Mining giant Rio Tinto was accused of “multiple human rights violations” at its Panguna mine in Papua New Guinea after leaving people with poisoned water, polluted fields and a ruined river valley.
According to a report from the Human Rights Law Centre the mine, which had been one of the world’s largest gold and copper mines between 1972 and 1989, had generated billions of tonnes of mine waste over that period.
In 1989, disagreements over the mine’s profits and its repercussions on the land triggered insurrections among the local population which led to the death of 15,000 natives.
Rio Tinto abandoned the mine in 2016 without contributing to rehabilitating or cleaning up the area, giving its 53.8% interest in Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL) to the Papua New Guinea government and the autonomous Bougainville government.
HRLC is calling for the company to pay for reparations and reconciliation.
The report says: “Polluted water from the mine pit flows unabated into local rivers, turning the riverbed and surrounding rocks an unnatural blue. The Jaba-Kawerong river valley downstream of the mine resembles a moonscape, with vast mounds of grey tailings waste and rock stretching almost 40km downstream to the coast.”
Furthermore, many villages have been left without clean drinking water, which must be piped long distances or rely on rainwater tanks that frequently run dry.
According to interviews carried out by HRLC, the locals living by the river valleys have reported serious, long-running health impacts, including sores and skin lesions, diarrhoea, respiratory problems and pregnancy complications.
The Guardian reported that a spokesman for Rio Tinto said: “BCL was compliant with applicable regulatory requirements up until the mine’s operations were suspended in 1989.”
“Indeed, the ongoing extremely challenging security situation was one of the reasons for the 2016 share transfer,” he said. “We believe the best means of addressing any current issues is through the owners of the mine working directly with the people of Bougainville.”
But the president of the autonomous Bougainville government, John Momis, said Rio Tinto’s decision was “remarkably unprincipled, shameful and evil”, accusing the company of deliberately sidestepping its responsibility to clean up the damage it had caused.