By Human Rights Law Centre
Tinto has today publicly committed to fund an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of its former Panguna mine in Bougainville in response to a human rights complaint filed by Bougainville communities.
The complaint was filed last September by 156 Bougainville residents from communities downstream of the mine, who allege that the massive volume of waste pollution left by the mine is having severe environmental and human rights impacts and putting the lives and livelihoods of their communities at risk. Filed with the Australian OECD National Contact Point (AusNCP), the complaint sought commitments from Rio Tinto to fund an independent impact assessment of the site and contribute to a substantial fund to address risks to health and safety, assist with long-term clean-up and rehabilitation.
The communities, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre have, since December 2020, been in discussions with Rio Tinto, facilitated by the AusNCP.
In a joint statement released today, Rio Tinto, the Human Rights Law Centre and community representatives announced the assessment, which will identify environmental and human rights impacts and risks posed by the mine and develop recommendations for what needs to be done to address them.
The assessment will be predominantly funded by Rio Tinto, with its former subsidiary Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), which operated the mine, also contributing. It will be overseen by a committee which will also involve representatives from the Autonomous Bougainville Government and PNG National Government as well as other landowner and community representatives.
Traditional landowner and MP Theonila Roka Matbob, representing the communities involved in the complaint, said:
“This is an important day for communities on Bougainville. Our people have been living with the disastrous impacts of Panguna for many years and the situation is getting worse. The mine continues to poison our rivers with copper. Our kids get sick from the pollution and communities downstream are now being flooded with mine waste. Some people have to walk two hours a day just to get clean drinking water. In other areas, communities’ sacred sites are being flooded and destroyed.
“These problems need to be urgently investigated so solutions can be developed and clean-up can begin. Today’s announcement gives us hope for a new chapter for our people. We look forward to working with Rio Tinto, the Human Rights Law Centre and our own government and communities to ensure work on the assessment can start as soon as possible.”
Keren Adams, a Legal Director at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:
“We are pleased that Rio Tinto has acknowledged the very serious concerns raised by communities by agreeing to fund this assessment. The Panguna mine left a devastating legacy of environmental pollution which continues to impact the lives of thousands of people. This assessment is a critical first step towards addressing that legacy. However, we stress that it is only the first step. The assessment will need to be followed up by swift action to address these problems so that communities can live in safety.
“Communities urgently need access to clean water for drinking and bathing. They need solutions to stop the vast mounds of tailings waste eroding into the rivers and flooding their villages, farms and fishing areas. They need their children to be able to walk to school without having to wade through treacherous areas of quicksand created by the mine waste. This is what remediation means in real terms for the people living with these impacts.”
An estimated 12,000 – 14,000 people live downstream of the Panguna mine along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley.
Rio Tinto has not yet committed to funding clean-up and remediation of the mine. Following the conclusion of the impact assessment, further discussions will be held between the company, community representatives and other stakeholders regarding the assessment’s recommendations and next steps.
Panguna was formerly one of the world’s largest copper and gold mines. During its operation from 1972 to 1989, over a billion tonnes of waste tailings from the mine were released directly into the Jaba and Kawerong rivers. In 1989, an uprising by local people against this environmental destruction and inequities in the distribution of the mine's profits forced its closure and triggered a brutal decade-long civil war.
A clear path had been identified to deal with the extensive pollution left by Panguna in 2014 but Rio Tinto divested from the mine in 2016 before this could be implemented, passing on its shares to the Bougainville and PNG Governments and side-stepping the cost of clean-up.
Visits by the Human Rights Law Centre to the mine in 2019-20 documented copper pollution from the abandoned mine flowing directly into the rivers and vast mounds of tailings waste stretching almost 40km downstream to the coast.
The AusNCP, based in the Department of Treasury, is responsible for promoting responsible business conduct by Australian companies under the OECD Guidelines. It has the power to investigate complaints made against Australian multinationals and to issue findings on whether companies are breaching their obligations under the Guidelines and recommend actions to address these breaches. It can also offer dispute resolution to assist in the resolution of complaints against companies.