Rio Tinto and Bougainville Copper face class action over mine impact

Ruins of the Panguna mine that ceased operations in 1989.

Ruins of the Panguna mine that ceased operations in 1989.

Photo by madlemurs

23rd May 2024

By: Mariaan Webb

Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online


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Miners Rio Tinto and Bougainville Copper (BCL) on Thursday confirmed that class action had been initiated against the companies in Papua New Guinea’s national court.

The action, brought on behalf of Bougainville residents, aims to seek compensation for alleged environmental degradation and social harm attributed to the Panguna mine, which ceased operations in 1989 due to militant activities.

The mine, once a significant contributor to the region’s economy, was shuttered amid escalating conflict and civil unrest. However, the fallout from its operations continues to resonate decades later, with communities citing lasting environmental damage and social-economic disruptions.

The class action alleges that Rio Tinto and BCL bear responsibility for the environmental degradation and social turmoil inflicted during the operation of the Panguna mine, claiming that “neither ever undertook, nor committed to undertaking, any form of environmental or social impacts remediation”.

The plaintiffs seek compensation for the adverse effects suffered by Bougainville residents, encompassing ecological harm, displacement and economic dislocation.

“We are reviewing the details of the claim," a Rio Tinto spokesperson told Mining Weekly on Thursday. "As this is an ongoing legal matter, we are unable to comment further at this time."

BOC also stated that it was evaluating the claims presented and vowed to defend its stance.

The company added that it was committed to addressing the concerns raised by the community, while upholding its legal rights.

The class action is said to be made up of a majority of villagers in the affected region of Bougainville and has the confirmed support of 71 local clan leaders.

“My community’s lives have been uprooted and devastated by the Panguna copper mine operations. Our once crystal-clear rivers, fertile food gardens, and sacred sites have been destroyed, and our livelihoods have been irreversibly damaged. We demand compensation for the environmental destruction and profound loss and suffering endured by the villagers.

"It is time for Rio Tinto and Bougainville Copper to address the harm their reckless actions have caused to our land and our people,” said Martin Miriori, the lead claimant of the class action suit and Paramount Chief of the Basikang Taingku clan.

The Panguna mine was operated by BCL, majority-owned by Rio Tinto, for 17 years from 1972 until 1989. Rio Tinto has not had access to the mine for over 30 years.

In 2016, Rio transferred its 53.83% majority shareholding in BCL to the Autonomous Bougainville government (ABG) and the Papua New Guinea government for no consideration, enabling the ABG and Papua New Guinea to hold an equal share in BCL of 36.4% each.

Since that time, stakeholders have continued to raise concerns about impacts to water, land and health. In 2022, Rio initiated an independent Panguna Mine Legacy Impact Assessment that it believes will provide parties with a clearer understanding of the impacts of the mine and consider the way forward.

The Rio spokesperson said that the company was awaiting the results of this assessment.

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter



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