NRDC Targets Another Corporate Backer of the Pebble Mine Project

There are few other places on Earth where the cycle of birth and death, of nature’s seasonal abundance, plays out on a more dramatic scale than Alaska’s Bristol Bay. Every summer, as many as 50 million salmon fight their way up the rivers that feed the bay, creating some of the largest salmon runs in the world. They, in turn, provide the bounty for an astonishing array of species, from beluga whales and orcas to grizzlies, wolves and eagles. There’s no question that the Bristol Bay watershed represents one of the greatest wildlife habitats on the planet. The only question is: for how long?

At the headwaters of these salmon-spawning rivers, an international consortium of mining companies — Anglo American, Mitsubishi, Rio Tinto and Northern Dynasty — is planning to build the largest complex of gold and copper mines in North America. One of those mines — two miles wide and 2,000 feet deep — would be the biggest open-pit mine in the world. Known as the Pebble Mine, it would create some 10 billion tons of toxin-laced mining waste, which the companies plan to store behind massive earthen dams, some larger than China’s colossal Three Gorges Dam. “In more than 30 years of fighting these kinds of mega-projects, this is the worst one I’ve ever seen,” says Jacob Scherr, NRDC’s director of global strategy and advocacy.

The fact that its massive dams would be located in an earthquake zone, less than 20 miles from an active fault line, is just one of the potentially disastrous threats posed by the Pebble Mine. More insidious are the risks associated with day-to-day mining operations. If groundwater fills the open pit, it will mix with mining ore and oxygen to produce the equivalent of battery acid. “Every major copper mine in the world has leaked,” says Scherr. “And given the Pebble Mine’s scale and location, it is virtually inevitable that it will leak, too.” Salmon are acutely sensitive to pollution; an increase of just two to ten parts per billion of copper dust in water can interfere with a salmon’s ability to navigate. Not only could acidic water pollution spell disaster for Bristol Bay’s world-class salmon runs, but it could also take down the ecosystem that depends on them.

The stakes are high, and a broad coalition of Alaskans — fishermen, conservationists and Native groups — has come together to stop the Pebble Mine. NRDC is working to bring greater international attention to their cause and help save this wild and remote corner of Alaska. We’ve already ratcheted up the pressure on Anglo American and Mitsubishi, two of the mining giants involved, through print ads and public mobilization campaigns that have generated almost a quarter million petitions to the companies. Now, NRDC is taking on the third major backer of the project: Rio Tinto.

This British-based mining conglomerate has a long environmental rap sheet. A 2005 investigation by the New York Times of Rio Tinto’s Grasberg mine in Indonesia found that “nearly 90 square miles of wetlands, once one of the richest freshwater habitats in the world, are virtually buried in mine waste . . . with levels of copper and sediment so high that almost all fish have disappeared.” The company is facing a class-action lawsuit concerning operation of its Panguna mine, also in Indonesia, where locals charge Rio Tinto with “knowingly emitting and depositing volatile and highly toxic mine waste onto the land and into the water, thus destroying rivers and land that provided a way of life for the native people.”

“But you don’t need to look further than Utah for environmental alarm bells to go off,” says NRDC staff attorney Taryn Kiekow. Rio Tinto’s Bingham Canyon mine near Salt Lake City is one of the largest man-made excavations on Earth; it’s visible from the Space Shuttle. The Environmental Protection Agency has found high levels of lead and arsenic in area creeks, and a 72-square-mile plume of contamination has rendered a large area of local groundwater too polluted for human consumption. The EPA recommended listing the mine as a federal Superfund site in 1994.

Rio Tinto claims that it has turned over a new leaf and is seeking to be a responsible environmental steward. “Respect for the environment is central to our approach to sustainable development,” the company states on its website, while Tom Albanese, the company’s CEO, has said, “I think it’s important for the trendsetters, for the leaders like Rio Tinto, to be setting a higher level of expectation.”

“We couldn’t agree more,” says Kiekow, “but Rio Tinto needs to walk the talk. It can do that by acknowledging that Bristol Bay is simply the wrong place to put a mine.”

NRDC is pressing the company to put its environmental rhetoric to the test by withdrawing its backing for the Pebble Mine. We’re launching a media blitz prior to the company’s annual shareholders’ meeting in April, including full-page newspaper ads that will generate public opposition to Rio Tinto’s involvement in the Pebble Mine project. And we’re calling on our Members and BioGems Defenders to join the next phase of this campaign by signing an online petition to Rio Tinto. Our goal is to present company leaders with the signatures of more than a hundred thousand concerned activists who want to preserve the natural splendor of Bristol Bay and keep its extraordinary ecosystem intact.

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~ by FSVSF Admin on 21 March, 2011.

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