Locals ‘know nothing’ about Purari scheme
PNG makes real progress in infant survival

Reputation under threat in mine waste war


AT THE OUTSET let me be clear – I have no vested interest in the outcome of the dispute between the Rai Coast landowners versus the Metallurgical Corporation of China, the Mineral Resources Authority of PNG, the Director of Environment, and the Independent State of PNG.

But the Ramu landowners case brings to light a significant issue not just for PNG but for the extractive industries worldwide.

If mining, oil and gas companies are to be welcome in developing nations the most basic logic suggests lots of practices have to change.

It is not good enough to claim they have already changed; it is not enough to present sustainability reports with pretty pictures of smiling indigenous children and rainforests and talk of contributions to the environment and community, not while using riverine or marine mine waste disposal.

It is a matter of reputational risk to an entire industry, damaging even those companies who use more responsible and sustainable waste disposal methods.

Reputation is built on trust, relationship, values and on people’s expectations of corporate behaviour. The prettier the pictures, the more damage done.

The Scottish Association for Marine Science produced a report on Deep Sea Tailings Disposal (DSTP) for the PNG government. It was delivered in May, 2010.

The report was funded by the European Union with the clear intent of supporting DSTP as a means of mine waste disposal. Its survey was to assess impacts only at Misima and Lihir.

The baseline study at Basamuk Bay (pertaining to the Ramu nickel mine) was added to the brief later.

Do not misunderstand this document.

It was commissioned to help establish guidelines for managing DSTP, to create legitimacy for the mining industry’s use of DSTP, and to attract more mining companies to invest in PNG.

Given this report was intended to support DSTP projects in PNG (and it does indeed attempt to do so at various points) there are perhaps some very good reasons why the government has seen fit not to make it widely available.

I wonder, is the SAMS report included as defence evidence in the Ramu case?

There is a very simple and quick resolution to this case. The mining company could commit to a sustainable land-based tailings disposal method.

One would think MCC’s Australian joint venture partner in this project, Highlands Pacific, would have the sense to insist it do so and move on, given the reported delays and cost over runs.

There is one company that states implicitly it does not and will not use riverine or submarine tailings disposal at any of its projects anywhere.

That company is BHP Billiton. It is rather foolish of an entire industry to ignore the history of why that is, don’t you think?

You can read the full version of the article here.

Alex Harris is an author, consultant, speaker, freelance writer and editor of ‘Reputation Report’. Alex was born in PNG and lived there until she was a late teenager. She has long experience, continuing to the present, with the resources and extractive industry.


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Tiffanny Nonggor

See Tiffany Nonggorr's detailed response to 'Dexter Bland' here...


Alex Harris

Dexter - To suggest as you do that anyone has painted the plaintiffs wanting the mine to proceed as a result of intimidation and bribery is to insult the intelligence of every reader of this fine blog.

The entire series of court cases was never about stopping the mine, was never presented as being about stopping the mine, and never did anyone suggest the plaintiffs were in favour of the mine as a result of intimidation.

You boldly state: “Anyone who has been following events closely will know that this is not a last minute change of heart, they have been making statements to this effect for some time.”

Dexter, did you miss that we were in fact following it closely?

It is misleading in the extreme to suggest that the court case was about the mine. It is extremely misleading to suggest that the plaintiffs ‘change of heart’ is about the mine.

Even in withdrawing from the court case, in the court filed affidavits of the three plaintiffs after they were summoned to court by a rightfully angry judge, the three plaintiffs stated in writing:

1. They were very happy with their lawyer Tiffany Nonggorr and what she had achieved in this court case.

2. They remain against the Ramu nickel mine dumping its toxic waste in the bay.

3. They feared for their lives.

There were not trying to ensure an economic outcome, and they are not satisfied that they or their fishing grounds are not going to be poisoned. These are the facts, Dexter.

There is not a 'natural sympathy' to the landowners at all - especially not in Australia! There is not any inference in any post or comment that I have written or read on this blog that I/we “imagine those who support mining as evil and corrupt”. Get a grip.

That the plaintiffs were intimidated is irrefutable. They feared for their lives.

There were people who contracted and paid the thugs who orchestrated and oversaw the consistent campaign of intimidation as a means to the ultimate end. These people, Dexter, it would seem are corrupt.

The people who depend upon the waters of Astrolabe Bay were simply trying to stop the project dumping 5 million tonnes of toxic heavy metal waste into the bay. Why is this so difficult to grasp?

There is an easy equitable solution. Don’t dump any crap in the bay.

Trevor Freestone.

The whole world will be affected by the decisions of the giant mining companies.

Their failure to conduct proper mining practices will be detrimental to everyone.

These are not local issues they are world wide issues and those countries that don't establish proper mining practices will find themselves being scolded by the world community.

Soon the world will have to respond and launch protests against these countries; Boycotts will be put in place, as a result share prices will plummet, jobs will be lost; the environment will be destroyed and the lack of good health in the young will again be unacceptable.

It's time the government put its people and their environment first and the mining companies second. After all, isn't mining allowed so that the people benefit and not the shareholders.

Those greedy people who are benefiting from bad decisions should remember that you can't take your money with you not even in spiritual bonds.

To fail your responsibilities means you and your wantoks maybe going earlier than you planned.

Dexter Bland

Alex - When reasonable people are told that a Chinese mining company wants to "dump a hundred million tonnes of waste into the sea", and there is a "David and Goliath" struggle being fought by the indigenous inhabitants, they naturally feel sympathy for the landowners, and imagine those who support mining as evil and corrupt.

Of course this depiction is spin released by participants in a court case, a sound-bite simplification, but it is effective in drawing sympathetic people to the cause and from then on their views only become further entrenched.

The reality is far more complex and there are a range of economic, scientific and social considerations that need to be balanced.

Unfortunately casual observers don't often have the time to read through all the papers in depth, they are often dense with scientific jargon, and they aren't prescriptive.

It's easy to skim through these and find a quote which, taken in isolation, supports your case (whatever that may be) but people should be warned that this may be missing the bigger picture.

The plaintiffs have stated clearly that they want the development to proceed. This has (of course) been painted as the result of intimidation and/or bribery but it is worth considering that they genuinely want the development to proceed.

Anyone who has been following events closely will know that this is not a last minute change of heart, they have been making statements to this effect for some time.

Their motivation in fighting the court case was always primarily about ensuring a good economic outcome for their people, and they are now also satisfied that they aren't going to be poisoned, nor are their fishing grounds.

This was a belated realisation caused by a failure of the government and developers to properly communicate the likely impacts of DSTP, so it became easy to make wildly exaggerated claims of the damage it would cause.

Landowners primary concerns are for their children to not die in birth, to learn to read, get jobs, not turn to crime, or die of AIDS or cholera in their youth.

The concerns about deep sea ecosystems are mostly raised by those living in developed countries, who take these basic needs for granted.

It is revealing that, instead of acceding to her clients wishes, Tiffany Nonngorr has now gone in search of a new client to be the landowner face of what is now essentially a campaign of rich world environmental purists.

I have sent this email to 'Dexter': "I am appreciative that you have enjoined a debate that needs to be had, but you really should reveal more about who you are and what your interest is, like the other reasonable people who are participating in this discussion. Cheers. Keith" - KJ

Peter Warwick

Was it not Sir Humphrey Appleby who, when advising his Minister, said "never commission an inquiry without knowing the outcome first; it does save a lot of time and money".

Alex Harris

“The results show clearly that mine tailings deposition east of Lihir has a significant impact on macrofaunal communities at all three sampled depths.” - SAMS Report, May 2010. At all three sampled depths. Do we need an English lesson here?

Alex Harris

Dexter, there never have been and never will be conditions right for DSTP. Never.

The one company - one Dexter - that produces all the environmental plans for DSTP projects is Coffey Natural Systems, previously known as NSR. They say there is no life, it will have no impact, there is no upwelling. An environmental plan by a paid consultant is hardly peer reviewed science. You are being suckered, played for a fool if you continue to accept at face value what you are told - and repeat here.

The science that proves the incredible life at depth is irrefutable. It is MORE diverse that that we see at near surface levels. There is also serious peer reviewed science that proves a very intricate and significant relationship between benthic marine life and other marine life. The sea floor is literally the floor of the planetary ecosystem, and we haven't even explored a quarter of it.

Make Google your friend. Google upwelling Bismarck Sea; Google benthic marine biodiversity; Google sea canyon biodiversity, or seamount biodiversity. The volume of serious science, the information freely available to us all is nothing short of astounding.

That so-called environmental consultants continue to ignore it is also astounding. That no other environmental consultants - those who refuse to work on DSTP projects - don't speak out publicly on this because they do not wish to offend their colleagues is a travesty that the people of Madang and throughout PNG are forced to live with.

Every single thing the proponents of DSTP gush is garbage.

And so too have the tactics of defendants in the Ramu case. In allowing the withdrawal of the plaintiffs from the case, Judge Canning said: "This is very suspicious. Reasonable observers will ask legitimate questions. Were they bullied? Were they bribed? Were they intimidated?"

And we all know the answers to those questions. But watch, MCC, Highlands Pacific, the sycophantic PNG Chamber of Mines, et al, will come out spinning - we told you so, the case being dismissed makes it legitimate, DSTP forever. Just not where we live. Not in our backyard. Suck it up PNG.

The case has now been dismissed. That this can happen given all that we now know is nothing short of shameful Dexter.

Dexter Bland

Peter - It's important that the conditions are right for DSTP, it's impossible to generalize.

The requirement for a very steep subsurface gradient rules out Australia, and many other parts of the world.

Volcanic islands like PNG, Indonesia, the Philippines are the obvious candidates I know of, though I'm sure there are other areas that may be suitable.

In the example of sewage in Sydney I gave, the outfalls are these days situated 3.5 km offshore, yet the ocean depth is only between 60-80m. At Basamuk if you go just one kilometer from shore the depth is over 900m.

Another requirement is that there is no possibility of tailings plumes mixing with other waters or currents causing them to be carried upwards ("upwelling") or back to shore.

This was a possibility canvassed by the earlier Lutheran funded study but has been emphatically dismissed in the SAMS study.

The SAMS study found no evidence of the uptake of heavy metals or other toxins by marine life at Lihir, but again it is worth considering the specific content of the tailings at each site.

At Lihir there are indeed heavy metals associated with gold ores, and cyanide is used as a reagent, also there has been fresh rock dumped which has a greater physical impact on the marine environment.

Ramu is a nickel laterite mine, and the tailings are essentially lateritic soil, depleted of nickel and cobalt. The major reagent I believe is ammonia, which rapidly disperses in water.

In addition the tailings are silt, similar to other natural sediments, which disperse readily across the ocean floor.

The sea floor in Vitiaz Strait is in effect composed of sediments which have been deposited by rivers over time, and now form a layer about 2km thick.

The other major requirement for DSTP noted by SAMS is that it needs to be implemented "properly", and the environment monitored from a baseline study.

There has been some contention about this and some doubts about the government's ability to regulate and monitor, but to me these issues are addressable, and the SAMS study made specific recommendations around this.

So I think it is not so easy to simply say DSTP is bad, and land-based good, or vice-versa. You really need to consider the specific conditions at each site.


Dexter - some comments on your interesting post.

Deep sea tailings disposal has not been studied long enough to know what the environmental effects may be.

At Lihir, 60 square kilometres of sea floor has been covered with mine sediment. That's like the area between Moresby, Sogeri and Bootless Bay.

There are also regular plumes of the tailings which well up to shallow depths over many years due to currents and geological activity.

Also why is it illegal to dump mine tailings in the sea in most western countries?

Common minerals and elements found in tailings include:

* Arsenic - Found in association with gold ores
* Barite
* Calcite
* Fluorite
* Radioactive materials - Naturally present in many ores
* Mercury
* Sulfur - Forms many sulfide compounds / pyrites
* Cadmium
* Hydrocarbons - Introduced by mining and processing equipment (oils & greases)

Common additives found in tailings:

* Cyanide - as both sodium cyanide (NaCN) and hydrogen cyanide (HCN). Leaching agent in extremely dilute quantities which readily volatize upon exposure to sunlight.
* SEX - Sodium Ethyl Xanthate. Flotation agent.
* PAX - Potassium Amyl Xanthate. Flotation agent.
* MIBC - Methyl Isobutyl Carbinol. Frothing agent.
* Sulfamic acid - Cleaning / descaling agent.
* Sulfuric acid - Used in large quantities in the PAL process (Pressure Acid Leaching).
* Activated Carbon - Used in CIP (Carbon In Pulp) and CIL (Carbon In Leach) processes.
* Calcium - Different compounds, introduced as lime to aid in pH control.

There are other disposal methods - as now being investigated at Ok Tedi. If you dig stuff out of a big hole in the ground, can't you dig another big hole and bury it? Problem is, this is too expensive.

What annoys me is that PNG is being used as an experiment to see what might happen, but this is not allowed in Australia or China.

Dexter Bland

Alex - The main thing that makes PNG particularly suitable for DSTP is the sub-surface topography.

Once you leave the shoreline in most of PNG, there is a very steep drop to deep ocean, in some parts you can be at 1000m depth just a couple of hundred metres or so offshore.

By contrast in Australia we tend to have a wide area of gently sloping continental shelf stretching out for several kilometres before dropping away.

That doesn't stop us dumping our own waste into the sea though (talk about hypocrisy). In Sydney nearly a billion litres of partially treated sewerage are dumped off shore, in just 65m deep water.

Yet we still quite happily swim at the beaches, sail, and eat fresh seafood. By contrast at Basamuk, the tailings will be discharged at 150m depth into a steeply sloping canyon so that they are quickly transported to the deep sea.

They will be joined by about 15 times the amount of natural sediments carried to the sea by rivers that flush into the strait.

The abundance of life (mainly invertebrates) in the deep oceans is very much lower than in shallow waters, due to the lack of light reaching the sea-floor.

Of course there will be some impact on this environment, and possibly interactions with other eco-systems, but to me the land, river and coastal environments (particularly where inhabited by humans) ought to be the main concern.

This is where you have abundant life, biodiversity and complex interlinked eco-systems.

I simply can't understand why people would prefer land-based systems with their history of environmental accidents and conflicts, as opposed to DSTP, which has been operating safely in PNG for many years.

The SAMS report says that where the right oceanographic conditions exist, and it is well designed, properly implemented, and monitored, DSTP may well be the right choice.

Alex Harris

Hi Reg - I read somewhere the project is worth a great deal more than indicated by the companies. Certainly no one would spend $1 billion to develop a mine worth $1.7 billion.

If the Chinese get pissed off enough, they would sell the project. The last thing they would do is simply walk away.

What is needed here is an equal dose of common sense, diplomacy and balls from the Australian joint venture partner Highlands Pacific, currently hiding under a rock somewhere.

All they have to do is change the waste disposal methodology to a safe tailings treatment and impoundment facility.

Yes, that will cost more than they have budgeted for, but how much is the legal action costing? How much are the delays to the project costing?

How much is the damage being done to the reputation of MCC as transnational company going to cost it in the long run?

There will be other governments taking a very dim view of the dirty tactics being played in this high stakes game.

And there is a lot more at stake than a few bucks from this one project.

Reginald Renagi

This whole issue is getting messier by the day. When this is finally all over (touch wood?), I am sure the reputation of PM Somare's government may be in tatters.

But the silly 'pollies' may not even care as the polls will just be around the corner come 2012 with every man and his dog will again be clamoring to be heard over many loud noises.

They will be telling simple village people why they are their 'right man' to be given the mandate for the next five years to look after their interest. They still have not learn from the many lessons of the past.

With the ongoing court case any more delays to the Ramu Nickel operations timetable may turn out a national disaster for PNG despite the developers already having spent well over US$1.3 billion.

The latest findings and what Alex just revealed, does show that the PNG government is fast losing its credibility.

Under a false promise, it gave its assurances that this project has received all environmental, and other approvals so the Chinese developers got their green light to proceed with all guns blazing.

But even if we do resolve this temporary impasse to at least make some of the many stakeholders involved here happy for a while, the damage to PNG's reputation around the globe will be 'big time' indeed.

It does not really matter whether the ban on DSTP is lifted by the courts by the year's end, the perception overseas that PNG is a very risky place to do business (bad sovereign risk) will persist for some time in the future.

Although the government has worked hard since 2003 to lift its reputation in the country's exploration and development sector, it will soon unravel with the potential debacle resulting from more delays or the closure of the whole project with the Chinese pulling out of it.

Wonder who they will next target as 'scapegoats' as billions will have gone to waste.

This will be a "lose-lose" outcome and could be the end of jobs for many people including the PM and certain MPs at the coming polls.

Alex Harris

It really is that obvious, isn't it?

That we even have to witness legal action by landowners against this transnational corporations, let alone the apparent violations of human rights and thugery of the defendants in the Ramu case, in this day and age, shows there is something seriously wrong with the system.

The SAMS document certainly wasn't a bunch of roses for the government, but nor was it so detrimental to the case for DSTP. As stated by SAMS itself, its purpose was to support the mining industry. However, the facts as stated as to the environmental findings are just that. But SAMS does not then go on to say they got it wrong, nor did it expand upon the implications of the environmental findings. I suspect there were several drafts and redrafts that achieved a very bland document without conclusions as to the environmental impacts. The document instead goes on to outline how DSTP could be better managed. Which of course, was the intent of the document, and the brief SAMS was working to.

I wonder if SAMS were with this research able to focus entirely upon the findings and implications of environmental impact, if we would have seen a different document?

Nevertheless, the actual findings as stated, cannot be disputed.

Phil Fitzpatrick

Had a look at your full story Alex.

For us simpletons let me see if I've got this right.

SAMS says that the disposal of waste into deep parts of the ocean is okay as long as it is done properly.

They prepared a report for the PNG government which says the mines at Misima and Lihir, and potentially the Ramu mine, did not, are not and will not do it properly.

This is why the PNG government sat on the SAMS Report.

Lihir argues that it hasn't got enough room for a land-based tailings dam. Ramu obviously has plenty of room. Why are they persisting with dumping their waste in the sea? Answer, because it's cheaper and they'll be able to make more profit.

I can see Robin's point but I doubt the Ramu mine owners will walk away. They've invested too much.

As for the link to globalisation and the carbon tax I think that is a long bow to draw.

I've just returned from Olympic Dam, where BHP is proposing to massively expand its mine. They've got a team of Aboriginal people and archaeologists up there mapping, picking up and curating every single artefact on the expansion site. At last count there were 16,000 archaeological and sacred sites with probably 20 - 100,000 artefacts on each one. They are also relocating and stocking a huge conservation zone with native fauna and flora. If they can do that sort of thing why can't the other miners in the world?

Tim Flannery has just released a new book which argues that this century is crucial to the future of the environment and ipso facto humanity and if we don't get it right now we're doomed.

Robin Lillicrapp

Great find, Alex. Kind of incriminating for the parties several to see the data as presented.

Perhaps it also begs the question re mining as sought to be practised by MCC and others: if environmental impacts are too high by known scientific criteria, then rejection of the method of tailings placement has to change.

If the host country stands to lose the project by mandating that change, what then?

Does the miner resort to extraction from other locations, seismically more stable, employing land based tailings disposal; meanwhile huffing and puffing about the inability of supplying the demands of a burgeoning world population?

That arena then leads to the reopening of what we already see canvassed in many a "Green" agenda concerning overpopulation and sustainability.

I suspect the answer to that is already known, evidenced by the continuing push for establishing a carbon tax, or mining super profits tax etc.

Ask Kevin Rudd

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