The international campaign against the proposal to build the massive Pebble Mine above Bristol Bay in southwest Alaska moved to London this week.
Rio Tinto, one of the backers of the proposed mega-mine, held its annual general meeting of shareholders at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Center near Westminster Abbey, and environmental and human rights groups from around the world gathered to question the company’s board about a long list of mining ventures gone bad for the communities around them. Groups from Indonesia, Australia, Mongolia, Utah, the Upper Michigan Peninsula, Alaska, and elsewhere were represented, and, as in years past, a significant part of the three-hour meeting was devoted to hearing about these projects.
NRDC is there too, along with Kimberly Williams, Executive Director of Nunamta Aulukestai (“Keepers of the Land” in Yupik), an association of nine village corporations in southwest Alaska and one of the leaders of the coalition in the Bristol Bay region of Alaska opposed to the mine. Our purpose is to urge Rio Tinto’s management and board to end the company’s participation in the Pebble Mine project – just as Mitsubishi Corporation ended its participation in February – because we consider it to be, from an environmental and an economic perspective, one of the worst development proposals anywhere in the world today.
On Tuesday afternoon, Kimberly and I, along with Jason Metrokin (the CEO of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation, the largest private landowner in the Bristol Bay region), former Alaska State Senate President Rick Halford, and former President of the Igiugig Village Tribal Council Lydia Olympic, met with Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese and his team in Rio Tinto’s offices to make the same pitch. That hour-long meeting, arranged by the company in response to NRDC’s request, gave us a rare opportunity to present our views directly to the top management of the company in a private setting. Our intent was to initiate a dialogue that we hope, over time, will persuade Rio Tinto to abandon its interest in the Pebble Mine.
This high-powered delegation of leaders from the region most under threat from the Pebble Mine made three main points: (1) that the proposed mega-mine poses an unacceptable risk to the $400 million-per-year wild salmon fishery that has sustained the communities of Bristol Bay for generations; (2) that the project is overwhelmingly opposed by over 80 percent of the region’s residents; and (3) that the project can’t be reconciled with Rio Tinto’s own standards of respect for sustainability, environment, cultural heritage, and community relations.
On Thursday, at the shareholder meeting, Kimberly and I reiterated these points and urged the members of the board to reconsider the company’s support of the project. Both Rio Tinto’s Albanese and the Board Chairman Jan du Plessis reported that, in their view, the private meeting two days before had been a positive and productive exchange of serious concerns, and Albanese indicated that he, too, had questions about the feasibility of a giant open pit mine at the proposed location, but he believed a smaller, underground mine in the same area could be more viable.
We responded categorically that any significant mine, open pit or underground, at the headwaters of the Bristol Bay watershed was inalterably unacceptable and, in our judgment, flatly inconsistent with Rio Tinto’s publicly stated environmental, cultural, and social policies. We supported the conviction of our position by providing to Chairman du Plessis over 57,000 petitions of opposition generated by NRDC members and activists, bringing the total number of such petitions provided to the Pebble corporate partners to over 300,000 in just the past 12 months.
A focus on Rio Tinto’s string of public statements on community relations and respect for the environment was also the theme of a full-page ad in Thursday’s London Financial Times, funded by NRDC and co-signed by NRDC and seven other coalition members, including Nunumta. “Rio Tinto: Talk is cheap,” the headline read, and the text cautioned Rio Tinto’s shareholders to “watch what Rio Tinto does, not what it says.” The ad urged the company to follow Mitsubishi Corporation’s example and withdraw from the Pebble project.
Next week, NRDC will be running another full-page ad, this time in the New York Times and headlined by actor/director and long-time conservationist Robert Redford, demanding in a bold headline that Rio Tinto and Anglo American not do to Bristol Bay what, through the massive Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, Rio Tinto has done in his backyard. The visual comparison provided by the ad between Bristol Bay’s pristine wilderness today and the massive open pit scarring the landscape at Bingham Canyon captures in a compelling and graphic way exactly what is at stake for the people, the communities, and the wildlife – especially the wild salmon – of Bristol Bay.
Update: Photos from the Rio Tinto shareholder meeting in London yesterday (first photo showing NRDC's Joel Reynolds and Nunamta Aulukestai's Kimberly Williams with Rio Tinto CEO Tom Albanese and Board Chairman Jan du Plessis; second photo showing Kimberly Williams holding over 57,000 petitions opposing the Pebble Mine), courtesy Joel Reynolds.