‘Hope for new chapter’: Rio Tinto vows to assess abandoned mine pollution

Rio Tinto has reached a deal with Bougainville residents to fund an investigation into the legacy of potential environmental damage and human rights violations left by an abandoned copper mine on the island.

The Anglo-Australian mining giant has not accessed Bougainville’s Panguna mine since it was forced to suspend operations amid the outbreak of a civil war in 1989, and eventually divested its holding in 2016. But over the past year a group of 156 Bougainville residents has been appealing for Rio to assess the impact of millions of tonnes of leftover waste they say have poisoned local water sources and assist with the long-term clean-up.

People who live close to Bougainville’s abandoned Panguna mine have been pushing for Rio to fund a clean-up.Credit:

The Melbourne-based Human Rights Law Centre supported Bougainville community members last year in launching a complaint with the Australian OECD Contact Point, a division of Australia’s federal Treasury with the power to investigate Australian companies operating overseas and issue findings on whether they were in breach of OECD obligations.

Following months of regular talks, Rio Tinto, the Human Rights Law Centre and community stakeholders issued a joint announcement on Wednesday that Rio would fund an independent assessment to identify environmental and human rights impacts and risks posed by the abandoned mine, and develop recommendations to address them.

A joint committee of stakeholders would be formed to oversee the assessment, Rio said.

Theonila Roka Matbob, a traditional landowner and local MP, said Rio’s commitment “gives us hope for a new chapter” for residents who had been living with the “disastrous impacts of Panguna for many years”.

“The mine continues to poison our rivers with copper. Our kids get sick from the pollution and communities downstream are now being flooded with mine waste,” she said. “Some people have to walk two hours a day just to get clean drinking water. In other areas, communities’ sacred sites are being flooded and destroyed.”

As many as 14,000 people are estimated to be living downstream of the Panguna mine along the Jaba-Kawerong river valley.

Rio Tinto’s treatment of community stakeholders remains in the spotlight as it faces the ongoing fallout from its ill-fated decision to blow up two 46,000-year-old Aboriginal rock shelters in Western Australia’s Juukan Gorge in May last year. The disaster left traditional owners devastated, triggered a federal inquiry, and eventually led to the resignations of former CEO Jean-Sebastien Jacques and two other senior executives. Rio chairman Simon Thompson has announced he will step down in coming months.

The miner’s new chief executive Jakob Stausholm has made a top priority of lifting Rio’s environmental, social and governance credentials and improving relations with community stakeholders globally across its operations.

“This is an important first step towards engaging with those impacted by the legacy of the Panguna mine,” he said on Wednesday.

“We take this seriously and are committed to identifying and assessing any involvement we may have had in adverse impacts in line with our external human rights and environmental commitments and internal policies and standards.”

Human Rights Law Centre legal director Keren Adams said she was pleased Rio Tinto had acknowledged the community’s serious concerns about the mine’s devastating legacy.

“This assessment is a critical first step towards addressing that legacy,” Ms Adams said. “However, we stress that it’s only the first step. The assessment will need to be followed up by swift action to address these problems so that communities can live in safety.“

Rio Tinto cut ties with Bougainville Copper in 2016, gifting its 53 per cent stake to Papua New Guinea and the Autonomous Bougainville Government. During its operation, Panguna was of the world’s largest copper and gold mines and accounted for 45 per cent of all of PNG’s exports.

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