Not in anyone’s backyard

Media Releases, Opinion article written on the 11 Feb 2007

On a typically steamy day in Papua New Guinea’s capital Port Moresby, the Australian manager of one of the country’s gold mines said, ‘We don’t have a social responsibility program because we didn’t think we’d be operating more than two years.’ Ten years after mining began and with plans to expand production, the Australian-owned mine still has no intention of ending the practice of dumping more than 140,000 tonnes of toxic waste such as lead and mercury into the local river system each and every year. In fact, the company has no plans whatsoever to minimise the social and environmental impacts of its operations. Meanwhile, downstream, out of sight and out of mind, vulnerable people who rely on the river for drinking, fishing and washing as well as land cultivation find themselves at the pointy end of the senseless and selfish actions of a multibillion dollar Australian mining operation. The company however cannot plead ignorance. Neither is it oblivious to the harm it’s caused – local people have complained bitterly on several occasions about the irreversible environmental and social damage caused by the mine.
Here in Australia the disposal of toxic mine waste into rivers, known as riverine tailings disposal, has effectively been banned for its devastating impact. It’s odd and somewhat incongruous then that some of the world’s worst offending mines such as Ok Tedi, Tolukuma and Porgera mines in Papua New Guinea and the Freeport mine in Papua all have Australian connections.

Dumping toxic mine waste in oceans never got off the ground in Australia because miners knew it would be vehemently opposed for the damage it would wreak on our beautiful coast lines. The same goes for the US and Canada where the practice is outlawed.

So we should expect the same level of environmental sensitivity from our mining companies operating overseas, right? Wrong. In fact, dumping waste in rivers and oceans is the modus operandi for some Australian, American and Canadian mining companies in the Pacific who desire the profits from using these cheapest forms of waste disposal. The message is clear, multinational mining companies will wantonly foul up the backyards of other countries but not their own.
To this day the industry continues to persist in dumping billions of tonnes of toxic heavy metals into the rivers and oceans of some of the world’s poorest countries, causing massive environmental damage as well as driving human poverty.
Oxfam Australia has witnessed and documented the destruction that dumping toxic mine waste wreaks on local and downstream communities from Tolukuma in Papua New Guinea and Marinduque Island in the Philippines. These practices have led to the obliteration of aquatic life in rivers, affected food supplies as well as livelihoods. They have contaminated drinking water and contributed to flooding. They have led to skin lesions, blood poisoning and even the deaths of local people.
Toxic mine waste dumping also impacts the culture and heritage of local communities, particularly their spiritual connection to the land and waterways. So what should be done about Australian mining companies running amok overseas in less regulated countries?
This week in Perth government mining ministers and companies from the Asia Pacific region will gather at an APEC summit titled, ‘Improving Leading Practice Sustainable Development in Mining.’ It has an eco-friendly ring and deftly helps to position the sector as a good friend of the environment. But if mining companies and governments were really serious about addressing sustainability in mining they’d immediately stop the use of unsafe practices in the disposal of mine waste. Mine waste disposal is the single largest environmental challenge facing the sector today.
Most mines use land-based alternatives to dumping in seas and rivers. But some members of the mining sector steadfastly refuse to adopt this as a viable option claiming it is too expensive. Too expensive for whom? For too long the industry has been able to get away with polluting as well as destroying vulnerable communities and their fragile environments.
There’s a glimmer of hope however. Some of the world’s largest mining companies, including BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, have made commitments not to dump toxic waste into rivers and oceans.
But they only made this commitment after mines they have been involved, namely OK Tedi and Freeport, caused disastrous environmental and social damage as a result of dumping waste into rivers. The Australian mining industry and all APEC governments do have a role to play in cleaning up the sector’s atrocious environmental track record. And they can start by taking immediate action to ban the disastrous practice of using rivers and oceans as toxic mine waste dumping grounds.
Mining companies have the potential to contribute to local development and poverty alleviation. To do so they must take a firm stand against practices that cause environmental degradation, rob people of livelihoods and drive poverty. It is ethically and ecologically wrong to dump toxic mine waste into rivers and oceans. But it’s also bad for business. After all, who wants to buy shares in a company that’s responsible for widespread pollution and environmental degradation?

Andrew Hewett
Executive Director
Oxfam Australia