagle Mine near Big Bay, Mich. The portal to the mine is at right, where it enters Eagle Rock, a sacred Ojibwe site. Click on photo for larger version. (Photo © and courtesy Jeremiah Eagle Eye. Reprinted with permission)

When Carla Champagne of Big Bay made her request for an independent, third-party air quality monitoring program for the Eagle Mine, Albanese spoke directly to the audience to assure them that air pollution near Big Bay was merely "particulate dust" that would be the equivalent of 15 wood-burning home heating units. He told Champagne Rio Tinto would fund and set up an air quality monitoring body to include representatives from the community, NGOs and probably academia.

"That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about an independent, third-party air quality monitoring program," Champagne said. "If you're paying for it you're going to get the results you want. I would recommend -- and to all the shareholders also -- that instead of spending all that money on public relations you put that money where it can actually do something for the people of my community. You can afford it."

Champagne and Pryor gave a brief report on their trip to Rio Tinto's AGM at an April 30 meeting of a coalition of environmental groups in Marquette. Keweenaw Now recorded some of their comments.



Carla Champagne of Concerned Citizens of Big Bay tells members of a coalition of environmental groups in Marquette about speaking to Rio Tinto executives and shareholders concerning the need for an independent, third-party air quality monitoring program for Rio Tinto - Kennecott's Eagle Mine. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)

Gene Champagne, Carla's husband, who also attended the Marquette coalition meeting, said he and other Big Bay residents have noticed significant air pollution from the mine.

"Currently, as they drill the tunnel, they are venting everything out the mine portal," Gene Champagne said. "We have no idea what is in the exhaust other than you can get a nauseating whiff of diesel fumes while standing on the AAA Road on some days. The exhaust fan is powered by a diesel generator. This is especially true if the wind happens to be blowing around."

Powell Township approves resolution for air quality monitoring

On Tuesday, May 22, 2012, Powell Township, which includes the Big Bay area, passed a resolution for the kind of air quality monitoring program Carla Champagne requested of Rio Tinto at the London AGM. The resolution states, in part, "...in response to Citizen’s concerns, we the Powell Township Board do ask that the Environmental Protection Agency and or the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality develop an Air Quality Monitoring program in our region, with monitors installed at present and future mine sites, within the community of Big Bay, and at any other sites in Powell Township that these agencies deem appropriate. We ask that the EPA and or the DEQ designate air quality scientists to monitor and maintain this air quality program; ask that the mining companies cover all the costs for the implementation and on-going support for this air quality monitoring program; and that all data and information be available for citizen review."

Meeting with Albanese after AGM

After the AGM, Cynthia Pryor and Carla Champagne met with Tom Albanese, Rio Tinto chief executive, to discuss several issues. Pryor expressed objections to Kennecott's recent air quality permit application (for the Eagle Mine), which requests removal of the air filter controls from the Main Vent Air Raise. This Air Raise, which will be used as the only exhaust for all the underground mine workings, is a 65-ft. stack located within 150 feet of the Salmon Trout River (under which the ore body lies). The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is reviewing this permit application and has already asked Kennecott to make some changes.* According to an April 20, 2012, article in the Marquette Mining Journal, a public hearing and public comment period will be scheduled before the DEQ makes a final decision on the air permit, possibly this summer.**

View of the Salmon Trout River, not far from the Main Vent Air Raise, which will be used as the only exhaust from the Eagle Mine. Kennecott's ore body (copper and nickel) is under this trout stream. (Keweenaw Now file photo)

Cynthia Pryor noted the trip provided an opportunity to meet with Richard Solly and other members of the London Mining Network (LMN) -- an alliance of human rights, development, and environmental groups working to expose supporters of unacceptable mining projects.

Pryor also mentioned the Greenwash Gold 2012 action: LMN has promoted voting for Rio Tinto in the Greenwash Gold 2012 "competition" to vote for the worst corporate sponsor (the others are BP and Dow Chemical) of the London Olympic Games. Metal for the 2012 Olympic medals will come from the company’s Bingham Canyon (Kennecott) mine in Utah and its Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia -- both of which threaten human health.***

Here is an excerpt from Pryor's report on the London trip to environmental coalition members at their Apr. 30 meeting in Marquette:


Cynthia Pryor of the Yellow Dog Watershed Preserve speaks about attending Rio Tinto's London AGM to representatives of several local environmental groups at their coalition meeting in Marquette on April 30, 2012.

As Pryor and Champagne pointed out to coalition members, people affected by Rio Tinto's mining projects came to the AGM from various parts of the world to express their concerns. The entire AGM Web cast can be viewed on the Rio Tinto Web site.****

Here are some more highlights of the AGM question period -- more than two hours of open comments, mostly in opposition to Rio Tinto's policies and projects.

Mongolia: Oyu Tolgoi mine threatens water supply

Mongolian activist Zanaa Jurmed, Director of the Center for Citizens’ Alliance in Mongolia, questioned Rio Tinto's claim that they are training thousands of Mongolians to work in their Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine in the Gobi Desert.

"You might train hundreds of workers but not thousands," Jurmed said.

She was also concerned about the lack of rules to protect Mongolian women from sexual harassment by Chinese workers.

"We have a zero tolerance policy towards sexual harassment," Albanese replied.

Jurmed's main concern, though, was Rio Tinto's depletion of water resources. She accused Rio Tinto of not disclosing their social and health impact statement. According to the London Mining Network, 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 the mine as well as the population.

"Are you going to do a cumulative risk assessment?" Jurmed asked, noting the danger that the water supply in the Gobi region could run out.

Albanese defended the company's plans to use groundwater from a deep, saline aquifer not suitable for humans or animals and said the company will supplement surface water.

A second speaker supported Jurmed's claims, referring to a report from USAID (United States Agency for International Development) on potential environmental impacts of mining projects in Mongolia on water, air quality and habitat fragmentation. The report also mentions the challenge of water availability in a desert environment with many herders. It gives details on the Oyu Tolgoi mine and the company's plans to use deep aquifers they claim will not connect with more shallow water sources used by herders.

According to the report, "Mining companies state that there is no communication between the shallow and deep aquifers; however, if pressed, there is no proven evidence in the public domain to validate their claim."*****

DuPlessis cut this speaker off, refusing to take more questions on Mongolia.

"We are very proud of our engagement in Mongolia," he said.

Union Workers locked out in Quebec

Criticisms and questions also came from a representative of the locked-out United Steel Workers from Alma, Quebec. Albanese claimed the union's demands for hiring more workers were excessive and there was evidence of vandalism and sabotage at the plant -- hence, the lock out. Denying the vandalism, the union spokesman said he was just asking Rio Tinto to go back to the table and negotiate.

Pryor reported 14 representatives of the Quebec Steel Workers attended the AGM.

"The Quebec Steel Workers were told to go back home and be reasonable and the company would meet with them -- which was met with outrage by the workers," Pryor said.

Pebble Mine threatens salmon of Bristol Bay, Alaska

Albanese also heard from representatives of tribal groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and Earth Works -- who questioned Rio Tinto's partnership with the Anglo American mining company in the Pebble Mine project near Bristol Bay, Alaska -- a proposed open-pit mine to be located at the headwaters of the largest, possibly the last, salmon fishery in the world.

Jason Metrokin, president/CEO of Bristol Bay Native Corp., noted 54 percent of Alaskan voters and more than 80 percent of Bristol Bay residents oppose the project because of the risk to the salmon habitat. Joel Reynolds of NRDC said he had a million petitions from around the world asking Rio Tinto to withdraw from the project. He said he had brought 150,000 of them with him to present to Rio Tinto. Bonnie Gestering of Earth Works said her organization was in support of the native peoples and fishermen opposed to the Pebble Mine and asked Albanese to consider the results of an EPA study on the suitability of large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay watershed.

Both DuPlessis and Albanese replied they were not in favor of an open-pit operation in Bristol Bay. However, Albanese said he was interested in an underground ore body in that area, which would require 10 years of exploration.

On April 20, the day after the AGM, Cynthia Pryor visited Ian Collard of the United Kingdom Foreign and Commonwealth Office, American Directorate and presented the history of the Eagle project. She mentioned issues including Rio Tinto-Kennecott's disregard of law, collusion with and corruption of state and local government, Indian Rights and treaty violations, the desecration of Eagle Rock as a sacred site. She also told Collard about issues of water quality, air quality and good science.

Pryor learned that Collard had been to the U.P. as a boy scout and was familiar with the beauty of the place. Noting the reputation of British companies in foreign countries is important, he said he would share a copy of their discussion.

Carla Champagne commented on meeting and hearing from people all over the world at the AGM and noted a similarity in Rio Tinto's reactions to their concerns.

"One of the things that struck me was that Rio Tinto acts the same -- everywhere they go," Carla said. "It's just their degree of corruption that changes. People from Mongolia, people from West Papua New Guinea, people from Canada -- the United Steel Workers that were locked out -- they're all treated the same."

Notes:
* Click here to read Kennecott's application for an air quality permit on the DEQ Web site.
** See "Kennecott wants mine air permit revised," by John Pepin of the Mining Journal.
*** Click here to read about Rio Tinto and Greenwash Gold 2012. Read about the London Mining Network on their Web site.
**** Click here to watch the Web cast of the Rio Tinto 2012 AGM in London.
***** Click here to read the USAID report on the Oyu Tolgoi mining project in Mongolia.
Update: See also Carla Champagne's Letter to the Mining Journal posted today, May 23: "Monitoring Needed."

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