The Ok Tedi mine is located high in the rain forest covered Star Mountains of Papua New Guinea. Prior to 1981 the local Wopkaimin people lived a subsistence existence in one of the most isolated places on earth. That was before the 10 000 strong town of Tabubil suddenly appeared in the middle of their community. The Ok Tedi mine was built on the world’s largest gold and copper deposit (gold ore capping the main copper deposit). From the very beginning things did not go according to plan. It was originally envisaged that the mine tailings would be stored in a dam, and after the settling of solid particles, clean water would flow down the Ok Tedi River, then into the Fly River for the 1 000 km journey to the sea. It would have been an engineering marvel to build such a dam on the side of a mountain where it rains more than 10 meters a year and earthquakes are common. The half-built tailings dam collapsed in 1984 and the mine went ahead without a waste disposal plan…
Where do you put 90 million tonnes of mine waste a year?
The tailings are composed of fine-grained rock containing traces of copper sulphide and residual cyanide. The build up of tailings in the lower Ok Tedi has caused a rise in the river-bed, flooding and sediment deposition on the flood plain, leading to a smothering of vegetation (“dieback”). To date, about 1 300 square kilometres of dieback has been observed. Up to 2 040 square kilometres of forest may ultimately be affected. These forests are expected to take many years to recover after mine closure (Ok Tedi Mining Limited).
Changing people’s lives
Some 50 000 people live along the Ok Tedi-Fly River system. Sediment from the mine has reduced the amount of fish in the Ok Tedi and Middle Fly Rivers by 80%. Changes to the river-bed have increased flow rates in the river, producing dangerous rapids – a major hazard for locals whose main form of transport is a canoe. The thick mud that blankets the river banks in many places has destroyed the traditional gardens. This mud also makes it difficult to get down to the river to collect drinking water, bathe and fish. However, along with this hardship has come prosperity for many people. Health care and education have improved enormously and many local businesses have started.
What can the people of the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers expect
The mine is due to close in 2010. The Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program Company currently receives dividends of millions of dollars. Two thirds of this revenue is invested in a long-term fund (that will enable the company to contribute for at least four decades after the mine closes). The remaining third is spent on current development projects in the Western Province (home of the mine) and other areas in PNG. It is two early to tell whether the fund will be able to successfully address the continuing environmental damage or achieve significant sustainable development and job creation. If not, the legacy of 30 years of mining in the clouds may be lasting environmental damage and cultural dislocation.