Tayloring a new Panguna mine for Bougainville
Rio Tinto MD wades into murky waters
Last week, the Managing Director of Rio Tinto's subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), made statements which were breathtaking in their complacency.
Arguing that his company's long-mothballed copper-gold mine at Panguna could easily be re-opened, Peter Taylor declared that: "There was never any toxic material put [into the Jaba River below the mine site]."
He was also reported as claiming that: "[G]old and copper were never produced at the mine; only a concentrate."
Referring to accusations that cyanide was used in gold processing at the mine, Taylor added: "[S]o those sorts of chemicals were never used."
The MD's manifestly self-serving statement was disingenuous, to say the least.
While there is no proof that his company used cyanide, the predominance of sulphides in its ore required the employment of flotation technology, to which the addition of enormous quantities of lime is essential. (1)
A report was published by Applied Geology Associates of Australia in 1998 (nearly a decade after militant actions by the nascent Bougainville Revolutionary Army closed down the Panguna mine).
Though somewhat ambivalent, this also pointed out that the copper concentrator had spewed out many thousands of tons of tailings each year, which included toxic metals - such as mercury, lead, zinc, cadmium, arsenic - as well as residual lime (2).
Taylor conveniently doesn't refer to the impacts of these tailings as they gushed into the Jaba River system and its flood plains, then reached the river's outlet to the Empress Augusta Bay (3).
No competent authority has doubted that this resulted in massive sedimentation, although for many years there has been scientific dispute over whether these wastes may be termed "toxic" to marine life.
In 1983, one authority declared that "[B]enthic [bottom dwelling] organisms are being continually smothered by tailings and even after mine closure they may continue to suffer because of toxic concentrations of copper in bottom and interstitial waters. Re-establishment of a bottom community may therefore be slow and limited" (4).
Another study, published the year before (and which was commissioned by BCL itself) warned that:
"[T]here is evidence to suggest that levels of copper in interstitial waters of submarine tailings deposits (>166 ppm) will be toxic to more sensitive benthic organisms resulting in impaired recolonization of tailings in the longer term by bottom dwelling animals" (5).
Since no further scientific survey has been done on this aspect of the Panguna operations, it is impossible to judge whether such a disaster (to give it a realistic description) has in fact occurred.
But this serves only to compound alarms that BCL may now be contemplating using Submarine Tailings "Disposal" (STD), should the mine re-open.
Pipe of war
In fact the option of piping tailings directly into the ocean isn't a new one. It was mooted by BCL-Rio Tinto a quarter of a century ago, proving to be one of the triggers for the first Bougainville revolt - one that became the most devastating mining-related conflict ever suffered by peoples in the South Pacific.
For a related article this week, see: Bougainville: New voices raised against mine re-opening
(1) According to BCL itself: "The concentrating process involve[d] three stages of crushing, grinding and flotation. By the end of December 1971, water requirements for the concentrator were met by building a pump station on the Jaba River. A pipeline carried the concentrate in slurry form approximately 27 kilometres from the mine site at Panguna to Bougainville Copper's port installation at Anewa Bay. http://www.bougainvillecopper.com.pg/treatment.htm
(2) See: Environmental, Socio-Economic and Public Health Review of the Bougainville Copper Mine, Applied Geology Associates, paras. 5.18 & 5. 35, 1998
(3) In the first eight years of operations at the Bougainville Copper mine (1968-1976), two hundred million tonnes of sediment clogged up the Kawerong and Jaba rivers, of which one third became deposited in the flood plains and the Jaba delta, thus "prograding" the Empress Augusta Bay by 30 metres. See[G Pickup and RJ Higgins, Estimating sediment transport in a braided gravel channel - the Kawerong River, Bougainville, Papua New Guinea", Journal of Hydrology, Amsterdam, volume 40, 1979
(4) Jeffery, J.J. 1983. Tailings Disposal and Water Quality: An Assessment of Proposed Tailings Disposal Options on the Quality of Jaba River water and Empress Augusta Bay Seawater.
(5): Powell, J.H. 1982. A Review of Toxicity of Copper to Aquatic Organisms. Tech. Report 13 April 1982. Prepared for Bougainville Copper Ltd.
[Commentary by Nostromo Research, 4 March 2011]
BCL to revise tailings options
By Sinclaire Solomon
The National (PNG)
1 March 2011
Bougainville Copper Ltd will review its mine tailings disposal options when it reopens the Panguna mine, chairman and managing director Peter Taylor said.
In an in-depth interview on Radio Australia, he said it was up to the landowners and the government which method they wanted.
"So we will have to look at the available tailings disposal mechanisms.
"Technology has moved on, so we've now got options we didn't have before.
"But at the end of the day, the landowners and the government are going to have a fairly significant input on that and they'll have to decide which method they want.
"They can't have the mine without tailings so they have to go together."
Taylor did not say whether one option was the deep sea tailings placement (DSTP) system, one which Ramu nickel project developer, Ramu NiCo Management, wants to use for its Basamuk Bay refinery which a group of landowners have opposed and are fighting to stop through the National Court in Madang.
The Panguna mine closed in 1988 after it became the spark which ignited a 10-year civil war.
Taylor believed it would take at least five years to reopen it.
He added that there was a lot of misinformation about the Jaba River and the so-called environmental damage.
"The material that was put into the river is a very finely ground rock so you get this siltation in the river which means we keep putting levy banks up because the river bed rises.
"There was never any toxic material put down there.
"Quite often I read articles about there being cyanide.
"People have to remember gold and copper were never produced at the mine; only a concentrate, so those sorts of chemicals were never used."
On compensation for damage done to the Jaba River,
Taylor said there was a compensation agreement in place between BCL, the landowners and the company directly but it lapsed when mining was suspended.
"So there's a question of what is equitable for compensating for the period between mining being suspended and when it starts again.
"Most of the compensation was paid as royalty and paid initially directly to the PNG government which was always a bone of contention, and then paid back to the provincial government, which in turn, paid the landowners only part of that.
"This renegotiation we are going to have, we'll have to look at all of that and look at what sort of regime is appropriate for the future not what happened in the past."
He said that having mining operations suspended for more than 20 years had given them an opportunity to study what happened if nature alone was allowed to take its course.
Taylor said that the engineering had also withstood the test of time, for example the pit had to be drained and whether the drainage tunnel still worked.
"There is no water accumulating in the pit.
"The faces of the pit are stable. There's been some minor degradation, but pretty good."
He added that the tailings disposal area was rehabilitating itself, the Jaba River was rehabilitating itself and the waste dumps were still intact, all which he put down to "an excellent engineering job".