BHP, Rio Tinto, cyanide spills: Australian companies' eco-terrorism

April 5, 2000

By Viv Miley

Cyanide spills by Australian-owned overseas goldmining operations in January and March are further evidence of the fact that Australian companies are systematically abusing the environments of poorer countries, which are forced to adopt fewer environmental regulations in order to attract foreign investment.

Australian mining companies operating overseas use the cheapest methods, which are also often the most destructive. While they are happy to collect the profits this produces, they refuse to take responsibility for the destruction imposed on the local environment.


In late January, 10,000 cubic metres of cyanide-tainted water leaked into the Tisza and Danube rivers from a tailings dam full of processing run-off from the Romanian Baia Mare goldmine. The mine is owned by a Romanian corporation called Aurul SA, which is half-owned by Australian company Esmeralda Exploration.

Esmeralda claimed that widespread fish and bird deaths around this time in the Tisza and Danube rivers, which flow through Romania, Hungary and Serbia, are unrelated to the cyanide spill.

Esmeralda is seeking to avoid any legal liability for environmental destruction caused by the spill by placing itself into voluntary receivership, a form of bankruptcy which puts the company in the hands of creditors and administrators.

Any claims made against the company will be adjudicated by the appointed administrators, in this case a pair of Australian accountants. Pay-outs for the damage are unlikely to be prioritised over other "legitimate" business debts and claims.

Second spill

On March 22, a shipment of one tonne of highly concentrated sodium cyanide pellets on its way to the Tolukuma goldmine in Papua New Guinea dropped from the transporter helicopter into dense forests approximately 85 kilometres from Port Moresby.

The Australian company responsible for the shipment, Dome Resources, could not find the cyanide until the following day. While the pellets escaped from their casing and were exposed to near-cyclonic rainfall conditions, the company has claimed that the pellets will cause little or no damage.

The company claimed it has recovered up to 95% of the solid pellets and the top layer of soil around the spill was removed in an effort to decontaminate the area. However, the Mineral Policy Institute (MPI), an Australian mining watchdog, believes the clean-up may have been too little, too late.

MPI argues that enough cyanide would have escaped into local waterways to pose a serious threat to local human and animal life. It claims that heavy metals in the waterway surrounding the mine already exceeded safe levels for human consumption.

Esmeralda and Dome are not alone.

BHP, "The Big Australian", has been involved in one of the most infamous examples of environmental destruction caused by Australian companies operating overseas, the Ok Tedi copper mine in PNG.

At the start of operations in 1984, it is estimated some 20,000 tonnes of waste were poured into the Ok Tedi per day; in 1988 waste totalled 60,000 tonnes per day and in 1995 some 80,000 tonnes. Tests of the waters and aquatic life have shown traces of heavy metals, cyanide, soluble copper, high levels of cadmium, lead and zinc.

Independent scientific research has found that the Ok Tedi River, a major tributary to the Fly River, is biologically dead and the Fly itself is greatly reduced in biodiversity. The Fly River system is PNG's largest. According to the Australian Conservation Foundation, parts of this system are dead too.

The mine was approved on the basis that it would have a tailings dam. One was constructed but swept away by a landslide on the eve of the mine starting up in 1984. In 1989, BHP threatened to close the mine if it were forced to build a tailings dam. The area has a rainfall measured in metres per year.

The huge Anglo-Australian company RTZ-CRA (Rio Tinto) is a part owner of the operations of the Freeport-McMoRan consortium which runs the Freeport gold and copper mine in West Papua. Each day the mine makes $1 million profit. At the same time it releases an estimated 100,000 tonnes of tailings into the Ajikwa River.

The tailings, which are mixed with cyanide residue, wash through the lower valleys of the river system, endangering the health of the local tribespeople.

Sediments are choking the river. No fish remain in it. The company has few environmental controls in place.

Rio Tinto's interests in the Freeport mine have been defended by the brutal armed forces of Indonesia and the Papua New Guinea Defence Force, both armed and trained by the Australian military.

With the 1969 establishment of the Panguna mine on the PNG island of Bougainville, CRA displaced 800 local farmers, and another 1400 were deprived of their fishing rights as their land was seized and forests cleared. No laws compelled environmental impact studies for such a development.

The company gouged a hole six kilometres long, four kilometres wide and half a kilometre deep, and more than 1 billion tonnes of poisonous tailings were dumped into the river system.

In 1988 the people of Bougainville forcibly closed the CRA copper mine after 20 years of protests and failed negotiations. The PNG and Australian governments responded by sending in riot police, the PNG military and Australian helicopter gunships with Australian pilots in an attempt to re-open the mine.


There is no legislation in Australia under which companies can be held responsible for such disasters, aside from expensive civil suits in Australian courts. The MPI is currently drafting legislation which would force Australian mining companies operating overseas to comply with environmental standards similar to those in Australia.

This is likely to be heavily opposed by both the companies and the federal government. Profit is the underlying drive of all business under capitalism, so companies cut corners by avoiding environmental safeguards or by using cheaper, less environmentally benign methods.

Ordinary Australians are given little information about and have no say over the actions of Australian companies overseas. However, many campaigners here are supporting the struggles of people against Australian companies, and have sought to expose what is happening.

The Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union is taking part in an international campaign to expose Rio Tinto's anti-union tactics and responsibility for environmental destruction. Groups organising solidarity with workers', farmers' and students' struggles in Indonesia and Bougainville have also sought to publicise the destructive role of Australian companies.

Without such active campaigning, any laws regulating the environmental standards of Australian companies, here or overseas, will be less likely to be enforced by a federal government which, like the companies themselves, puts private profits ahead of ordinary people's health.

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