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By Francis Uliau

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (March 9, 2000 – The Independent)-Ok Tedi landowners yesterday warned against closing the Tabubil mine immediately, saying this would only ignite into a bigger problem.

A World Bank review into Ok Tedi’s risk assessment strategy on the mine’s ecological, economic and social impacts has recommended that the project be closed immediately. As a result, the PNG government has indicated plans to starting preliminary discussions as soon as possible with the local community and government, BHP, Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML), other shareholders and relevant organizations and governments.

Landowners said besides impacting greatly on the government’s revenue base, a shut-down at this stage would also provoke more questions on the initial mining agreement benefits, and the huge burden the project has placed on the people and their environment.

Principal landowner and chairman of the Star Mountain Landowners Association (SMLA) Biul Kirokim said most of the benefits contained in the project agreement have not been implemented and "these people cannot just rush things, pack up and go."

"If the State and the developer (BHP) follow the World Bank recommendations, they are only asking for trouble," Mr. Kirokim warned.

"The ball is in their court because they (State and BHP) were the ones who signed the project agreement. We the landowners did not have any say in that."

Expressing similar sentiments this week, Prime Minister Sir Mekere Morauta said that while the environmental damage from Ok Tedi are serious, the social consequences could be even worse.

"It is clear that the environmental damage caused by Ok Tedi is greater than expected when the mine opened and that it is now a serious problem affecting many people along the Fly River system," he said.

"However, it is essential to bear in mind that any hasty and poorly planned decision to close the mine could have even worse consequences for the well-being of these people and for Papua New Guineans generally.

"That is why I have decided to begin the process of developing a comprehensive plan to deal with the problem in a way that does the least harm to everyone concerned."

The PNG government says that once the World Bank review of Ok Tedi's environmental risk assessment has been studied, a draft mine closure plan must be submitted to the government by BHP.

"Once that has been received the government can then begin very comprehensive and broad-based consultations on a mine closure strategy," the government said.

No final decisions can be made until a mine closure plan and a mine closure strategy have been approved.

"Such a strategy must incorporate social and economic matters as well as environmental (concerns), and must deal with province-wide and national needs and desires as well as those of the people along the Fly River," Sir Mekere said.

Ok Tedi Mining Limited managing director Dr. Roger Higgins yesterday said the company has been talking to major shareholder BHP (52 percent) on a regular basis.

The other shareholders are the PNG government with 30 percent and Canadian miner Inmet, owning an 18 percent interest.

However, Dr. Higgins could not say much on the discussions or the options available for Ok Tedi and its project proponents.

"We’d really like to get a copy of the World Bank report," he said while reiterating calls for the PNG government to publicly release the World Bank report.

Dr Higgins said informed discussion about the mine’s future could only occur in an environment in which the full facts were available to those who needed to make a decision about how to proceed.

"The people of PNG have important decisions to make, and they would greatly benefit from having access to all opinions and data that can help them reach a view of the best way forward to address the environmental, social and economic issues resulting from the mine’s operations," he said.

On the issue of a mine closure plan, Dr. Higgins said one is nearing completion in accordance with statutory requirements that OTML submit a plan 10 years before expected closure.

"The company has been working with the government on an ongoing consultation program to ensure the affected communities were fully informed of the detailed HERA and the options for the future.

"OTML was also consulting with communities to put in place initiatives that would provide secure food and infrastructure beyond the life of the mine."

However, the World Bank report said "little or no attention in the assessment was given to the impact of the various options of mine closure to the economy of the country and province."

Apart from recommending to the PNG government to consult the Ok Tedi community and draft a closure plan for the mine immediately, the report also highlighted that a shutdown plan to mitigate Ok Tedi’s ecological and economic impacts must be drawn up urgently.

The World Bank Resident coordinator for PNG, Dan Weise, said on Tuesday that any decision on the mine’s future is "entirely the responsibility of the government and BHP.

"The Bank’s position is that, from a purely environmental perspective, the risk assessment suggests that the Ok Tedi mine needs to be moving towards closure as soon as possible," Mr. Weise said.

"Without a mine closure plan, supported by a comprehensive and participatory mine closure strategy addressing environmental as well as critical social issues, immediate closure would appear to carry with it the worst social impact.

"The development of the mine closure strategy is the responsibility of the National Government and Western province.

"Preparations for the development of such a strategy should be undertaken without delay given the long lead time associated with social impact mitigation measures."

Last week BHP boss Paul Anderson told the Australian Financial Review that the company was not comfortable about continuing to operate the mine.

"We’ve pretty well canvassed everybody who has an opinion on Ok Tedi, and that’s a lot of people."

Of the World Bank review, Mr. Anderson said he was "not confident there’ll be any great new insight . . . that will say what to do." He said the consensus was that the mine should continue to operate.

Meanwhile, a meeting involving national and provincial politicians, landowner and OTML representatives, officials from the local-level government council and a group from overseas, the MAA Consultants, a private company with shares in many mining operations around the world, is planned for Tabubil tomorrow.

Reports from the mining town yesterday said the visit by members of the consulting firm was mainly to observe production work at the mine.

A tour of the mine would also give the MAA officials a first-hand impression of the issues surrounding the gold mine.

The delegation has booked to leave on an MBA charter flight on Friday morning to Tabubil, and return the next day.

A proposed itinerary said the delegation would meet with the landowners at 1:00 p.m. and later proceed on to meet with the Ok Tedi management at around 3:30 p.m. Following that would be a visit to the mine site. It is not known if their discussions will include the mine closure issue.

OTML’s Dr. Higgins said while the delegation was welcome to visit the Ok Tedi mine, it was unfortunate that he would not be able to meet them.

"I will still be in Port Moresby. However, senior members of the mine management team will be on hand to welcome them," Dr. Higgins said.

For additional reports from The Independent, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Independent (Papua New Guinea).

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