In early March, a “serious chemical spill” was reported at the site of the Ramu mine processing plant, which sits on the edge of Basamuk Bay in Papua New Guinea.
According to initial reports, the incident occurred on March 3, “while a cargo ship was unloading a chemical substance into storage tanks on the shore at the refinery site,” says Papua New Guinea Mine Watch, who noted the incident on their website on March 8.
A villager from Mindere village, which is located right beside the refinery, informed Papua New Guinea Mine Watch that a general warning had been issued by a village committee member the day before. “[The villager, Terry Kuning,] said they were warned not to fish, bathe, drink sea water or eat fish caught within the Basamuk Bay. This warning came 4 days after the spill and it was done door to door to the Mindere villagers in the night between 7pm to 8pm. Mr. Kuning said the warning came too late because people have been using the sea during and since the spill,” explains Papua New Guinea Mine Watch.
Since then, no one from the Mindre, Kulilau or Gunglau villages in the Basamuk area have gone fishing or even so much as set one foot into the Bay waters.
RAMU NiCo, the developers of the controversial Ramu nickel project, quickly denied claims that there was “a serious chemical spill” at the plant. Rather, the company says, it was a minor spill, consisting of only “drips and not a continuous flow”.
According to RAMU NiCo, a minor leak was discovered in one of the hoses used to transport sulphuric acid. Once the leak was discovered, the company says it immediately carried out an emergency response plan by stopping the transfer and neutralizing what acid had leaked into the Bay, with prepared lime. They then proceeded to replace the hose and resume the transfer (it appears, without informing anyone from the villages).
While the company appears confident that the spill was cleaned up, the villagers themselves are still deeply concerned–even more so now that they’ve observed a sudden change in nearby coral reefs. The villagers say they reefs have all turned white.
Coral bleaching is strong indicator that something has changed in the water. Named for the pale or completely-white appearance, Coral bleaching is said to be caused by “stress-induced expulsion or death of their symbiotic protozoa,” according to Shekinah Quinnett-Cook, in her 2010 article “Threats to coral reefs”.
There are a number of reasons why Coral bleaching can occur, such as a sudden shift in water temperature. Nevertheless, Quinnett-Cook laments, Coral bleaching suggests that “The conditions necessary to sustain the zooxanthellae, which can provide up to 90% of a coral’s energy requirements, can no longer be met; this also leaves corals without a vital food source, and while they can survive for a while, they’ll eventually die on their own.”
The company “claims that the sudden whitening of the reefs, is just nature taking its course, because ‘only’ 2 liters of sulphuric acid spilled into the sea,” says Papua New Guinea Mine Watch.
The villagers, on the other hand, are urging the government to err on the side of caution and perform an independent investigation as soon as possible. Speaking on behalf of his people, Terry Kunning states: “We haven’t caught, eaten fish or washed in the sea for 2 weeks because we want an Independent body from the government to test our reefs and assure us that the sea is safe before we do anything. Does the government want our people to die before it moves a toe?”
In related news, the World Bank recently stepped in to support the dumping of toxic waste from the Ramu nickel mine–including arsenic, copper, chromium, cadmium, mercury and high levels of ammonia–into the sea.
The World Bank’s ‘timely intervention’ comes despite their own 2003 review which stated categorically that marine dumping should not be used in areas that have important ecological functions, which hold cultural significance or in coastal waters used for subsistence.
For more background and more information, watch the 2010 short film UPROOTED.
Cultural Survival also has a campaign ongoing in support the marine life and the rights of the Indigenous Peoples in Papua New Guinea.