Advancing Together With Barrick Gold

People Q&A with Nigel Agonia, chairperson of the Porgera Environmental Advisory Komiti

Nigel Agonia is chairperson of the Porgera Environmental Advisory Komiti (PEAK), an independent, multi-stakeholder committee which oversees the environmental and social performance of the Porgera gold mine’s operations in Papua New Guinea (PNG). Agonia brings impressive government and private sector credentials to his leadership of PEAK, which began in 2004. A dedicated advocate for socio-economic development in his country, he is a former Secretary for Minerals and Energy and past government director of Bougainville Copper and OK Tedi Mining Ltd.  For the past six years, he has served as head of the Secretariat of the Justice Advisory Group, an AusAID-funded agency established to monitor the law and justice sector in PNG.  He is a recipient of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Beyond Borders Editor Nancy White asked Nigel Agonia to describe PEAK’s manadate and work.

Why was PEAK created? 

PEAK was established in direct response to inquiries from stakeholders about the environmental impact of the Porgera mine. It was born out of a recommendation from a 1996 CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) study commissioned by the PJV. The study examined the impact the operation was having on the environment, the Porgera/Strickland river system and people living down river. The PJV established PEAK as an independent agency to review the 40 or so CSIRO recommendations and work on long-term environmental studies.

What is PEAK’s mandate today?

In the early years, almost all of PEAK’s members were environmental experts – marine scientists, biologists, and representatives from the departments of Mines and Environment. The PJV also had a representative. When I came onto the scene in 2004-2005, we moved beyond a strictly environmental focus. Although environmental impacts are still key, we also started looking at social impacts and the sustainability of business activities for the region over the long-term, after mine closure.

How does PEAK monitor environmental impacts attributed to riverine tailings from the Porgera mine?

We receive Annual Environmental Reports, which the mine submits to the PNG government. We also have detailed briefings from the mine twice a year. Committee members are well-informed. We have a representative from the Department of Environment on PEAK. We fly over the river system and have access to leading international scientists, who support our work. 

PEAK recently issued its first annual report card on the health of the river system downstream of the operation. How was the report prepared?

We took the mine’s 2007-2008 environmental reports and involved the International Water Centre in Queensland (Australia) under Dr. Stuart Bunn’s guidance. We also involved the University of PNG, the Department of the Environment and a representative from PJV. CSIRO scientists helped to ensure we covered all our bases and peer reviewed the document. We launched the report last March at a news conference in Port Moresby.

What did the report find?

It found that close to the mine there is heavy sediment but this declines significantly the further downstream you go. The results match up with the requirements set out in the permit for compliance points. The processing plant at Porgera is using reagents which remove heavy pollutants before the tailings are released into the Porgera River. That’s really important. Cyanide is processed in such a way that the compound is broken down and then further dissipates when exposed to sunlight. As the mine moves toward underground production, the further reduction in tailings will be a big plus also.

What did you hope to achieve in issuing an environmental Report Card?

This report enabled us to make a large amount of technical information more understandable to more people. It was about demonstrating accountability and transparency on environmental outcomes. Local landowners and international organizations can have a greater appreciation of the actual impact of the mine on the environment.

We are grateful that the PJV made it possible.  As far as I know, it is the first of its kind for a mining operation engaged in riverine tailings. I personally hope the PNG government will ask other resource companies operating in the country to do the same.

What is PEAK’s view of the mine’s environmental performance?

Aside from the reports and briefings, we believe that PJV is doing its utmost to meet the permit conditions set out by the government. They are operating based on world standards for best practice. The PNG Environment Department is monitoring Porgera all the time. So are local people and the media.

Along with neighboring Indonesia, PNG is one of the few place in the world where the riverine tailings method is permitted by a national government. Why is that the case?

Unfortunately in PNG, all our major mines are located in unstable mountainous areas. Seismicity is a factor. For these operations, there is really no other way to safely dispose of tailings, given existing storage technologies. As you fly over the Highlands, you can see the land slips in the mountains.  This unstable earth only has to move a little to cause a major problem. Lihir mine is the only operating mine in PNG that has a pipeline down to the sea for submarine tailings disposal.

What has been your experience with other mines using riverine tailings disposal in PNG?

When I was Secretary for the Department of Minerals and Energy, we considered at one stage the possibility of a series of weirs or small dams for the Porgera mine, but that wasn’t pursued because of seismicity in the area. There is a risk associated with catastrophic failure of tailings dams that is unique to this part of the world. The tailings dam for the Ok Tedi mine had to be abandoned back in 1980 because an earth tremor caused one of the stabilizing structures at the proposed dam site to collapse. Geotechnical engineers were deciding whether to build a tailings dam or not. The earth tremor made the decision for them. The Ok Tedi mine is much larger than Porgera and this kind of natural event could have led to a major catastrophe.

Does the Porgera mine have the support of the community?

The PJV has a social license to operate. That’s been the case since the mine was established, despite the issues around riverine tailings. People in the Porgera Valley are generally quite happy. There is a lot of money being spent in the Valley, however, you  will always have some dissatisfied groups.  The  landowners are the immediate beneficiaries from the mine.  I think they (PJV) have been a good corporate citizen overall. 

What are some of the social issues that PEAK members are concerned about in the Porgera Valley?

One of the risks associated with building a conventional tailings facility has been the concern that illegal miners would damage the impoundment walls to go after the remaining gold. 

Illegal miners are a big problem.  You can actually see the gold in the rock face  in the open pit, which attracts people into the pit.  People from outside Porgera are sometimes envious of Porgerans and come into the region. Tribal fighting and law and order in the Highlands and coastal areas are an ongoing problem. Because of the long road haulage to Porgera and the lack of a police presence along the highway, there’s always a risk people will attack trucks and vehicles. 

So what are PEAK’s other priorities?

We’ve just provided the mine with recommendations from an HIV/AIDS study and we’re monitoring the stability and reforestation of the waste dumps as well as PJV’s latest relocation efforts.

We’ve been working with an Australian business advisory group to train young people to establish sustainable businesses. In general, access to credit facilities is a problem because the law and order situation has led to numerous bank robberies. The local bank branch withdrew its services. Business people from the area have found it risky traveling to other provinces to do their banking. We hope that a bank branch will be opened in the area in the next couple of months.

In your view, what is the number one challenge facing PNG society today and in the Porgera Valley?

There is a need to respect the law as well as our traditions and customs. When there is disrespect for the laws of our country and the traditions of (Ipili) culture, you see a breakdown in PNG society.  Men tend to resort to the “big man” mentality in decision-making, whether it’s in a tribal or family context. Men need to respect the role of women in society and see them as equals.  There are women who are contributing to capacity-building in government and private institutions, including PEAK. They aren’t afraid to express their point of view. 

What is planned for the future at PEAK?

We have identified a series of issues that we will be examining and have had briefings from a number of stakeholders. Issues such as local water supply, HIV/AIDS, law and order and business sustainability. A review of the role of women has been completed and will be presented at the next PEAK meeting. We hope people will read our first report card. We plan to do another one for 2012. According to UNAIDS, Papua New Guinea has one of the highest HIV infection rates in the Asia Pacific region, and the problem has officially reached epidemic levels.

Part 3: $25 million HIV/AIDS program saves lives, reduces stigma in PNG