The biggest money maker for Papua New Guinea lies in the upper catchment of the Fly River in the country’s Western Province; Ok Tedi copper and gold mine. There is good and bad with this: the mine churns roughly 80,000 tonnes of waste rock daily (GOOD) but also is labelled as the most polluting asset across the country. Mt. Fubilan, the headwaters of the Ok Tedi River is where the mine is situated and is controlled by a joint ownership; Broken Hill Proprietary Company (BHP) (52%), the Papua New Guinea state (30%) and Canadian miner Inmet (18%). Originally the mine started operating for gold extraction in 1984 however 3 years later the operation diversified into copper production. Gold production ceased in 1988.
World-wide Ok Tedi is one of the largest copper mine, with a total ore reserve in 1996 of over 400 million tonnes. In 2001, sales accounted for an amazing 18% of PNG’s national exports – underlining the mine’s importance as a national asset. Initially, the Ok Tedi mine did not profit from immunity concerning its environmental practices. The government stipulated that the mine was only to function if a tailings dam was constructed to filter out much of the waste dumped in the river. After a landslide demolished the original tailings dam, the mine operators made a successful demand to carry on operations without constructing a new one. The penalties of this choice have been dramatic for the once-pristine river system and the people that depend on it.
The impacts that resulted on the river and rainforest are likely to last for decades. Historically, Ok Tedi’s reports exposed that fish stocks in the upper Ok Tedi had declined between 50% and 80% from pre-mining levels. The Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) stated in the early 1990s that the first 70 km of the river was “almost biologically dead and species variation over the next 130 km had been dramatically reduced.