Papua New Guina: Public opposition delays deep-sea mine project

November 4, 2012

The Papua New Guinean government has been forced to reconsider a deep-sea mining project off the PNG coast due to community concerns over environmental destruction.

About 24,000 people signed a petition against the Solwara 1 project in the Bismark Sea. The petition was handed to mining minister Byron Chan on October 23, said AAP. The project is run by Canadian company Nautilus Minerals and will mine for mostly copper and gold 1.6 kilometres under the seabed.

Deep-sea mining is a new process and only a handful of projects around the world have been given approval. The process is highly experimental and its potential environmental effects have not been fully studied.

There are strong environmental concerns about the Solwara 1 mine. Hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste produced by the mining process will be pumped onto deeper seabeds nearby, said on October 28, 2010. Mining could also destroy the unique ecosystem in the area, which relies on hydrothermal vents on the sea floor. Some scientists think the vents were where life first evolved on Earth.

Dr Rod Fujita from the Environmental Defense Fund told “It’s the cradle of life on earth, and the only one that does not depend on sunlight.

“There are species there that are found nowhere else on earth. It’s not like any land habitats we are used to; in fact you have to have your perspective altered to appreciate this deep-sea world.”

Another concern is over how sediment stirred up by the mining process will spread throughout the ocean, affecting marine life.

People living on coasts around the Bismark Sea have already reported dead fish washing up on shores, apparently caused by sediments being stirred up, even though the project is still only in its exploration phase, AAP said.

Locals in New Ireland believe Solwara 1 is already affecting the ancient practice of “shark calling”, where fishers catch sharks by luring them into a noose using ritual singing, PNG Mine Watch said on October 18. Fishers have reported excessive levels of sediment in the area and believe noise from the mine is keeping sharks away.

The Solwara 1 project was given approval by the former PNG government of Sir Michael Somare in March last year. Somare’s government was notorious, even by the low standards of PNG, for pushing through deals that favoured big business to the detriment of the public.

With public sentiment rising against Solwara 1, including several community rallies, politicians have been forced to respond.

Several government ministers and MPs have declared their opposition to the project, as have several provincial governors. Opposition leader Belden Namah has also come out against the project, the National said on October 29.

However, the current government of Prime Minister Peter O'Neill has only tried to amend its deal with Nautilus, not stop the project, Island Business said on October 15. The government has instead organised forums to “debate” deep-sea mining, PNG FM said on October 26.

PNG Mine Watch said on November 1: “Nautilus is locked in two battles with the PNG government over a 30% investment in the mine by the State. The PNG government says Nautilus is not playing fair by refusing to give PNG a full stake in the mine including an interest in the intellectual property and a voice in decision making. The two parties are also locked in an arbitration dispute over whether Nautilus has demonstrated it has all the funding in place to construct the mine.”

Nautilus has been hurt by the public campaign against it, with its president and CEO stepping down on November 1 and its share price falling, PNG Mine Watch said.

The dispute comes soon after O'Neill publicly reaffirmed the government's commitment to the mining industry, despite the rapacious way the industry has robbed PNG's wealth and destroyed the environment for decades.

An example of this was shown in a October 31 Post Courier report that said locals saw only a tiny fraction of the revenue generated by the Lihir gold mine on Lihir Island in New Ireland province. The mine is owned by Australian company Newcrest Mining.

Total revenue from the mine since 1997 was K17.1 billion (about A$8 billion), but royalties and special support grants paid to landowners amounted to only K433 million (about A$203 million). During that time, the mine operators have dumped huge amounts of mine tailings into the sea.

It appears Nautilus Minerals has also received favourable treatment from the government, despite the dispute between them. PNG Mine Watch said on October 2 that Nautilus was using PNG’s mining regulator, the Mineral Resource Authority (MRA), to promote its project to the public. PNG Mine Watch showed photos of a MRA stall at the Goroka Show uncritically promoting the project.

Nautilus has also paid for several multi-page advertisments in the National newspaper as part of its public relations campaign.

In Australia, the Country Liberal government in the Northern Territory said it was considering ending a moratorium on deep-sea mining, ABC news said on October 18. The moratorium was imposed by the former Labor government and is set to expire in 2015. It came after a wide range of groups, including Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, environmentalists and fishers, opposed mining proposals off the NT coast. At the time, the Country Liberals criticised the moratorium as “bad for business”.

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