The mine is located on Mt. Fubilan, in the headwaters of the Ok Tedi River, as a joint ownership between Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) (52%), the Papua New Guinea state (30%) and Canadian miner Inmet (18%).1 Having originally opened for gold extraction in 1984, the operation diversified into copper production 3 years later. Gold production ceased in 1988.
This is one of the largest copper mines in the world, with a total ore reserve in 1996 of over 400 million tonnes. In 2001, sales accounted for an astounding 18% of PNG’s national exports - underlining the mine’s importance as a national asset.
How not to operate a mine
Initially, the Ok Tedi mine did not benefit from immunity regarding its environmental practices. By request of the government, the mine was only to operate if a tailings dam was built to filter out much of the waste dumped in the river.
But after a landslide destroyed the original tailings dam, the mine operators made a successful demand to continue operations without building a new one. The consequences of this decision have been dramatic for the once-pristine river system and the people that rely on it.
The mine’s actions have not gone unchallenged by local inhabitants. But here again, the operators have received special favours from the government. The company benefited from special legislation, passed in 1996, following the mine operator’s suit to prevent landowners taking legal action outside the country against destructive mining practices. This was proven to have been drafted by BHP, the main shareholder of the mine.
Repeatedly, Ok Tedi has been able to make its way around PNG’s environmental laws and regulations, either by shaping the rules to meet its own operating needs, or simply by enjoying exemptions from PNG's environmental regulations.
But Ok Tedi is no exception. A number of other mines have also been allowed to operate outside PNG’s environmental controls.