London-based Rio Tinto, one of the largest mining companies in the world, announced Monday that it is abandoning its 19.1 percent stake in the embattled Pebble Mine proposed for Alaska’s pristine Bristol Bay area.
Rather than selling its shares, Rio Tinto will equally divide them between two Alaskan charities: the Alaska Community Foundation to fund educational and vocational training and the Bristol Bay Native Corporation Education Foundation, which supports educational and cultural programmes in the region.
“Rio Tinto has long and historic ties to Alaska and we continue to see Alaska as an attractive location for potential future investment. By giving our shares to two respected Alaskan charities, we are ensuring that Alaskans will have a say in Pebble’s future development and that any economic benefit supports Alaska’s ability to attract investment that creates jobs,” wrote Rio Tinto Copper chief executive Jean-Sebastien Jacques on the company’s website.
If allowed to go forward, Pebble Mine could be the largest copper and gold mine in North America. The mine’s proposed location in the headwaters of the Bristol Bay fishery — the most productive wild salmon fishery in the world — has sparked local and national opposition including Tiffany & Co. as well as 50 other major jewelers who have committed not to source gold from the mine.
Rio Tinto first indicated it was considering getting out of the project last December after two trustees for large pension funds that are major shareholders in the company — California State Controller John Chiang and New York City Comptroller John Liu — put pressure on the company to divest from the environmentally irresponsible project.
Rio Tinto’s decision to walk away from its interest in the mine is just the latest significant setback to the project. In 2011, Mitsubishi Corporation sold its interest, and in 2013, Anglo American withdrew from its 50 percent partnership in the project. That move made Northern Dynasty Minerals, a small Canadian company the sole owner of the controversial proposed mine.
“Between Anglo American’s decision last year and Rio Tinto’s announcement this week, about two-thirds of the mine’s overall investment has now been withdrawn,” said Michael Conathan, Director of Ocean Policy at the Center for American Progress. “Rio Tinto was the biggest player still left in.”
“Their decision is like pulling the dying project off life support.”
On February 28, the Environmental Protection Agency announced its intention to use a little known provision under the Clean Water Act to protect Bristol Bay. The provision, section 404©, allows the agency to “prohibit, restrict, deny, or withdraw” an area at risk of “unacceptable adverse effects” on water, fisheries, wildlife, or recreation resources. EPA has used the process just 13 times in the 40 years of the Clean Water Act.
EPA’s decision to begin this process comes after its three-year comprehensive scientific study of the effects of proposed mining operations in the area, concluded in January that Pebble Mine would have “significant” and potentially “catastrophic” impacts on the watershed and its legendary salmon runs worth $1.5 billion annually to commercial fisheries and supporting 14,000 jobs.