Rio Tinto: The dirty secret in our own backyard

(Originally posted at

While many Salt Lake City residence listen to 30 second Rio Tinto Kennecott radio plugs, touting their importance in our community, it doesn’t take much to scratch off the gilded surface of their less-than-perfect corporate record. Globally, Rio Tinto–the second largest mining corporation in the world–finds itself at the top of controversial charts for issues concerning safety, human rights abuses, environmental impact, and tax issues. Now, along the Wasatch Front, we must consider a more insidious problem with Rio Tinto. What does the collateral damage of being neighbors with a major polluter really mean?

In Salt Lake City, that cost is becoming clear with recent lawsuits filed by Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment and Utah Mom’s for Clean Air. In fact sheets from the suit, it states that Rio Tinto is responsible for 30% of total air pollution within Salt Lake County, an area that regularly receives an “F” ranking for air quality within particulate matter and ozone levels and is in consistent violation of the EPA’s national air quality standards.

Even so, the state continues to support Rio Tinto and its plans for expansion. Most recently this was seen with the Utah Division of Air Quality exempting the corporation from a new set of regulations that other local business will have to adhere to. The regulatory solutions currently proposed are like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, when we should be steering the ship by holding Rio Tinto accountable. Even so, Rio Tinto is one of the best green-washers around, and nothing quells community outrage better than a fantastic public relations campaign. For our neighborhoods’ largest polluter, that looks like involving corporate partnership with community organizations, financial backing for multiple high-profile buildings and reassuring advertisements regularly pushed all around the valley.

In one prominent ad, Rio Tinto claims to “foster an understanding of science as a journey of discovery.” If that’s true, then why do they fail to recognize the very real scientific impact their industries have on the most heavily populated area in the Wasatch Front? Rio Tinto states they are “committed to supporting the environment… committed to sustainable development” and they even “support clean renewable energy”. All of these statements ring hollow when we recognize that Rio Tinto’s pollution has aided in creating and aggravating chronic diseases of the heart, lungs and brain, not to mention heralded in more severe impacts from climate change with massive greenhouse gas emissions.

We can see a similar story reflected at another Rio Tinto mine sight just across the continental divide. A recent federal court case settled in July 2012 found Wisconsin based Flambeau Mining Company, (another Rio Tinto subsidiary) in violation of the clean water act for an improper reclamation of a closed mining operation. This has left yet another front-line community with high levels of toxic pollutants along the Flambeau River. In this instance, multiple community groups and organizations alike had tried to file suit against the mining giant on multiple occasions, and they finally succeeded this past July in calling out their corporate neighbor for its mistreatment of the land, the river, and the Ojibwe tribal communities most affected by the mine sight.

It’s time we stop pretending that the same corporate polluter that fought tooth and nail to not deal with their environmental messes in other communities would think twice before abusing more front-line communities in our own back yard. Being a good corporate citizen means more than buying community support through small scale humanitarian projects, it means stopping the pollution in its tracks, it means playing a whole different kind of economic game. If Rio Tinto really believes that “aligning [their] needs with the needs of the community is the key to [their] future”, they would step up and recognize that our community needs begin with a respect for life, for health and for our collective future.