Rio ready to discuss Bougainville clean-up after claims it ‘side-stepped’ responsibilities

Global miner Rio Tinto says it is ready to discuss cleaning up the site of the gold and copper Panguna mine which it abandoned in 2016, a move locals say was designed to allow the miner to entirely avoid the costs of clean-up.

A complaint has been lodged with the Australian Treasury Department by the Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre on behalf of more than 150 Bougainvilleans. It alleges waste is continuing to leak into rivers more than three decades after the mine was closed down.

The Australian OECD National Contact Point, based in the Department of Treasury, can investigate complaints made against Australian companies operating overseas, issue findings on whether companies are in breach of their obligations under the OECD Guidelines and recommend actions to address any breaches that have occurred. 

The complaint also claims Rio failed to mitigate the risks posed by billions of tonnes of mining waste that have turned riverbeds blue and caused health problems for more than 12,000 people living downstream.

It urges the Australian government to bring the miner into negotiations with locals and investigate the situation if talks fall through.

Keren Adams, legal director at the Human Rights Law Centre, compared the miner’s inaction over the Bougainville mine to Rio’s deliberate destruction in May of 46,000-year-old Aboriginal sites at the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, under the direction of the head of its iron ore division, Chris Salisbury. Salisbury has since been sacked from Rio, along with Rio’s CEO and the Head of its Corporate Affairs.

“As we saw at Juukan Gorge in Australia and we see here in Bougainville, there is a total disconnect between Rio Tinto’s rhetoric and the reality experienced by Indigenous communities,” Adams said.

“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution,” a traditional landowner and newly-elected member of local parliament, Theonila Roka Matbob, said in a statement.

She also told RNZ Pacific that she appreciated Rio’s offer.

“Which Rio has given by acknowledging the complaint that there is a possibility, and I am very much looking forward to that. So that at least we would hear what Rio would say about the complaint. We could also have the opportunity to present the grievances of the people to the rightful person,” she said.

When it operated between 1972 and 1989, Panguna provided 45 per cent of PNG’s export revenue but anger among locals over the environmental damage and the failure of Rio to distribute profits triggered an uprising that forced its closure.

An ensuing civil war left up to 20,000 people dead and led to a peace agreement in 1990, which led to this year’s referendum on independence – voted overwhelmingly in favour by Bougainvilleans.

Despite the closure, Rio held the mining licence through its subsidiary, Bougainville Copper Ltd (BCL), but in 2016 Rio walked away, with the head of its iron ore division, Chris Salisbury indicating the mine was no longer its responsibility. It passed on its 54 per cent shareholding shares to the Papua New Guinea and Bougainville governments. 

For the last 10 years, the Bougainville government (ABG) has been examining ways of re-opening the mine, the cost of which would be an estimated $A6 billion. Revenues for the life of the mine are estimated to be $A75 billion (K177 billion).

But in a surprise announcement late last month, Rio says it is now ready to enter into discussions’ with local communities the PNG and ABG governments, admitting it is aware of the current state of the Panguna site.  

“We understand these concerns and reiterate our commitment to core international standards, including the OECD Guidelines, and our readiness to meet those commitments in practice.”

The Bougainville Government is soon likely to take full control of BCL after PM James Marape reaffirmed the government’s intention to give its equity holding to the ABG, during his speech at the inauguration of Bougainville’s new president, Ishmael Toroama.