Landowners along the Watut river in Papua New Guinea are suing the Hidden Valley mine for its “negligent” pollution of their waterway with heavy metals and acid forming rock.
The Hidden Valley mine is jointly owned by Newcrest Mining from Australia and Harmony Gold of South Africa.
The landowners say the two companies were fully aware of the problems that have caused the pollution and could have prevented it if they were not so determined to get into production as soon as possible.
The landowners say that according to the mine Environmental Plan, the mine was to construct stable waste dumps using fresh rock, but when sufficient rock could not be sourced on site, rather than delaying construction and importing suitable material the mine just carried on regardless, knowing the waste dump facilities would not be stable.
This failure was then compounded when greater than expected amounts of overburden had to be removed to get access to the gold ore. This meant much more waste rock and overburden, which was contaminated with heavy metals, iron pyrites and other acid forming compounds, had to be stored on site.
Again, instead of delaying construction and the start of production so the waste dumps could be properly constructed and then expanded to take the additional material, the landowners say the mine company carried on regardless.
Unsurprisingly, indeed predictably, the inadequately constructed and overloaded waste facilities failed on several occasions, leading to massive amounts of waste rock and overburden escaping into the Watut river.
To make matters even worse, the landowners say the mine failed to construct two promised retaining dams as also set out in its environmental plan. This exacerbated the sedimentation problems even further as there was nothing to stop run-off caused by heavy rainfall entering the river system.
The landowners say they rely on the river for water for their livelihoods, for alluvial gold, for washing, drinking, cooking, irrigation, and cleaning, for fish and crustaceans for protein, for plant life for eating, for transportation, for its aesthetic value, for traditional agricultural practices and for cultural needs.
But despite knowing the importance of the river to the landowners and the implications of not constructing the waste dumps correctly and removing massive amounts of overburden, the landowners claim “the defendants attitude was to get into production as soon as possible to contain costs rather than remedying the dumping and erosion problems”.
As a result of the heavy sedimentation in the river and the contamination with heavy metals and acid forming rocks, the landowners say there have been “gross impacts on the Watut river system”.
These impacts include: a massive build up of sediment causing pollution; dieback of vegetation throughout the river system; acid forming compounds entering the river and causing damage to all life in the river including plant life, fish and crustaceans and humans; changes in the course of the river; the death of fish and prawns; widespread destruction of benthic macroinvertebrate communities; severe aquatic habitat degradation; deprivation of the Watut River water for bathing, washing, cooking or drinking; deprivation of access to alluvial gold; skin diseases and sores; loss of transport on the river; loss of houses and village areas; loss of gardens and cash crops; and loss of the ability to use gardens in the future
The Hidden Valley mine began operations in 2009 and reached commercial levels production in May 2010, once the overburden had been removed. Ore was initially stockpiled until the processing plant was commissioned in September this year.