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Rio Tinto Targeted in Campaign Against Olympic Sponsors

By Andrea Smardon

Salt Lake City, UT – Cherise Udell is the founder and President of Utah Moms for Clear Air. When the Olympic Committee announced that the 2012 summer games would be the greenest ever, she was all for it.

"Then I heard the list of companies that were becoming sponsors of this Olympics - Dow Chemical being one of them, Rio Tinto another," said Udell, "Knowing what I know about this company, my eyebrows went up and went hmm.. green, really?"

Udell has been pressuring Rio Tinto for years to reduce the impacts of their mining operations on air quality in the Wasatch front. So she felt conflicted when she heard that Rio Tinto would be providing the metal to make the 2012 gold, silver and bronze Olympic medals.

"On one hand as a Utahn, I'm very proud that the metals for the medals is coming from the Bingham mine, right here in our community, our land. On the other hand, this metal is being touted as green, and Kennecott is gliding into the Olympic arena as a green company," she said."

Udell aims to challenge the concept that Rio Tinto is a green company, and her main method is public embarrassment.

"This really is an amazing opportunity because the world is watching London, so we basically have a platform that we don't normally have to bring this message out to an international audience," Udell said.

Udell is joining forces with the London Mining Network - a coalition of groups concerned about the global impact of mining companies funded, listed, or based in London. Coordinator Richard Solly says Rio Tinto is a company they've been targeting for a while.

"Rio Tinto by virtue of its size and age, has quite an impressive history of involvement with environmental devastation, association of human rights abuse, and bad labor relations," Solly said.

A coalition of environmental and human rights organizations are launching what they call a Greenwash Gold campaign at Amnesty Human Rights Center, staging a mock competition for the worst - or least ethical - Olympic sponsor. In addition to Rio Tinto, the campaign is focused on Dow Chemical and BP.

"We hope that more people in this country - others around the world - will become aware of what these three companies have done and that they need to clean up their act," said Solly.

Meanwhile, Rio Tinto has been staging its own campaign of sorts, touting its commitment to sustainable development. This Youtube video released last week features a senior engineer from Kennecott Utah Copper.

"Rio Tinto's Kennecott Utah Copper has invested hundreds of millions of dollars to improve Utah's air quality and reduce our environmental impacts," the engineer says.

A spokesperson declined to be interviewed for the story, but sent a statement, saying that Kennecott operates within the parameters of its air permits and is consistently in compliance with U.S. EPA and Utah Division of Air Quality regulations. The statement says that Kennecott is committed to reducing its environmental impacts and is upgrading its power plant to make significant reductions in emissions.

Cherise Udell acknowledges that Kennecott has taken positive steps, but she says the company is still the largest single source of air pollution in the Salt Lake valley. Rio Tinto has said they are converting three of four coal-fire power plants to natural gas, but Udell wants to see the last one decommissioned as well.

"I don't expect to get any promises from them of course at the shareholders meeting which I will be attending as a proxy shareholder, or as a result of the public relations campaign that we are mounting, said Udell, "But ultimately what I want them to do is just pay the true cost of doing business, and stop externalizing those costs onto the people, community, and children of Utah."

Udell is hoping her message will resonate in London, as she and others from around the world tell their stories to company shareholders, Olympics officials, fellow activists, and the public at large.

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