Miners accused of using oceans as garbage dump
ABC Australia | Matt Peacock
March 13, 2012
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ELEANOR HALL: Now to the call by an international coalition of environmentalists for global mining companies to stop dumping millions of tonnes of waste into the world's oceans.
A study by the US-based Earthworks and the Canadian group MiningWatch reveals that each year more than 180 million tonnes of hazardous mine waste is dumped into oceans, rivers and lakes of the world.
The groups warn that this is causing irreversible health effects for sea life and for the human populations that feed off it.
Many of the Australian and US-owned mining companies involved are legally prohibited from the practice at home but in neighbouring developing countries environmental protections are not always so strong.
Matt Peacock spoke about the research to Earthworks' Payal Sampat.
PAYAL SAMPAT: The quantity of waste that are being dumped into our oceans and rivers is 1.5 times greater than all the United States cities, towns and homes produce every year. This is a very massive quantity of waste.
MATT PEACOCK: And it's not innocent stuff, is it? They're heavy metals that can do permanent damage to ecosystems?
PAYAL SAMPAT: That's right. I mean, they're heavy metals such as lead and mercury - chemicals such as arsenic and cyanide.
These are coming from gold, copper, nickel and iron and other mines - and they have poisoned aquatic life, polluted fisheries and are hurting the livelihoods and food supply for thousands of people who live along the coasts in places like Papua New Guinea and Indonesia and other parts of the world.
MATT PEACOCK: Now often the companies that are doing this in Australia, in the United States aren't allowed to do it at home but they are doing it offshore.
PAYAL SAMPAT: That's right. It's important to note that in many of these places, the home countries would not permit the dumping of mine waste into, you know, off coastal waters in Australia or Canada or the United States.
Canada has had operations in the past that have used this practice with some pretty disastrous results.
And it's worth noting also that there is one Australian company - BHP Billiton - that has a written policy stating that it will not use this practice because of the devastating impact at the Ok Tedi mine in Papua New Guinea that was formerly owned by BHP.
MATT PEACOCK: I guess there's an attitude that if you bury this stuff deep in the ocean, it's out of sight out of mind. Is that correct?
PAYAL SAMPAT: That hasn't been proven to be true. This is not stuff that's actually buried in the ocean. It's being placed into the ocean. It's being dumped into the ocean and companies have frequently predicted contamination is not going to spread. 'We've selected, you know, a spot where the currents aren't as strong' and so on and so forth, but they have been wrong in their predictions in the majority of cases and there have been very severe impacts on marine life.
I mentioned a mine in Canada where tailings from the Island Copper mine travelled five to 35 kilometres away from the place where it was dumped, and similar findings at the Lihir mine operated by Australia's Newcrest in Papua New Guinea.
Look, you know, companies don't have this figured out.
ELEANOR HALL: That's Earthworks program director Payal Sampat speaking to Matt Peacock.