MAC/20: Mines and Communities

OK Tedi Landowners Refuse to let BHP Billiton escape justice

Published by MAC on 2004-01-16


OK Tedi Landowners refuse to let BHP Billiton escape justice

16 January 2004

MPI Press Release

PNG landowners downstream of the disastrous Ok Tedi mine may face the approval of a settlement today that will remove their rights to take further legal action against BHP Billiton. They have been fighting for more than a decade to hold the company accountable for the environmental devastation caused by mine waste released directly into their rivers. The settlement would effectively ensure that BHP Billiton will escape responsibility for the consequences of the infamous PNG mining disaster and avoid obligations to prevent the mine from continuing to dump its wastes directly into the river.

Several communities along the river have vehemently rejected the settlement, refusing to let BHP Billiton off the hook. They continue to believe that they can obtain justice, even if the Australian courts fail to deliver it.

Reports from the region indicate that several of the villages represented in the case have filed objections to the proposed deal, rejecting the terms of the settlement. The settlement obliges them to relinquish their rights to lodge future claims against the company in return for nominal compensation payments. This package was originally engineered by BHP when it divested its shares in the mine. The mine has forced them to choose between these payments (under the Community Mine Continuation Agreements or CMCAs) and their rights to seek future legal remedies for ongoing pollution and potential health impacts. The CMCAs permit the Ok Tedi mine to continue dumping waste into the river in return for approximately A$11 a month.

"We fought this case for 31/2 years - we will never sign CMCA's - if we sign we are selling our God-given rights and we are not going to sign. We believe that signing the CMCA the people will be signing away our future … we will find another way out," stated Robin Mokin from Kiunga. "We are not sure what will happen but we will not give up. We know that they have done the wrong thing and that we have a case."

Landowners had returned to court in April 2000 to enforce the terms of the original agreement with BHP, which required the mine to implement the most practicable form of tailings containment. The Ok Tedi mine has disposed of tailings and other mine wastes directly into the Ok Tedi River since 1984, a practice that has been condemned internationally by the International Water Tribunal in The Hague and criticised by the World Bank as having unacceptable impacts upon communities downstream of the Ok Tedi mine.

"The real issue is the river", stated Mokin."How are we going to clean the river and get our river back, so people are able to cultivate the land? We understand that BHP, the mine and the PNG government have directed people's minds to money, but it is not about money."

The landowners were advised by their lawyers, Slater & Gordon, to settle the case on the basis that there was insufficient evidence to find BHP Billiton in default of the original agreement signed in 1996, which was intended to stop the mine from dumping tailings and other mine wastes into the river. If the settlement is approved on Friday, BHP Billiton will have effectively escaped efforts by the landowners to gain remedy for the full damages they have suffered.

This news comes in light of the recent Newcrest shootings at the Toguraci Mine in Indonesia. There are growing calls for the government to take preventative action to stop Australian mining companies operating abroad from using unacceptable environmental practices and abusing the rights of local communities.

"The Australian government has an obligation to prevent the recurrence of these sorts of violations, and address the inability of communities such as those at Ok Tedi to access justice. The Australian legal system has failed to provide means of preventing, or remedies for, human rights violations and environmental devastation caused by companies such as BHP Billiton and Newcrest in their operations abroad," said Techa Beaumont, MPI's spokesperson.

"The government must ensure that mining companies stop trampling on the rights of local communities, and that communities have recourse to justice when abuses do happen. An inquiry must be set up immediately to examine the extent of the problem, and seek means to regulate and hold corporations accountable for their misconduct, including the legacy of destruction that BHP-B has left behind at Ok Tedi."

Media enquires: Techa Beaumont 02 9557 9019

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