The Ok Tedi copper mine is situated in the upper drainage area of the Fly River in Papua New Guinea (PNG), near one of its branches, the Ok Tedi River. It is one of the chief mines globally. In addition, it is a main source of revenue for the country, and a source of income for the people. The Ok Tedi mine has one of the leading reserves of copper in the globe. Moreover, it is one of the world’s most contentious mining schemes (Harding, 2005). 1
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Mining in Ok Tedi was started in May 1984. The inventor was an international association comprising of BHP, Amoco Minerals, and a German company. The mine advanced to more production in 1987, manufacturing copper concentrate that was transported to other continents like Asia and Europe through ships. The copper concentrate contained plenty of gold and silver to reduce the expenses of manufacturing copper to amount easily handled. In 1994, Ok Tedi became the target of legal suit against BHP, in the Australian courts. The land owners in this area wanted to be compensated for damage, achieve environmental safety and remediation. In the year 2004, their needs for proper compensation and environmental safety were not fulfilled, because their income relied on the continuation of work from the mines (Bolton, 2009).2
Impact on country and world economy
The mine which is managed and owned by one of Australia’s biggest companies, BHP, has brought considerable profits to PNG. The mine contributes to over twenty percent of PNG’s export incomes and has created jobs for over 2000 people. Moreover, the profits got from the mine have improved the life expectancy of the residents. Education and health facilities have also been put up, which are of benefit to the local people (Lottermoser, 2010). 3
The Ok Tedi mine is a leading manufacturer of copper in the global smelting market. It sells copper to clients in Europe and Asia. The mine is partly owned by foreign firms like BHP. Other participants are UK and USA. In this regard, the mine has encouraged foreign investment, with benefits going back to the foreign investors. As a result of globalization, copper extracted from the mine has been exported to nations in need of copper. Therefore, copper production in the Ok Tedi mine has had a major impact on the world’s economy (Harding, 2005). 4
Cause of the Ok Tedi disaster
The main cause of the Ok Tedi disaster is the inability of the government to carry out environmental inspections. The government encounters challenges when managing and surveying mining activities due to shortage of both labor force and fiscal resources. For instance, the government has no experts for surveying mining activities. Due to poor planning and inadequate administration, the government has allowed economic growth to outweigh viable environmental progress. This implies that matters to do with mining processes have little importance placed on the maintainability of the environment or the safety of the community.
Impact of the Ok Tedi disaster on the environment
Each day over 150 thousands tones of waste are damped into the Ok Tedi River. As a result, this action affects the local people and biological systems of the mine. The waste is congesting the river bed resulting to overflow and vegetation die-back. The number of fish has been severely decreased, and the Ok Tedi River system downstream of the mine is biologically destroyed (Harding, 2005). 5
The waste materials also had other forms of effects like: a rise in turbidity, river bed aggradation due to building up of waste, and variations in the constituents of water because copper and other particles form components with other elements in the river. River bed aggradation is known to be the worst outcome of the rising amount of deposits. During heavy rain falls, river bed aggradation has resulted to flooding that covered forests and gardens with mud, chocking vegetation and causing forest dieback. Of the metals released into the river, copper is one that has a great effect on aquatic life. It is found in the waste rock and also in the tailings (Bolton, 2009). 6
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The more severe effect of mine deposits may be the ruin of the wetlands close to the Fly River. Tie channel closure is possibly a grave threat that could have serious impacts on the ecosystem. With background deposition so low, restoration of the wetlands could take many years. The river bed has been raised in the upper part due to rock and sand deposits into the river from the waste material. In the lower part of the Ok River, flooding takes place due to raised river bed levels. As a result, the plants along the riverbanks are destroyed. This is known as dieback. Dieback is steadily rising as the level of deposits increases downward. The forests have also been damaged by the dieback (Harding 2005).7
The forest ruined by dieback is likely to recover by natural processes if the mine closes and accumulation of residues stops. The overflow, resulting to diebacks and other variations in plants, has ruined the lives of people living nearby. The main influences are loss of lands, decline source of sago palm, increased labor for finding food and hardships when crossing the flood plain.
The amount of copper in the rivers is also increasing. This copper has a great effect to the river ecology and may kill fish all other animals in the river. Sulphide minerals present in the mine waste are capable of releasing acid when in contact with air. This lowers the water PH and reacts with metals. Sulphide minerals also have the ability to destroy the vegetation. The number of fish has reduced considerably in the Ok Tedi and the Fly River. This is due to deposits chocking fish habitation in the river and contamination of water.
Mining can also have severe outcomes to the surrounding area and ground water. This is because concentration of chemicals from the mines may occur on the ground surface. Rain water drains the chemicals to the ground water therefore contaminating it. Also the rain water carries the chemicals on the ground to nearby rivers. This may have negative effects to the people who use the water and the aquatic life. Mines create holes and tunnels that are a threat to people because they cause accidents. Water occupies in these holes forming lakes of polluted waste (Lottermoser, 2010). 8
Mining at Ok Tedi has resulted to environmental consequences that are considerably greater than what was expected at the beginning in the 1980s. Millions tones of waste are released annually into the river. This has adverse consequences to the aquatic life because of the toxic material contained in the waste. The health of the people is also affected after consuming fish that is poisoned from waste materials. However, the mines have been a source of income for the local people, because mining has created thousands of jobs. In addition, the government gets revenue from the copper exported to other countries and tax from the workers at the mine (Bolton, 2009).9
Bolton, B. (2009) The Fly River, Papua New Guinea: environmental studies in an impacted tropical river system. UK, Elsevier.
Harding, R. (2005) Environmental decision-making: the roles of scientists, engineers, and the public. Sydney, The Federation Press.
Lottermoser, B. (2010) Mine Wastes: Characterization, Treatment and Environmental Impacts. Germany, Springer Heidelberg.
- Ronnie Harding, Environmental decision-making: the roles of scientists, engineers, and the public (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005), 114.
- Barrie Bolton, The Fly River, Papua New Guinea: environmental studies in an impacted tropical river system (UK: Elsevier, 2009), 56.
- Bernd Lottermoser, Mine Wastes: Characterization, Treatment and Environmental Impacts (Germany: Springer Heidelberg, 2010), 77.
- Ronnie, Harding, Environmental decision-making: the roles of scientists, engineers, and the public (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005), 120.
- Ronnie, Harding, Environmental decision-making: the roles of scientists, engineers, and the public (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005), 117.
- Barrie Bolton, The Fly River, Papua New Guinea: environmental studies in an impacted tropical river system (UK: Elsevier, 2009), 60.
- Ronnie, Harding, Environmental decision-making: the roles of scientists, engineers, and the public (Sydney: The Federation Press, 2005), 123.
- Bernd Lottermoser, Mine Wastes: Characterization, Treatment and Environmental Impacts (Germany: Springer Heidelberg, 2010), 102.
- Barrie Bolton, The Fly River, Papua New Guinea: environmental studies in an impacted tropical river system (UK: Elsevier, 2009), 78.