Pollution from the copper mine chosen to produce metal for the medals awarded at the 2012 London Olympics is responsible for up to 200 premature deaths each year, campaigners have claimed.
Rio Tinto, the Anglo-Australian mining giant, which made $14.3bn (£8.7bn) last year, will supply the metal ores for the medals from its Kennecott Utah Copper mine in Salt Lake City, Utah. But protesters, who travelled from Utah to attend Rio Tinto's AGM in London yesterday, blamed air pollution and toxic materials emitted from the plant for premature deaths and congenital defects in Salt Lake's children.
Under the deal agreed with the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (Locog), Rio Tinto mines will provide metals for 4,700 gold, silver and bronze medals for the Olympic and Paralympic Games.
Gold Olympic medals are plated with about 6 grams of gold, while the runners-up medals are struck from pure silver. The Royal Mint will then craft the final product, which will be the most expensive medals in history due to soaring commodity prices. Chris Townsend, Locog's commercial director, said he hoped the medals, which will cost Rio Tinto about £10m to source, would be "spectacular and sustainable".
The Utah Bingham Canyon mine, the largest open pit mining operation in the world, generates nearly 25 per cent of the refined copper produced in the US and 7 per cent of all refined gold.
Forbes magazine has listed Salt Lake City as the 9th most toxic major metropolitan area in the US. The city also ranked worst in the country according to a Toxics Release Inventory tracked by the Environmental Protection Agency. Dr Brian Moench, of Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment, told The Independent: "There is no other juxtaposition of such an enormous mine so close to this many people anywhere in the world. We are all suffering the health consequences.
"The research shows the impact of air pollution on disrupting the integrity of the embryo in pregnant women and congenital deformities. Air pollution is responsible for between 100 and 200 premature deaths every year in Salt Lake City."
Rio Tinto, whose profits soared by 200 per cent in 2010, this week announced plans to expand the Salt Lake plant, increasing the county's air pollution by an estimated 12 per cent. Dr Moench said: "The business model of Rio Tinto is the routine exploitation of local people to maximise profits. Rather than striking medals for the London Games we would much rather they took their £14 billion profit and used it to clean up our air and reinvest their funds into wind and solar power alternatives to coal and natural gas."
Rio Tinto said its Utah mine extension would reduce emissions by 9 per cent. A spokesman said: "It will have a net benefit to the emissions profile mainly due to the conversion of the existing power plant from coal to natural gas." The company had met environmental groups, including Utah Moms for Clean Air, to address the potential impact of the project.
A smaller amount of the Olympic medal ores will be produced at another controversial Rio Tinto plant, the Oyu Tolgoi mine in Mongolia, the world's largest undeveloped source of copper and gold deposits. Mongolian-based environmental groups called for a delay in the project, citing concerns over scarcity of water, dust pollution and the impact on protected bird habitats in the Gobi Desert.
Rio Tinto has been forced to fend off a series of allegations of human rights abuses at its plants in Indonesia and Papua New Guinea. In 2008, Norway banned its sovereign wealth fund from investing in the company because of environmental concerns.