– via the Fly River Delta – into the Gulf of Papua to the north of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Ok Tedi Copper and Gold Mine is situated on Mount Fubilan at the source of this river, and its practice of dumping mine waste directly into the river system has made it the centre of international controversy since the 1990s, when it was the subject of four lawsuits. Meanwhile, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers still find it difficult to feed their families due to the effects of this mine waste on food security.
The Ok Tedi Mine started production in 1984 and is expected to continue operating until 2013, although the current management is exploring possibilities for extending its life another decade or more. Each year, 100 million tones of waste from the Ok Tedi mine are released into the Ok Tedi River. This waste includes 60 million tonnes of waste rock, 10 million tonnes of erosion rock and 30 million tonnes of tailings, or treated, finely-ground mine waste9. The mine has discharged over one billion tonnes of tailings and waste material into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers over the life of the project.
The disposal of tailings into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers has caused environmental problems including more than 1,500 square kilometres of deforestation. Deforestation is expected to increase to at least 3,000 square kilometres, and to last for more than 50 years along some parts of the river. Much of this area will not return to tropical rain forest, but permanently transform into savannah grasslands. Fish populations have declined by 95% in the Ok Tedi River, 85% in the upper middle Fly River and by 60% in the lower middle Fly10. The number of fish species in the Ok Tedi and Fly River system, which included many endemic species, has also declined by 30%11.
In recent years the mine has suffered problems of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), allowing acidic waste and environmentally toxic metals to leach into the river. The ore body currently exploited by the mining operation is high in pyrites, which become acidic when exposed to oxygen. AMD can render large areas inhospitable to organic life for decades or centuries. In response to this problem, the mine’s management has investigated plans to store the hazardous material in cells along the lower Ok Tedi River12.
A number of the owners and operators of the mine, including BHP and Inmet, have acknowledged the detrimental impact of riverine tailings disposal into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers, and have actively researched alternative tailings management plans.
“While there have been ongoing studies to assess the environmental impact, Ok Tedi believes that these effects will likely be greater and last longer than previously thought, based on current findings from its monitoring program,” reads the Inmet Mining 2007 Annual Report13.
Trials and investigations into alternatives had cost BHP A$100 million as of 1999. Over ten years later no alternative to riverine tailings disposal has been developed at the Ok Tedi Mine. Pollution from the Ok Tedi Mine affects approximately 50,000 people, most of whom are subsistence farmers, fishers and hunters14.
9 Tingay, Alan, The Ok Tedi Mine in Papua New Guinea, Report on Environmental and Health Issues.
Community Mine Continuation Agreement Review 2006.
12 Ian Campbell, Gavin Mudd and Dr Alan Tinagy. Salleh Anna, ABC online, PNG warned of Environmental
Mining Disaster, ABC. Accessed online September 6 2008 http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/09/06/2357374.htm?section=world 2008.
13 Inmet online, Ok Tedi, Inmet Mining. Accessed online 10 Dec 2008 http://www.inmetmining.com/
Inmet online, Ok Tedi 2007 Annual Report, Inmet mining. Accessed and downloaded online 10 Dec
2008, http://www.inmetmining.com/ouroperations/production/OkTedi/default.aspx 2008.
14 Kirsch Stuart, Return to Ok Tedi, Meanjin Volume 55 Number 4 1996, Promised Land. Australian Centre, University of Melbourne, 1996.
Kirsch, Stuart 2006. Reverse Anthropology: Indigenous Analysis of Social and Environmental Relations in New Guinea, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006.