A cautionary tale for landowners living along the Watut river
As landowners along the Watut river struggle to come to terms with the destruction of their waterway by pollution from the Hidden Valley mine it is poignant to remember how the Porgera mine dealt with a similar situation by sucking civil society into years of fruitless dialogue while the pollution continued unabated and the miners continued to ship their profits offshore.
The Porgera gold mine, which began production in 1990, has caused massive pollution problems along the Strickland river. Although the mine owners spent many years denying any problems a report by the Mineral Policy Institute and an SBS documentary in 1995 showed how the river was regularly turning to crimson as a result of pollution by iron-cyanide complexes from the mine.
Facing even greater problems at its Marcopper mine in the Philippines, Placer Dome, the major owner of the Porgera mine, went on the offensive and declared it wanted to be a global leader in ‘sustainable mining’.
To this end Placer commissioned a major study of the Strickland river – a study which confirmed the mine’s impact on the river was significant and environmental management inadequate.
Despite its public posturing about ‘responsible mining’ and wanting to become a ‘global leader’ Placer had no intention of stopping production at the Porgera mine or ceasing to dump the mine tailings into the Strickland river – but it needed to create the impression that change was occurring otherwise it would loose its social licence.
The answer to this dilemma was the Porgera Environment Advisory Komiti (PEAK) which Placer established as a ‘stakeholder monitoring committee’ to ‘improve openness, review environmental issues and oversee implementation of any recommendations’.
While PEAK gave Placer exactly what it wanted – a good news story and the impression that something was about to change – the reality is PEAK failed to catalyze and oversee any meaningful change in waste management at the Porgera mine.
Why did PEAK fail the people of the Strickland river and how did it allow Placer to continue its pollution?
Well, firstly the committee had a rapid succession of NGO representatives and scientists, few of whom gained a thorough understanding of the issues or had the presence and drive to push for change through the committee.
Secondly, committee members from large international NGOs, like WWF, had their own agenda that relied upon painting Placer in a good light so other mining companies could be convinced to engage in industry-wide reform.
But overall, most of the players passing through PEAK simply had a shallow understanding of the whole issue and were certainly not enlightened by the snippets of information coming their way.
Thus Placer was able to manipulate the committee to ensure that most of the recommendations in its independent scientific report, which could have been implemented within a year, if not sooner, were still unimplemented 5 years later.
Meanwhile, through the use of PEAK in its glossy annual reports and sustainability documents, Placer skillfully managed to acquire green credentials while continuing with business as usual at the Porgera site.
This manipulation culminated in 1999 when Placer Dome was listed on the Dow Jones Sustainability Index for its ‘corporate sustainability performance’.
As one commentator noted in 2000;
Placer Dome effectively used the PEAK committee to buffer themselves from criticism while continuing to deny the possibility of environmental and social impacts arising from their practices. This strategy was fortified by the commissioning of a series of inconclusive and unimpressive reports that have been drawn out over an excessive timeframe. If the present trend continues Placer will continue to claim until the mine closes that they have no impact on the river system, hence have no obligationto the people of the Strickland River system
Landowners along the Watut river and their MP, Sam Basil, would do well to take note of the Porgera experience and beware the mining company offering a consultative committee.
They should also remember that encouraging landowners to sign blank statutory declarations, as Harmony Gold and Newcrest Mining, owners of the Hidden Valley mine have being doing along the Watut, is another tactic used by Placer and, before them, BHP at its infamous Ok Tedi mine.