The Multinational Monitor



Ok Tedi All Over Again
Placer and the Porgera Gold Mine

by Danny Kennedy

THE PORGERA MINE IN ENGA PROVINCE of Papua New Guinea (PNG), operating since 1990, is one of the world's largest and most profitable goldmines.

It may also be one of the most polluting. A recent report published by the Mineral Policy Institute (MPI) of Australia contends that the "pollution associated with this mine is arguably worse than that of the notorious Ok Tedi mine." The managing director of Placer Niugini, the PNG subsidiary of the Placer mining company, defends the Porgera Joint Venture (PJV, a joint operation of three Australian companies, Placer, Renison Goldfields and Highlands Gold), telling the PNG parliament in December 1995 that the claims were "baseless."

Porgera discharges 40,000 cubic meters of tailings per day into the Maiapam-Strickland River, which -- like the Ok Tedi -- feeds into the Fly River system in the Papuan lowlands. Along with the rock waste, the mine dumps heavy metal sulfides and hydroxides, including ferro-cyanide complexes and Jarrosite, directly into the Maiapam at levels up to 3,000 times PNG's normal legal limits. Sediment loads are a clear threat to subsistence gardens and fisheries along the river.

The three Australian-based companies and the PNG government which jointly own the mine claim these levels of discharge are necessary because it was not feasible to build a tailings dam due to unstable geology, steep terrain, high rainfall (3.5 meters per year) and seismic activity. The PNG environment minister initially rejected the environmental plan submitted by Porgera in 1989, but relented after studies showed the lack of economically viable alternatives.

But five years after operations began, clear impacts on the health and welfare of local people, wildlife and the riverine environment have put pressure on the government to reconsider. MPI's report, "The Porgera File: Adding to Australia's Legacy of Destruction," detailed up to 133 unusual deaths between 1991 and 1993, reported by local administrators. Many locals believe these deaths were due to contamination of water and riverside gardens by the mine, although the companies have long maintained they have an "excellent record of environmental protection" and denied any responsibility for these health problems.

In 1995, Dr. John Konga, at Sopas Hospital in the area, confirmed a death which he believes could have been caused by arsenic poisoning. Arsenic, one of the pollutants from the Porgera mine, can now be found at levels many times the pre-mine level in the Strickland River system. Zinc, lead and mercury are also now present at levels three to 3,000 times the Australian and Papua New Guinean standards at various distances downstream from the mine's discharge point.

The Sacrifice Zone

The staggeringly high level of poisons in the rivers is permitted by an agreement between PJV and the PNG government (which owns a 25 percent stake in the mine) to designate the first 140 kilometers after the point of tailings discharge a "mixing zone." There is no legal limit in the concentrations of heavy metals dumped into this stretch of river, and no regular monitoring of the social and environmental impact. Up to 7,000 people live in the river valleys downstream, according to the Mineral Policy Institute, which describes the stretch as a "sacrifice zone."

The MPI report was based primarily on the research of Philip Shearman from the University of Tasmania, who spent several months in the area in 1994 and 1995. He documented the destruction of landowners' livelihoods and the local reports of many deaths and health problems. He found that the high loads of sediment had indeed destroyed riverside gardens, depleted fish stocks and had a negative impact on other species such as turtles and cassowaries.

Shearman's research was preceded by the reports of Assistant District Manager Owen Lora, a local government official who is based at the Lake Kopiago administrative post. Lora informed supervisors that between April and December 1991 seven people had died mysteriously in the area. Villagers blamed the deaths on consumption of contaminated water. Subsequent claims of 11 people, as well as domestic dogs and pigs, being poisoned precipitated a response by the Porgera Joint Venture in October 1992.

PJV commissioned a delegation, consisting of its environmental and community relations officers, a government doctor and Lora, to visit the area downstream of the mine. After visiting four villages, the delegation concluded that there was "no obvious evidence of toxicological disease" and "decided to concentrate the survey on nutritional status, indications of malarial prevalence and incidence of childhood mortality." Although no proper medical histories were taken, the tour's official report concluded that the victims were suffering "some sort of malarial diseases."

Lora submitted a markedly different report to the district administrator, however. He noted that the people of the villages insisted that they are resistant to malaria, and thus were not suffering from it. And he observed that the malaria theory could not explain why domesticated dogs and wild animals die at the spot where they drink water from the Maiapam-Strickland River.

Lora stated that the people were "genuinely aggrieved that the pollution of the river was in essence stripping them of their inheritance and very source of life." He also wrote that, at each of the villages, the people "strongly urge that the Porgera Joint Venture must not dump the mining waste into the river system but dump it elsewhere." He concluded that the death reports were not merely a ploy to extract compensation from the Joint Venture.

Public debate

A summary of Lora's reports hit the PNG press in August 1993. PJV responded with a concerted campaign to dispute Lora's findings. The mine manager, Peter Harris, spoke of "extensive studies by the PJV and government departments" that found no basis for the allegations. Dick Zandee, Placer Niugini's managing director, told the Times of PNG that no toxic materials had ever been found in the rivers below Porgera and "no connection could be drawn between the reported illness and the existence of the mine."

Later that year, Dr. Brian Brunton, a one-time judge and now the director of the respected Individual and Community Rights Advocacy Forum in PNG, visited Lake Kopiago to assess the various claims. On the way up to the Highlands from Port Moresby, pilots of the mission aircraft explained how the water ran red with iron oxides as far down as the Lower Strickland River. Before the PJV mine opened, limestone foundations of the area had made the river a sparkling green-blue.

In response to these claims, the company says its monitoring shows that no sediment deposition has occurred. "Once downstream of the mine lease, changes in the riverbed cross-sections are within natural variation of the riverbed," a company statement says.

Brunton also recorded the contradictory statements of Porgera Joint Venture officials who had told villagers that the river is not poisoned but that "you should not drink the water." As for the people making claims of harm from the mine, he concluded, "The leaders were responsible and mature persons who genuinely believed that their kinsmen had died as a result of poisoning by pollution in the Lagaip and Strickland Rivers."

Local people's distrust of PJV intensified in late 1994, when PJV staff, on a village visit, refused to eat fish caught from the river. A hair sampling program conducted by officers of the Joint Venture also made the villagers highly suspicious of their motives. Their fears were justified; Denise Peggs, Placer Pacific's environmental coordinator confirms the technique was used to assess mercury levels in the population. But while acknowledging that PJV had undertaken tests for heavy metal exposure, she said the company took the tests because of "unusually high mercury loads in the area due to some natural phenomena."

PJV hotly denies any responsibility for downstream deaths. Placer Niugini's Zandee told an Australian SBS television documentary maker in 1995 that doctors had concluded that the deaths spoken of on the program in the Lake Murray area, further down the Strickland River, were due to causes other than poisoning.

PJV has also contended that its dumped tailings do not pose a hazard because most of the mine discharges are in neutralized, nonsoluble form. Chris Harris, director of MPI, concedes that the dissolved levels of metals and cyanide are very low, within acceptable limits, but, he says, the river carries dangerously high levels of metals in particulate/insoluable form. "Almost all recognized standards for the protection of aquatic life from heavy metals are based on total levels, not dissolved levels," he says. "This is for the good reason that metals dissolve readily in certain environments, such as flood plains and, in some cases, in people's organs."

A final, favorite retort of PJV spokespeople to local claims of health problems and deaths from the mine is to cast aspersions on local accounts of and explanations for deaths and health problems. Sorcery and poison are regularly the locally ascribed causes of death, says one of PJV's social impact assessors.

Culture clash

But the public interest organizations fighting to clean up the mine argue that this response fails to recognize not only the objective indicators of poison in the river, but also the possibility that a totemic perception, even if apparently wrong by Western scientific standards, is real to traditional Porgerans, and can have real effects on their health and well-being. Local people attribute great spiritual significance to the Strickland River and, in particular, to the Strickland Gorge.

The Duna believe that the gorge is where their ancestors -- a group known as the Heli who also gave rise to the Huli and Hewa people of the Southern Highlands -- came from. The gorge has been documented by anthropologists to be the home of powerful river spirits, or "masalai" in local lore.

Thus the discoloration and contamination of the river in the four years since the mine operations commenced have caused local people to literally fear for their lives. The river has frequently, as they see it, "turned the color of blood" and given off a "bad smell." They believe that as a consequence of these dramatic changes, the resting places of the spirits have been disturbed, causing them to leave the confines of the gorge and to make trouble for humans.

With examples like these, Shearman and others argue that the intense transformation of their spiritual landscape is itself a cause for members of traditional communities such as the Hewa and Duna to have suffered unusual illness and death.

Call for a change

As a result of the growing debate about Porgera, several Australian non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have demanded an inquiry into the PJV operation, with a review of tailings management and independent oversight of the mine's pollution monitoring, mitigation and public compensation. The groups include the Australian Conservation Foundation, the biggest homegrown green group, World Wide Fund for Nature's South Pacific Program and Australia's Oxfam affiliate Community Aid Abroad.

In response, Australia's minister for overseas development assistance and the Pacific Islands has publicly acknowledged the need for an independent inquiry. Whether or not the companies involved at Porgera are willing to undergo such public scrutiny, let alone yield to activist calls for reducing mine production to ameliorate impacts until they get a clean bill of health, is yet to be seen. Ian Williams, a spokesperson for Placer Pacific in Sydney, claims ignorance of the minister's commitment to an inquiry, but says PJV will certainly cooperate with any government-sponsored investigation.

Whatever the outcome, issues of mining and community rights will not soon fade away. Australian environmental organizations and aid agencies are calling for more sweeping investigations and reforms rather than mine-by-mine improvements. They are demanding a parliamentary inquiry into the operations of all Australian-owned or domiciled corporations conducting mining in the Asia-Pacific region, and a process "to improve their behavior."

In particular, NGOs downunder have put out a call for legally binding social and environmental impact procedures to be enforced by their government on Australian mining companies operating offshore. The idea is that all departments (such as the Export Finance Insurance Corporation, which underwrites Australian capital overseas) will also be required to comply with environmental impact procedures.

For Papua New Guineans, the problems of unsafe mining are not simply about the inappropriate use of taxpayers' money to subsidize dangerous projects, in someone else's backyard. Every day they live with the consequences of the fact that every Australian-owned and -operated mine in their country still discharges tailings directly into the environment -- a practice outlawed in countries like the United States and Australia years ago.

Number Crunching

PORGERA JOINT VENTURE COMMUNITY RELATIONS STAFF have strongly rebutted virtually every aspect of claims made in the "Porgera File" and other condemnatory reports of mine management. One example is PJV's challenge to environmentalists' estimate of the number of people affected by the mine.

"[T]here is no way that 7,000 people are directly affected by any damage done to the river system, particularly not in the area which MPI [the Mineral Policy Institute] calls the `140 kilometer pollution sacrifice zone,'" says Glen Banks, a social impact assessment specialist working for PJV. "The whole catchment is one of the most sparsely populated in PNG, itself a country with a low overall population density."

Chris Harris of MPI dismisses this argument, explaining that it ignores the mobility of people in the area. "Not everyone living in the catchment lives by the riverbanks, but due to their lifestyle they often travel to the river and have been exposed to these risks." -- D.K.

# END #