THE BLOG
09/24/2013 04:24 pm ET Updated Nov 24, 2013

Rio Tinto's Opportunity: Leave the Pebble Mine

Yesterday, in Forbes, mining giant Rio Tinto's CEO Sam Walsh, with General Electric's CEO Jeffrey Immelt, offered his support to the process, underway at the United Nations this week, for the design of global sustainable development goals, replacing the Millennium Development Goals in 2015. NRDC has been deeply involved in this process -- one whose fundamental purpose is to create a global roadmap to sustainability -- and we welcome the engagement of these two global companies. We endorse the view that business is an essential partner in designing and achieving these goals.

But we believe it is essential that these companies, two of the world's largest, acknowledge and fully endorse the "three pillars of sustainability" -- economics, social equity, and environment. In their statement today, while much is said about the need for a growing economy, the importance of addressing infrastructure poverty and empowering women, and the value of transparency, nothing is said about the environmental dimension of sustainability or the importance of protecting the ecosystems that sustain us today. In this fundamental respect, we believe they have failed to articulate an effective vision.

We expect these companies and others like them to do more than simply talk about sustainability; we need them to demonstrate, in their core activities, that their commitment is real. To accomplish this, we look to their actions and, specifically, whether the activities they undertake today threaten to compromise the ability of future generations to meet their needs.

There is no better test today than the Pebble Mine, and, right now, Rio Tinto has a unique opportunity to signal to the world that its commitment to sustainability is genuine. We urge Rio Tinto the seize that opportunity.

Proposed for the headwaters of the world's greatest wild salmon fishery, the Pebble Mine would be one of the world's largest gold and copper mines, generating an estimated 10 billion tons of contaminated mining waste to be contained forever behind massive earthen dams in a region of complex hydrology, high water table, and known seismic risk. According to a recent study being completed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, development of the Pebble Mine or other large scale mine in this region could be "catastrophic."

The Pebble Mine is opposed by over 80 percent of the region's residents who, along with the region's wildlife, depend on the health of the wild salmon fishery for their survival, as their ancestors have for millennia. According to a recent study produced the University of Alaska, the Bristol Bay fisheries generate $1.5 billion in revenue each year and tens of thousands of jobs.

Environmentally and economically, this is a sustainable ecosystem second to none in the world.

Last week, the 50 percent partner in the Pebble Mine -- Anglo American -- walked away from the project. Two years ago, another significant shareholder in the project -- Mitsubishi Corporation -- sold its interest.

It's time now for Rio Tinto, which holds a 20 percent stake in the Pebble Mine, to withdraw.

We applaud the company's work with sheepherders in Mongolia, described at length in the Forbes piece, to establish cooperatives, improve winter fodder provision, and otherwise assist them to "improve productivity, quality, and ultimately their revenue." And NRDC has worked productively with Rio Tinto, as a leader in the mining sector, in recognizing the critical need to address climate change.

But Rio Tinto's continuing participation in a project that threatens certain destruction to one of the best examples of a sustainable ecosystem anywhere in the world today -- a project overwhelming opposed by the people who live in the region -- can't be reconciled with its verbal commitment to sustainability. And it can't be tolerated.

We urge Rio Tinto to re-examine its financial participation in the Pebble Mine. Surely, its resources can be used more sustainably and more productively elsewhere, in projects more likely to generate an economic return. Because if the region's residents and the Bristol Bay fishing industry have anything to say about it -- supported for as long as it takes by NRDC -- the Pebble Mine will never see the light of day.