Australian mining firm knowingly pollutes in Papua New Guinea

A report into a cyanide spill in the rainforests of this environmentally pristine nation has revealed that an Australian mine operator expects to obliterate local fish populations and food resources as a result of its normal operations.

The newly-released report, Cyanide Crash: Report on the Tolukuma Gold Mine Cyanide Spill in Papua New Guinea, March 2000 by Australian watchdog the Mineral Policy Institute (MPI), says that Sydney-based mining company, Dome Resources, will knowingly wipe out all fish life for 30 kilometres of the once-untouched Auga river.

The report, which investigates the accidental loss of one thousand kilograms of cyanide from a helicopter on its way to the remote Tolukuma mine, some 100 kilometres (62 miles) north of the capital, Port Moresby, shows that mine’s day-to-day operations involving dumping waste directly into rivers, is having a seriously detrimental impact on the local environment and indigenous populations.

“(Dome Resources) knew before opening the mine that the operation would wipe out fish and food. Yet it continues to operate in an environmentally destructive manner without accountability ”, MPI’s director, Geoff Evans, said. “ The company is cynically exploiting a poor country and in the process destroying people’s livelihood and the environment.”

The report documents the damage from Dome Resource’s own environmental information, stating that, “high sediment deposition rates are expected to cause obliterative impacts on the fish habitats and food resources of these sediment-impacted reaches.” This ‘obliterative’ impact stretches approximately 30 kilometres along the Auga river, upon which the Dilava Yaloge people depend for water and food.

“The mine has had a major impact on the people’s social and environmental life. For seven kilometres from the mine outfall, river life has been destroyed”, said local landowner, Mr Billie Strange.

The report into the 21 March spill says that up to 150 kilograms of sodium cyanide entered local waterways after a one-tonne bale of concentrated pellets plummeted from a sling underneath a Tolukuma Gold Mines helicopter en route to the minesite. It alleges that assurances by Dome Resources three days later that the lost cyanide from the site had been recovered and contaminated topsoil removed were untrue.

An investigation of the site by Greenpeace Australia and local people on 26 March found no evidence that any soil had been removed and that there were large quantities of iron cyanide, present around the crash site.

Tests found a total cyanide contamination of 2800 parts per million (ppm) on the soil surface at the spill site. Although cyanide levels decreased away from the impact site, sediment from the creek, 30 metres downstream, still had levels of 5.4 ppm – 25 times the United States limit for drinking water. It was also discovered that inhabitants of the closest village, 15 kilometres downstream from the spill had been unable to eat from their gardens for the last four days ago and had not had adequate water delivered.

“The ongoing impacts of this operation in PNG (Papua New Guinea) would not be acceptable in Australia; how can the Australian government continue to ignore unacceptable mining practices by Australian companies operating offshore?” commented Greenpeace toxics campaigner, Mark Oakwood.

The report makes recommendations which it says are essential for both Australian and Papuan authorities to fulfil:

  • Australian law should bind the overseas operations of Australian mining companies to the Mineral Council of Australia’s (at present voluntary) Code of Environmental Management, of which Dome Resources is neither a member nor a signatory;
  • in Australia legislation is needed to regulate the operations of Australian companies operating overseas;
  • Papua New Guinea (PNG) must have compliance with international Health and Safety Standards;
  • all mining companies operating in PNG must build infrastructure such as road systems to help transport dangerous chemicals;
  • there should be no transportation of cyanide and chemicals in helicopters;
  • the PNG Government should repeal the “Foreign Proceedings and Prohibitions Act” so that landholders should be given a choice where to take and argue their cases;
  • a safe tailings retention system as well as cyanide detoxification must be constructed at Tolukuma if the mine is to continue;
  • riverine waste disposal and submarine tailings disposal systems are not acceptable practices and must not be used for any new mines.

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