The National – Friday, March 18, 2011
Report: SINCLAIRE SOLOMON
AS talks resurfaced in the past few weeks about re-opening the Panguna copper mine, so too have the critics of Bougainville Copper’s environmental record.
One of the most vocal critics is London-based activist and researcher Roger Moody.
“Tayloring a new Panguna mine for Bougainville,” was how he described the re-opening move being spearheaded by BCL chairman Peter Taylor who detailed the plans recently on Radio Australia in an in-depth interview.
According to Moody, the various comments Taylor made are breathtaking in their complacency.
The BCL chief had maintained that: “There was never any toxic material put (into the Jaba River below the mine site)”. He also claimed that: “Gold and copper were never produced at the mine; only a concentrate”.
Referring to accusations that cyanide was used in gold processing at the mine, Taylor adds: “(So) those sorts of chemicals were never used.”
“This manifestly self-serving statement is disingenuous, to say the least,” Moody tells The National by email from London last week.
He says that while there has been no proof that Panguna used cyanide, the predominance of sulphides in its ore necessitated employing flotation technology to which the addition of enormous quantities of lime was essential.
“A report published by Applied Geology Associates of Australia in 1998 – a decade after militant actions by the nascent Bougainville Revolutionary Army closed down the Panguna mine – also pointed out that the copper concentrator had spewed out many thousands of tons of tailings each year which included toxic metals such as mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic as well as residual lime.”
Taylor, he maintained, conveniently does not refer to the impacts of these tailings, dumped into the Jaba River system, as they reached the river’s outlet to the Empress Augusta Bay.
“No competent authority has doubted this resulted in massive sedimentation although for many years there has been scientific dispute over whether these wastes may be termed ‘toxic’ to marine life.”
In 1983, one authority declared that “Benthic (bottom dwelling) organisms are being continually smothered by tailings and even after mine closure they may continue to suffer because of toxic concentrations of copper in bottom and interstitial waters. Re-establishment of a bottom community may therefore be slow and limited”.
Another study, a year before which was commissioned by BCL itself warned: “There is evidence to suggest that levels of copper in interstitial waters of submarine tailings deposits (>166 ppm) will be toxic to more sensitive benthic organisms resulting in impaired recolonisation of tailings in the longer term by bottom dwelling animals”.
Moody notes that since no further scientific survey has been done on this aspect of the Panguna operations, it is impossible to judge whether such a disaster (to give it a realistic title) has in fact occurred..
“But that only serves to compound alarms that BCL may now be contemplating using submarine tailings ‘disposal’ (STD) should the mine re-open.”
Moody says in fact the option of piping tailings directly into the ocean is not a new one. This was mooted by BCL-Rio Tinto a quarter of a century ago, proving to be one of the triggers for the first Bougainville revolt – one that became the most devastating mining-related conflict ever suffered by peoples in the South Pacific .
Moody championed the Panguna landowners’ cause in his 2007 book “Rocks and Hard Places” where he maintains that Rio Tinto has never apologised for its wrongs on Bougainville where its prowess as the most diversified of global miners is based.
“The nearest it has come to contrition was an expression of vague regret for its stark neocolonial stripping of a huge copper and gold deposit on Papua New Guinea’s island of Bougainville.
“Leased in 1966, when the territory was under Australian control, and within six years the Panguna mine had become the most commercially successful of all the company’s operations.”
“Costs were savagely cut by dumping all the mine’s waste (tailings) into the nearby (Jaba) river. By 1988 a few of the Panguna landowners, led by a former Rio Tinto mine worker, Francis Ona, demanded US$10 billion compensation for the ruination of their gardens, forests and waterways.
The company jeered at the claim and refused to negotiate. Ona stepped up a nucleonic “Bougainville Revolutionary Army”, declaring independence from PNG.
Backed by helicopter gunships, PNG troops invaded the island. In the bloody civil war that ensued up to a fifth of the island’s population (between 15,000 and 20,000 villagers), many of them women and children, were to die before peace was reached in early 1998.
Rio Tinto belatedly confessed that it could have “done things otherwise” regarding Bougainville and, over the succeeding eight years, broadly hinted that it would never resume mining on the island.
Then in 2006, as copper and gold prices reached a record high, rumours began spreading through the mining media that the company was planning a possible return – it is now no longer a rumour.