Ramu NiCo, majority owned by the Metallurgical Corporation of China (MCC), has been operating a mine and processing plant in Madang province since 2012. A pipeline channels ore from possibly the richest nickel site in the New Guinea highlands to a processing plant on the coast.

After the plant extracts nickel and cobalt from the ore, another pipeline pumps the waste, called tailings, into Basamuk Bay. Released just 450 meters (1,480 feet) from shore at a depth of 150 meters (490 feet), the tailings are expected to sink to depths of 1,500 meters (4,900 feet).

Ramu NiCo is one of dozens of mines in the world that have used the practice, called deep-sea tailings disposal (DSTD), but little is understood about its impacts on marine life.

The tipping point for the lawsuit was an August 2019 slurry spill that caught the eye of the international press as photos of crimson-red ocean waters circulated. Dead fish and a poisoned baby dolphin washed up on shore, and a man died from a “cocktail of heavy metals,” the lawsuit alleges. Madang Governor Peter Yama, who has opposed the Ramu project for years, reportedly called the spill “the worst environmental disaster in Papua New Guinea history.”

A tailings spill from the Ramu NiCo factory into Basamuk Bay on April 6, 2019. Image courtesy of Alex Mojon.

But the August spill released only 200,000 tons of waste from the coast. For years, Ramu NiCo has been pumping millions of tons of the same waste into the ocean, said Alex Mojon, a geologist and president of the Swiss Association for Quality and Environmental Management (SVQ), a consulting firm assessing the environmental impacts of Ramu NiCo’s DSTD at the Madang government’s request.

“The slurry spill was like pouring a cup of coffee into a sport hall filled with water,” Mojon said in an interview. “But the spill came from the tank before they pump it out to sea.”

Locals sued Ramu NiCo before, in 2010, demanding a nationwide ban on ocean dumping. The Supreme Court eventually allowed the project to continue, ruling that there was not enough evidence that DSTD would damage ecosystems.

“That’s the main difference with our case,” Lomai said. “We have evidence.”

Two decades of opposition

After decades of investor interest, Australian company Highlands Pacific applied to mine in the Kurumbukari mountains in 1999 and produced an environmental plan that included dumping waste into the ocean. However, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Papua New Guinea questioned the scientific rigor and asked the Mineral Policy Institute, an Australian NGO, to assess the plans.

In a 90-page report, the institute wrote that the plans “compiled a well presented but fatally flawed case.”

“There can be no doubt that disturbance on the scale of a Submarine Tailings Disposal operation will have significant biological impacts,” the institute’s scientists wrote, warning that some of the data in the plan suggested that ocean currents could spread toxic tailings throughout the sea in a process called upwelling.

Despite the opposition, PNG’s Conservation and Environment Protection Authority (CEPA) approved the tailings disposal method. The decision was contingent upon further oceanographic studies.

Map shows locations of the Ramu NiCo mine and plant. Click here to enlarge. Image courtesy of CNW Group/Cobalt 27 Capital Corp.

China’s MCC joined the project in 2005, taking over 85% of ownership. When Ramu NiCo began building the pipeline into the sea, in 2010, local landowners sued the company. They called for a permanent injunction on ocean dumping, arguing DSTD would cause a public and private nuisance.

By the time the plaintiffs asked John Luick, an oceanographer who heads Australia-based Austides Consulting, to provide testimony in 2011, he hadn’t received any more information that the tailings plume could be controlled. The judge at the National Court in Madang wrote in his decision that “All the data and [Luick’s] knowledge of the local submarine conditions suggests that there will be strong and persistent upwelling, the precise extent of which is, however, difficult to predict.”

The court didn’t grant the ban on DSTD that locals requested, but it ruled the practice contrary to national goals. In addition, the court ordered Ramu NiCo to monitor the impacts of its DSTD on the local environment and publish quarterly reports on the results. To this day, Lomai and the villagers say they haven’t seen one.

Ramu NiCo’s open-pit mine. Image courtesy of Alex Mojon.

MCC and Highlands Pacific appealed the National Court decision in an effort to clarify that DSTD was constitutional. The Supreme Court, ruling 2-1, established that there was not enough evidence to declare the practice harmful to the environment.

“I would turn it around and ask if there was enough evidence that it would not harm the environment,” Luick said in an interview. “My answer would be an emphatic ‘no.’”

In 2012, construction was completed, and the project quickly ramped up production. By 2017 it was funneling 34,000 tons of nickel annually into the world’s batteries, and 5 million tons of tailings into the sea. Since that year, Ramu has been the only project of its kind in the world to produce continually above its nameplate capacity, securing its place as the most productive site for an intermediate product called MHP that’s used in batteries.

Another lawsuit, now with evidence

In April 2019, a small coastal tailings spill prompted Governor Yama to examine Ramu NiCo’s nearly eight-year environmental record. He hired a consultant that engaged SVQ to undertake an environmental impact assessment, which Mojon’s 13-person team began in May 2019.

In July, after one round of spot testing coastal soils, Mojon recommended that Ramu NiCo implement a plan to recycle and neutralize tailings or find an alternative waste management method. By November, three more field studies and three more slurry spills later, he began calling Ramu NiCo’s DSTD a “catastrophe.”

The SVQ data have fueled a battle over research between the provincial government and locals on one side, and the central government and Ramu NiCo on the other. Ramu NiCo, MCC and Toronto-based Conic Metals (which acquired Highlands Pacific) have not responded to questions. Conic said in a statement that it was not a defendant in the case and that operations are continuing normally.

Red seawater after an August 24, 2019, tailings spill from the Ramu NiCo plant. Image courtesy of Bismarck Ramu Group.
Shoreline contamination after a tailings spill from Ramu NiCo plant on August 24, 2019. Image courtesy of Bismarck Ramu Group.

CEPA contracted an Australian consultancy to conduct a study, which found in October that there was no ongoing impact from the August slurry spill. A second, central-government-prompted investigation by a different Australian consultancy found Madang’s waters to be safe. Prime Minister James Marape appointed an interagency team to investigate in January 2020. Member agency CEPA did not respond to Mongabay’s questions about the investigation’s status.

Although SVQ’s study is incomplete, Mojon said he believes the evidence he’s gathered so far is clear: the sea, coasts, some food crops, and one natural spring used for drinking water show “alarmingly high levels of contamination.” The study is potentially one of the largest to date on the impacts of DSTD anywhere in the world.

According to the SVQ analysis, 15% of the slurry Ramu NiCo pumps into the ocean does not come to rest on the seafloor but spreads around the sea. The tailings, neutralized of their acidity before being dumped, include various heavy metals, including high concentrations of cadmium, manganese and sulfides. Various coastal locations are “distinctly contaminated” with heavy metals “much over the allowed limits” based on European standards, according to the latest SVQ report.

As SVQ staff took samples from the ocean, they came across a red algae that neither they nor locals could explain. Fish they dropped in a bucket of the substance died within a few minutes. Lab results indicated it was cyanobacteria blooming in excess nitrogen and accumulating arsenic, a highly toxic byproduct from cobalt processing.

In September, reports surfaced of a man who died shortly after eating fish from Basamuk Bay. A pathologist consulting for the Madang government, Sylvester Kotapu, sent stomach and intestine samples to a lab in Singapore, which showed elevated levels of arsenic, cobalt, cadmium and manganese. The same metals in fish tissue had also increased to “contaminated” levels since 2010, Kotapu’s data showed.

A fishing ban remained in place from October until March, when a court declared it unenforceable.

“We are alleging negligence” on Ramu NiCo’s part, Lomai said. “The permit allows them to build DSTD, but they failed to monitor the level of contamination that was discharged by the DSTD.”

The lawsuit and coronavirus pandemic have delayed the fifth and final assessment of the SVQ study, which was to complete data collection on health and socioeconomic impacts. Additionally, baseline data establishing the area’s natural metal contamination has yet to be fully collected, but Mojon predicts it will have little effect on the results.

The good news, he said, is that the area can likely be cleaned up.

“The mining and the processing down in the Basamuk plant can be remediated. The impacts on the nature can go down almost to zero, mainly [by changing] the deep sea tailings placement,” Mojon said.

“I’m a mining geologist. I’m not against mining. I’m for mining because mining is part of the industry and economy. But I’m for mining without environmental impacts,” he added.

To view SVQ’s factsheet summarizing its findings, click here.

Lomai acknowledged that the court will likely disagree with his clients’ demand for $5.2 billion in compensation. He said there are indications MCC may be interested in settling, and the lawsuit is meant to send a message.

“Cases are not only for the money, but also for the social consequences,” Lomai said. “In the future if someone else come and do this kind of thing that they’re bound to also pay the same price.”

DSTD around the world

There are 16 known mines that currently dump waste into the ocean, according to U.S. environmental NGO Earthworks, but dozens have done so since the 1970s. However, scientists and policymakers generally lack data on the impacts and the ocean’s ability to recover after dumping. Each DSTD project is subject to its unique environment, but scientists agree that tailings smother benthic life when they settle on the seafloor.

The Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection, a U.N. advisory body, plans this year to release a 200-page review of DSTD practices around the world.

The report’s primary author, Tracy Shimmield, a geochemist with the British Geological Survey, told Mongabay she only knows of one small data set that examines the ability of undersea ecosystems to recover after DSTD. The study, which Shimmield co-authored, found effects of DSTD persisting three and a half years after a gold mine closed on Misima Island, also in PNG, although there was no baseline data for comparison.

“Everyone has to be upfront about this,” she said in an interview. “When you’re mining, there’s always an impact. When you’re discharging, there will always be an impact.”

A baby dolphin that washed up on the beach of Saidor Village on September 23, 2019, after a tailings spill from the Ramu NiCo plant. Lab tests led SVQ to conclude it “was poisoned by an over-dose of a cocktail of heavy metals.” Image courtesy of Alex Mojon.

DSTD is often chosen as a cheaper or safer alternative to storing tailings in a terrestrial dam. After a tailings dam in Brazil collapsed last year killing more than 250 people, the International Council on Mining and Metals began an industry-wide review of tailings regulations, but a final report has been delayed due to COVID-19.

The pandemic has also shuttered PNG’s courts; once they reopen, Lomai said he expects the Ramu case to move forward.

The lawsuit comes as Papua New Guinea’s neighbor, Indonesia, seeks to build the same kind of processing plants to meet skyrocketing demand for electric vehicle and renewable energy batteries. In nickel companies’ presentations to the Indonesian government seen by Mongabay, Ramu was cited as an “environmentally sound” example of ocean dumping.

Banner image: Staff from Swiss consultancy SVQ samples a spring used for drinking water in May, 2019. Lab results showed concentrations of arsenic three times above European limits. Other sources of drinking water showed no contamination. Image courtesy of Alex Mojon.

Ian Morse is a natural resources journalist. Follow him on Twitter @ianjmorse.

Citation:

Hughes, D. J., Shimmield, T. M., Black, K. D., & Howe, J. A. (2015). Ecological impacts of large-scale disposal of mining waste in the deep sea. Scientific Reports, 5(1). doi:10.1038/srep09985

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