20 Feb 2012

Scientists brought in to determine cause of dead fish in key PNG river system

8:21 pm on 20 February 2012

Scientists have descended on Papua New Guinea's Morobe province to investigate a buildup of dead marine life in local riverways.

The people of Labu last week set up a road block at the Markham bridge near the confluence of the Markham River and the Watut River where they have been protesting about losing their prime source of food and livelihood.

Johnny Blades reports:

The Labu community has blamed the Hidden Valley Gold Mine operations of the Morobe Mining Joint Venture for the dead fish.

Labu people last week presented dead fish and a petition to Morobe's Govenor demanding an investigation into the issue.

Our correspondent Oseah Philemon, himself a Labu local, says the community feels very strongly that the build-up of dead marine life is the result of chemicals discharged into the riverways by the mine.

"That was the allegation they made and led to them blocking the Markham Bridge and preventing vehicles either going up to the mine or coming down from passing the Markham Bridge. They also demanded ten million kina compensation, they demanded resettlement, they demanded fresh water, food supplies and whole lot of other things because of that."

The Morobe Governor, Luther Wenge, says it is premature to blame the mine, especially as the Watut, which the mine discharges into, is one of many tributaries feeding the Markham.

He says he has made pleas to the Labu people for understanding and patience while the issue is investigated.

And as I say, we don't know exactly what's caused that. What we have done is to talk to the University of Technology to ask them if they can assist with scientists who can investigate this and tell us what the cause is, what caused the deaths of those river animals. So we've contacted scientists there and secondly, we've engaged the Department of Environment and Conservation, they've sent some scientists. We have to make sure that scientists investigate this thoroughly.

In a press statement, MMJV - a joint venture between Australian company Newcrest and Harmony Gold of South Africa - claims there's nothing to indicate the mine's involvement.

The quality of the water discharged from the Hidden Valley mine operations is monitored on a daily basis and is reported to the Department of Environment and Conservationweekly and monthly. There are no abnormalities in the Hidden valley water quality data as it is well within compliance parameters. The greatest impact on the river system in the area at the moment is the Kumalu mudslide where cubic kilometres of sediment have entered the river system

due to the heavy rain.

MMJV has pledged support for efforts to identify the cause, and has provided data on its discharge quality.

However Oseah Philemon says the investigating team may need to rely on more independent data if they are to appease local concerns.

Just putting my other hat on as a villager from Labu, I said to them Labu people will not believe anything that comes from the mine, so you should actually do independent tests. If it means sending the tests to Australia for independent verification and independent tests, then perhaps you should do that, to reassure the people that everything is okay. Right now, as far as they're concerned, the mine is responsible.