It’s a land of steep mountains, powdery earth and a wet season of heavy rainfalls. These conditions, coupled with the fact that the country sits on top of a series of tectonic plates better known as the Pacific Ring of Fire, make Papua New Guinea a nation vulnerable to many natural disasters; one of them being year-round landslides.
The communities surrounding the Porgera mine in the country are not immune to these natural occurrences. Landslides in the region happen almost daily during rainy season, says Greg Walker, General Manager of Porgera, a joint venture operation in which Barrick and Zijin Mining each hold a 47.5 percent stake. The landslides tend to be small and quick, but the landslide that happened on March 18 in Lukulama, a village close to the Porgera mine, was different.
A massive block of mud—almost half a million cubic meters of material—slid slowly down a hill overlooking the village, taking with it everything that stood in its way.
About 150 employees from the Porgera mine worked day and night to re-establish access to the road.
"What was amazing was that there were no injuries; no one was hurt,” Walker says. "Everyone cleared their homes and got out before the landslide actually swept them away.”
Almost 300 people were left homeless and the Highlands Highway, the main road connecting the mine and about 40 villages to the rest of the country, was severely damaged. A 200-meter strip of the highway was pushed down the slope, cutting off transportation, and leaving people and supplies stranded on both sides of the road.
With thousands of people in the Porgera Valley effectively cut off from the rest of the country and the Porgera operation limited to essential services, the national government categorized the landslide as a natural disaster. The Papua New Guinea Department of Works, responsible for the maintenance of public roads, sent its Provincial Manager, Laim Moses, to assess the situation.
In an interview with the Porgera Positive, the Porgera mine’s monthly newsletter, shortly after the landslide occurred, Moses said, "The Department of Works at present does not have both financial and resource capacity to immediately respond to this disaster to open up access [to the Highlands Highway] in a timely manner.”
The management team at Porgera offered to partner with local authorities to help fix the road. "We had all the equipment and manpower required to reopen the road so we made a voluntary arrangement to work under their supervision,” Walker says.
Porgera mine crews started to work on the highway on March 24, six days after the incident. A superintendent from the national Department of Works provided instructions and oversaw the job. In cooperation with local contractors and the national police, about 150 employees from the Porgera mine worked day and night to re-establish access to the road.
Although the soil was stable enough to begin construction work, the clay from the landslide was still moving a few millimeters an hour. "We were constantly trying to build a road that was almost floating on mud and trying to anchor it into the ground,” Walker says. "Normally, you would dig all the mud out of the way, find the hard ground and start building from there, but we never had that luxury. We were working against the clock.”
Adding to the geological complexities, the continuous flow of people across the road while the machines worked increased the risk of accidents. Every day, almost 10,000 people crossed the highway, walking through the construction zone. Safety and health experts from the mine worked with local authorities to ensure no one stepped into danger while construction happened.
"Our primary concern was the health of everybody,” Walker says. "The fact that they reopened the road in three weeks’ time and with thousands of people walking around was an amazing effort from a safety perspective.”
The Porgera mine’s support following the disaster was not limited to the construction effort. The company donated canned fish, bags of rice, canvas shelters and two 9,000-liter tanks of potable water to help communities whose access to food and water was limited following the landslide.
"I think people are very appreciative of what the mine did over the past weeks,” says Timothy Andambo, Porgera’s Manager of Corporate Social Responsibility Operations.
Andambo, who is from the Porgera region, adds that that the frequency of landslides coupled with limited government capacity means road repairs often take months after such incidents occur.
"Many people were afraid the sediment wouldn’t be removed, yet, in spite of all the geotechnical challenges we faced, we were able to reopen the road within weeks.”
The damaged section of the Highlands Highway hasn’t been fully reconstructed yet. Porgera mine crews are still on site moving the mud and hauling rocks. But traffic can now pass through and supplies can reach the people affected by the landslide.
"We built a lot of harmony with the community,” Walker says. "The residents, the government, and the company all worked together for a common goal. I was very pleased and very surprised to see what we can achieve when we work together.”