ABC TV – Lateline, 14 June 2010
Abandoned mine threatens environmental disaster
Australian Broadcasting Corporation
Reporter: Liam Fox
The Australian owners of an abandoned mine in Bougainville say it is too dangerous to return to repair leaking fuel tanks.
LEIGH SALES, PRESENTER: It’s been 20 years since a bloody civil war forced the closure of the Panguna copper mine on the island of Bougainville in Papua New Guinea.
The mine’s infrastructure has been slowly decaying ever since.
The fuel tanks that fed Panguna’s power station are now leaking oil not far from the sea.
Some are warning of an impending environmental disaster but the mine’s Australian owner says it’s only a minor spill.
It wants to return to Bougainville to clean up but says it can’t because the island is still too dangerous for its workers.
PNG correspondent Liam Fox reports.
LIAM FOX, PNG CORRESPONDENT: Deep in the Bougainville jungle are the remains of what was one of the world’s biggest copper mines. Panguana is now a wasteland of rusting equipment and dilapidated buildings. Operations ground to a halt 20 years ago when the resentment felt by local landowners towards the mine sparked a decade-long civil war. Thousands died during the crisis and the mine has been slowly decaying ever since.
It’s a similar story on the coast at Panguna’s old power station. These fuel tanks haven’t been maintained for two decades. Now they’re leaking oil, lots of it and it could get worse.
RON BLENKIRON, SOUTH PACIFIC ENVIRONMENTAL: There’s a crack down through there. This is about a 20 mill thick at the bottom, but these cracks will still open up in an earthquake.
LIAM FOX: Thick, heavy fuel oil coats the ground. A black lake lies next to the tanks. From here, it’s only a stone’s throw to the ocean. This pit only metres from the water is the last barrier preventing oil from leaking into the sea.
RON BLENKIRON: During the wet season when we first came here, this pit was basically full of water and the oil was about 50 mill from running into the sea, so it was pretty close. You’re living on the edge of a catastrophe here the whole time. It’s pretty nasty stuff.
LIAM FOX: Ron Blenkiron from South Pacific Environmental says the leaking oil isn’t the only potential hazard here, up the road are the remains of a storage area for chemicals used in the mining process.
RON BLENKIRON: We won’t take you any further into there, but these are really nasty stuff. You can’t go in there without full breathing apparatus and chem suits. This is really nasty.
LIAM FOX: Mr Blenkiron has written to the mines, Australian owner Bougainville Copper Limited or BCL, and offered to clean it up. For a price of course, but BCL has declined.
RON BLENKIRON: I believe that BCL is morally responsible to clean up.
LIAM FOX: Steven Tibo is working for South Pacific Environmental and the company it’s formed with some local landowners.
STEVEN TIBO, SOUTH PACIFIC ENVIRONMENTAL: My people we live on the coast, marine life, so this oil is a concern.
LIAM FOX: But back in Port Moresby, BCL isn’t so worried.
PETER TAYLOR, BOUGAINVILLE COPPER LTD CHAIRMAN: There is what I call a relatively minor oil spill that’s been contained by the safety systems that were put in place, the bund. And really it seems to me it’s just a case of going and cleaning that up.
LIAM FOX: Bougainville Copper says vandals caused the spill and much of the oil has already been stolen. It says New Zealand peacekeepers removed any toxic chemicals from the area in 1997. The company says it wants to clean up the spill, but more than a decade after the war ended, it still believes Bougainville is not safe for its employees.
PETER TAYLOR: Unfortunately, there are few people, and I think they’re now well and truly in the minority, who refuse to allow us access and some of these people unfortunately have got guns.
LIAM FOX: So why not use South Pacific Environmental, who are already on the ground?
PETER TAYLOR: We have done some research to try and find out what their credentials are and as far as I can see, they have no experience in actually doing any sort of environmental remediation work.
LIAM FOX: Bougainville Copper is hoping to return soon and clean up the mess itself. The historic hatred local villagers felt towards Panguana is dissipating. Many now want the mine reopened to fund their long-held desire for independence from PNG.
CHRIS DAMANA, PANGUNA LAND OWNERS ASSOCIATION: We want Bougainville to get its own money, find its own funds and to run its own affairs.
PETER TAYLOR: The landowners are now approaching the company saying, ‘We’d like you to come back.’
LIAM FOX: It might not be too long before BCL is back in Bougainville.
Liam Fox Lateline.
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Australian company blamed for oil spill
By PNG correspondent Liam Fox
Posted Mon Jun 14, 2010 9:21pm AEST
Audio: Oil spill in Bouganville linked to Australian owned copper mine (PM)
As oil continues to spew into the Gulf of Mexico, there are fears about the potential for another smaller spill in Papua New Guinea.
Two big oil tanks are leaking heavy fuel oil close to the sea on the island of Bougainville.
The tanks used to fuel the massive Panguna copper mine before it was abandoned more than 20 years ago because of a bloody civil war.
The mine’s Australian owner says it wants to clean up the leaks, but Bougainville is still too dangerous for its workers to return.
It has been more than 20 years since the two large fuel tanks at the port of Loloho on Bougainville’s east coast had any maintenance.
Back then, the resentment local landowners felt towards the Panguna copper mine sparked a decade long-civil war that forced the mine’s closure.
Now the tanks are leaking and the ground around them is coated in thick heavy fuel oil.
A black lake lies between the tanks and there are fears it could get worse.
“There’s a faint crack down through there,” said Ron Blenkiron from South Pacific Environmental, a company that wants to clean up the leak.
“This is about 20 mil thick at the bottom here but these cracks will still open up in an earthquake or anything serious like that, so it’s definitely an issue.”
The tanks are only a stone’s throw from the ocean and Mr Blenkiron says the system put in place to contain leaks has broken down.
An oil-soaked pit, just metres from the water, is the last barrier preventing the fuel from leaking into the sea.
“During the wet season, when we first came here, this pit was basically full of water and the oil was about 50 mils from running into the sea, so it was pretty close,” Mr Blenkiron said.
“You’re living on the edge of a catastrophe here.”
Mr Blenkiron says the oil is not the only potential hazard left behind when the mine was abandoned in the late 1980s.
A few hundred metres up the road are the rusting remains of a storage area for chemicals used in the mining process.
Mr Blenkiron has written to the mine’s Australian owner, Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), and offered to clean up the area for a price.
But BCL has declined.
“I believe that BCL is morally responsible to clean up,” Mr Blenkiron said.
“I mean, sure they may have got chased out of here rightly or wrongly a number of years ago but there’s no danger in coming down here. The people are welcoming. They’re easy to work with.”
BCL’s chairman Peter Taylor, based in Port Moresby, does not believe the leaking tanks pose a danger to the environment.
“There’s no disaster there,” he said.
“There is what I call a relatively minor oil spill that’s been contained by the safety systems that were put in place. And really it seems to me it’s just a case of going in and cleaning that up.”
Mr Taylor says vandals caused the leaks and most of the oil has already been stolen.
He rejects the claim there is other toxic chemicals in the area, saying New Zealand peacekeepers assessed the port in 1997 and removed anything dangerous.
Mr Taylor says BCL wants to clean up the spill, but more than a decade after the civil war ended, he believes Bougainville is still not safe for his employees.
“Unfortunately there are a few people, and I think they’re now well and truly in the minority who refuse to allow us access and some of these people unfortunately have got guns,” Mr Taylor said.
There is no doubt law and order is still a problem in Bougainville.
Twice this year foreign ships have docked at Loloho without customs clearance and pumped oil out of the tanks, without approval from BCL.
There are also plenty of guns on the island that are yet to be disposed of in line with the Bougainville Peace Agreement that ended the civil war.
So why doesn’t BCL use South Pacific Environmental, who are already on the ground, to clean up the leak?
“We’ve done some research to try and find out what their credentials are and as far as I can see they have no experience in actually doing any sort of environmental remediation work,” Mr Taylor said.
Mr Taylor is hopeful BCL will be able to return to the island soon, not only to clean up but also to resume mining.
“The landowners are now approaching the company and saying ‘we’d like you to come back, we’d like you to do various things including the remediation of anything that might be in any way dangerous’,” he said.