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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > OK-TEDI River Mine Disaster

In Papua, New Guinea, the giant Australian multinational, BHP, has been operating a large copper mine for over a decade. Instead of building a tailings dam, as do most other similar mines in other countries, BHP has been dumping about 100,000 tons of mining waste every day into the OK-TEDI and FLY rivers.

Aerial color photographs show a vast devastation of these river basins that used to sustain the agriculture and fishing livelihood of tens of thousands of natives. These people retained a Melbourne, Australian law firm, Slater and Gordon, to sue BHP for the destruction of their habitat and way of life.

The litigation has been pending for over two years and the process of discovering evidence for the case has led to acrimonious legal and political battles between the various parties. The case was filed in Australian courts because of the natives’ belief that their government’s cozy relationship and co-partnership with BHP would not allow a fair trial.

Not wanting to face the open judicial processes of Australia, BHP, and its law firm in Melbourne by the name of Arthur Robinson & Hedderwicks) devised a strategy. They proposed a compensation fund of $100 million spread out over the next 15 years to pay individual claims under Papuan law. BHP still refuses to build a tailings dam.

Under this ruse of a grossly small fund that may itself never be paid out, BHP, its lawyers and the Papuan government agreed to intro­duce legislation in the local Parliament that would make it a criminal offense for anyone to sue the OK TEDI copper mine seeking compensation for pollution damage, or loss of property thereto.

Just to make sure the door is closed when the Parliament votes next month, the bill would make it a criminal offense even to challenge the constitutionality of the law.

Slater and Gordon believes the proposed agreement would violate the UN Declaration of Human Rights. They have filed a complaint with the Australian government that contains what the firm believes is evidence that BHP’s law firm was involved in drafting the legislation.

This is the ultimate tort deform. It illustrates just how far a large corporation and its corporate law firm will go to limit its liability and close off impartial avenues of judicial redress to tens of thousands of innocent Papuan natives whose entire livelihood was taken away from them. Tribal customs, mores, drinking water sources, crops they grew and fish they harvested are virtually gone. Yet every day another 100,000 tons of waste pushes the tens of thousands of square miles of dead environment further toward the ocean in the direction of Australia itself.

This mining disaster, expected to continue for over a decade in the future, is one of the world’s worst. It is also one of the world’s least publicized, due in part to its remote mountain location and the secrecy that BHP and its friendly government have built around the complex.

Clearly, a wider spectrum of support for the natives and their habitat is needed, along the lines of the worldwide concern expressed in the late Eighties to the deliberate burning of large territories in the Amazon for very short-term agricultural purposes in that fragile land.

The U.S. government, which regulates some of BHP’s operations in the United States, needs to consider what its position should be in this controversy. Similar U.s. companies and law firms, pressing to limit the rights of wrongfully injured people and property in this country, at the state and federal legislative level) may starting advancing their cruel objectives to the BHP level if the boundaries of respect for basic legal rights in court are not reaffirmed.