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The Ramu nickel and cobalt mine in Papua New Guinea (PNG) has generated controversy and deep concerns over its environmental and social record. Despite fierce local opposition and a legal battle that suspended operations for 19 months, the mine is currently operating, dumping an estimated 14,000 tonnes of toxic mine waste into Basamuk Bay every day.

The mine is owned and operated as a joint venture between the Metallurgical Corporation of China Ltd (MCC) and Nickel 28, formerly Conic Metals Corp., a Canadian company focused on electric vehicles and battery storage metals, including cobalt and nickel.

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Tailings are the sludge left once the mineral is extracted from the ore. They contain crushed rock, processing chemicals and naturally occurring elements that become toxic when exposed to air or water. This toxic cocktail settles on and smothers the seafloor, killing everything that lives there. Tailings can also spread, contaminating other areas and destroying coral reefs and other habitat. Mining companies can avoid this dangerous waste disposal option in favor of safer, less destructive methods on land.  However, it is important that land-based waste storage facilities have strong safety standards and appropriate oversight.

Environmental devastation

In late August of 2019, a processing plant for the Ramu mine in Papua New Guinea spilled around 23 tonnes of toxic waste into Basamuk Bay. According to local reports, the pollution turned the water red and left a sludgy residue on the shoreline. Local landowners subsequently filed a new lawsuit in response.

Coastal residents depend on the Bismarck Sea for bathing, food and medicine, and an estimated 30,000 fishermen make their livelihoods in Basamuk Bay. The PNG National Fisheries Authority criticized the project, calling it “unsustainable socially, economically and environmentally.”

Displacement, opposition and legal battles

A class-action lawsuit from over 1,000 coastal landowners was not enough to block the mine. After years of legal wrangling, during which the plaintiffs and their lawyers faced intimidation and violence from Ramu mine supporters, PNG’s Supreme Court ruled in favor of the project and the plans to dump mine waste into the ocean.

The indigenous Kurumbukari people were forcibly displaced from their ancestral homeland to make way for the mine, separating them from their livelihoods, traditional way of life, and spiritual practice. Activities from the open-pit mine have polluted the water, destroyed fishing grounds and spread disease.

“Communities along the Basamuk Bay, the pipeline and Krumbukare (production site) that once were in support of the mine are now frustrated and angry. They are not receiving benefits from the mine as promised and most importantly, they see the destruction by the company.  There has been continuous environmental pollution and health related issues are on the rise.”

— John Chitoa, Director, Bismarck Ramu Group

High-pressure acid leaching (HPAL)

There are two major types of nickel deposits – sulphide and laterite. Nickel from laterite ores is difficult to concentrate into high-quality nickel products using conventional separation or pyro-metallurgy. As a result, much laterite ore is processed into the low-grade, highly ferrous nickel pig iron, which is often destined for use in the stainless steel industry. However, the nickel used in electric vehicle battery cathodes is of a much greater quality. To produce high-quality nickel products from laterite ores, a process known as High-Pressure Acid Leaching is being adopted more and more. This process, used by the Ramu operation’s processing plant, is highly toxic, polluting, energy-intensive and leaves a massive amount of residual material to be disposed of.

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Banner photo credit: Christopher McLeod, Sacred Land Film Project