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Rio Tinto's billion-dollar mess: 'unprincipled, shameful and evil'

The abandoned Panguna mineDANIEL FLITTON | Fairfax Media | Extracts

Read the complete article here

THE gaping hole carved into mountains was at one point the world's largest open-cut copper mine.

Right on Australia's doorstep, it delivered riches beyond imagining and a mess big enough to tear a country apart.

This controversial pit became the flashpoint for a bitter civil war in Papua New Guinea in the 1990s that cost as many as 20,000 lives.

Now, 27 years after the war forced the closure of the Panguna mine on the island of Bougainville, resources giant Rio Tinto has finally made the decision to cut its losses and walk away.

In a decision slammed as "remarkably unprincipled, shameful and evil", the mining giant has also side-stepped demands for a billion-dollar clean up.

Furious local leaders on Bougainville – struggling for cash and contemplating forming an independent nation – are threatening an international campaign to shame the company into making a contribution.

But they also want Australia – as the former colonial power responsible for authorising the mine – to contribute to a special fund to repair rivers poisoned by toxic sludge and compensate the people who lost their homes.

"It would be a big amount of money that would be required to restore as much as possible the damaged environment and relocated villages," John Momis, president of Bougainville's autonomous government, told Fairfax Media.

"Probably a billion dollars. Nobody really knows, but that would be about the amount of money required."

Rio Tinto has refused. Correspondence obtained by Fairfax shows the dual London-Melbourne listed giant insisting it has no responsibility for environmental or other consequences from the mine.

"We believe that [the company] was fully compliant will all regulatory requirements and applicable standards at the time," Rio Tinto executive Joanne Farrell wrote to Dr Momis on August 6.

Dr Momis said Rio Tinto must take responsibility for the mess it left behind, and has challenged the company over its claims of corporate social responsibility.

"They justify their position by saying they operated under PNG law, although everybody knows the people of Bougainville never accepted [that] PNG law was a just law," the Bougainville president said.

"When Rio walks away like this, the resource owners are left high and dry for no fault of their own. They are now going to be left with this hugely destroyed environment."

"It is a major disaster which the people of Bougainville do not deserve


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Teebee Aure

The PNG government under Peter O'Neill said a bigger portion of the shares will be given back to Bougainville. It won't work out.

A similar thing happened to Ok Tedi mining and they are running into a financial crisis to continue operations now.

Study the memorandum of understanding carefully before signing. Bougainvilleans underwent bloodshed to reclaim their land.

Peter Sandery

Once again, with the caveat that I have never set foot on Bougainville, may I suggest that the quid pro quo of any opening of the Panguna mine by a reputable company would be the chance to prospect the other sections of the mine's surrounds and adjacent areas on the island - the area is supposed to be highly prospective for minerals.

Philip Fitzpatrick

This seems to be standard practice for mining companies. BHP walked away from Ok Tedi after poisoning the Ok Tedi, Ok Mart and Fly Rivers.

There are hundreds of abandoned and un-rehabilitated mines all over Australia where the mining companies have walked away. Most of them are toxic and the clean-up bill, when and if they are ever re-habilitated, is invariably carried by the taxpayer.

And who pays most of Australia's taxes? The little people of course, lower and middle income earners, the big companies employ smart lawyers and accountants so as to avoid paying tax.

Both PNG and Australia have governments that are in the palms of big business. I wouldn't hold my breath about Panguna ever being re-habilitated.

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