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Wetlands watchdog investigates PNG pollution

18 November 2009 9 Comments
By Calliste Weitenberg


Lake Kutubu

Lake Kutubu (Image: Ants of New Guinea)

An international body for the protection of wetlands is investigating acute toxic pollution and a PNG government approved plan for a $15.6 billion mining project at Lake Kutubu – a world listed site.

The Ramsar Secretariat, responsible for the Ramsar Convention on internationally significant wetlands, will question the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) over an unreported toxic pollution event in 2007 and a projected $15.6 billion PNG LNG mining project at the world recognised lake.

“The Secretariat did not hear about the event (pollution) in 2007 until [Reportage] brought it to our attention,” Lewellyn Young, senior regional advisor for Asia/Oceania of the Ramsar Convention Secretariat, told Reportage. “If there has been an incident, then the next step is for us to get assistance for that site.”

The Ramsar Secretariat will also ask questions about the PNG Government’s decision to sign off on the multi- billion dollar Oil Search-ExxonMobil-Santos gas project.

Evidence of acute toxic pollution at Lake Kutubu in June and July 2007 was reported in the media by the Sydney-based Sun Herald in September. Kutubu residents made statements at the time of the pollution incident that  the water changed colour and large numbers of fish floated on the surface of the lake.

Many also said they had suffered severe vomiting, diarrhoea and skin and eye irritation – including skin-sores – after swimming in the water or eating fish and drinking from the lake.

One local girl is reported to have died two days after eating fish from the lake.

As a signatory to the Ramsar Convention since 1998, the PNG Government is directly responsible for maintaining the ecological health of Lake Kutubu.

Under the Convention, it is obliged to report to the Secretariat at the earliest possible time any change or threat of change to the ecological character of its wetland.

Sites where changes in ecological character have occurred, are occurring, or are likely to occur, are also to be placed on the Secretariat’s Montreux Record for closer monitoring.

Reportage research shows there are  discrepancies in the accounts by the DEC and the Australian mining company Oil Search Ltd – who was drilling the site at the time – about when they first became aware of the incident, the nature of investigations and the likely cause of the pollution.

In a statement issued by its executive director Peter Botten, Oil Search Ltd said it reported the incident immediately to the PNG Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) on May 23 2007, followed by a detailed incident report that was delivered on June 21.

Oil Search Ltd said: “Two external independent reviews were conducted, one by the DEC and one by the [World Wildlife Fund].”

A letter obtained by Reportage from the Secretary of the Department of Environment and Conservation, Dr. Wari Iamo, stated:.

“…Oil Search Ltd did not inform the Department at that time or immediately after the incident had occurred. DEC only became involved in October 2007, several months after the alleged incident had occurred,” it states.

Whatever the date the DEC was told about the pollution incident, the Ramsar Secretariat says that the PNG Government – which is a significant shareholder in Oil Search’s PNG mining operations – never alerted it to the pollution.

The DEC’s internal review of the pollution incident has also never been made public.

Asked why the Ramsar Secretariat was not notified, the DEC’s National Ramsar Officer, James Sabi, said he was not aware of any pollution incident at Lake Kutubu.

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF), who is an active caretaker in the Kutubu region, also did not notify Ramsar of the incident although they had carried out investigations into the pollution.

WWF receives annual funding from Oil Search for projects that protect the Lake Kutubu environment.

Last year they received $AUS600, 000 from Oil Search and a further $US48, 000 from the Asian Development Bank for work on a water catchment management plan

The head of WWF in PNG, Iain Carr, told Reportage it was the responsibility of the DEC, not WWF, to report the pollution to Ramsar.

“The PNG Government is the signatory to Ramsar and thus has the responsibility for reporting,” he said.

“But all stakeholders, including WWF as an environmental non-governmental organisation with local involvement, would be consulted.”

The WWF website declares it consults, co-operates and works with the Ramsar Convention to “help governments to implement their commitments under the convention” and to uphold “strong international laws and policies that ensure the sustainable management, equitable use, and adequate protection of biodiversity and natural resources.”

The Ramsar Convetion also states that “competent NGOs and other “third parties” who can supplement information obtained by official bodies should provide “early warning” notification to site managers and relevant authorities of changes or likely changes…”

Vainuupo Jungblut, Associate Ramsar Officer for the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Program (SPREP) based in Fiji, said he had not been told about the $15.6 billion Oil Search-ExxonMobil-Santos gas project.

“It is a big concern for us,” he said.

“If and when you join and sign up to the Ramsar convention it’s believed that you express a commitment to its regulations and that you do everything possible to make sure the ecological functions and characteristics of the site are maintained.

“This includes reporting any changes.”

Under the Convention, the PNG Government is obliged to provide a fully updated Ramsar Information Sheet for Lake Kutubu at least every six years and submit a detailed National Report to the Secretariat every three years before its official Conference.

The PNG Government has failed to submit its National Report since 2002, ignoring the 2005 and 2008 Conference deadlines.

If you would like to contact Calliste Weitenberg with further information, please email calli.weitenberg@gmail.com.

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  • Psychotria

    I have recently returned to Australia from Lake Kutubu (I was there for several weeks in November 2009). That OilSearch did not report a significant incident doesn’t greatly surprise me. Moro (where the airport is) appears to be a cesspool that is a disgrace to PNG. I mention Moro only because OilSearch appear to have significant sway there — I believe that all their employees land there and that all their transport helicopters fly out of there daily. Moro is also the location of the WWF headquarters for the area. For a company that is making a significant amount of money from the region, I feel that they should inject more back into the local economy.

    In Oilsearch’s defence, though, I am not sure how an accident related to their operations affected Lake Kutubu. From what I saw, their operations are not exactly close to the lake (apart from Moro). The area is mostly limestone, so I guess that groundwater travels easily over many kilometres.

    If an accident did occur then I believe that OilSearch should have been more open. I also think that WWF should have made more noise — to think that in Moro they didn’t know of the alleged incident is… crazy.

  • Psychotria

    I have recently returned to Australia from Lake Kutubu (I was there for several weeks in November 2009). That OilSearch did not report a significant incident doesn’t greatly surprise me. Moro (where the airport is) appears to be a cesspool that is a disgrace to PNG. I mention Moro only because OilSearch appear to have significant sway there — I believe that all their employees land there and that all their transport helicopters fly out of there daily. Moro is also the location of the WWF headquarters for the area. For a company that is making a significant amount of money from the region, I feel that they should inject more back into the local economy.

    In Oilsearch’s defence, though, I am not sure how an accident related to their operations affected Lake Kutubu. From what I saw, their operations are not exactly close to the lake (apart from Moro). The area is mostly limestone, so I guess that groundwater travels easily over many kilometres.

    If an accident did occur then I believe that OilSearch should have been more open. I also think that WWF should have made more noise — to think that in Moro they didn’t know of the alleged incident is… crazy.

  • Aispypng

    I used to work there. The organisation I was with, worked with the community and these was one of the issues that they brought up. Not directly to us but as part of conversation.
    Some landowners worked with us as casuals, so they fed us with this kind of information.

    I even asked and expatriate staff from Oil Search about this and he obviously denied it. But said that according to their professional and higly qualified environmental staff, this was a way the Lake sort of healed itself or changes itself or something like that. I knew what the answer was going to be anyway.

    I even asked the WWF program manager at that time about this and he admitted that when they conducted their studies, they found that the lake was of course contaminated.
    He also said he was worried as they were being funded by OSL and that they may loose their funding if this was revealed.

    As said earlier, it’s sad that this has happenned and backs have been turned.

  • Aispypng

    I used to work there. The organisation I was with, worked with the community and these was one of the issues that they brought up. Not directly to us but as part of conversation.
    Some landowners worked with us as casuals, so they fed us with this kind of information.

    I even asked and expatriate staff from Oil Search about this and he obviously denied it. But said that according to their professional and higly qualified environmental staff, this was a way the Lake sort of healed itself or changes itself or something like that. I knew what the answer was going to be anyway.

    I even asked the WWF program manager at that time about this and he admitted that when they conducted their studies, they found that the lake was of course contaminated.
    He also said he was worried as they were being funded by OSL and that they may loose their funding if this was revealed.

    As said earlier, it’s sad that this has happenned and backs have been turned.

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  • HereNow

    What about the permethrin treated clothes,and bed sheets and the wash water from that?(Plus the bottles of it lying around)

    Someone needs to look into that!

  • HereNow

    What about the permethrin treated clothes,and bed sheets and the wash water from that?(Plus the bottles of it lying around)

    Someone needs to look into that!

  • Pingback: WWF buries wetlands pollution report | Reportage Online