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Forget algae. If you really want to trash a marine ecosystem, this Chinese and Canadian-owned mining operation is proving there’s nothing like untreated mine tailings.

In late August, a processing plant for the massive Ramu cobalt-nickel 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. 

If that sounds bad, consider this: the Ramu mine is allowed to dump 14,000 tonnes daily–so long as the waste is spewed out along the seafloor 150 meters below the surface. This spill just brings a problem that has long been out of sight to the (literal) surface.

Investigations into the causes and impacts of the spill are underway, according to Mineral Resources Authority, though community members remind us that previous complaints about contamination have been ignored. “From an environmental point of view, obviously the slurry discharge… has already caused damage to the ocean and the livelihood of the people because they will not be swimming and they will not be fishing in the area any more,” said Jerry Garry, managing director of the MRA.

The mine, owned and operated as a joint venture between the Metallurgical Corporation of China Ltd (MCC) and Cobalt27 Capital Corp., began generating controversy before it even opened, and has long faced criticism and opposition from local communities over its environmental and social record. 

Now the companies want to expand the Basamuk refinery. And because demand for nickel and cobalt is skyrocketing to build batteries for electric vehicles and renewable energy, it’ll be hard for the PNG authorities to turn them down.

But we shouldn’t have to accept ecological devastation as the cost of transitioning off of fossil fuels. 

As we embrace clean energy technologies in pursuit of our climate goals, we must protect community health, water, human rights and the environment. To do so, we must dramatically scale up the use of recycled minerals, use materials more efficiently, and require mining operations to adhere to stringent, independent environmental and human rights standards. At the same time, we need to make shifts in energy consumption and transportation, such as prioritizing investments in electric-powered public transit. You can read more about our work to Make Clean Energy Clean, Just & Equitable here

But that’s the big picture. Focusing the lens on Basamuk Bay, the solution is simple: just don’t dump toxic waste into the ocean.

Banner photo credit: Christopher McLeod, Sacred Land Film Project