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Abandoned Rio Tinto Mine Is Blamed for Poisoned Bougainville Rivers

DARWIN, Australia — The mining giant Rio Tinto has been accused of environmental and human rights violations in a complaint that says an abandoned mine is leaking waste and poisoning rivers on the island of Bougainville.

The claim, signed by 156 residents of the autonomous region in Papua New Guinea, is seeking an investigation by the Australian government into what it calls Rio Tinto’s failure to clean up millions of tons of waste at the former Panguna copper and gold mine.

It said the waste was making the island’s drinking water unsafe and causing health problems, including skin conditions and upper respiratory and gastrointestinal illness, particularly in children. The mine’s abandoned piles of tailings have also caused rivers to flood, destroying sacred sites.

“We live with the impacts of Panguna every day,” Theonila Roka Matbob, a traditional landowner from Makosi Village and a member of the Bougainville Parliament, said in a statement released by the Human Rights Law Center, which lodged the claim.

“Our rivers are poisoned with copper, our homes get filled with dust from the tailings mounds, our kids get sick from the pollution,” Ms. Matbob added. “These are not problems we can fix with our bare hands. We urgently need Rio Tinto to do what’s right and deal with the disaster they have left behind.”

The rights group filed the claim with the Australian National Contact Point, a nonjudiciary body that has the power to investigate complaints made against Australian companies operating overseas.

The mining industry has dominated Papua New Guinea’s economy for decades, with companies extracting minerals including gold, copper, silver and nickel. Panguna was among the largest copper mines in the world, but it was closed in 1989, after protests by workers escalated into a brutal civil conflict.

In 2000, residents of Bougainville filed suit against Rio Tinto in U.S. federal court, arguing that the company had mistreated Black workers, had been complicit in war crimes and had damaged the environment. But the case was dismissed in 2013.

Rio Tinto also recently suffered scalding public criticism in Australia over its stewardship of the environment. Three executives, including the chief executive, were forced to step down this month over its destruction of prehistoric rock shelters in the Juukan Gorge in Western Australia, which are sacred to two Aboriginal groups.

The move was a turning point for a company that had long operated without consequence, Indigenous rights activists said, and it marked a milestone in Australia’s resources history.

The complaint over the poisoning of Bougainville’s rivers also calls on Rio Tinto to re-engage with residents to address the abandoned site. The company ran the mine for 45 years and divested it in 2016, leaving thousands of people who live downstream in the Jaba-Kawerong River valley to deal with the consequences.

“The communities are living in a highly unstable dangerous environment,” said Keren Adams, the legal director of the Human Rights Law Center.

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“We live with the impacts of Panguna every day,” said Theonila Roka Matbob, a member of the Bougainville Parliament, pictured at the closed Panguna mine pit last year.Credit…Human Rights Law Center, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

A large number of nearby communities, Ms. Adams added, “don’t have access to safe, clean nearby water sources.” She said Rio Tinto desperately needed to conduct a risk assessment, and to contribute substantially to an independent fund to assist in the cleanup and managing of ongoing health problems in the community.

In a statement released on Tuesday, Rio Tinto said it was “aware of the deterioration of mining infrastructure at the site and surrounding areas, and claims of resulting adverse environmental and social, including human rights, impacts.”

The company said it was ready to have discussions with the communities that had filed the complaint, along with their representatives.

Ms. Adams, the lawyer, said that while she was encouraged by Rio Tinto’s statement, there was still a long way to go before the vast and sometimes fatal problems caused by mining’s legacy on the island could be addressed.

“We’ll have to wait and see what meaningful action they propose,” she said.

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