Many of PNG's biggest mines dump their tailings in nearby river systems, sometimes with devastating environmental consequences, like the widespread contamination of the Fly River by the Ok Tedi mine in Western Province.
The Commission visited five mines and spoke to local communities and mining industry representatives as part of a review of laws covering mine waste disposal.
The Commission's secretary Dr Eric Kwa says it's time riverine tailings disposal was brought to an end.
Interviewer: Liam Fox
Speaker: Dr Eric Kwa, Constitutional & Law Reform Commission, PNG
KWA: We are asking for a total ban on this method of disposing of waste, so we're suggesting that the Mining Act be amended to prohibit the disposal of mine tailings into the river system.
FOX: And why did you come to that conclusion, why did the Commission come to that conclusion?
KWA: We came to the conclusion basically on three main fronts. The first one is a lot of the people in Papua New Guinea in the rural areas and particularly next to the mining sites, they live and depend on the river system, and so the rivers are very critical to their livelihood. The second thing is that we looked at the practice around the world, we realise that only Indonesia and Papua New Guinea allow for river iron tailings. The rest of the world has already abandoned this practice and so we needed to keep in line with the international best practice. The third part of it is that communities basically say that they don't want anymore river iron tailings, so basically the communities themselves, the people themselves have said enough is enough. We have seen the degradation of the river in Fly River, we've seen it in Porgera River, and we do not want to see anymore of this happening in PNG.
And so based on those three main reasons we agreed that we should ban river iron tailings.
FOX: That's riverine and deep sea disposal?
KWA: Ah no, deep sea we did not propose the banning of it, basically because from the current technical advice that we have been given, deep sea tailings is moderately acceptable and given the current geographical and geological situation in Papua New Guinea, that particular option would be more acceptable. And in fact, one of the large mining companies suggested to us that we should ban river iron tailings, but deep sea we could approach it more cautiously and that's the Rio Tinto. They came up with some very interesting suggestions on handling this particular issue. When we talked to the Chamber, they said we could look at it, we should allow that option to be available, because many parts of the country where mines are being located, the geography and the geological conditions are quite shakier. It is not feasible to do a storage facility in those sites and so maybe the mining, dumping it at sea would be the next best option.
FOX: And so your recommendation wouldn't affect mines that are currently underway or disposal that's currently underway, but in future?
KWA: Yes, we are suggesting that this before all future mines. We couldn't pass the current mining, because of the fact that they already exist under current legal regimes and they all see contracts in place and a lot of money has been spent on developing this method of disposal and so if we take a knife and cut across the whole mining network, then it's going to really affect the operations of these mining companies and also the economy of the country.
FOX: When you were looking at other systems, other ways of disposing mining waste. What were the other methods that were used beside Riverine disposal and deep sea disposal?
KWA: Well, we were looking at a mine tailings dam, we had the first time now, that's at the Morobe mine in Morobe Province. They actually built a dam, and they've actually they're still storing the mine waste in the dam, according to our discussions with the mining sector, they said it seems to be stable and they are able to contain the waste.
We've also looked at other mine tailings, where you can also with the current technology, you could actually do some cement pastings, like you put in some of chemicals so they would become firm, so you don't have liquid waste and then there are also other practices where you could actually try and use other chemicals to neutralise the toxicity of the waste that's coming up from the mining projects.
FOX: And what do you think the reception will be to this recommendation from both the government and the mining industry?
KWA: Ah well, for riverine tailings, we've already given the mining industry the opportunity to comment on the report. They are basically in support, maybe subtly, but they have been on our working committee and they fully supported our work and we gave these draft recommendations to them to comment on for two months, so they did look at our recommendations, and they've come back supporting our recommendation on this particular aspects of mine tailings. And I can tell you that Liam, over the last couple days, we've been getting a lot of commentaries on the Facebook, on email, out in the public. People are very supportive of our recommendations. We are still waiting to, not waiting, but we're giving the public at least a month and then we will send the report to government, that's when the government will make response to us.