A proposed dam to contain billions of tons of mining waste near the head of Papua New Guinea’s longest river is a potential environmental disaster that could wipe out entire villages in the event of a natural disaster, government officials, environmental advocacy groups environment and villagers living along the river. tell.
The Frieda River copper and gold mine, slated for development by Australia-based Chinese state miner PanAust for the northern island of New Guinea, would be the largest mine in PNG’s history and one of the largest in the world. world.
Part of the proposed mine would be a 12,000ha reservoir built to contain more than 4.6 billion tons of waste rock and mining tailings. The reservoir would hold 9.6 billion cubic meters of water, twice the size of Sydney Harbor, and the embankment built to contain it would be 187 meters high.
The Frieda River is a tributary of the Sepik River which, at 1,100 km, is the longest river in PNG and a key source of water, food and livelihoods for the tens of thousands of people who live along it.
West Sepik Provincial Administrator Conrad Tilau told The Guardian that the government’s position was clear: “No dam should be built in Frieda.
“The formation of the rocks below where the dam will be built is not safe, and also because… the water contained in the dam will be huge. If there is a failure in the structure, the dam will give way.
“The company must look for other alternatives to dispose of the waste such as the option of placing tailings in deep waters … but not the dam.”
TO new report by environmental advocacy organization Jubilee Australia details the environmental and social issues presented by the proposed mine, arguing that PNG risks repeating the Ok Tedi and Panguna environmental catastrophes that devastated rivers, poisoned water sources and destroyed farmland in the western province and Bougainville.
“The immense size of the mine, the low ore grade, the large amount of waste rock, the seismic conditions, the high rainfall, the mountainous terrain – these are all red flags in terms of risks,” said the CEO. from Jubilee, Luke. Fletcher said, citing the failure of a Brazilian mine dam in 2015 that killed 19 people and spread toxic waste hundreds of miles.
“If there is a failure in the dam, and the dam failure analysis has not been publicly released, it has the potential to be another Samarco-type collapse.”
Jubilee argued that a potential alternative to the tailings dam, deep-sea tailings disposal, where mine waste is channeled directly into the ocean to ultimately be deposited on the sea floor, also presents significant environmental risks, including the accumulation of toxic metals in the oceanic ecosystem.
“These metals can build up in the food chain and cause harm to larger organisms like fish and eventually people,” he said. “This risk is largely unknown, as there is little research quantifying the toxicity that deep-sea organisms can safely withstand.”
In its environmental impact statementPanAust said that the “nation-building project … presents extensive business and socio-economic development opportunities for Papua New Guinea.” The mine plan also includes a hydroelectric plant, a power grid, and road, airport and port improvements.
The EIS estimates that 2.9 billion tonnes of mine waste would be produced during the mine’s 33-year life, half as tailings and half as waste rock.
A “dam failure analysis” had secured “appropriate safety factors they have been incorporated into the design ”of the dam, which would be located 40 km upstream from the headwaters of the Sepik river.
“The probability of a failure is highly unlikely”Said the EIS. “However, the extreme consequences of a total failure leading to the uncontrolled release of large amounts of water and solids (from waste rock and tailings placement) would likely result in extreme downstream environmental and social impacts.”
PanAust declined to answer a series of questions from The Guardian. The company has not proposed deepwater tailings disposal.
PNG’s Center for Environmental Law and Community Rights and landowners’ advocacy group Project Sepik argued that there was a significant risk of the dam breaking, citing 10 reports provided to the Protection and Conservation Authority. of the Environment in 2020.
“The Frieda River tailings dam has a medium risk of dam failure as a result of: the large amount of waste and mine tailings that will be produced; rugged terrain; extremely high average annual rainfall … around 8 meters per year … and the mine will be located in a seismically active area that between 2010 and 2017 saw five earthquakes with magnitudes greater than 6 ”.
Emmanuel Peni, coordinator of the Save the Sepik campaign group, said the dam ran the risk of razing villages downstream and poisoning the rivers that thousands depend on.
“All scientific reports conclusively point out [that] It is not a safe or suitable place to build a dam or any large construction. “
Heads of 28 haus tambarans – “Spiritual houses” – representing nearly 80,000 people along the Sepik River have issued the collective Sukundimi Supreme Declaration calling for “a total ban on the Frieda River mine.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism