OK Tedi All over Again: Placer and the Porgera Gold Mine

Article excerpt

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. …