Large-scale PNG copper mine in sensitive Sepik region alarms environmentalists

PHOTO: Professor Tim Flannery said he cannot think of a worse place for a copper mine. (Australian Science Media Centre)

Professor Tim Flannery said he cannot think of a worse place for a copper mine. (Australian Science Media Centre)

A feasibility study for the first large-scale copper and gold mine in Papua New Guinea’s environmentally-sensitive Sepik River catchment suggests it will be even bigger than expected.

Key points:

  • Environmentalists warn a proposed mine in PNG could harm the pristine Sepik and Frieda Rivers
  • Mine owners say they will uphold environmental standards
  • The mining lease application will be submitted to the PNG Government this month

Jemima Garrett | ABC News | 1 June 2016

The Sepik is one of the largest wild river systems left in the Asia Pacific.

The mine owners said they would be using proven best-practice waste and pollution controls but environmentalists said the risk to the pristine Sepik and Frieda Rivers was huge.

The mammal faunas in that area [are] the richest in all of Australasia.

Mammologist Tim Flannery

The Frieda River Copper and Gold Project is controlled by an 80:20 joint venture between Chinese-owned company PanAust and Australian Stock Exchange-listed junior Highlands Pacific.

“It is important to understand what we have at Frieda River. What we are sitting on is one of the ten largest undeveloped copper deposits in the world,” PanAust managing director, Fred Hess said.

A PanAust announcement said its recently-completed feasibility study outlines a larger scale development than that proposed by previous owner Xstata.

That has scientists and environmentalists worried.

The Frieda River runs for 100 kilometres from the mine site in the steep, forested highlands before it joins the Sepik which flows another 600 kilometres through a wetland-dotted plain before reaching PNG’s northern coast.

“From a biological perspective I can hardly think of a worse place for a copper mine,” said mammologist Professor Tim Flannery, who made his name in Papua New Guinea identifying 16 mammal species previously unknown to science.

“I spent a decade in that general region doing a faunal survey and was able to show that the mammal faunas in that area were the richest in all of Australasia,” he said.

The feasibility study said the project would build an innovative integrated waste management facility that would see both tailings and waste rock stored underwater.

Monash University environmental engineering senior lecturer Dr Gavin Mudd said integrated management makes sense in that environment but the risks are big.

“The total size of the resource is reported to be about 2.7 billion tonnes. That is just the ore they dig up that has got the copper and gold in it but … there would probably be several billions of tonnes more of waste rock added to that,” Dr Mudd said.

“So it is certainly a very large scale mine and with that … comes very large scale risk,” he said.

Troubled history of mining in PNG

In addition, there is concern about the environmental record of mining companies in PNG.

“The history of large mines on rivers in Melanesia is not very good,” Professor Flannery said.

“We’ve had the Bougainville copper mine, tremendous damage to a whole river system. You can go on Google Earth and see it today.

“The Freeport mine in Irian Jaya — again, utter devastation of a river system.

“The Ok Tedi mine and the Fly River — again, you can see the damage done on Google Earth. It is absolutely massive and not denied by anyone,” he said.

PanAust said the design for its integrated waste management facility was world’s best practice and it had a proven track record in similar conditions at its mine in Laos.

“While the pristine environment is there (at Frieda River) we are not looking to disturb that outside of the footprint of the mine,” Mr Hess said.

“The main driver for us is the economic benefit to an enormous number of communities who are deprived of any opportunity to gain better education or medical services because of their subsistence lifestyle,” he said.

Water management a challenge: mining company

The Frieda River mine site is in a seismically-active region with very high rainfall.

“These will be challenges, along with mineral sulphides, which become unstable when exposed to air and water,” Dr Mudd said.

“Sulphides like that can react with water and with oxygen and then … form sulphuric acid.

“That in turn … dissolves a lot of heavy metals that can sometimes be at concentration thousands or tens of thousands of times greater than the concentrations we know will start to kill fish and algae,” Dr Mudd said.

“It is a very, very serious problem and it is a very widespread issue in the global mining industry.”

PanAust agrees seepage and water management will be a challenge but Mr Hess said the innovative waste management system aims to properly treat polluted water rather than prevent dam overflow.

In fact, the overflow will be used to generate hydro-electricity.

“The aim is to make sure what overflows is of an acceptable quality and meets all of the international standards,” Dr Hess said.

“We have done a lot of modelling … and all of the work that we have done to date suggests that will comfortably allow us to meet the most stringent standards for discharge.”

PanAust’s application for a special mining lease will submitted to the PNG Government before the end of June.

2 Comments

Filed under Environmental impact, Papua New Guinea

2 responses to “Large-scale PNG copper mine in sensitive Sepik region alarms environmentalists

  1. Moses Wininga

    The developer must be fit to develop this resource and the downstream development and treatment plans need to be clear before the government allow for development.

  2. kanau iobuna

    Leave mining for a while and develop our strength that is Agriculture. Mining has adverse effects on our environment. Mining has made a lot of promise in upholding environmental issues that are only water under the bridge experience has shown that mining still does not fulfill its environmental obligations by law. Our mining laws are not geared towards the benefit of our people so mining laws need to be reviewed and reconstructed to benefit the people.Let Agriculture be our main streamline of operation as it entirely benefits the people and increase our export base (national revenue) whilst slow pacing Mining as a support service until the mining law is reviewed and properly spelled out by the letter to have 80% benefit by the people. It is sad to see no development at all in the mining lease areas. The people still live in their primitive ways. Is that the way our mining laws were written to show cause for the whole world to see. Sham on our leaders, lawyers and educated elite of this nation.

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