25 Jan 2012

PNG officials try to establish scale of landslide disaster in Southern Highlands

8:09 pm on 25 January 2012

Disaster officials in Papua New Guinea are still trying to establish how many people are buried under a huge landslide in the Southern Highlands province.

Reports emerging from the remote area say the death toll could be as high as 60.

The landslide occurred within the parameters of a gas project site, and blame is already being directed at the foreign company in charge of the controversial multi-billion dollar venture.

Bridget Tunnicliffe reports:

The landslide struck on Tuesday morning in an area between the Hides gas fields and the liquified natural gas project's Nogoli base, while many people were still sleeping

Jackie Molgos who works for the Department of Agriculture has been sitting by the phone waiting to hear any news about a relative.

"One of my nephews is involved in that accident and his body is not found, we're still waiting for the answer from the site to come whether they have found the body but they said some bodies are not found including my nephew."

One report says about twenty people were buried, another says as many as forty-two houses were engulfed.

The acting director of the national disaster centre, Martin Mose, says it is still difficult to estimate but says up to 60 could be buried.

He says the provincial disaster team is at the site.

We are also dispatching a team across to help do a rapid assessment and that will give us some indication as to what sort of relief assistance as well as recovery action needs to be taken immediately to recover the people as well as help those that have been displaced and need immediate assistance.

The disaster struck in the vicinity of the LNG project and work has stopped in the area where the landslide occurred.

Some people believe Esso Highlands, the company managing the project, could be at fault.

Isaac Pulupe of the NGO Population Services International, says Esso Highlands was carrying out quarry work at a site just above the village, and that could have unsettled the earth.

They were getting stones for the new road and it was a quarry site and there was a stream flowing down from the mountain and after the heavy rain overnight, the landslide came down. They are saying the company is responsible for the death of the whole community.

But the company has rejected that theory.

ESSO Highlands Limited spokesperson Rebecca Arnold, says it has not used the Tumbi quarry in over six months.

She says all of its employees have been accounted for and Esso Highlands has offered to help with rescue efforts.

The national disaster office's Martin Mose, says it is sending a specialist to help identify the possible cause.