BHP washes its hands of dead river

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BY SIMON DIVECHA

BHP Billiton is attempting to wash its hands of responsibility for 10 years' damage caused by its Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in Papua New Guinea.

The company is putting its majority share in Ok Tedi Mining Ltd into a holding company based in Singapore, which funds a trust. The trust will then fund projects, supposedly for the benefit of landowners although little to no detail of how it work will is available.

It has also gained full legal indemnity from the PNG government.

"BHP started dumping 80,000 tonnes of waste a day into the Ok Tedi and Fly rivers in 1984. In Australia, it would have to clean up this mess", said Geoff Evans, Mineral Policy Institute (MPI) director.

"The company says it wanted to shut the mine but the people in PNG wanted to keep it open. Even if that were true, it would not remove BHP's obligation to these people to fix the mess it has made."

BHP has a "mine continuation" agreement that it signed in November-December with people "representing or purporting to represent a community or clan". The agreement is legally binding on a whole village even if "there is no express authority for that person to sign".

PNG landowners, who visited Melbourne recently, told the MPI how they were tricked, pressured or fooled into signing. "BHP's waste is killing the river. It will leave people in PNG with their forest dead, their river gardens destroyed and a possible total collapse of the fishery."

Villagers from PNG are attempting to hold BHP accountable for its dumping of waste. In April 2000, they returned to court in Australia to try to enforce a 1996 out-of-court agreement that BHP signed with the landowners. This agreement committed BHP to implementing feasible tailings disposal. Villagers say that the company should have stopped dumping waste in the river by now.

However, the agreements signed by villagers in November-December required people to opt out of the Victorian court case. As a result of a court hearing on February 11, Ok Tedi Mining has been forced to back down and will now not attempt to enforce this part of the agreement (at least without further notice).

"The company has suffered a very significant setback", said Evans. "The agreements it has signed and the [PNG indemnity] legislation are still being challenged. BHP is yet to divest itself fully of its disaster. The landowners are seeking justice.

"Even if the mine shuts tomorrow, this damage will last for a hundred years. Communities will need ongoing solidarity. Clearly, the company is responsible for its damage."

[Simon Divecha is campaign coordinator at the Mineral Policy Institute. Visit the MPI web site at <http://www.mpi.org.au>.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 13, 2002.

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