United nations to assist in Bougainville mine remediation

Rio Tinto’s Panguna copper mine will get help from the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) to deal with its environmental problems.

The UNEP’s Geneva-based disaster risk reduction branch will compile terms of reference for remediation.

They will also help compile environmental analysis so Bougainvilleans can contemplate if they want the mine resurrected.

The public is gradually for the reopening of the mine but many people who witnessed the civil war are sceptical.

Australian National University’s Associate Professor Don Anton said environmental criteria have to be met regardless of the decision.

He believes the mine should reopen with stringent conditions, and he wants payments to be made so the Bougainvillean government can set up an independent environmental section, which can supervise and look over the mine.

"It is clear we should have a rigorous environmental impact assessment with full public participation, full disclosure, full opportunity to comment," he said.

"We should have, in terms of approvals, conditions imposed upon the operation of these mines if they were to go forward again, including the requirement for insurance, remediation bonds and other security put up to account for problems that may eventuate down the track."  

Former Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Sir Michael Somare blamed Rio Tinto and its subsidiary Bougainville Copper for a civil war in 2011.

The mine in the Papua New Guinea’s Island of Bougainville was shut in 1989 after it ignited the civil war in the island.

But since then mine tailings has been contaminating the surrounding environment.

The mine has many buildings with asbestos and some of the measuring instruments have radioactive matter, the ABC reports.

Senior lecturer in Environmental Engineering at Monash University Dr Gavin Mudd said this has been an ongoing issue.

“There’s a lot of acid mine drainage that is leaving the site, there is also tailings going down the river. And the acid mine drainage of course has extremely high levels of metals,” Mudd said.

Anton said UNEP is well equipped to handle the situation due to experience in dealing with similar problems.

“It is a very significant development (UNEP getting involved) in the sense that we have an independent, a proven independent third party coming in to look at a very contentious situation,” Anton said.

“It has been involved in other rehabilitation programs, like the Mau forest eco system in Kenya, it has experience in remediation after hostilities, after Iraq and depleted uranium in Bosnia, so it has experience and a well respected track record in dealing with environmental problems.”

Mudd believes the cleanup will be costly and complex. He predicts it could cost $1 billion or more.

“I’d imagine you would be looking at hundreds of millions of dollars, if not billions. It is really hard to know exactly,” Mudd said.

“It depends on the logistics involved and there is a whole bunch of complex factors involved in that so the simple message is it is not going to be cheap. Whichever level of remediation is done at Bougainville, it is certainly going to be a very costly exercise.”

Bougainville Copper is legally accountable for remediation.

Bougainville President John Mornis recently accused a Chinese company of making an invalid deal with landowners to gain access to the Panguna copper mine.

He said Beijing Aerospace Great Wall Mineral Investment gained access through illegal means.

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