An international coalition against state-assisted crimes is calling on Papua New Guinea to fully assess the cause of a deadly landslide – potentially linked to Exxon-Mobil – amid fears of alleged corruption and collusion in government ranks.
Report – By Josh Martin
A damning International State Crime Initiative report has called for an independent commission of inquiry into the Tumbi landslide in Papua New Guinea’s Southern Highlands region.
ISCI’s report, The Forgotten Disaster, released late last month, seeks independent assessments on four aspects of the tragedy which claimed up to 60 lives.
They are cause of the landslide on January 24; safety oversights at the LNG project; the official response; and, allegations of collusion and impropriety on the part of Esso Highlands Ltd.
The Tumbi landslide was one of the country’s worst, according to the Red Cross.
The subsequent National Disaster Centre report to then-intergovernmental relations Minister Mark Maipaikai, released just two days following the January 24 tragedy, blamed high rainfall.
“Given the absence of a seismic trigger, it can be concluded, that the landslide was caused by continuously heavy rainfall weakening the limestone formation causing subsidence,” it said.
The “Q1” quarry, which is leased and used by the Exxon subsidiary, Esso Highlands Ltd., directly boarded the affected area when the landslide happened.
However, the NDC report never mentioned quarry activities including the locally reported, preceding explosions, as a possible cause.
Exxon-Mobil owned Esso Highlands Ltd., which has partnered with the PNG government to create an $18 billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project, is mentioned only as a “third party supporter” in the aftermath.
Multiple sources that Pacific Scoop spoke to found this was – at best – an oversight and at worst, a corrupt cover-up.
ISCI board member and criminology lecturer at the University of Ulster, Dr Kristian Lasslett, said the government put “political expediency ahead of families who deserve answers”.
“In light of the testimony provided by two international landslide experts – which echo the concerns raised by local landowners – the cause of the landslide needs thorough investigation, given the close proximity of Esso Highland’s quarry to the impacted zone.
“In the instance of Tumbi, the O’Neill government talked the talk, they promised an independent inquiry, but when it came to walking the walk they were found very much wanting”.
Photographic evidence in the report, backed by Harvard University and King’s College London, shows the Q1 quarry site directly affected – yet not ever officially considered by the NDC’s report as a landslide trigger.
The NDC’s report to Minister Maipaikai however did consider it important to note that its own staff raised concerns about the multinational’s earthworks as a cause – and this should stop.
“Inaccurate and false reports and unauthorised statements by NDC officers has resulted in wide spread community confusion and doubt,” the NDC report said.
It may have been alluding to the unit’s Bill Yomba who told CNN following the landslide: “We believe the gas project run by Esso Highlands Limited was a contributor because they had been digging for limestone in the area.”
Prominent Papua New Guinea political blogger Tavurvur, author of The Garamut, said the correlation between Esso Highland’s quarry work and the landslide tragedy is obvious to everyone except the officials.
“The disturbed condition of the mountain slope is a direct result of the work by Esso Highlands in the quarry. This association is undeniable.
“The villagers, who survived, have a deep suspicion of Esso having a role, despite a lack of official evidence – this is why a Commission of Inquiry into the landslide is so important.”
However, Dr Dave Petley, professor of hazard and risk in the Department of Geography at Durham University, said the NDC report should not be considered the definitive analysis of this landslide and a much more detailed analysis is needed.
“Clearly at least a part of the quarry was lost in the landslide, so a proper discussion of whether the quarry played a role in activating these weaknesses seems essential to me.
Dr Petley, a world-renowned expert on landslides, said the NDC’s claims of “abnormally high rainfall”, liquefaction and that “ground water rose significantly above its historical levels” are illogical and unsubstantiated.
“The NDC report notes that the initial assessment team ‘saw clear evidence of liquefaction of the rock formation’. This is most surprising.
“Limestone is not a material that undergoes liquefaction – I have never heard of such a mechanism in any hard rock – and so I just cannot understand this purported process,” he said.
His gave evidence to ISCI’s report, which asserts that the true cause of the event needs to be evaluated.
“The coincidence of the locations would make one want to look into this properly and in detail – that is a complex and time-consuming task.
“The NDC report had clearly not evaluated and surveyed the area to the level that would allow a proper, valid analysis to be made,” said Dr Petley.
Dr Lasslett told ABC Radio in February that the Q1 quarry had been previously labelled “unsafe” by independent contractors working for the LNG-PNG project’s construction of a nearby airfield in March 2011.
Dr Lasslett’s concerns were echoed on the ground, when Port Moresby author Stanley Mamu said Exxon-Mobil had blood on its hands and the event will be added to a long list of mining industry tragedies.
“The government must realise and acknowledge that this was a man-made disaster. This was not a natural disaster.
“The quarry explosions combined with the trucks and heavy machinery used by Esso along the foot of that mountain caused the landslide,” he said.
Mamu said his conversations with survivors of the disaster reveal a deep distrust of the multinational and its relationship to the government.
“The surviving villagers certainly don’t feel good about Exxon, they have lived here for 6000 years without these events occurring.
“These people, who have lost everything, are waiting for the O’Neill-led government and Exxon-Mobil to solve it.
“But the government will never respond – they are far too stubborn,” Mamu said.
Requests to speak with both government officials and Esso Highland Ltd LNG project management were denied.
Doubling of GDP
The PNG government holds a 22.5 percent share in the project, which is expected to double the nation’s GDP within 30 years.
The LNG project involves the construction of gas production and processing facilities in the Southern Highlands, Hela and Western Provinces of PNG and has already spent close to $3 billion on the project, which is due to start production in 2014.
Press releases from the LNG-PNG project confirm the company donated US$50,000 to the Salvation Army effort in the aftermath of the Tumbi landslide.
The amount is 0.00003125 per cent of parent company Exxon-Mobil’s near US$16 billion second quarterly profit for 2012.
University of Western Sydney senior lecturer Dr James Arvanitakis says the mismanagement of the crisis adds to the case for independent monitoring of, and accountability in, mining industry projects in developing countries.
“An organisation like Transparency International should be working with an independent judiciary and this would address the issues around the corruption and collusion in Papua New Guinea.”
Dr Lasslett says the Papua New Guinea government gains nothing from not confronting the potential revelations that an independent inquiry could provide.
“The really crazy thing about it all, is if an inquiry did go ahead, and the findings were extremely unfavorable as far as Esso Highlands were concerned, it would not end the PNG LNG project,” he says.
“In fact, it may lead to improved safety management, and most importantly compensation for those who suffered as a result of the landslide.”
Josh Martin is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student journalist on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.