Frieda Mine Road Construction a Threat to Upper Sepik Environment

frieda road sepik

William H. Townsend, Ph.D., P.E.

It is clear that constructing the Frieda Mine Access Road from Nikie to Kubkain by way of Yabatawe in East Sepik Province will have major impact on the forest along the road, which runs through several Sanio-Hiyewe communities. By damaging their sago and other food sources, a sustainable food supply will be threatened in this challenging environment.

I lived with the Saniyo-Hiyewe for 20 months in 1966-1967 and shorter periods between 1980 and 1984. One of my activities during this time was mapping ridges, swamp forests, and paths between villages. Another was weighing food and measuring sago stands.

In 1981 through 1984 I served the PNG Government as its technical advisor on the Ok Tedi Mine, reporting to the Secretary of Minerals and Energy and the Secretary of Finance. As a civil engineer, I was responsible to monitor construction of the mine and report on OTML’s progress as it affected local facilities and environmental impact. 

Responding to a Directive from Parliament in 1982, I did an inspection of the Access Road from Kiunga to Tabubil and reported back to Parliament. This inspection revealed that the construction of the road through rain forest was slower and more difficult than anticipated. The side cast method of road construction used there discarded topsoil away from the roadway, pushing it into the adjacent forest.  (See photo.)

If the same construction methods for mine access roads are used on the Frieda Mine that were used in Western Province, runoff will deposit materials that will damage the prime sago areas, which have taken generations to develop, and other food sources. Damage to the fragile forest during construction would take decades to remediate and restore sustainable living to the people of the Upper Sepik tributaries.

While commentators are rightly concerned about the massive damage that occurs from riverine disposal of mine wastes during production or through the failure of poorly constructed tailings dams after mine closure, vigilance is also necessary from the beginning of construction. Environmental damage from construction shortcuts is especially likely during the pre-production and early production phases, before the project returns a profit, as Ok Tedi should have taught us all.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Papua New Guinea

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