Papua New Guinea: Mine wins right to dump toxic waste

July 31, 2011
Ramu nickel mine.

Papua New Guinea's National Court ruled in favour of the owners of the controversial Ramu nickel mine in Madang on July 26, allowing the dumping of millions of tonnes of mine waste into the sea.

The dumping will devastate the Basamuk Bay area, putting the environment and people's lives at risk. It is a key area for biodiversity and is vital for the livelihood and food security of the local community.

More than 1000 locals joined the legal action to get a permanent injunction on the mine owners' plans to dump about 100 million tonnes of highly toxic mine tailings into the sea over 20 years.

The company will use a process called Deep Sea Tailings Placement (DSTP). Dumping is expected to begin in September.

The Ramu nickel mine is owned by Chinese state-owned company MCC. Australian company Highlands Pacific is a minority stakeholder.

The plaintiffs were shocked when Judge David Cannings dismissed the injunction, despite explaining at length that the plaintiffs had proven their case that the dumping would cause “serious environmental harm”, PNG Mine Watch said on July 26.

Reasons given for the ruling were the plaintiffs' “delay in bringing a court action, the fact the marine dumping has been approved by the government and the economic consequences for the mining company and investor confidence if the marine dumping was stopped”, PNG Mine Watch said.

Anti-mining group Act Now! said on July 27 that Cannings acknowledged DSTP breached the constitution as it “amounts to an abuse and depletion of Papua New Guinea’s natural resources and environment ― not their conservation”.

He also said it was an unwise use of natural resources and would interfere with the people’s use of their customary land and sea.

However, Cannings still “rule[d] in favour of the corporate world over the thousands of people whose lives depend on the sea and nature”, Act Now! said.

Reflecting the PNG government's deeply biased role in the case, mining minister John Pundari praised the decision. He said he was “satisfied with the outcome of the case and want to thank everyone who have assisted one way or the other in contributing to the achievement of this outcome”, the July 28 Post-Courier reported. reported on July 26 that after the ruling, Highlands Pacific managing director John Gooding said: “It would be extremely disappointing and counterproductive to seek to tie up this project in further legal actions through appeals by the plaintiffs.”

The landowners' lawyer, Tiffany Nonggorr, said her clients will appeal to the Supreme Court, Australian Network News said on July 26.

The National said on July 29 that the nearby Yandera copper-molybdenum mine was also considering dumping its waste in the same area.

The mine is owned by Australian company Marengo Mining.

Environmental scientist Amanda Reichelt-Brushett of Southern Cross University told ABC Radio Australia program Pacific Beat on July 27: “It's a very high risk operation and, unlike on-land tailings where you can have management in place and management reaction to spills and incidents, there is not much that can be done ...

“Tailings are an extremely complex mixture and scientists today don't fully understand what happens geochemically under the deep sea and more than 100 metres deep ...

“The potential for environmental damage is extreme because the environment that you are disposing into is unknown.”

The Madang community has campaigned against the mine since 2005. An injunction against construction of the waste pipeline was first granted in March 2010, but the case was dropped in September after the plaintiffs were threatened by mine supporters.

The latest legal challenge was initiated by community leader Louis Medaing. It eventually gained the support of 1040 complainants.

PNG Mine Watch said on July 21 that Chinese ambassador H.E. Qiu Bohua visited acting PNG prime minister Sam Abal three weeks earlier to pressure the government over the court case.

A statement by MCC on July 26 said US$1.3 billion had already been invested in the mine.

The mine owners had already received preferential treatment from the PNG government, including a renegotiation of the contract on terms that meant PNG received very little from the mine's operations and a 10-year “tax holiday”.

They also benefited from anti-democratic changes to environment laws in May 2010 that protect resource projects from legal action. The changes also removed the right to appeal decisions of the Director of the Office of Environment and Conservation.

Mine representatives have also been allowed to intimidate and attack opponents, often in conjunction with local authorities and police. Locals have been forced from their homes and sacred sites destroyed to make way for mine expansion.

The dumping area may also become a “special economic zone” ― an area where corporations can maximise profit through the suspension of local industrial and tax laws.

The PNG government has given the International Finance Corporation, the private business arm of the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank a major role in writing laws to introduce special economic zones, The National said on March 9.

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