Trigger Warning!
This world is a fucked-up, traumatizing, and hateful place. I live in this world, and so my words, experiences, and thoughts are birthed from within it. Further, it should come to no surprise that this blog will detail many of these fucked-up things in graphic detail. Fortunately, resilience is what I do, and I try my hardest to ferment inspiration from the darkest parts of my life. It's time to confront, it's time to resist, and of course... it's time to win.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

“Love, Earth®”

Wal-Mart's Yellow Brick Road to the Sustainable and Ethical Corporate Wonderland

In the past, environmental and human rights activists have made Wal-Mart the poster child for everything wrong with corporate greed and a crystal clear reflection of the wider consequences of globalization in general. Countless documentaries, reports, and lawsuits trace abuses by the world’s largest retailer so often that to do so has become passé.

But today is a new day, and Wal-Mart will soon become the prizefighter for the green revolution—or more appropriately the vanguard of ecological well-being. The people’s Big-Box Corporation is making way for their new Love, Earth® jewelry line. The same family who brought us the 3-gallon jar of pickles for $2.97 now offers us “fine jewelry created with materials from, Eco-responsible, community-friendly sources.” The largest private employer in the world has the resources and now the stated desire to help us attain an Eco-communal future, far surpassing the Lenin, Mao, and Castro revolutions of the past.

The revolution will be accessorized.

And why not? The inconvenient truth is that the world is getting hotter, so why not counter climate change by owning your own piece of “ice'? It wasn't so long ago that blood-free diamonds and responsibly-mined gold were things only affordable to the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio and other liberal elites. But in the era of “yes we can,” Eco-friendly gold is now accessible to us and our significant others—and all this with a price tag of just under a week’s worth of Starbucks' almost-fair-trade coffee. Not only can we all comfortably say “yes, we can” when it comes to purchasing Love, Earth® jewelry, we can say “yes, we will.”

In this melting global economy, Wal-Mart has turned to the motto “think globally, purchase locally.” Their main partner in this brave initiative is none other than the third largest mining company in the world, Rio Tinto. As an all-star multi-national mining group, Rio Tinto is the world's largest aluminum producer, the second largest in iron-ore mining, third largest in coal mining, and is responsible for 30% of the world’s all-natural diamond output. Rio Tinto also tops world mining and production lists in silver, uranium, talc, titanium dioxide, salt, borax, bauxite, lead, zinc, nickel, and molybdenum.

The Rio Tinto Group (RTG) has received countless awards for upstanding ethical behavior and sustainability and environmental practices from fellow multi-national corporations, including the Splenda-producing mogul Tate and Lyle. In return, Rio Tinto is the sponsor of its own sustainability award, recently recognizing a rubber and tire plant, several Indian tea plantations, a clear-cutting timber business, and everyone’s favorite oil company, Shell Oil.

With such a glorious background in world production and ethical practices, it would only be appropriate to shine more light on RTG’s incredibly rich and progressive history.

Rio: Flawless, just like its diamonds.

RTG has been a leader in stewardship of not only the land it mines, but also of its hard-working employees and neighboring communities. And as a responsible company should, RTG ensures safety and equality to all of its global employees, even those in the world's over-exploited—I mean under-developed—countries.

Wal-Mart's Love, Earth® jewelry line consists of 24 golden rules they like to call the “Environmental and Social Sourcing Criteria for Mining and Metals in Jewelry.” Talk about a mouthful! This lengthy title leads to an even more extensive list of requirements. The list seems more verbose and inspiring than the Bill of Rights, yet is more elusive and vaguely written than the Patriot Act.

In order to be accepted as Wal-Mart’s “green partner” in the brave endeavor of ethically-mined precious metals, it had to meet each articulated requirement of Wal-Mart’s golden 24 rules.

For example, gilded rule number ten states that: “When [a mining source is] operating in zones of armed conflict... [They] should seek to ensure that, through their actions or inaction, they are not benefiting from, supporting, contributing to, nor tacitly permitting human rights abuses or atrocities, either directly or indirectly.” It should come to no surprise that since the 1950’s, Rio Tinto proudly supported the oppressive apartheid governments of many nations around the world, including governments in South Africa and Papua New Guinea. RTG did so by not only setting up “white only” facilities, but also by directly providing these apartheid governments with money and military equipment. It seems more likely that RTG read rule ten to state that any mining company should guarantee “through their action or inaction,” that they are “benefiting from, supporting, contributing to... human rights abuses and atrocities."

The golden rules obscurely mention some concerns about mercury and cyanide contamination to human and environmental health. RTG's Namibian mine employees, along with other RTG African uranium mine employees, have been exposed to toxic levels of radiation, ultimately enduring disproportionate levels of cancer and other illnesses. Most, if not all, of RTG's opened and abandoned mines contain audacious amounts of mercury and cyanide contamination in amounts ranging from toxic to deadly.

RTG's PT Kelian Equatorial Mine (PT KEM) is just one of Rio Tinto’s many mines in the Indonesia region that has violated human rights. In 1989 the paramilitary police of General Suharto, yes Suharto, drove an uncounted amount of small scale local miners and farmers from their land to make the land open to acquisition by Rio Tinto. Later, RTG displaced another 440 families to make room for their mining operations. The Indonesian government's own National Human Rights Commission reports show that the military and PT KEM company security evicted miners, arrested protesters, and burnt down villages. I imagine somewhere or somehow this complies with Love, Earth® rule number thirteen, which requires the company:

“Seek to avoid or at least minimize involuntary resettlement of communities for new operations and expansion of existing operations and where this is unavoidable compensate fully, appropriately and fairly for adverse effects on individuals and communities with the objective of improving or at least to restore the livelihoods, standards of living, and living conditions of displaced people.”

Maybe RTG assumed that since the Suharto government had already inflicted enough hardship on locals, that full, fair, and appropriate compensation for burning down villages and physically assaulting villagers was a life forced even further into squalor.

This is not just ancient history either. As recent as 2001, a number of indigenous Dayak female employees have been involved in multiple cases of abuse, rape, and sexual harassment committed by senior mining staff. In many poor countries, the senior mining staff consists of well-educated foreigners, a good number who come from the United States, United Kingdom, Australia and other industrialized countries. This clearly shows respect and reverence of the 24 Love, Earth® golden rules, including number nine which states a mine should “have in place policies and practices that uphold fundamental human rights and respect cultures, customs and values in dealings with employees” enacting “policies and practices designed to eliminate harassment and unfair discrimination.” Maybe because subjecting women in poorer countries into sexual coercion and violence is something Wal-Mart knows all too much about they decided to let their buddies at RTG slide on rule nine.

In 2000, Australian television news show Dateline explained that local and indigenous inhabitants were murdered near and on a Brazilian Rio Tinto mine facility. One former guard told Dateline the company's head of security had “urged him and his colleagues to use violence and torture to discourage the miners." The employees at that same facility were also adversely—or more likely purposely—endangered and harmed. Contrary to the company doctor's reports, workers there had highly toxic levels of lead poisoning.

Practically every RTG mining operation in Africa, South America, Indonesia and other poor countries have reports of similar events, while virtually all operations globally have experienced union and worker suppression as well as cases of employee exposure to hazardous and toxic material.

In the world of dirty mining, we are blessed to have a system like Wal-Mart's 24 rules to help establish the basis for a 24-carat gold standard. A standard based in transfusing nasty little terms like apartheid, human rights abuse, rape, poison, contamination, and murder into the greener terminology of Eco-this and community that. By simply moving numbers from the neutered columns labeled “capital” and “resources” into the columns entitled “expenses” and “profits”, this corporate accounting alchemy develops poor foreign workers into profit rich skeletal remains, transforming backward native land into progressive toxic waste sites. The gullible may be quick to call this magic, but most know it as corporate efficient economics or more simply, sound business practices.

Green mining alchemists

The numerical alchemy responsible for the Love, Earth® line, although a part of a global foresight, seems to have its focus on a more local sight. In order to adhere to the motto “think globally, act locally,” RTG has decided that they will provide the gold and silver used for Wal-Mart's Love, Earth® collection from its Utah based subsidiary Kennecott.

Since the 1989 buyout from British Petroleum, Kennecott Utah Copper Corporation (KUCC) has been a prized jewel on the crown that represents Rio Tinto's mining dynasty. And why not? To keep up with Wal-Mart's $2.8 billion annual jewelry sales, RTG needed a lot of gold and silver, and what better place then Bingham Canyon in Utah, the world's largest open-pit mine. Considered the biggest hole made by man in the world, KUCC's Bingham Canyon open-pit mine stretches 2 1/2 miles wide and nearly one mile deep. A size so epic, that it can be sighted from any point within the greater Salt Lake Valley. RTG proudly gloats, “It has produced more copper ore, 18.1 million tons, than any mine in the world. Every year, Kennecott produces approximately 300,000 tons of copper, along with 500,000 ounces of gold, 4 million ounces of silver, about 30 million pounds of molybdenum, and about 1 million tons of sulfuric acid, a by-product of the smelting process.”

As the sun rises over Utah's Wasatch Mountains, the sound of diesel engines ring in the work day, while $3 million super trucks begin moving copper ore. Billowing clouds of smoke that on some days hazes the entire Salt Lake Valley, Kennecott's private 175-megawatt coal burning power plant blazes as it generates enough power to move the newly mined ore along a five mile conveyor belt to the concentrator, creating tons of waste every year. Energy and water are next used to smash the ore into a concentrate, creating an even greater extent of waste. Then, a significant amount of energy and thousands of gallons of water are wasted to slush the ore concentrate down a 17-mile slurry pipeline to the smelter and refinery, once again creating an increasing quantity of waste and spillovers. Once there, copper is smelted and refined with immense heat a minimum of three times, using even more energy and creating ever more waste. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, “each year, [Kennecott's] smelter and refinery plants use approximately 2.8 billion cubic feet of natural gas, 200 gigawatt-hours (GWh) of electric power and 450,000 tons of oxygen.” A small bi-product of this whole process and all the waste and pollution it creates is gold.

Most consumers are shocked to find out that the average 18-carat wedding ring leaves behind 40,000 pounds of waste, but RTG's Bingham mine makes those numbers seem grossly conservative. At the end of each workday 900,000,000 pounds of earth are removed from the mountain side in Bingham Canyon. Of those 900,000,000 pounds, 894,600,000 pounds (about 99.6% of all materials mined) are considered by KUCC to be nothing more than waste. 450,000 tons of rock are permanently removed from the canyon everyday in order to recover 960 pounds of gold. That averages to be approximately 642,000 pounds of rock removed in order to recover 1 troy ounce of gold. Isn’t it nice how corporations use the term “recover”, as if they once had, or owned, and are now regaining whatever the earth so wrongfully withholds from them? Regardless, KUCC is clearly setting the standard of a responsible corporate Eco-foresight with a large hallow point caliber in the chamber and our children's well-being in the crosshairs.

Let them drink gold

Utah is the nation's second driest state. Keeping tone with such environmental limitations in mind, KUCC states on their website that, “water is perhaps our [Utah's] most precious natural resource.” This statement comes easy when KUCC has larger water rights than most communities in the entire state combined. Owning a significant percentage of Utah Lake's water rights, they have access to one of the state’s largest freshwater supply. Kennecott's use—or potential misuse—of water is not regulated in any meaningful manner.

According to Rio Tinto's website, under the “environmental stewardship” section on water use, KUCC uses 15,000-gallons of new water a minute. For every 8 hours the facility operates, it exhausts 7.2 million gallons of fresh water. That means that the same amount of water that KUCC uses in an 8-hour period could fill more than 14 Olympic sized pools. The average citizen in the United States uses 66 gallons of water a day, so by comparison, Kennecott in 24 hours of operation depletes double the daily amount of water consumed by the entire population of Salt Lake City.

Among the preposterous scenery of their colossal consumption rates, it is hard to see where the environmental stewardship and conservation actually start. In typical corporate “green” fashion, water preservation seems to only exist on their web page, never making a genuine physical manifestation. As KUCC nears the end of its mining operations, wasting water will be just one chapter in the methodical books of historical achievements.

Kennecott; a barely told legacy

Utah, known as The Beehive State, ranks number 37 in states population, but fluctuates between second and third place in industrial pollution. Utah accomplishes this in large by playing host to KUCC, and according to the EPA, “in 2006, Kennecott's Utah Copper Mine and Power Plant was the second highest polluting facility in the nation with 102.5 million pounds of pollutants.” By 2008, after being forced to maximize technological improvements in order to lower pollution, Kennecott actually increased its release of pollutants to 113 million pounds. This seems to fall right in line with the rigorous criteria in which Wal-Mart states, “the Love, Earth® collection celebrates the Earth’s bountiful gifts by featuring jewelry pieces made with materials from sources that are committed to protecting the environment.” Exponentially producing more pollution than gold or silver, the degradation of environmental conditions must be KUCC's “bountiful gifts.”

For the past 20 years Kennecott's executives have successfully suppressed information about the risks of their tailings waste dam faltering and failing. KUCC has dammed up over 1 billion tons in mining sludge known as tailings. If the dam failed, an ecological catastrophe greater than the Dec. 22, 2008 Tennessee coal ash spill—a disastrous event considered more than 40 times worse than the Exxon Valdez oil spill—would occur, incurring hundreds of deaths, millions of dollars in property damage, the destruction of dozens of ecosystems, and the pollution of water sources. In the process of this cover-up, KUCC went as far as to secretly buy up neighboring houses to the dam to later resell some of them to less-than-suspecting individuals. Despite their own leaked documents from hired independent engineers and government officials that elaborate on this threat, KUCC continues to release unfounded documents to nearby communities explaining that the poorly housed 1 billion tons of waste poses no real threat.

According to an EPA report on KUCC, drinking water wells and ground water in the areas surrounding Kennecott facilities are contaminated with cadmium, chromium, sulfate, zinc, copper, lead, nickel, selenium, silver, acids, and arsenic. Mining wastes continued to leach acid waters eventually creating a 72-square-mile, or three million acre water plume of sulfate-contaminated ground water. Endangering communities in Salt Lake County, those polluted waters are known to causes cancer, and severe damage to the liver. The EPA further states that, “Lead, arsenic, and selenium are the main contaminants of concern. A plume of selenium-contaminated ground water enters nearby wetlands through springs and seeps are particularly troublesome because native birds are sensitive to selenium.”

Staying true to corporate accountability, KUCC actually proposed a clean up plan that permitted them to gain a profit from pumping the aquifer dry of the contaminated water, later depositing the same untreated water into the Jordan River and Great Salt Lake. This plan would have further polluted the same bird wetlands the EPA officials showed concerned about, while ultimately increasing the human health risk.

The Magna Ditch is another recent representation of RTG\KUCC malfeasance, and one that hits even closer to home for me. Once used for Bingham mining operations, this covered ditch stretches over 17-miles long now encompassing an area filled with thousands of residential homes, schools, and agricultural areas. The Magna Ditch expands through five communities in Salt Lake County, including the approximate area in which I spent my childhood playing.

Some time ago, when Bingham Mine perceived the ditch no longer useful to company production, they simply covered the ditch with dirt. Since then it has been discovered that the non-operational Magna Ditch has poisoned the surrounding soil with a number of toxins, including arsenic. Since the ditch was never lined, the arsenic and other nasty chemicals leached into the encompassing soil, expanding the contaminated area an even greater distance. Local, State, and Federal governments mandated a remediation clean-up of the area at the expense of Kennecott. The clean up efforts in this area have thus far been, at best, a failed sham, and at worst, a total environmental and human catastrophe. Greedy, profit-driven KUCC only dug up a small percentage of land—areas they considered the most arsenic-contaminated. However, they left large regions of land untouched, that to date, still contain unsafe levels of arsenic and other chemicals.

Currently, my two brothers live within the area where the old drainage ditch is. They have received confusing KUCC mailings ranging in explanations; that there was “no threat of arsenic,” that there was a “threat” to my brothers' property, that they will clean up arsenic from their yard, and that they will not be coming by after all. Neither of my brother's dare to have a backyard garden to grow food, and both are continually worried about the adverse affects the arsenic may have on their pet dogs. My niece and other neighborhood kids play daily in the contaminated front yards. Arsenic-poisoned soil is no longer merely a side effect of war and poverty stricken regions, but now another element to the constantly expanding horizon of American suburbia.

It's time for a Day Break

If the thought of back yard gardens and playgrounds being tampered with poisons is frightening to parents, local residents can now turn to none other than RTG's Kennecott for relief. With the world's largest mine forecasted to only last 10-20 more years, Kennecott has turned to Suburban Sprawl as their solution to rid themselves of the somewhat tampered 80,000 acres surrounding Bingham Mine.

Flying their well deserved Eco-sustainable flag, one of RTG's newest subsidiaries Kennecott Land (KL) has taken on the largest corporate initiative in history to tackle residential planned development. With an ammunition of words such as “community”, “open”, “green”, “sustainable”, “wildlife”, “green”, “trees”, “plants” and more “green” than a flu ridden Kermit the frog could ever spit up, Kennecott Land has a master plan that cannot be rivaled.

Kennecott's plan is to build more than 162,000 homes, luxury condos, and apartments. The plan also includes a college campus, industrial areas, business offices, retail spaces, 105,000 new jobs, a minimum of 100,000 trees, a ski resort and much more. Of course it makes complete environmental sense to have more jobs than trees in any given area. They expect their development to aid in expanding the Salt Lake regional population by another 500,000, or in other words, a sustainable growth rate of 5 people to every one tree planted. And maybe, in bang-up fashion, they will even be able to incorporate a meaningless fraction of their billions of pounds of annual mining wastes for green tax credits.

To keep the influential LDS church at bay, KL donated enough land to have a church and park in every neighborhood. Polishing the Mormon pay-off in a manner that the Mexican Mafia could only dream about, they then sealed the deal with a plan to build a towering LDS Temple. What the Mormon's do not know is that once the area now envisioned as a sustainable paradise nears completion, it might ultimately eliminate any future need for churches or belief in a higher power altogether. With the world's largest and ugliest man made hole as the backdrop, Heaven on Earth will soon exist; and it will be heavily stamped with Kennecott's many corporate trademarks.

The first community development Daybreak® (yes it is trademarked) is already being built in this aspiring plan to permanently scar Salt Lake's West Bench even further with asphalt and concrete. One already built structure in Daybreak® is Oquirrh Lake, ironically named after the mountain range that Kennecott has annihilated with its ongoing excavation dealings.

To make up for the number of real wetlands that mining has earlier destroyed, they have created this 85-acre, 250 million-gallon man-made lake. In typical green-wash fashion, this lake is not an actual wetland, but created for human recreational use only. This creation has thus far resulted in the transportation of 35 million cubic feet of soil, 25,000 tons of rock, and will require an annual 255 acre-feet of water each year. The water to refill the lake is stolen from Utah's largest natural freshwater lake and wetlands, an area that is home to thousands of animals, including endangered fish species and hundreds of migratory birds. But no need for anything natural or wild, they have stocked the lake with 6,000 largemouth bass, 12,000 channel catfish, 30,000 bluegill, 160,000 fathead minnows, and some rainbow trout.

Kennecott may be dabbling in community construction projects, but their main focus, as always, remains in mining. Just as a magician uses sleight of hand, so does the world's greenest mining company. RTG's cheap parlor tricks have been used to successfully confuse and evade , in the last two years alone, while Kennecott Land has been busily building their Eco-image in the Salt Lake Valley, KUCC has been even busier, placing over 70 mining claims on newly acquired county open-spaces.

Salt Lake County has recently spent over $10 million to set aside 4,000 acres of mountainous land for a beautiful open-space reserve. But the region that is home to wild turkeys, cougar, fox, blue grouse, mule deer, and a herd of at least 750 elk, is susceptible to a national federal law that states that any company can file and work a mining claim on areas of public land. So what does this mean? It means if Kennecott gets its way, then you might be looking at another open-pit mine—along with the arsenic, selenium, and billions of pounds of air, land, and water pollution with it. If KUCC does succeed in mining some of the last intact natural area in the valley, they might build us another recreational lake, and maybe this time we will be allowed to swim in it.

Don't be fooled by the rocks that I got

So it seems yet again Wal-Mart has found itself in some very dirty dealings. Rio Tinto, their partner in crime, not only profits off the unmitigated destruction of complete bio-regions but also the health and lives of humans who also share the region. With this entire point aside, and in typical green-wash, guilt-free consumer fashion, Love, Earth® jewelry will no doubt become a corporate success for both Wal-Mart and Rio Tinto. Sure there will be more articles, reports, documentaries, and maybe even a lawsuit or two attempting to show both of these corporations for the scum that they really are, but in the end Wal-Mart will still win. See, as long as we (whoever that “we” might actually be) allow these multi-national corporations to define our reality, and as long as we allow them to have a “person-hood,” a power that not only supersedes our own human-rights but also threatens our children's future and the greater future of the earth and everything that inhabits it, we lose.

They dig virulent holes, systematically destroy mountain lands, harass and kill workers, and all the while, we still lose.

So what's the point?

Halfway through this article I asked myself, what's the point? What is the point of informing people about Wal-Mart's deceptive practices when we all live in a capitalist society dependent on what Wal-Mart stands for: power and greed? Why even attempt to challenge the horrible practices of Rio Tinto and the rest of the corporate mining industry when the truth of the matter is, we are a culture that needs its copper, steel, coal, silver, and gold, and we will do whatever it takes to get it. We can read articles while pondering the extensive destruction of everything and everyone, but at the end of the day we still feel powerless and so we do nothing. So, at what point will we realize that our grandchildren and their children may not be able to survive among the wastelands that we are currently proudly stockpiling in the name of progress?

For too long we have been able to slip a price tag on anything we wanted, and perhaps now is a good time to stop valuing things in such a constrictive manner. We are fractured addicts, born from broken families, so that when we grow up all we want is want. So we try our hardest to replace the shattered communities we never had. We are told to focus on the good, and soon we lose focus of anything tangible or meaningful. We fiercely participate in the amazing race to convert our old television's before the screen goes to snow, or we gladly take opportunities to work overtime to mortgage our lives out for new ones, all in hopes that when the big digital switch comes, instead of just turning the fucker off, we will get the clarity, the validation, that we have spent our lives chasing.

Or we could start something new. We could support those groups and individuals currently dedicated to stopping the destruction of every remaining ecosystem. We could replace that 18-carat engagement ring and the 20 tons of waste it creates with a simple, “I Love You.” We could build real alternatives to a culture hell bent on profiting off our children's future.

Writing articles is not going to save or stop anything, but what comes out of these articles might. Don't be afraid of finding a starting point, just look around. I mean really: look around. Starting points are everywhere.

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