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PAPUA NEW GUINEA: Ok Tedi villagers sue for $5bn damages

The Australian
January 19th, 2007

MINING giant BHP Billiton and the operators of the Ok Tedi copper mine in Papua New Guinea are being sued for civil damages exceeding $US4 billion ($5.08 billion) by villagers on the Ok Tedi River.

PNG lawyer Carmellus Narakobi has lodged the lawsuit in the National Court in Port Moresby on behalf of 13,000 villagers seeking compensation for the destruction of their traditional lands along 38km of the river.

“The Ningerum people have suffered from tonnes and tonnes of arsenic, copper, zinc and other heavy metals dumped into this once pristine habitat where they had lived since time immemorial,” Narokobi told PNG's newspaper The National.

Experts predicted it would take 300 years to clean up the toxic contamination, he said.

Narokobi represents six Ningerum clans who are not signatory to the Community Mine Continuation Agreement between landowners and Ok Tedi Mining Limited (OTML).

“They offered to pay 50 kina ($22.50) per family a month for damages which is total exploitation and the government of PNG sanctions these kinds of programs,” he said.

Most landowner groups in the region have signed the mine continuation agreements.

OTML management has conceded the environmental damage caused by mine tailings running into the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers is far worse than first envisaged and is pursuing projects to curb it.

The company points to the mine's huge economic returns to PNG as well as the benefits to affected landowners who receive royalty and compensation payments and development projects.

Raised riverbeds and a process called acid rock drainage have destroyed or contaminated traditional food garden areas while fish and other marine life are expected to be off-limits for eating in future years.

The huge environmental problem was a major prompt for BHP Billiton to divest its 52 per cent shareholding in the mine to the PNG Sustainable Development Program Ltd in 2002.

The PNG government owns 30 per cent of Ok Tedi which is a major producer of copper concentrate for world smelting markets and in 2004 provided more than a quarter of PNG's export earnings.

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