Two of the world's biggest mining companies endured a barrage of protests yesterday, as a broad coalition of unions, individuals, social and environmental groups from as far afield as South Africa and Mongolia travelled to London for Rio Tinto and Anglo American's annual meetings.
First up was Rio Tinto, where protesters wearing cardboard gold medals labelled "Don't let Rio Tinto tarnish the Olympics" greeted the shareholders. The protesters are angry that the miner is a key sponsor of the 2012 Olympics, arguing that its environmental record makes a mockery of the claim these will be the greenest Games ever.
The company is providing the gold, silver and bronze for the Games' 4,700 medals – a total of eight tonnes – from its mines in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Mongolia. Holding a "Utah Moms for Clean Air" banner, Alexandra Allred, a former US bobsled champion, said: "They call Salt Lake City God's country. God's country is being spat on right now."
Zanaa Jurmed, who travelled from Mongolia for the meeting, said: "There is an increasing lack of water around the mine in Mongolia as Rio Tinto sucks up the underground water."
Rio Tinto said: "In Salt Lake City, Rio operates strictly within the parameters of its air permits and complies with federal and state air quality regulations... [In Mongolia] Rio has committed to zero impact on community water sources."
At Anglo American's AGM, the miner came under fire amid allegations its South African subsidiary is responsible for cases of silicosis and tuberculosis in the country contracted between the 1960s and 1990s. About 1,200 former gold miners suffering the lung diseases are bringing a case against it in the High Court in London next month.
Among those at the AGM was Daniel Seabata Thakamakau, a 66-year-old South African gold miner who says he contracted tuberculosis as a result of years working at mines in which Anglo had a minority stake. Mr Thakamakau said: "Me and my family have been severely affected by my health issues, which mean I can't support us all like I used to... I gave the best years of my life to that company. We were treated like animals."
Silicosis, an incurable lung disease, is caused by inhaling silica dust and can leave sufferers vulnerable to TB.
Sir John Parker, Anglo American's chairman, told the AGM: "We do not believe we are liable in any way from these claims and are defending this action." Anglo, which spent $30m (£19m) on health and social programmes in South Africa last year, says that its business there only had a minority interest in the gold miners which operated the mines, and those firms were responsible for the health and safety of their employees.
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