Jan/Feb 2002 - VOLUME 23 - NUMBER 1 & 2
T H E F R O N T
The Big Ugly at Ok Ted
In an extraordinary move, the Papua New Guinea (PNG) government has passed
legislation that prevents any government agency from taking or supporting
in any way proceedings against the mining multinational BHP-Billiton
in respect of an environmental claim over damage caused by
the Ok Tedi mine.
In mid-December, the Ok Tedi Mine Continuation (Ninth Supplementary)
Act was presented in parliament and rammed through in a vote later the
same day. Central to the legislation is a provision allowing BHP to offload
its 52 percent share of the mine which is scheduled to close in
2010 into a development trust in return for BHP being insulated
from further liabilities for environmental damage.
A BHP-commissioned report warned that up to 2,000 square kilometers of
forest could be killed by the tailings and a total collapse of the
fishery was a possibility. For nearly two decades, BHP has operated
the mine without a tailings dam, simply dumping 80,000 tonnes of waste
rock a day into the Fly and Ok Tedi river system, causing environmental
devastation downstream, and imperiling the livelihoods of tens of thousands
[see The Big, Ugly Australian Goes to Ok Tedi, Multinational
Monitor, March 1996].
The legislation is typical of the way BHP has dictated terms to
the PNG Government ever since it came to Papua New Guinea, says
landowner leader Gabia Gagarimabu, now a member of parliament. If
we let BHP walk away from its environmental and social responsibilities
now, Papua New Guinea will come to regret this decision forever.
The legislation also gives effect to the Community Mine Continuation
Agreement (CMCA), which negates a claim for damages by 30,000 landowners
against BHP before the Supreme Court of Victoria, an Australian state.
In 1996, BHP reached an out-of-court settlement that included payment
of approximately 40 million Australian dollars in compensation as well
as the dredging of tailings from the river in an attempt to limit further
damage [see BHPs Dirty Deeds, Multinational Monitor,
The legal action was reinstated in April 2000 when Gagarimabu and another
landowner leader claimed that BHP had breached the terms of the settlement.
In particular, they claimed that BHP had not complied with a provision
requiring investigation of a tailings dam to prevent further waste entering
the river system.
However, the CMCA agreement seeks to bypass the Australian class action
by expressly exempting BHP from all and any demands and claims arising
directly or indirectly from the operation of the mine. One provision
recognizes the signature
by a person representing or purporting
to represent a community or clan, or that persons delegate, binds
all members of that community or clan.
Community leaders and their allies say that the many community residents
who have signed the CMCA and forfeited their rights did not understand
the consequences of signing the agreement.
Based on my conversations with the local people, it is quite clear
that the people who are signing this agreement do not know what they are
signing says Almah Tararia of the PNG Environmental Law Centre
We have been informed by landowners that they have not been told
what the Mine Continuation Agreements effect will be; and those
that have not signed it, do not want to sign it, says Tararia.
In December, during just a few days, more than 1,500 landowners from
over 50 villages made affidavits opposing the signing of the Mine Continuation
Agreement. The affidavits state that the landowners did not give any authority
to anyone else to sign away their legal rights.
The former prime minister of Papua New Guinea, Sir Michael Somare, is
challenging the constitutional validity of the legislation before the
PNG Supreme Court. The challenge argues that the legislation is unreasonable
and breaches the constitutional provision for the equality of PNG citizens.
The government has been eager to maintain operations at the mine, which
accounts for 10 percent of Papua New Guineas gross national product.
Bob Burton is editor of Mining Monitor, a publication of Australias Mineral Policy Institute
In a move furiously denounced by a broad left-right coalition, Boeing-friendly
members of Congress inserted a provision in the Defense Appropriations
bill requiring the Air Force to lease 100 Boeing 767s for use as tankers,
over a 10-year period.