'Every dogma has its day' - Anthony Burgess
BRISBANE - Over the past five decades many notorious corporate brigands in the mining and mineral resources sector have plundered vast quantities of ore and precious metals from the bountiful arc of the Pacific rim that encompasses Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
Buccaneering recidivists include Rio Tinto at Panguna, BHP at Ok Tedi, Placer Dome on Misima Island, Barrick Gold at Porgera, Newcrest at Lihir, Morobe Mining JV at Hidden Valley, St Barbara at Simberi and Gold Ridge and Ramu NiCo at Kurumbukari and Basamuk Bay near Madang.
The recurring despoliation often involves controversial riverine or deep sea tailings disposal methods for the removal of overburden, processed tailings and other mining waste.
The technique has since been furtively rebranded and current corporate nomenclature is ‘riverine or deep sea tailings placement’, which is merely polishing a turd or putting lipstick on a pig.
Tailings from the notorious Panguna mine on Bougainville Island were haphazardly discharged down the Jaba River and into Empress Augusta Bay.
The Jaba-Kawerong valley downstream from the abandoned mine is home to some 15,000 people and many residents are exposed to pollution from contaminated tailings.
Following heavy downpours, rivers are poisoned by heavy metal contaminants from neglected dumps and toxic sludge accumulates along many streams and creeks in the catchment area.
The devastation has been described previously in PNG Attitude and is comprehensively detailed in a harrowing report from the Human Rights Law Centre entitled, ‘After the mine – Living with Rio Tinto’s deadly legacy’.
BHP (as it then was) deployed riverine tailings disposal at its Ok Tedi mine in Western Province after the catastrophic collapse of a tailings dam in 1984.
Following escalating environmental risks and some creative financial chicanery, BHP’s interests were eventually divested to the PNG Sustainable Development Program Limited.
An independent assessment and subsequently rescinded report from Dr Alan Tingay found rainforest floodplains in the region had degenerated into a toxic swamp and living conditions for most inhabitants in the Fly and Ok Tedi river catchment areas were primitive or squalid.
The Placer Dome project on Misima Island in the Louisiade Archipelago was a large scale open pit gold and silver mine before operations discontinued in 2004.
Discarded materials and overburden were transferred into an eroding waste dump that released sedimentation into the ocean.
Tailings were discharged through an experimental submarine disposal technique almost 120 metres below sea level.
Following a significant cyanide spill and contamination of the marine environment in early August 2004, the lackadaisical corporate response and parsimonious compensation incensed traditional landowners.
Many were convinced it reflected the organisation’s predatory culture and the company would disregard its legislative environmental rehabilitation requirements after operations on the island ceased.
The Porgera gold and copper mine in Enga Province is an open pit and underground joint venture between Barrick Gold and Zijin Mining Group and uses riverine tailings disposal techniques.
Waste rock and overburden is transferred to erodible dumps at Anowe and Anjolek and any cyanide contaminated tailings are monitored and detoxified before they are discharged into the Porgera River.
Since 2011, the project has implemented a backfill process that segregates coarse material subsequently mixed with cement to fill underground mining voids.
The objective is to reduce the amount of discharged tailings and restrict effluent to finer material which is more likely to pass through the river system rather than accumulate as sediment. Evidence of its success remains unpublished.
Stream gauging stations were installed for analysis of sediment load, however the Porgera mine environmental management plan encompasses a significant stretch of river where no monitoring devices are installed.
The Porgera project is currently mothballed and under a care and maintenance regime pending successful renegotiation of corporate and state interests over dinner, the haute cuisine likely to include several garnished lamb flaps washed down with a few cartons of SP leswara at the Airways Hotel.
Even the most unimpeachable public serpent has a price and additional gratuities include free transfers to and from Jacksons International Airport at Port Moresby in a Maserati sedan.
The Lihir gold mine is an open pit facility that commenced operations in 1997 and is currently operated by Newcrest Mining. Each year it deposits an estimated five million tonnes of waste through a pipeline into Luise Harbour.
This occurs at a depth of 120m and about 1.5 kilometres from shore using an experimental and highly controversial deep sea tailings disposal technique.
In early 2000, almost five tonnes of cyanide contaminated material was discharged into the surrounding ocean. Newcrest claimed environmental damage was insignificant.
It is believed that if the material had been dumped at the entrance of Newcrest’s St Kilda Road head office in Melbourne, the response from executive directors would be very different.
In 2010, a Scottish Association of Maritime Science report identified significant environmental concerns with the deep sea tailings disposal process at Lihir, although acknowledging its conclusions were based on limited research.
Based on specific monitoring conducted by the Lihir mine, sedimentation created a significant decrease in coral cover across various impact zones with a low density of shallow water fish in Luise Harbour and reduced quantities of coral fish in the marine environment.
Deep sea tailings and waste rock disposal has disturbed and rearranged the seabed although the evidence was inconclusive about whether there were significant changes to marine undercurrents or the ebb and flow of tides.
Hidden Valley is an open pit gold and silver mine operated by Morobe Mining, a joint venture between Harmony Gold and Newcrest. Operations commenced near Wau in Morobe Province in 2010 and the mine has an estimated life of about 14 years.
Although it is equipped with a tailings storage facility, mining sediment has contaminated the Watut River and destroyed the livelihoods of many villagers.
Mysterious health issues have also emerged, which include skin disorders and pervasive ulcers. Anecdotal reports indicate several women have died following uncontrolled haemorrhaging.
The Morobe Mining community affairs manager claims sediments discharging into the river have ceased and plaintiffs will receive appropriate compensation. The local member of parliament considered the awards rather frugal and the legal process will inevitably degenerate into a prolonged and bitter adversarial struggle.
St Barbara Limited is an Australian based company and operates the Simberi open cut mine on the northernmost island of the Bismarck Archipelago in New Ireland Province. A prospective sulphide project has potential to extend its viability for at least another decade.
The mine deploys deep sea tailings disposal using a 530 metres long pipeline to a marine discharge point 130 metres below sea level. The tailings subsequently cascade down a steep submarine slope and are eventually discharged into the surrounding Bismarck Sea at a depth of almost three kilometres.
An inspection of the deep sea tailings facility using a remotely operated vehicle in early June 2021 identified the structural failure of its submarine pipeline at a depth of about 54 metres. The cause remains undisclosed and the transfer of tailings has ceased.
No environmental harm or abnormal pluming of tailings was observed and regulatory authorities were promptly notified. An investigation team was established to determine the cause and surveillance, sampling and monitoring of the marine environment was intensified.
At the end of August 2012, St Barbara Limited acquired the assets of Allied Gold, which included the Gold Ridge mine at Guadalcanal in the Solomons near Honiara.
In April 2014, following torrential tropical storms and flash floods, the St Barbara executive management team ordered the mine shut down and senior expatriate employees were denied entry into the country by the Solomons government
In May 2015, the mine was sold for $100 (yes, K250)to Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited, a landowner controlled organisation, which took on substantial legal and rehabilitation liabilities.
Amidst escalating fears over the imminent collapse of its tailings dam, the site was subsequently categorised as a disaster zone by the Solomon Islands Disaster Management Council.
In September 2019, a deal worth approximately $825 million (K2 billion) was successfully negotiated with the China State Railway Group Limited, which expires in 2034.
It involves construction and lease of an extensive railway system, hydroelectric power station, road network and additional mining infrastructure.
The company has been operating a mine and processing facility in Madang Province since 2012. The project is primarily owned by the Metallurgical Corporation of China and a recent restructuring involving clandestine arrangements with the Conic Metals Corporation, a Toronto based venture capitalist and investment predator.
Ore from the vast nickel and cobalt reserves in the Kurumbukari mountains at Usino Bundi is delivered to the coastal processing plant near Madang along a 134 kilometre pipeline across rugged terrain in the pristine Upper Ramu region.
The Basamuk refinery extracts nickel and cobalt from the ore and an additional pipeline transfers residual material into the ocean at Astrolabe Bay using a deep sea tailings disposal process.
The tailings are released a mere 450 metres from the shoreline at a depth of 150 metres and there are fanciful suggestions that the residual deposits will cascade almost 1,500 metres and remain on the Vitiaz Basin seabed. It is a theory much like trickle-down economics and pigs being expected to fly.
There is limited research into the environmental aspects of deep sea tailings disposal and many oceanographers and marine scientists are cautious and uncertain about its ecological impact.
Over the past 20 years, many landholders and local residents have raised significant concerns regarding environmental risks. Initial research from the Mineral Policy Institute reinforced these reservations.
It concluded that deep sea tailings disposal would have a significant biological impact and marine currents could spread contaminated toxic tailings.
Despite the significant subjective risk, the PNG Conservation and Environment Protection Authority approved the deep sea tailings disposal with a caveat requesting further oceanographic studies, which enigmatically never transpired or remains undisclosed.
During 2010, construction of the deep sea tailings disposal pipeline extended into Basamuk Bay and aggrieved landowners initiated civil action, which requested a permanent injunction on ocean dumping and the controversial deep sea tailings disposal.
The National Court in Madang rejected the application although it ruled the activity was inconsistent with Constitutional goals. Instead it ordered Ramu NiCo to monitor the impact of its deep sea tailings disposal process and publish quarterly reports detailing specific results and conclusions. The monitoring and subsequent findings have so far not materialised.
The conflict found its way to the Supreme Court and a majority ruling inexplicably declared there was insufficient evidence to establish that the experimental process harmed the marine environment.
The court determined the landowners’ claims were inherently speculative and allowed the embryonic disposal technique to proceed.
It was a controversial outcome and incongruous with the renowned precautionary principle, which underpins statutory environmental legislation and reflects the medical profession maxim……first, do no harm.
Ramu Nico relished the majority court ruling and construction of the project was promptly accomplished in 2012.
Production rapidly escalated to meet increasing demand for its nickel-cobalt mixed hydroxide precipitate, which is the preferred material for manufacturing superior quality batteries in electric vehicles and renewable energy storage systems.
During recent years the downstream production facility at Basamuk Bay has regularly exceeded its design capacity but the organisation has been skating on thin ice as it navigates the treacherous waters between the production and protection dichotomy.
Many of the endogenous and exogenous risks are reviewed in a recent report by Ian Morse, which describes the relentless struggle between people, place and profit.
Since 2012, Ramu NiCo has dumped enormous quantities of mining waste into the Vitiaz Strait and Bismarck Sea, including five million tons of tailings each year. Following several recent incidents a substantial corpus of evidence is accumulating regarding the significant environmental and public health risks.
During April 2019 a coastal tailings spill, which involved approximately 200,000 litres of contaminated material attracted worldwide media attention with evidence of significant environmental damage.
Peter Yama, the controversial and provocative Madang governor, has opposed development of the project for many years and remains very critical of Ramu NiCo.
The provincial government subsequently hired an independent consultant from the renowned Swiss Association for Quality and Environmental Management based in Zurich to conduct an environmental impact assessment covering Ramu NiCo’s upstream and downstream operational activities.
Initial recommendations suggested the implementation of alternative waste management methods or neutralisation and recycling of the acidic contaminated tailings.
During June 2019, overloaded project trucks caused a bridge over the Ulia River to collapse and the watercourse became contaminated with chromium ore, which would rapidly oxidise into its highly toxic and carcinogenic hexavalent material.
Remediation involved using the ruined bridge to create a dam and installation of a culvert below the structure, which isolated and contained the harmful contaminant, diverting the river and restoring its flow.
In February 2020, a coalition of the Madang provincial government and thousands of local villagers initiated legal action against Ramu NiCo.
The plaintiffs estimated almost half a million people rely on local fisheries within the Bismarck Bay coral triangle and said Ramu NiCo’s recklessness was endangering many livelihoods, the environment and the health, safety and welfare of the local community.
The coalition requested compensation amounting to approximately $5 billion (K12.5 billion) and includes an injunction to discontinue ocean dumping and remediate the contaminated environment.
The case was heavily reliant on emerging and extensive oceanographic studies with substantial evidence from the Swiss Association for Quality and Environmental Management field studies.
This comprehensive program has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic although initial reports indicate almost 15% of process tailings fail to reach the seabed and are dispersed by monsoonal marine currents.
Various coastal locations, villages and islands around Madang are significantly contaminated with heavy metals such as arsenic, cobalt, cadmium and manganese, which exceed prescribed European environmental and public health standards.
The substantial compensation claim is unlikely to succeed although Ramu NiCo will endeavour to protect its corporate image and may acknowledge the social consequences and negotiate a suitable settlement with the complainants.
In February 2013, the PNG Constitutional and Law Reform Commission completed an extensive review of environmental laws relating to the management and disposal of tailings. It provided further information covering current and abandoned mining sites throughout country and described some additional environmental risks.
Port of Lae
The Port of Lae in Morobe Province is the largest and busiest port in Papua New Guinea. It receives, handles and temporarily stores the raw materials, consumables and equipment used throughout the mainland mining and mineral resources sector and also several adjacent Pacific islands.
There are significant quantities of dangerous goods such as ammonium nitrate and diesel fuel. An Origin Energy liquefied petroleum gas terminal adjoins the Port of Lae and exacerbating risk.
This is an extremely fickle combination and an explosion could easily flatten the entire industrial sector between the main wharf and the Highlands Highway and Markham Road.
Following the devastation at the Port of Beirut in Lebanon in August 2020, an independent audit of the handling and storage of dangerous goods at the facility and its crisis management protocols would be appropriate and quite interesting.