"We declare our first goal to be for every person to be dynamically involved in the process of freeing himself or herself from every form of domination or oppression so that each man or woman will have the opportunity to develop as a whole person in relationship with others".

- Papua New Guinea National Goals and Directive Principles

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Serious Inconsistencies Found: Was Tumbi Quarry Safe?

No independent inquiry team into the Tumbi disaster has been appointed by the national government to date. Feet drag, evidence is being lost, while people in the landslide area are now refugees in their own land. On Facebook a contributor mocked local calls for compensation. They remarked, how can nature pay compensation. The ignorance surrounding this issue is profound.  

Indeed following the tragic Airlines PNG crash last year people joined together in solidarity, the media was there on the ground in Madang, and an investigation began a day after the crash (yes the day after the crash an expert team of investigators were in Madang asking questions)

Why is there so little on-the-ground coverage of the Tumbi landslide? The  week following the Airlines PNG crash there were 145 press reports, in the first week of the Tumbi disaster there have been 15*. So, there were almost 10 times as many reports on a disaster of similar magnitude. And you better believe Airlines PNG were copping hard questions from journalists. This under-reporting on Tumbi is allowing ignorance to proliferate and it is giving the powerful a chance to sweep this issue aside.   

LNG Watch have begun to conduct preliminary investigations into the disaster. We have contacted landslide experts and posted their observations. Now we are examining source documents put out by the LNG PNG project on the Tumbi quarry.

In their resettlementaction plan (for villagers displaced by the quarry) Esso Highlands (ExxonMobil subsidiary) observe:

The quarry is located on a limestone surface expression in the hill slopes above the Tagari River. The existing quarry, commonly referred to as Tumbi and sometimes Mbalupa (Mbelopa), is to be re-developed with possible quarrying into the surrounding area. The outer area of the worksite on the west, north and south sides is to be used for the storage of topsoil and spoil overburden from the quarried area within the Quarry QA1 worksite. (p.10)

Critically, the action plan (p.10) claims:

The proposed Tumbi Quarry QA1 worksite encompasses a surface area of approximately 15 ha, of which 10 ha will be used for quarry and related activities, including an access road, spoil area and material processing area, while the remaining 5 ha will serve as a buffer around the site, and lie between work areas. The buffer area to be used is minimal, primarily aimed to restrict access to the site, as no blasting will be undertaken. (italics added)

Yet from recent testimony of landowners in the area, blasting did take place.  

For example, ABC’s Liam Fox reported:

There are people - locals are already drawing some links. How correct that is, we're not able to say yet. But they believe that the quarry next to the landslide site caused the landslideThat blasting in the past has, quote, 'softened the ground' as they have said. And that quarry was used by the LNG site for its operations. (ABC Radio, 25/1/12)

While a local clan leader, Timothy Nogobe, told LNG Watch:  

We have been living on this land for the past 6000 years this is the first time our mountain has killed us. We have therefore come to conclude that what has  triggered the landslide is the quarry and the use of chemicals and dynamite to blast the quarry at the top of the mountain, this has changed the ground water (Tumbi and Tuku) for the rapid breakdown of the mountain Tumbi burying alive more than 25 people. 

LNG Watch unfortunately lacks the technical capabilities to determine whether this is a material fact, but the discrepancies between the account of Esso Highlands and landowners, does raise concerns that need to be investigated. Would for example the use of explosives have a fracturing effect on the surrounding environment, creating the sort of weaknesses that would render the mountain vulnerable if subject to strain (e.g. high rain fall)?

Moreover, topographical pictures supplied by Esso Highlands raise concerns over whether enough was done to protect local villagers from the landslide. For example, it is claimed only a 5 ha buffer was required around the quarry as no blasting would take place. While the latter fact remains contested, did Esso Highlands exercise proper caution. Should have it increased the buffer zone?

This topographical image shows the local villages in relation to the quarry. It would be interesting to compare this with a revised map which contains the landslide.

Once again, these are the questions and issues local and international journalists should be putting to landslide experts, ExxonMobil and government regulatory agencies. They have the power of mass-communication. 

Moreover, we need to start focusing on the humanitarian situation. John Tamita from Hela Community Care reports: 

And the police are making awareness and giving them (Tumbi locals) the word to move out of the place. But finding a house will be a problem because they are native landowners and they’ve been living there for generations to generations. And if they go, they’ll have to go to another land which is occupied by another person which will be difficult to move into. (Radio New Zealand International, 1/2/12)

Upholding the constitution and democracy are clearly important, but do not let mutinies in Port Moresby overshadow a human tragedy that is taking place. People need resettlement, and if human factors have mediated the landslide, compensation must be paid, and criminal investigations conducted. 

Our thoughts are with the families of the victims, and those displaced by the disaster.

*This data is based off a Nexis newswire search using the terms "Airlines PNG" and "Tumbi + landslide".

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