MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Placer Dome and Corporate Social Responsibility: A response to

Published by MAC on 2004-08-05


Placer Dome and Corporate Social Responsibility: A response to "Dirty Gold?…" by Peter Shawn Taylor - National Post Business; 5 August 2004.

Catherine Coumans, Ph.D., August 2004

In a feature article in Canada's National Post Business magazine of August 2004, Peter Taylor writes on the issue of Corporate Social Responsibility by focusing on Canadian mining multinational Placer Dome. Placer's ongoing environmental and social problems, as a result of a massive mine waste spill at its Marcopper operations in the Philippines, form the backdrop of his story, but Taylor homes in on the controversy surrounding Placer's Porgera gold mine in highlands of Papua New Guinea.

Taylor does not attempt to provide a balanced or fair perspective. He sets out to paint "NGO activists" as more concerned about their "environmental agenda" than about the welfare of local communities. Taylor's portrayal ultimately implies that companies, such as Placer Dome, are doing their best to do right by local communities. To uphold this basic argument, Taylor oversimplifies complex issues and positions, takes quotes out of context, and paints exaggerated portraits of people ("avenging angel"!) and organizations. More egregious are the places where Taylor has apparently quite deliberately misrepresented information he was provided in order to further his argument (e.g Coumans' reasons for arguing that Placer's behaviour in South Africa was not deserving of an award).

Taylor has also left out relevant information he was provided, and had independently confirmed, that would counter his story's bias. Important among these are the fact that Placer Dome was dropped from the Dow Jones Sustainability Index in large part because of its activities at the Porgera Mine and the fact that Yati Bun of Papua New Guinea resigned as chair of the community advisory committee at the mine site in order to protest the environmental and social damage being done by the Porgera Mine.

Finally, Taylor is more interested in providing a dramatic story about a polemic between various parties concerned with corporate social responsibility, than in really understanding the critical social and environmental issues faced by local communities at the Porgera mine site.

BRIEF FACTS ON PORGERA

· Placer Dome uses a river system as waste dump: Since 1992 Placer Dome has been dumping millions of tons of waste rock and tailings (waste from processing ore) directly into the 800 km-long tropical Strickland River system in Papua New Guinea. Placer has purposely designed its massive waste dumps so that these will continue to deposit waste into the Strickland River system long after the mine is closed down.
* So called "riverine disposal, " or using a river as a waste dump, is illegal in Canada.
* At least three major multinational mining companies have publicly announced that this disposal method creates unacceptable environmental impacts and have declared they will not use it: BHP-Billiton, WMC, Falconbridge.
* Independent studies by CSIRO in the mid-1990s clearly show that unacceptable environmental damage is being done through river disposal at Porgera, leading CSIRO to the recommendation that Placer Dome stop dumping into the river and find ways to store waste on land. CSIRO also noted unacceptable metal contamination of the river and that Placer's monitoring of impacts on the river was inadequate. Placer Dome has still not implemented all of the CSIRO report's recommendations, including halting dumping waste into the river. Instead, Placer created a local community oversight group called PEAK and made PEAK responsible for overseeing the implementation of CSIRO recommendations.

· Unacceptable and Un-addressed Social Impacts: In his article Taylor notes that in 2001 "political displeasure south of Porgera saw the power pylons leading to the mine toppled and production at the mine cut off for several months." What Taylor does not explain is that such acts of vandalism and protest have dogged the mine since before 2001 and have been ongoing since 2001. He also does not provide any kind of explanation for why the protest was instigated by people "south of Porgera." In setting out that Placer has had to provide monetary compensation for the mine's impacts to villagers at the actual location of the mine, Taylor has failed to note that Placer Dome refuses to recognize or compensate villagers living downstream from the mine site - the very villagers living along the affected rivers who are having to deal with the siltation and contamination of the Strickland River system.

· Local perspectives: Taylor quotes Meg Taylor (former PNG ambassador to the US and currently with the World Bank) as a "local voice" in praise of Placer Dome. She was also the first chairperson of the community advisory committee (PEAK) set up by Placer in response to criticisms by the CSIRO. Although informed, Peter Taylor does not mention a later chairperson for PEAK, Yati Bun, who resigned this position in 2001 in protest of the environmental and social damage being done by Placer's waste disposal and the lack of implementation of the CSIRO recommendations. In his 2001 resignation letter Mr. Bun states: "my conscience cannot tolerate being involved any longer with the PEAK process of expediting the continuation of riverine discharge, as when the history of Porgera is written I do not wish to be the one that oversaw Porgera's impacts and did nothing." Lester Seri, a PEAK member who followed up Meg Taylor, and was followed up by Yati Bun, wrote in response to Peter Taylor's article "Do note that Yati was selected to take up the position I left when I was appointed to fill in the vacancy when Dame Meg Taylor left PEAK. There is so much talk - talk and window dressing stuff going on with nothing substantive and genuine in practice about attending to both social and environmental concerns raised. One should ask Porgera as to how much of what CSIRO recommended in their report for improvement in their practices have they actually fulfilled and in what period of time since the report was published?"

· Mine closure and environmental and social impacts: A real test of a mining company's commitment to Corporate Social Responsibility lies in how it deals with the environmental and social impacts of mine closure. Contrary to what Peter Taylor might have his readers believe, it is rarely, if ever, NGOs that close down mines - it is mining companies themselves that close down mines, every year, for economic reasons. While Taylor focuses on the benefits a previously pre-cash economy mountain community gets from the Porgera mine, in order to argue that they would suffer if the mine closed down because of environmental concerns, he does not seem to understand or address the fact that the mine closure will occur. In fact, the Porgera mine is slated to close in roughly ten years.

Serious questions need to be asked about how Placer will maintain the standard of living it has introduced to this mountain community. Who will maintain hospitals and schools, who will maintain roads when there is no more tax base in this area?

Serious questions also need to be asked about how Placer Dome can effect a "Best Practice" mine closure (with no off site-impacts) in a situation where the company has designed dumps to continue depositing into the rivers for years to come. The down stream communities will continue to experience the effects of siltation and metal contamination long after Placer has left.

And this brings me to my final point. Will Placer, in fact, step up to the plate and take responsibility for the costly and controversial closure of Porgera. Every indication is that Placer will not (Placer is already reducing its shareholding in the mine). Instead, as the mine becomes less profitable, Placer will simply sell off its stake and ride off into the sunset, leaving the costs, the environmental impacts and the social conflict related to the closure to others.

This scenario is so clearly indicated by Placer's global style of operating, that I will gladly eat my "avenging angles" wings if I am proven wrong!!

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