Tuesday, May 21, 2013
- Another environmental row is brewing in Papua New Guinea, this time around plans for an 838 million U.S.-dollar nickel mine whose tailings will be dumped into the sea along the country’s northern coast.
The furore comes just after the release of scientific reports confirming serious damage to river systems and livelihoods by the 15-year dumping of tailings from the Ok Tedi copper mine into the sea.
The Ok Tedi case has raised questions about the sustainability of mines with poor tailings disposal records — the same doubts about the proposed Ramu nickel mine.
The operator and majority owner of the Ramu mine, Highlands Pacific Ltd, says the sea disposal of tailings will bring very minimal environmental harm during the project’s 20-year lifespan.
Highlands Pacific, 65 percent owned by PNG interests and 35 percent Australian, hopes to start the Ramu project by yearend. The project is estimated to add 15 percent to the exports of PNG, a little less than the 20 percent Ok Tedi was contributing.
The Ramu mine’s environmental plan was given to the Office of Environment and Conservation in February and is pending government approval.
In this plan and in media advertisements, Highlands Pacific Ltd says tailings materials that will go into the pristine Vitiaz Basin along PNG’s northern cost are “fundamentally non-toxic, marine environmental effects are forecast to be minimal and short term (while) existing fisheries will be entirely unaffected”.
But independent scientists, activists and even government agencies like the National Fisheries Authority, who reviewed the mine’s environmental plan, disagree.
The National Fisheries Authority, the government arm that oversees PNG’s lucrative fishing industry, has concluded that the tailings disposal plan poses a real threat to the huge tuna fishing industry and other fisheries.
In a Mar 31 report leaked to media, the authority lists PNG’s problems with huge mines, ranging from the Panguna mine in Bougainville island, the Misima gold mine in Milne Bay province and the Ok Tedi mine near the border with Indonesia.
“The point is that mining has not achieved sustained economies nor improves social structures in PNG. It has broken down families and leaves crippling economic situations at all levels of PNG society,” the fisheries authority said.
It added: “There are other developmental projects suitable to PNG conditions and mining is not one of them because it is environmentally destructive and our people have always been sustained at the local level by the continuing existence of a functional environment, not large industrial projects.”
But Highlands Pacific defends its deep sea tailing placement (DSTP) plan, citing studies by its Australian environmental consultant, NSR Consultants. It notes that other countries like Indonesia, Canada and Turkey have similar mine disposal systems.
It says that predictions of tailings deposits over 20 years show that less than two percent of basin floor will be covered by mine tailings, and that what sediment is created will be buried anyway.
But an American scientist based at the University of PNG, Dr Tom Wagner, says in an independent review dated Jul 21 that the Ramu mine should not be allowed because fundamental facts about the impact of tailings are missing.
Wagner disputed Highland Pacific’s claims that the tailings are likely to be buried by the sedimentation from the rivers in the area of the Vitiaz Basin.
In an interview, Wagner termed the work of NSR Consultants “sloppy where very important points are glossed over”. He reviewed the information on request of the Office of Environment and Conservation.
His report notes three major areas missed by the widely circulated reports prepared by NSR Consultants, including the identification of toxins in the tailings, the consequences of depositing tailings solids and associated metals in the seabed, and effects of ingestion of tailings solids by marine organisms.
Ingested tailings may prove toxic and are an avenue for toxins to be accumulated in the food chain.
Wagner also says the threat of volcanic activity must be addressed, since the nickel refinery plant is to be located near Long Island Volcano, a highly active volcano.
But the National Fisheries Authority warns that the proposed deep sea tailings plan (DSTP) for Ramu, at 150 metres deep, is unlikely to work given the current dynamics of the Vitiaz basin.
The authority adds the fisheries resources of the Bismarck Sea are valuable as food security for PNG, as well as a source of renewable revenue-generating source that may be hurt by the nickel mine project.
“These reef and tuna resources of the Bismarck Sea rely on the continuing clean and productive environment of the Bismarck Sea,” it said.
The fisheries body points out that the current largest tuna fleet of PNG is based in the Madang coastline, along with sediment flows naturally from the Vitiaz Basin that is to receive the tailings.
It concludes that the Ramu project is “unsustainable” economically and environmentally. The mine would also breed problems such as alcoholism and sexually transmitted diseases among locals and mine workers, disruption of subsistence lifestyles that are based on food self-sufficiency, and food losses.
Critics say these undercut the proponents’ statements that the Ramu project — which will also produce some cobalt — will be genuinely economically viable and among the lowest-cost mines.
Expected annual sales from Ramu are put at 260-270 million dollars a year. The estimated value of benefits to locals, the provincial and national governments in compensation, royalties and taxes is some 103.5 million dollars, proponents say.
The Ramu nickel resource was first discovered by the Australian Bureau of Mineral Resources in 1962, but Highlands Pacific became involved in 1997 after acquiring a stake in a company which had interest in the resource. The American firm Nord Pacific Ltd is a minor owner of the Ramu project.
Looking back at PNG’s record with mines, the Fisheries Authority added that “all the other (big) mines still leave Papua New Guinea worse off and not better”.
“The Panguna mine crippled PNG for ten years economically and as a people coping with large mines. The Ok Tedi Mine has had million kina lawsuits, while 200 kilometers of the Fly River lies dead, while the people downstream look for water and fish,” it pointed out. “Once mining stops, the money stops.”