BHP's Big Mining Mess

Article excerpt

IT HAS BEEN A YEAR OF REVERSALES for BHP, Australia's largest mining company, and the Ok Tedi gold and copper mine that it operates in Papua New Guinea.

Last June, consultants to Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML), the subsidiary that operates the mine for BHP and its partners (the Papua New Guinea government and Inment Corporation of Canada), found that the environmental impacts of the mine were far worse than previously acknowledged.

In March, the World Bank recommended that Ok Tedi be shut down to prevent any further environmental damage downstream of the mine. BHP has indicated its support for the closure option. But first the company is trying to shift responsibility for the damage caused by the mine to the government. And the government, which depends on mine revenues, is resisting a shutdown.

The OTML consultants' report made clear that the millions of tons of silt, sand and other mine waste poured into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers over the past decade is likely to make flooding so frequent that by 2010 it will kill the existing trees on 800 square kilometers of floodplain and perhaps kill the trees on another 400 square kilometers. This "dieback" zone will be created even if mining stops tomorrow.

It is the scale of the operation that makes the mine so destructive: Ok Tedi dumps over 80,000 tons of mine tailings waste every day into the Fly River system. That is the equivalent of 200 semi-trailers, each off-loading 40 tons of dirt and rocks, day after day for the past 15 years.

For the 15,000 landowners living downstream of the mine, the "discovery" that there is severe environmental impacts is not news. They have long contended that the mine is destroying the ecosystem and their way of life, and even successfully took BHP to court in Australia, a case which was settled for $115 million in 1996. But in the settlement BHP denied the true impacts of the disaster, instead claiming they could be mitigated with river dredging and other technological fixes such as a tailings retention system. Until the settlement, BHP had insisted that a tailings retention system was not an option, especially after the first tailings dam constructed for the mine collapsed in 1984.

Following the consultants' findings last year, however, BHP acknowledged the significant environmental damage caused by the mine and said that the mine operation is contrary to the company's current environmental charter. …