Earth Day 2013 - Pebble Mine Opposition Outlasts Anglo American and Rio Tinto CEOs

Today is Earth Day -- a day to celebrate and strengthen our year-round commitment to protecting the world's great endangered places.  These are natural gems -- biogems -- that enrich us all.  Special places on our small planet we simply can't afford to lose.

Like Bristol Bay, Alaska, the world's Fort Knox of wild salmon, where each year an estimated 30 to 50 million return to the pristine waters of southwest Alaska.  It's a biological system that has sustained the people, wildlife, and communities of the region for millennia -- culturally, socially, spiritually, environmentally, and economically. And it's a place imminently threatened by the massive open pit Pebble Mine proposed by foreign mining giants Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and Northern Dynasty Minerals for construction at the headwaters of the watershed.

Taking Pebble Mine Opposition to the Companies in London

Last week in London, I joined a delegation of Bristol Bay leaders, including Bobby Andrew, Yup'ik elder, life-long fisherman, and spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of Bristol Bay native village corporations; Jason Metrokin, CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the largest private landowner in the region and billion-dollar developer; and, representing the younger generation, Verner Wilson, also a Bristol Bay fisherman, a field representative for WWF-US, and a graduate of Brown University, scheduled to enter Yale University this fall as a graduate student in environmental management.

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Together, we met the CEOs of Anglo American and Rio Tinto, and we spoke at their annual shareholder meetings, as we and others have now done for the last five years.  On the day of the Rio Tinto's annual meeting, we placed a full page ad in the London Financial Times, joined by a dozen other Alaskan, national, and international organizations and featuring Bobby Andrew, on behalf of the coalition. Once again, we conveyed the overwhelming opposition of Bristol Bay residents and the international community to this uniquely dangerous mining project.

When I describe the Pebble Mine to just about anyone, the usual reaction is disbelief – that a proposal to build a massive open pit mine at the headwaters of the world’s greatest wild salmon fishery could be serious.  In fact, last week in London, even one of the Pebble Partnership’s own advocates – a representative of the wholly Pebble-funded Nuna Resources – told me he’s surprised that only 81% of Bristol Bay residents oppose the project.  “As you describe it, it should be 100%,” he said. 

I couldn’t agree more.   But that’s where the agreement ends.

What we cite as fact, the Pebble Mine consortium and Nuna Resources call "fear-mongering" and "scare tactics."  The finding by EPA, based on a comprehensive two-year scientific study, that large-scale mining in the Bristol Bay region would devastate the fishery.  The toxicity of minute amounts of copper to salmon.  The dismal record of contamination associated ith virtually every large-scale mine ever built.  The repeated polls showing overwhelming local opposition to the mine proposal.  None of this gets traction with the Pebble mining companies and their Pebble-created, "Potemkin Village" agents like Nuna Resources. 

And the over 1.3 million petitions (including 200,000 last week) submitted in opposition to the mine by NRDC activists and others are dismissed as outside interference.  


Indeed, even Bristol Bay communities like Dillingham - the largest population center in the region and home of the thriving Bristol Bay fishery -- are dismissed as outsiders "150 miles away."  In fact, of the 31 communities in the region, an estimated 27 of them oppose the mine.

Welcome to the world of Anglo American, Rio Tinto, and Northern Dynasty -- the Pebble Partnership.

The 2013 CEO and Shareholder Meetings

Because 2012 was a bad year for the Pebble project and for these mining companies in particular - both introduced new CEOs this week - the companies' presentations to their shareholders focused substantially on how they would cut costs and strengthen financial returns.  But as always, the question and answer periods were dominated by one question after another from community representatives around the globe -- from Mongolia to South America to Alaska to South Africa -- describing mines gone bad, poisoned rivers, polluted communities, mining-related illness, broken promises, and protracted negotiations, mediations, or arbitrations about mitigation, compensation, and yet-delivered reparations. 

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In hearing this litany of destroyed communities, I couldn't help wonder how the Nuna Resources representatives could fail to see their own future in these painful stories should the Pebble Mine ever get built.  Inexplicably, they believe the companies' confident assurances that this mine will be different, that Bristol Bay will be protected.

By contrast, the great majority of Bristol Bay residents believe none of these assurances, but their representatives in London are nevertheless unfailing in their courtesy and relentless in their focus.  For years they've been coming to London to appear at the Anglo American shareholder meeting.  Since 2010, NRDC has joined them, adding a focus on Mitsubishi (which later withdrew from the project) and Rio Tinto, and this year, as in 2011 and 2012, we met privately with the CEO of Rio Tinto, now Sam Walsh, a 63-year old career mining executive from Australia.  Last year, after such a meeting, then-CEO Tom Albanese announced publicly that Rio Tinto does not support an open pit mine at Pebble, proposing instead an underground approach -- an approach that no one, including Anglo, endorses.  We urged him to get out of the project altogether rather continue participating in a project that, by its own admission, they fundamentally reject.  While CEO Walsh assured us repeatedly this year that they have no immediate plans to develop the Pebble Mine, they are not yet prepared to divest.

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At the shareholder meetings, the mining company chairmen invariably thank the community representatives for travelling to London and for their questions, promising that they have been heard and that the companies are addressing the issues consistent with law and industry practice.  But these discussions seem only to deepen the victims' frustration and disappointment.  During Anglo's shareholder meeting last week, for example, a young woman from Colombia named Graciela Romero angrily asked the chairman Sir John Parker, "How can you say you are listening?  You say you are listening but it is clear that these are only words, and you are not listening at all.  Do you not understand how disrespectful this is?"  Sir John turned to the next question.

NRDC is committed, not just on Earth Day but for as long as it takes, to do everything we can to ensure that the residents of Bristol Bay never find themselves in this position -- demanding undelivered mitigation or unpaid reparations for the contamination of their communities and destruction of their way of life.  Last week we took the battle to London.  This week, we are once again in Washington, D.C.  And so the battle continues.

But we can prevail - the residents of Bristol Bay can succeed - only with your help.  Take action now.

It's time to stop the Pebble Mine.

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