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Rio Tinto challenged over Bougainville legacy at AGM in London

Rio Tinto’s Annual General Meeting was held in London on 12 April, 2017. The London Mining Network attended the AGM and has published a report that includes, among many issues, a section on Bougainville and the Panguna mine…

Richard Solly | Co-ordinator of the London Mining Network

I asked about the company’s legacy in Bougainville. I said: “Concerning the June 2016 transfer of Rio Tinto’s shares in Bougainville Copper Ltd to the governments of Papua New Guinea and Bougainville, a note on page 167 of the 2016 Annual Report says, ‘The carrying value has previously been fully impaired and therefore the transfer resulted in no financial impact for the year ended 31 December 2016.’ I suppose this is equivalent to saying that the shares are worthless. Presumably the only way of extracting any value from the shares would involve re-opening the mine – but Bougainville Copper Ltd estimates that the costs of re-opening the Panguna mine would exceed US$5 billion, and this does not account for the expenses of concluding several essential ‘due diligence’ studies. It would take years to get the mine up and running again, and doing so would deepen dangerous divisions among the people of Bougainville.

“I have two questions. Did Rio Tinto or BCL ever commission any studies of the environmental damage caused by the mine waste to the Jaba river and surrounding regions, including an assessment of clean-up costs? If so, will the company make those studies public? How does Rio Tinto reconcile its claimed commitment to sustainable development, environmental stewardship and protection of the environment, with the mess it has left behind on Bougainville, surely one of the greatest environmental disasters in the world?”

[Rion Tinto Chairman] Jan du Plessis said that Rio Tinto had decided long ago that it would not be allowed to go back into Bougainville, and it had no desire to do so; but in the right hands and under the right conditions a mine could be developed. The fact that Rio Tinto believed that in its hands the asset has no value does not mean that it would have no value in other hands. Stakeholders including – now – local landowners could decide how they wanted to use the asset.

Jan du Plessis added that when Bougainville Copper left the site in 1989, because it was forced to leave, he knew it was compliant with all environmental and other obligations. The company now had no idea of the current situation of the site as it had not been allowed to go on site since. He was quite certain that there was no report about environmental damage, as the company had not been there for 30 years.

I said that I was asking about studies and reports that may have been done when the company was active at the mine. Jan du Plessis replied that by 1989 the company was fully compliant with its environmental and other obligations and that since then it had conducted no further studies. I should have mentioned – but failed to do so – that John Momis, President of the Bougainville Autonomous Government, has spoken of the inadequacy of the environmental regulations in place at the time that Rio Tinto was mining in Bougainville, and of the possibility of suing the company for its legacy of pollution.

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Filed under Environmental impact, Human rights, Papua New Guinea