Watchdogs Call For Immediate Ban on Mine Waste Dumping

Joint news release: Oxfam Australia, Mineral Policy Institute and MiningWatch Canada

Australian, Canadian, and US mining companies that persist in dumping billions of tonnes of toxic heavy metals such as mercury and lead into the rivers and oceans of some of the world's poorest countries are causing irreversible environmental damage as well as driving human poverty. This warning came from a coalition of human rights groups and mining watchdogs as mining ministers from the Asia-Pacific region gather in Perth this week for a summit.

Andrew Hewett, Executive Director of Oxfam Australia, is calling for the mining industry to cease the practice immediately. "Just as in Australia, people in developing countries depend on clean waterways to live and work. But in countries such as the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and Indonesia they are being polluted at an alarming rate by the senseless and selfish acts of mining companies who ride rough-shod over the rights of Indigenous people, condemning them to a life of poverty and human suffering."

Back home, though, the multinational mining companies of Australia, Canada and the United States are not permitted to dump waste into rivers and oceans as their respective governments have effectively outlawed the practice -- a point not lost on the coalition, which argues a good corporate citizen should use the most protective environmental practices at home as well as overseas.

The group draws attention to the devastating mine waste dumping practices of the Ok Tedi, Tolukuma, Porgera and Freeport mines -- all of which have connections to Australian mining companies. For example, Brisbane-based Emperor Mines wholly owns and operates the Tolukuma mining operation in Papua New Guinea, which spews out 160,000 tonnes of waste into the local river system each and every year. Emperor also has a 20% share in another PNG mining operation, Barrick Gold's Porgera mine, which dumps 40,000 tonnes of waste in the local river a day -- that's 14.6 million tonnes a year.

"It is not acceptable for Australian mining company Emperor to dump tens of millions of tones of toxic waste each and every day in river systems because the local law allows it. Emperor is an Australian company that should strive to uphold the highest possible business practices as well as ethical standards of behaviour wherever it operates," Mr. Hewett said. The same should apply to Canada's Barrick Gold.

The mining sector argues water-based toxic disposal is sometimes the best method of eliminating mining waste as it is less expensive than land-based waste disposal. But less expensive for whom? asks the coalition. "Should vulnerable communities and the environment shoulder the cost of the hugely destructive dumping practices of irresponsible mining companies or should it be wealthy corporate executives and their shareholders? The industry, as a matter of urgency, must implement more acceptable solutions to the issue of waste management," said Techa Beaumont of Mineral Policy Institute.

The coalition says that if the mining sector cannot be trusted to act responsibly and declare a voluntary end to toxic waste dumping then governments should legislate to protect the environment as well as vulnerable communities. One way to do this is through nationally mandated social and environmental standards which, for example, can apply to Australian mining companies operating overseas. "This would be particularly effective where local governments do not provide adequate safeguards to protect people and the environment," said Catherine Coumans of MiningWatch Canada.

The safe disposal of mine waste is the single largest environmental challenge facing the mining sector worldwide. "The dumping of mine waste in rivers and oceans is causing unprecedented damage. Mine-related pollution from the OK Tedi mine has already reached Australian borders causing higher than acceptable levels of copper in some food sources of Torres Strait Islanders," Ms. Beaumont said. Canada's Inmet Mining Corp. owns 18% of the Ok Tedi mine.

For the sake of vulnerable communities and their fragile environments it is time an adequate solution was found. "We believe mining companies have the potential to contribute to local development and poverty alleviation. To do so they must take a firm stand against practices that cause environmental degradation, rob people of livelihoods and drive poverty," added Ms. Coumans.

To mark the start of the APEC Mining Ministerial in Perth, Oxfam Australia will screen the documentary, "Out of Sight, Out of Mined," exposing the tragic legacy of mining on Marinduque Island in the Philippines. It is part of an Australia-wide "Not In Anyone's Backyard" speaker tour of international human rights campaigners and mining watchdog experts.

"Not In Anyone's Backyard" -- Tuesday 13 February between 5:15 and 8pm at the Parmelia Hilton's Karri Room.

For more information or to arrange a media interview call Techa Beaumont at the Mineral Policy Institute on 0428 970 434 or Ian Woolverton at Oxfam on 0409 181 454