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Belching out copper, gold and waste

In the upper catchment of the Fly River in Papua New Guinea (PNG)’s Western Province lies the country's biggest money-maker: the Ok Tedi copper and gold mine. Churning out some 80,000 tonnes of waste rock per day, Ok Tedi also has another distinction: probably the most polluting asset in the country.
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.

What’s happening downriver from Ok Tedi

Up to 80,000 tonnes of waste rock and 120,000 tonnes of tailings are disgorged from the Ok Tedi/Fly River system - every day. In addition, 30 million tonnes of tailing ‘fine sand’ are discharged annually into local rivers.2

Of course, this material does not just disappear, and impacts on rivers and rainforest are likely to last for decades.
  • Affected livelihoods:
    Up to 30,000 people living to the south of the mining site along the Ok Tedi and Fly River systems have been adversely affected by the environmental impact of the mine.

    For example, locals have reported that they are no longer able to sell their fish and garden produce because of the polluting effects of the mine. The Yonggom, a language and cultural group of around 4,500 living in the Lower Ok Tedi area, have been particularly hard hit from the impact of the mine.

  • Declining fish stocks:
    In the past, Ok Tedi’s reports revealed that fish stocks in the upper Ok Tedi had declined between 50% and 80% from pre-mining levels. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) reported in the early 1990s that the first 70 km of the river was "almost biologically dead and species diversity over the next 130 km had been dramatically reduced. Fertile river bank subsistence gardens, plantations and approximately 8 km2 of forest have been destroyed." 3

1 Banks G. 2001. PNG – Baseline Study. Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development. IIED/World Business Council for Sustainable Development. No 180. 98 pp.
2 WRI. 2003. World Resources 2002-2004: Decisions for the Earth: Balance, voice, and power. United Nations Development Programme, United Nations Environment Programme, World Bank, World Resources Institute.
3 Banks G. 2001. PNG – Baseline Study. Mining, Minerals and Sustainable Development. IIED/World Business Council for Sustainable Development. No 180. 98 pp.


We used to drink, wash and fish in the river. But when the mining began in 1984, the river became polluted.

Alex Maun
a spokesperson for Ok Tedi landowners.