17 Feb 2012

PNG Govt, Exxon under spotlight over Tumbi landslide

9:11 am on 17 February 2012

There is growing frustration over the official response to last month's Tumbi landslide last month in Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands province.

In its initial assessment report, the National Disaster Centre identifies heavy rainfall as the trigger for the landslide which is believed to have killed at least 25 people.

However speculation over the role in this disaster of the Tumbi quarry, used by Exxon Mobil for its major Liquefied Natural Gas project, refuses to die away.

Johnny Blades reports:

A National Disaster Committee-led crisis management team this week began clearing the massive area of mud and debris left by the landslide.

However the local community has reportedly blocked access to the site several times, due to their demands for compensation and an independent probe into the disaster.

Hela landowner Joseph Warai says there remains a lack of communication from the government about what's happening:

"They announced an independent investigation but what sort of, what form of, what type of investigation they were talking about is not very clear. No minister, or no one, has delivered a media statement about the government's intention on the investigation team in terms of reference for the investigation team. So far there has not been anything raised. So there is a certain level of compromise. And Exxon Mobil seems to be very quiet on this matter."

He says government and disaster officials, as well as police and military, have told locals that the 10 million kina in disaster response funding promised by the government was conditional on the road being cleared.

Disaster officials say there is no money allocated for compensation, clearing of the road is the priority.

The PNG Coordinator for the International State Crime Initiative and Lecturer in Criminology at the University of Ulster, Kristian Lasslett says Exxon Mobil are under a lot of pressure to meet the target date for start of production in 2014.

And these sort of hiccups like the landslide, I think, are raising warning sirens for Exxon's management, for Exxon's investors and partners; and to that end, I would speculate that there would be a lot of concerns if a serious investigation is undertaken and there is found to be a degree of negligence on the operator's part with the Tumbi quarry, it could cause further delays with the project which could obviously have potentially quite significant economic effects on Exxon Mobil.

Last March, the Tumbi quarry was declared unsafe by the project's Independent Environmental and Social Consultant, D'Appolonia SPA.

The Consultant found that contractors building the project's Komo airfield, for which the quarry was being used, were behind schedule.

Also, the project's risk assessment practices were found to be falling after a mudslide occurred at the project's Hides Gas Conditioning Plant site in the same area in late 2010.

The former superintendent of Tumbi Quarry has defended its safety record.

Kevin Munday managed the quarry for MCJV, a joint venture between McConnell Dowell and Consolidated Contracting, until the quarry's closure last September.

MCJV were pretty good at looking after Tumbi quarry. We always had geologists down there looking at it. We always had environmentalists down there looking at it. In that respect, we didn't let that part of it slip. Managing the new quarry faces that we put in, we could have done it in a rushed format - we didn't. But at no time was I directed by MCJV to take risks or cut corners to get material out quicker.

Claims persist by locals that blasting at a local quarry caused the landslide.

Kevin Munday says explosives were never used at the Tumbi quarry, but says another nearby quarry used for the project did use explosives.

He says the part of the Tumbi quarry lost in the landslide was not the part which his team had been excavating.

At the bottom of the quarry there, at the old excavation area, there's two massive rivers that flow out of that old quarry face, and what I believe has happened is that prior to the landslide giving way, those two rivers have been blocked somehow, whether it's caused by the blast or a natural ground movement or whatever... What I believe has happened is those waterways have been blocked in some shape or form; the water's built up behind there and just finally given way, how water does. Even ground vibrations from a blast wouldn't be enough to block up those rivers, I don't believe. I believe it's an act of God or an act of nature. But the locals are very quick to ask for compensation no matter what, and I'm picking that's what it's all about, if you know what I mean.

Yet, Joseph Warai says landowners in Tumbi insist that activities at the project quarry had already changed the way water flowed down the mountain.

CCJV and MCJV have done several drillings on that mountain including use of chemicals and blasting - that's according to local sources already. And they are saying that their mountain has never collapsed before - they've been living there for six hundred years - and this is the first of its kind. And they say what has triggered the landslide is the blasting and drilling of Tumbi quarry.

Kristian Lasslett says it's of deep concern that Exxon and Australian officials collaborated on the NDC report, but also that local people are not being consulted in analysis of the landslide.

Having conducted extensive research into the Bougainville conflict, Dr Lasslett sees worrying parallels to the situation around the gas project in the Highlands.

In 1988, there was an independent inquiry conducted into the environmental and social effects of Bougainville copper mine, and the company which undertook this mainly collaborated and took data from the mining company and a lot of local knowledge about the environment was treated with a fair degree of skepticism and it was that very tone that led Francis Ona (former Bougainville secessionist leader) to leave the meeting (about the inquiry) in disgust and acquire dynamite which then was used to blow up electrical pylons which powered the mine which then of course led to the Bougainville conflict. So what we don't want to see is landowner knowledge ignored in this situation in Tumbi.

He says the potential for a landowner backlash over any culpability of the project in the landslide, and in environmental and social impacts in general, is especially worrying given the build-up of high-powered weapons in the Southern Highlands.