The Ok Tedi River, a tributary of the Fly River, is located in the Western Province of Papua New Guinea (PNG). Sourced in the rugged central mountain range of PNG, its water eventually flows – via the Fly River Delta – into the Gulf of Papua to the north of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. The Ok Tedi Copper and Gold Mine is situated on Mount Fubilan at the source of this river, and its practice of dumping mine waste directly into the river system has made it the centre of international controversy since the 90s, when it was the subject of four lawsuits. Meanwhile, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers still find it difficult to feed their families due to the effects of this mine waste on food security.

The Ok Tedi Mine started production in 1984 and is expected to continue operating until 2013, although the current management is exploring possibilities for extending its life another decade or more. Each year, 100 million tonnes of waste from the Ok Tedi mine are released into the Ok Tedi River. This waste includes 60 million tonnes of waste rock, 10 million tonnes of erosion rock and 30 million tonnes of tailings, or treated, finely-ground mine waste. The mine has discharged over 1 billion tonnes of tailings and waste material into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers over the life of the project.

The disposal of tailings into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers has caused environmental problems including more than 1,500 square kilometres of deforestation. Deforestation is expected to increase to at least 3,000 square kilometres, and to last for more than 50 years along some parts of the river. Much of this area will not return to tropical rain forest, but permanently transform into savannah grasslands.
Fish populations have declined by 95% in the Ok Tedi River, 85% in the upper middle Fly River and by 60% in the lower middle Fly.

A meeting of the Yonggom community. Despite millions of dollars in legally mandated compensation, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers still find it difficult to feed their families.

A meeting of the Yonggom community. Despite millions of dollars in legally mandated compensation, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers still find it difficult to feed their families.

The number of fish species in the Ok Tedi and Fly River system, which included many endemic species, has also declined by 30%.

In recent years the mine has suffered problems of Acid Mine Drainage (AMD), allowing acidic waste and environmentally toxic metals to leach into the river. The ore body currently exploited by the mining operation is high in pyrites, which become acidic when exposed to oxygen.  AMD can render large areas inhospitable to organic life for decades or centuries.   In response to this problem, the mine’s management has investigated plans to store the hazardous material in cells along the lower Ok Tedi River.

A number of the owners and operators of the mine, including BHP and Inmet, have acknowledged the detrimental impact of riverine tailings disposal into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers, and have actively researched alternative tailings management plans.

“While there have been ongoing studies to assess the environmental impact, Ok Tedi believes that these effects will likely be greater and last longer than previously thought, based on current findings from its monitoring program,” reads the Inmet Mining 2007 Annual Report.

Trials and investigations into alternatives had cost BHP A$100 million as of 1999. Ten years later no alternative to riverine tailings disposal has been developed at the Ok Tedi Mine.
Pollution from the Ok Tedi Mine affects approximately 50,000 people, most of whom are subsistence farmers, fishers and hunters.

“Before the mine, we had plenty of food. We inherited gardens along the river from our parents. Bananas and taro from the gardens fed our family. Game was plentiful and we ate wild pig, cassowary and cuscus meat. The river was clear and it was easy to catch fish and prawns,” explains Andok Yang, of the Yonggom people. “But by 1984 our lives had changed. The river became muddy and the fish and prawns died. At the same time, the sand banks that later covered our gardens began to form. By 1986 the plants and trees along the river began to die. Their leaves turned yellow and fell off. Gradually the effects of the mine spread into the swamps where our sago palms grow, and into the surrounding forest as well. The creeks filled with mud, killing the sago trees. The sand banks along the river grew higher.

Today (1996) it is hard to find sago. There are no fish in the river and the turtles no longer come to lay their eggs. The animals have all gone away and we do not know where they are living. I worry about the future: will we continue to face these problems or will the mine clean up the river?”

Despite millions of dollars in legally mandated compensation, the people living along the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers still find it difficult to feed their families. In many areas, it is difficult to access potable water during the dry season.  Access to health care and basic services in rural areas has not improved downstream from the mine, and in some cases has declined. Very few of the compensation and development programs sponsored by the mining company have proven successful. Only a small portion of the funds from the PNGSPDL (the fund established when BHP Billiton withdrew its shares from the mine) actually reach the communities along the river affected by the mining project; the rest of these funds are used by the Papua New Guinea government to supplement its development budget elsewhere in the country.

The impact of waste disposal from the Ok Tedi Mine into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers may constitute a violation of human rights according to Article 25 of the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states: “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care.” The existence of the Ok Tedi Mine has decreased the standard of living for those nearby.  Pollution from the mine has abridged the villagers’ rights to adequate amounts of food and water, and exposure to heavy metals in the food supply has been detrimental to their health.

BHP Billiton was responsible for the initial development of the Ok Tedi Mine.  Despite BHP’s divestment in the project and compensation packages to affected communities, the legacy left by BHP is dramatic and will have lasting impact felt well into the future. Currently there is limited accountability for human rights violations committed by multinational corporations.  Traditionally individual states are expected to regulate corporate activity within their borders.

The UN is developing strategies around multinational commerce and human rights where there will be greater accountability for the negligent behaviour of corporations like BHP, who abandoned their responsibilities to those affected by the Ok Tedi Mine.  However, some legal action has been taken to attempt to hold the mine’s owners responsible.

In the mid 1990’s Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML), a company in which BHP held majority shares, was the subject of four legal actions: a damages claim followed by a class action lawsuit in the Supreme Court of Victoria and two constitutional references in the Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea.

The damages claim, handled by Melbourne law firm Slater and Gordon, was resolved out of court in 1996 resulting in a settlement of approximately US $500 million for tailings containment and compensation. However, BHP has only paid out $32.5 million in compensation to 30,000 villagers who had suffered from the environmental impact of the Ok Tedi Mine’s waste disposal.

When OTML continued dumping tailings and other mine wastes into the river system, Slater and Gordon filed a class action lawsuit against the mine in 2000.  The class action was settled out of court on January the 16th 2004 after BHP Billiton divested its 52% majority shares in OTML by transfer to the Papua New Guinea Sustainable Development Program Limited (PNGSDPL). The mine’s management now pays additional compensation to the affected communities through the Mine Continuation Agreement, but continues to discharge more than 100,000 tonnes of tailings and other mine wastes into local rivers daily, although a dredge in the lower Ok Tedi River removes slightly less than half of the tailings for on-land storage.