MAC: Mines and Communities

Cyanide threat for Panguna on Bougainville

Published by MAC on 2003-01-16

Cyanide threat for Panguna ... Francis Ona concerned

by Veronica Hatutasi, Papua New Guinea Indepedent

January 16 2003

A major human and environmental disaster looms on Bougainville if what isbelieved to be containers of the deadly chemical cyanide in Panguna remains unchecked.

Reports of an undisclosed number of containers still standing abandoned in the Panguna Copper mine site's Concentrator and Central Workshop areas have highlighted the need for a genuine neutral group not involved in the Bougainville conflict to go into the area and carry out a thorough assessment of the containers.

The Independent understands that the reports state that the dangers posed by the deadly chemical to humans and the environment are deemed serious and that Bougainville Revolutionary Army patriarch Francis Ona has put a blanket ban around the area where the containers are and has also stationed guards to keep people from going near them. It is believed that the cyanide containers were left at the Panguna mine site when the crisis turned for the worst and the mine closed operations in 1989.

Concerns are mounting that if nothing is done immediately to thoroughly check, assess or destroy the containers which have been standing idle in sun and rain for the last 13 years, rust will affect them (the containers) forcing them to either burst open or leak.

And it is feared that if this happens, it will be a disaster for people and the environment within the Panguna mine and South Bougainville areas. According to a source who has had access to Mr Ona and paid him visits several times at his Guava home village near what is now the abandoned Panguna mine site, the containers are there and everyone including Mr Ona believe they are cyanide containers.

"Ona has restricted everyone from going near the containers for fear of the dangers involved. He has the place very closely guarded and no one goes near the area. Even I have only seen the containers from a distance. I cannot give an estimate of the number of containers though I saw many, round in shape and larger than 44 gallon drums.

"Since they (the containers) have been exposed to the weather and the test of time in the last 13 years, surely they could be close to breaking point or else, rust will do the job. It is very risky. Once this happens it will be disaster for the river system and those who live downstream and the coast towards the southwest. Areas which could be immediately affected include villages along the Jaba River, Torokina, Bana, Siwai and Buin," the source says.

The source says that during his visits and deliberations with Mr Ona, he said that he would not allow anyone near the area where the alleged cyanide containers are except the right experts who would identify and confirm whether the matter in question is really cyanide and do a through assessment report on it.

Panguna is presently a no go-zone, the domain of Mr Ona's Me'ekamui faction. The source says that the matter needs urgent attention but which ever group intends to pursue the issue must be genuine and not use the opportunity for spying, hiding something or with ulterior motives to go into Panguna. He said Greenpeace for one, would be a preferable choice but again, it solely rests on Mr Ona, depending on whether they meet his criteria of a neutral group.

Fears raised over spoilt cyanide containers

By Baeau Tai, The National, Papua New Guinea

January 30 2003

Bougainville secessionist leader Francis Ona has raised public fears over the deteriorating cyanide containers at the abandoned Panguna copper mine site, but it appear unlikely such containers exist.

Even if the reports are true, it is clear they would not have been left behind by Bougainville Copper Ltd, the big Rio Tinto subsidiary that mined at Panguna from 1972 to 1989.

Because, according to BCL managing director Peter Taylor, "in all its years of operation the Panguna mine never used cyanide to extract gold".

However, Mr Taylor told The National BCL would be happy to cooperate with independent experts who could be hired to assess potential problems that could emanate from the mine following its sudden shutdown 13 years ago.

Mr Ona recently expressed concern that there were an undisclosed number of containers, which, he believed, contained the deadly chemical, cyanide, which is often used in the extraction of gold.

However, BCL produced a copper concentrate with a high gold content that was shipped overseas for processing and for extraction of gold.

Mr Taylor said: "When BCL was forced to leave Bougainville in 1989 because of the attacks on its property and employees, measures were taken to safely store unused mining and processing consumables.

"However, it was not envisaged the mine site would remain a "no-go" zone for 13 years and therefore BCL cannot comment on the current situation at the mine," Mr Taylor said.

He welcomed reports that Mr Ona was taking measures to ensure people did not enter areas of the mine that he thought might be hazardous.

Between 1972 and the cessation of mining on May 15, 1989, the mine produced copper concentrates that contained an incredible three million tonnes of copper, 306 tons of gold and 784 tons of silver. The production had a value of K5.2 billion which represented approximately 44 per cent of PNG's exports during the period.

BCL's annual report for year ending 31 December 2001 shows that it contributed a total of K1,086 million kina to Government coffers - 62 per cent of the net cash generated by the project.

Other stakeholders that have benefited included the North Solomons provincial government (K75.2 million), landowners (K38.2 million), non-government shareholders (K576.7) million and employees' wages (K575.6 million).

BCL is 53.6 per cent owned by mining giant Rio Tinto with 19.1 per cent held by the PNG Government 27.3 per cent by public shareholders. It is understood the Department of Environment and Conservation is looking into the reported cyanide issue.

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