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The Porgera Joint Venture mine empties millions of tons of tailings and mountains of waste rock directly into the nearby 800 km-long river system. The waste enters the Porgera River, which drains into the Lagaip River then into the Strickland River and eventually into the Fly River before reaching the Gulf of Papua, 800 km from the mine site. The upper reaches of the river system are fast flowing and steep while about 200 km downstream the river enters an extensive flat floodplain where it meanders. Dumping into this major river system began in 1992 and has continued unabated ever since.
The extreme damage this mine waste disposal method is causing, as well as concerns about likely environmental toxicity from metals in the mine waste, has been well-documented. As early as 1996, Australia’s national science agency CSIRO (The Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) noted that:
1) The impact of PJV’s waste disposal on the river was significant;
2) PJV should urgently explore options to store tailings solids and waste rock on land;
3) PJV’s approach to managing and monitoring the impacts on the river was inadequate.
CSIRO noted the impact on biota in the river: “fish populations in the upper river system have been in decline since 1993.” CSIRO also noted the potential for human health impacts as a result of the metals in the river: “Much of the lower river is a depositional environment where exposure pathways potentially occur. The PJV has already identified the possibility of long-term low level effects of metal uptake on the human population….” and “It is possible to detect an effect of the mine in the enrichment of the TSS (total suspended solids) by the metals measured at the compliance point, SG3. Particulate metals (As, Pb, Ag, Cd, Hg, Ni, on a per gram TSS basis) are steadily increasing and may now exceed concentrations that have been shown elsewhere to have long term ecosystem effects, particularly when the river is at low flow.” Nonetheless, the disposal of metal laden tailings and waste rock into the region’s major river system has continued unabated. Meanwhile, residents report getting little information from Barrick or the government on what chemicals are being released into waterways through mining waste, and their impact to the ecosystem and potential impact on human health.