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By Kevin Meade

PORT MORESBY, Papua New Guinea (December 11, 2000 – The Australian)---Marine experts fear a cyanide shipment that sank off the Papua New Guinea coast 16 years ago is an environmental time bomb ticking away on Australia's northern doorstep.

There are also fears the sunken cargo of about 2,600 drums of cyanide poses a threat to the Great Barrier Reef as it went down just 70 kilometers (42 miles) north of the Reef's northern most point, Bramble Cay in the Torres Strait.

A study has shown that currents passing through the area where the shipment sank flow down to the reef.

A barge carrying 2,700 drums of cyanide in 15 containers from Port Moresby to BHP's controversial Ok Tedi gold and copper mine in western Papua New Guinea sank off the mouth of the Fly River in June 1984.

News reports at the time said one of the containers broke open and more than 100 of the blue plastic drums were recovered intact after they drifted into the Fly Estuary.

But the rest of the drums have never been recovered.

A BHP spokeswoman confirmed they had not been recovered and made the startling admission that a search for the sunken containers conducted shortly after the accident was abandoned because the searchers could not find them.

Professor Michael Moore of the National Research Center for Environmental Toxicology said a cyanide spill could have a devastating effect on the reef's marine life, including coral.

"It just kills everything in its path," he said.

Townsville-based marine environment researcher Guy Lane said that after 16 years in the water the steel containers -- which sank in an area about 10 miles deep --would now be badly corroded.

"The concern is that by now they're rotten to buggery and just waiting for a big swell or cyclone to come through, smash the containers to pieces and liberate 2,600 drums of cyanide," Mr. Lane said.

Laurie Duncan, who was navigation aids superintendent with the Papua New Guinea Transport Department when the containers sank, said a study conducted by the department in the early 1990s on the possible impact of an oil spill in the Fly Estuary found that currents from the area flowed east into the Gulf of Papua and then south to the Great Barrier Reef.

Mr. Duncan said it was "amazing" the drums had never been retrieved.

"This is a potential hazard," he said. "Those drums should have been pulled out of there long ago."

The BHP spokeswoman said that despite the use of "the best state-of-the-art remote sensing technology at the time" the searchers could not find the containers.

A poisonous record of ecological disaster

Cyanide has been used in the mining industry to extract gold from ore since the 1890s, but its potential to devastate the environment became horribly clear in January.

That was when water contaminated with 100 tons of cyanide and heavy metals spilled from a partly Australian-owned tailings dam in Baia Mare, Romania.

The disaster polluted rivers in Romania, Hungary and Yugoslavia, causing fish kills and environmental destruction.

A UN report said cyanide from the Esmeralda Explorations mine in Romania was present downstream more than four weeks later.

Another Australian gold-mining company was at the center of a cyanide alert in March when a one-ton shipment of the chemical was accidentally dropped from a helicopter into mountains in Papua New Guinea. The shipment was being transported to Dome Resources' Tolukuma mine outside Port Moresby.

At the time, PNG's national disaster service warned residents not to drink water from two river systems and other watercourses in the spill area.

(A rapid cleanup was successfully accomplished.)

For additional reports from The Australian, go to PACIFIC ISLANDS REPORT News/Information Links: Newspapers/The Australian.

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