Rio Tinto has entered an agreement with Bougainville community members to fund an assessment of the environmental impacts caused by the abandoned Panguna copper mine on Bougainville Island, Papua New Guinea (PNG).
The move comes after several months of deliberations between the parties facilitated by the Australian OECD National Contact Point (AusNCP).
Represented by the Human Rights Law Centre (HRLC), the community residents have been urging Rio Tinto over the past year to assess the impact of millions of tonnes of mine waste.
The firm has been accused for years of evading the responsibility for cleaning up the waste from the mine, which operated between 1972 and 1989.
Rio Tinto had no access to the mine since the operations ceased because of an uprising against the mine and subsequent civil war.
In 2016, the company transferred its 53.8% stake in Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), which serves as the mine operator, to the Autonomous Bougainville Government (ABG) and the PNG Government.
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Last year, a complaint was filed by HRLC with the AusNCP against Rio Tinto citing its breaches of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises relating to environmental and human rights impacts with regards to the Panguna mine.
HRLC claims that the mine is posing severe environmental and human rights impacts due to its waste pollution, affecting the lives and livelihoods of communities.
The latest agreement will see the establishment of a joint committee of stakeholders to oversee the mine’s detailed independent assessment.
The Panguna Mine Legacy Impact Assessment Committee will be set up by the ABG, Rio Tinto, the HRLC and the community members the HRLC represents.
The assessment aims to identify and better understand the actual and potential impacts of environmental and human rights of the mine.
Rio Tinto CEO Jakob Stausholm said: “This is an important first step towards engaging with those impacted by the legacy of the Panguna mine.
“It comes after months of constructive engagement with the HRLC and the community members they represent facilitated by the Australian National Contact Point, as well as engagement with other key stakeholders, including the Autonomous Bougainville Government.
“Operations at Panguna ceased in 1989 and we’ve not had access to the mine since that time. Stakeholders have raised concerns about impacts to water, land and health, and this process will provide all parties with a clearer understanding of these important matters so that together we can consider the right way forward.”
The scope of the impact assessment has been drafted. The assessment will be predominantly funded by Rio Tinto, with BCL also contributing.