Villagers protest against environmental damage

July 24, 1996

By Norm Dixon

Villagers downstream from Porgera gold mine in PNG are to seek compensation for environmental damage and loss of life caused by the dumping of mine tailings into the Strickland River.

The villagers, members of the Kulini Strickland Landowners Association, are angry at the June 14 decision by the government to grant the Australian-controlled Porgera Joint Venture (PJV) exception from a water use permit, allowing the mine to dump tailings waste directly into the river system.

Mine waste flows into the Porgera river, which enters the Lagaip and Strickland rivers and finally the Fly river system. Pollution of the Fly was also at the centre of the long-running dispute between the BHP-owned Ok Tedi mine and villagers.

The landowners association has teamed up with the Individual and Community Rights Advocacy Forum (ICRAF) to win their its demands. ICRAF spokesperson Powes Parkop said they are organising talks between the land-holders, government and the company. Legal action was not yet being considered because it was too expensive.

Villagers report that the pollution from the mine tailings has led to strange diseases that have caused deaths. "The whole eco-system and the water quality is being heavily polluted causing a lot of damage and harm to our social, cultural, spiritual and economic well-being", association spokesperson Yandale Sakuya told the PNG daily Independent.

The amount of tailings dumped into the river is set to increase from 10,000 to 17,500 tonnes a day with the government's approval of the Stage 4B extension of the project earlier this year.

Porgera is PNG's second largest gold mine, producing 1.4 million ounces of gold per year. It is jointly owned by the Australian-listed Placer Pacific, Mt Isa Mines subsidiary Highlands Gold, Renison Goldfields and the PNG government. Porgera has been touted as a model mine that has avoided the "mistakes" of Bougainville and Ok Tedi mines.

At a press conference on June 27, land-holders and the ICRAF accused Port Moresby of allowing Porgera to dump significant volumes of tailings, rocks and heavy metals in excess of Australian and PNG standards into the rivers. This has been taking place for the last seven years without the consent of the people. The mine waste has greatly affected the people and the wildlife resources along the river system, they said.

The land-holders are demanding that PJV pay compensation to the people of the affected river systems for the environmental damage, and that the company immediately build a tailings retention or disposal facility.