A new independent report reviewing satellite images and other historical data on Rio Tinto’s former Panguna mine has warned of serious risks to local communities posed by unstable mine infrastructure and flooding caused by the build-up of mine waste in the rivers.
The report, produced by global environmental firm Tetra Tech Coffey, is a preparatory desktop study on the mine, which will inform an environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine due to commence later this year.
The report found that a levee at the junction of the Jaba and Kawerong rivers, constructed at the time of the mine’s operation, “is almost certain to collapse at some stage in the future” and that “structures and people that live on the floodplain downstream of the Jaba River would be directly impacted by flooding or landslide effect”. The report noted that “it is not yet possible to predict when the levee at the junction of the Kawerong and Jaba rivers may fail or how severe its failure may be due to limitations of current information.”
The report also warned that “the bed of the Jaba River has raised over time due to flooding and build-up of previously deposited tailings, such as at the lower Jaba River near Bato Bridge”. This “caused the Jaba River to change course in 2017 and start to flow into the Konaviru wetland and lower Kuneka Creek, changing their flooding patterns and depositing tailings into them.” The report noted that “this change of flow into Konaviru wetland is likely to remain and become the focus of further tailings deposition in the future”, posing future flooding risks for people living in the area. However, “it is not yet possible to predict when this will happen and whether the change will be permanent”.
Due to the urgent nature of these two risks, a rapid risk assessment by Tetra Tech Coffey, including on-ground inspection to verify the report’s findings, is due to commence in the coming weeks. The process has been escalated outside of the formal impact assessment and is being led by the Autonomous Bougainville Government, with the support of Rio Tinto and the Human Rights Law Centre.
The other issues identified in the report, including risks posed by old mine infrastructure and pollution of local rivers and water sources, will be examined by the formal impact assessment, starting later in the year.
Last year, Rio Tinto committed to fund the impact assessment following a human rights complaint brought by 156 local community members, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre. Rio Tinto has not yet committed to funding solutions to any mine-related risks or impacts identified through the impact assessment.
The Tetra Tech Coffey report was released by the Panguna Mine Legacy Oversight Committee – a multi-stakeholder Committee comprising community members, landowners, government representatives, and representatives from the Human Rights Law Centre, Rio Tinto and Bougainville Copper Limited.
Traditional landowner and lead complainant in the human rights complaint, Theonila Roka Matbob, who is also the member of parliament for the area where the mine is located said:
“We welcome Rio Tinto’s commitment to investigating these problems and to supporting the Bougainville Government to escalate the serious levee risk and lower Kuneka Creek flooding risk for urgent investigation.
“This early report shows the world just some of what we live with every day. Every day we worry about levees collapsing on us, about rivers full of mine waste flooding our land and villages and about whether the water we drink and wash with is making us sick.
“We appreciate Rio’s message at the launch of the Secretariat’s office that it is committed to the Impact Assessment process. It is critical that Rio Tinto also commits to supporting the implementation of solutions to the huge problems we face.”
Keren Adams, Acting Co-CEO at the Human Rights Law Centre, said:
“This report reinforces the devastating environmental legacy of the Panguna mine and the dangerous, volatile situation that this has left local communities living in. When we visited these communities, we saw first-hand the devastating effects of mine-waste mud flows on communities’ water sources & fishing areas. We spoke to people who live downstream of the collapsing levees and fear their houses could be swept away.
“Over the coming weeks, we will be working with communities, the ABG, Rio Tinto and the Tetra Tech Coffey team to ensure that the acute levee and flooding risks are urgently assessed. We hope this will help give communities a better understanding of the risks they are living with and to identify options for addressing these serious risks to peoples’ lives and livelihoods.”
In September 2020, 156 residents from villages downstream of the Panguna mine, represented by the Human Rights Law Centre, filed a complaint against Rio Tinto with the Australian National Contact Point for the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. The complaint was about the environmental impacts of the mine and the effects these have on the lives of people living near and downstream of the mine from things like pollution of rivers, lack of access to clean water, flooding and land destruction, collapsing levees, food shortages, disease and illness.
In 2021, Rio Tinto publicly committed to fund an independent environmental and human rights impact assessment of the mine. The company has not yet committed to fund the clean-up and remediation of affected areas and communities.
A tender process is currently underway to select an independent company of environmental, social and human rights experts to carry out Phase 1 of the Impact Assessment, which is expected to start by the end of the year and run for around 18 months.
Following the impact assessment, further discussions will be held between the company, community representatives and other stakeholders regarding the assessment’s recommendations and next steps.
For further background on the impacts of the mine, see the Human Rights Law Centre’s After the Mine report.