Pebble Mine: Delivering Congratulations, Not Petitions, to Rio Tinto

Compared to our meetings in 2011, 2012, and 2013, this year’s meeting in London with Rio Tinto’s leadership about the proposed Pebble Mine had a very different feel.   Earlier in the week, after four years of discussions with NRDC and our Alaskan partners, the company announced its decision to walk away from the project - ending its participation in this uniquely reckless mining scheme and donating its 19.1% interest to two Alaskan charities.

We’ve gone each year to fight the Pebble Mine -- a 21st Century example of what the mining industry will do if given free reign, based on promises of safety, sustainability, and technological innovation that can’t be kept and must not be believed.  Since 2010, usually bearing volumes of petitions of opposition  from our Members and activists, we’ve attended meetings with Rio Tinto or Anglo American.  We have been accompanied by our Alaskan partners, some of whom began attending the Anglo American meetings in 2009.  In 2010, I also traveled to Tokyo to meet with leadership of Mitsubishi Corporation, a former significant Pebble shareholder that quietly sold all of its interest in the project eight months later.

This has become an essential aspect of our advocacy with multi-national corporations: meeting privately with company leadership and participating in the once-a-year public gathering of their shareholders, of which – in order to gain access -- we are one.  Attending the shareholder meetings is no fun, requiring immersion in a world where natural resources are for extraction and exploitation, where representatives from far-flung communities seeking remediation and redress from contamination recount the tragic impacts of mining on their daily lives.

But this year promised to be different for the residents of Bristol Bay – and for those of us supporting their cause.

One week after Rio Tinto announced its decision to divest from Pebble Mine, we were sitting across the table once again from Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh and his leadership team in their London offices.   We were there to thank them for listening to the people of Bristol Bay who, by overwhelming numbers, have consistently voiced their opposition to the mine – a project that embodies the greatest threat ever posed to the economic lifeblood of the region, the Bristol Bay wild salmon fishery.

Bobby Andrew, Joel Reynolds, Rio CEO Sam Walsh, Kim Williams, Bonnie Gestring, Rio Director of Copper Jean-Sebastien Jacques, Rio General Counsel Debra Valentine, Rio VP for External Affairs Todd Malan

Each of us in turn – including Bobby Andrew (Yupik elder and spokesperson for Nunamta Aulukestai, an association of Bristol Bay village corporations and tribes; Kim Williams, Executive Director of Nunamta Aulukestai; and Bonnie Gestring, Circuitrider for Earthworks) -- delivered a simple message:  that Rio Tinto had fulfilled its commitment to Bristol Bay’s communities to act responsibly in a manner consistent with protection of the wild salmon fishery and the wishes of the people who depend on it.  Given the scope of the proposed Pebble Mine and the unavoidable risks of contamination associated with its location, there is only one responsible course – divestment – and that is precisely what Rio Tinto had done.  The company deserved congratulations, and we conveyed it unequivocally.

One day later, we delivered the same message to Rio Tinto’s board of directors at the Annual General Meeting of the company, and Board chair Jan de Plessis responded warmly, with appreciation for the seriousness of the Bristol Bay communities’ concerns and the constructive manner in which those concerns had consistently been communicated.   I presented de Plessis and Walsh with a copy of the full page ad run by NRDC that same morning in the London Financial Times, under the banner headline “Thank you Rio Tinto for leaving the Pebble Mine.”

Kim Williams, Rio CEO Sam Walsh, Joel Reynolds, Rio Chair Jan de Plessis, Rio Director of Copper Jean-Sebastien Jacques, Bobby Andrew

But while Rio Tinto’s participation has now ended, the battle against the Pebble Mine continues.  Just last Thursday, in a speech to the Alaska Miners Association in Fairbanks, the recently hired  CEO of the Pebble Partnership’s last remaining mining partner – Northern Dynasty Minerals – reaffirmed the company’s determination to proceed, committed to finding another funding partner, and pledged to move forward with federal permitting.  He once again attacked EPA’s involvement in review of the project, railing against the agency’s initiation in February of a process under its federal Clean Water Act powers to prohibit or restrict the project.

So, despite major progress against the Pebble project, our work isn’t done, and we remain committed to continuing the fight – along with our Members and activists in support of the people of Bristol Bay – to protect the region, its resources, and its communities from certain contamination.  We must stop the Pebble Mine once and for all.

Take a moment to celebrate the success thus far – and particularly last week’s divestment by Rio Tinto.  And then take action to derail Northern Dynasty Minerals’ mindless pursuit of this destructive mining scheme.