People & Power

The Great Olympic Greenwash

We investigate alleged violations of environmental standards by a key sponsor of the London 2012 Olympic Games.

London will soon play host to the 2012 Olympics, which organisers boast will be the most environmentally friendly Games ever. But with the metal for all competitor medals coming from one huge polluting hole in the ground in Utah, could London’s 2012 legacy be more greenwash than green?

By Mei-Ling McNamara

In April of this year, while the 2012 Olympics test events were continuing apace in the pools and stadiums of London, I was with a documentary film crew in Salt Lake City, Utah – driving up, and into, one of the largest open-pit mines in the world. With the mercury rising to record levels in this arid corner of the western US, a trip to the Kennecott Copper Mine was less a visitor’s tour than it was a fact-finding mission.

This year’s medals, the largest and heaviest in Olympic history, will be made almost entirely from the raw materials extracted and smelted at the Kennecott Copper Mine, owned by Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. But now this mine is also at the centre of a federal lawsuit in the Utah courts, where Rio Tinto Kennecott stands accused of violating the US Clean Air Act for over five years.

Stretching 3.22km wide and 1.2km deep, the Kennecott mining operation, generating one quarter of all US copper, as well as a portion of its gold, silver and molybdenum, has never been too far from controversy. Its size has much to do with it: producing more copper than any other mine in history, it is said to be the largest man-made hole on the planet. But the vast amount of waste generated as a result of the mine has made it the single largest industrial polluter in the Salt Lake City basin, contributing a hefty amount to the region’s total overall pollution.

Now a coalition of environmental, health and advocacy groups have said Rio Tinto are endangering the health of Salt Lake City citizens by flouting emission standards set by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The coalition alleges that the totality of Rio Tinto’s operations in Utah are contributing to making Salt Lake City one of the worst cities in the country for acute air pollution. Rio Tinto maintains it has received permission to expand its operations with all the necessary approvals from the state of Utah.

As the official mining and metals provider for the games, sponsor Rio Tinto is contractually bound to the London Organising Committee’s Sustainable Sourcing Code, a set of guidelines that hold suppliers to rigorous environmental and ethical standards. This code essentially contains the blueprint for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) to make good on its promise to deliver the “greenest games ever”. It says that should any legitimate grievance come to the attention of LOCOG, it will make every effort to investigate claims made about its sponsors.  

The plaintiffs allege that while Olympians compete in stadiums throughout the city of London, Utah’s children are struggling to breathe under the intensely polluted air in Salt Lake City. According to Dr Brian Moench, a physician involved in the lawsuit, getting Rio Tinto to reduce their emissions is one way to ameliorate health problems linked to excessive pollution in the valley.

“It is hard to identify any particular disease as being unequivocally related to air pollution,” Moench says. “But the medical data suggests that air pollution affects the heart, the lungs, the brain, the placenta, virtually every organ system in your body. So it can have a potential role in either triggering or exacerbating a whole multitude of chronic diseases.”

Rio Tinto Kennecott declined to meet us in Utah to discuss the lawsuit, but provided a statement which said:

“Kennecott continues to operate within the parameters of its air permits and is consistently in compliance with the US, EPA and Utah Division of Air Quality regulations, which are based on strict standards for protecting human health.”

The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games has admitted to Al Jazeera English that they are aware of the federal lawsuit being levelled at Rio Tinto in Utah, but are planning to take no further steps towards questioning the sustainability credentials of the company.

They told Al Jazeera: “We have received no complaints and no representation has been made to us, so there is nothing to investigate. We are completely satisfied with Rio Tinto.”

In April, Cherise Udell, a Utah mother who is also on the lawsuit against Rio Tinto, came to London to address the company’s CEO and shareholders directly at their annual general meeting. She also met with Olympic officials looking after the event’s green pledges to report on the problems in Salt Lake City.

“I think the best part was our request that they [Sustainable Commission 2012] then pass on to the larger Olympic committee that they really set up a set of standards, a set of criteria, on which they are judged before they become endorsers,” she said.

The Rio Tinto Kennecott mine will be providing 99 per cent of all the metal ores for every gold, silver and bronze Olympian in this year’s Games. The 2012 London ‘One Planet’ Olympics won its billion-pound bid off the back of its sustainability promises for a carbon-neutral, low impact event.

With a little over one month to go until the London 2012 Olympics, criticisms of the Games’ sponsors are reaching a crescendo. The concept of ‘sustainability’ will need to stand up to scrutiny if London is to truly achieve its vision of “the greenest games ever”. How that can happen before any contrarian voices are drowned out by the cheers of Olympic crowds, however, is up to us.

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Thursday, June 21: 0930 GMT
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Saturday, June 23: 1630 GMT
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Wednesday, June 26: 1630 GMT