Papua New Guinea: Anti-mine campaign defies government

Papua New Guinean children standing in mine tailings. The Ramu mine is expected to produce 100 million tonnes of waste tailings

The fight against the dumping of toxic waste off the coast of Madang in Papua New Guinea suffered a setback when a court injunction against the Ramu nickel mine, which is building a pipe to dump its waste into the ocean, was reversed.

The injunction was dropped after the three remaining plaintiffs pulled out of the case against the US$1.4 billion Chinese-owned mine, the September 24 Sydney Morning Herald said.

Since the injunction was awarded in March, a campaign of intimidation and violence has been waged by the mine owners and PNG government against the plaintiffs and their lawyers, the Ramu Nickel Mine Watch website said.

Ramu Nickel Mine Watch detailed a long list of incidents involving threats and attempted bribery of those involved in the court case.

A number of plaintiffs had already dropped their lawsuits due to intimidation. The latest group of plaintiffs had been under police escort after their boat was attacked by a group armed with guns and knives.

Lawyer for the case against the mine, Tiffany Nonggorr, said she was tracked down by a group of men that included former politician and convicted rapist James Yali. She said this was an attempt by the government to intimidate her.

People in the Madang area have campaigned against the Ramu mine since 2005. The mine is expected to produce 100 million tonnes of waste tailings that will be pumped into the pristine Basamuk Bay over the mine’s expected 20-year life span, the SMH said.

Australian-based Marengo Mining has also applied to dump waste from its proposed Yandera Gold and Copper mine into the same bay, ABC Radio said on August 27.

Ramu Nickel Mine Watch has highlighted incidents of abuse of workers and lax safety standards at the Ramu mine. It also said in March that some locals were forced from their homes by mine security and police to allow for site expansion.

The government of Prime Minister Michael Somare has given special treatment to mine-owners, Metallurgical Construction Corp, including a 10-year “tax holiday”, the Australian said on June 1.

The PNG government passed undemocratic laws in May aimed at stopping the anti-dumping campaign. Amendments to the Environment Act were rushed through parliament to protect resource projects from legal action over destruction of the environment, labour abuse or landowner exploitation, the Australian said.

The amendments also removed the right to appeal decisions of the Director of the Office of Environment and Conservation, the May 31 Post Courier said.

After a widespread outcry against the new laws, including rallies across the country, Attorney-General Ano Pala issued an edict banning discussion of the laws in the media as well as public protests, ABC Online said on June 25.

The edict was ignored by PNG’s two daily newspapers. Protests have also continued despite the threat of arrest.

Hundreds of protesters defied police and government officials who tried to stop a rally in Madang on June 30, the July 1 National said. Madang Govenor Arnold Amet was heckled after he told the crowd: “Your right to freedom of speech is presently suspended by the Supreme court reference.”

The plans for the dumping process — known as Deep Sea Tailings Placement (DSTP) — have been copied from Lihir Gold’s mining operations on Lihir Island in PNG’s far north-east.

On September 9, the 7.30 Report exposed the environmental damage caused by Australian-owned Lihir Gold that was, until its recent takeover by Newcrest mining, run by Australian economist Ross Garnaut.

Garnaut is the head of the former Rudd government’s climate change review panel. He has defended the “exemplary” environmental record of his company.

Mine tailings are known to cause long-term problems to the environment and human health. The PNG government tried to keep secret a report it commissioned from the Scottish Association for Marine Science about the expected impacts of the Ramu DSTP plan, Asopa.typepad.com said on September 11.

The report concluded further data was required to determine the safety of DSTP.

The report detailed the “significant” environmental impacts of DSTP at Lihir, where 3.5-4.5 million tonnes of waste are dumped into the marine environment each year.

The waste contains heavy metals, zinc, copper, cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic. It also found plumes of waste up to 200 metres thick, along with deposits of waste up to 4.4 kilometres from the discharge point.

The effects of mine tailings on human health were highlighted in July, when 25 people were poisoned while panning for gold in a river near Barrick Gold’s Porgera mine in PNG.

A report at Porgeraalliance.net detailed testimonies of people who suffered burning pain and sores over their bodies after coming into contact with tailings in the river.

PNG New Ireland province governor Julius Chan said the Lihir mine has brought environmental and social devastation, Radio New Zealand International said on September 10. “We do not support the expansion of the mine because we are not convinced that they are telling us the truth about the impact on the environment”, he said.

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