Rio Tinto head claims tailings are not toxic

Shareholder's queries were met with inadequate responses from the Rio Tinto board at their annual general meeting held in Brisbane on 24th April 2008, including the outlandish claim by Paul Skinner that mine tailings dumping into the river from the notorious Freeport mine are not toxic.

"Mr Skinners response indicates that the board of Rio Tinto have some drastically inaccurate information on the nature and extent of the impacts of the Freeport mine, and that the company really isn't taking the destructive impacts of their operations seriously," stated Techa Beaumont, Executive Director of MPI who attended the meeting as a proxy for a Rio Tinto shareholder.

"Its time for Rio Tinto to take responsiblity for its role in what is arguably the most destructive mining operations on the planet; to be honest about the severe impacts at this operation and do something meaningful to stop the unsustainable practices. It is ridiculous and completely untenable for Rio Tinto to defend the mine's waste impacts as harmless," continued Ms Beaumont.

The company's toxicology testings and CSIRO studies confirmed the toxicity of the tailings to aquatic life in the downstream environment beyond any doubt (see below) and the Norweigan Government Pension fund- an investor in the company operating the mine divested from the company based on finding of 'severe environmental damage' caused by the practice of riverine tailings disposal.

Rio Tinto is viewed as directly responsible for the problems at this operation in as far as they provided the funding and profit from a massive expansion in rates of production at the operations - a change at the mine that lead to the enormous environmental destruction downstream of the operation and have make it impossible to responsibly manage the mine's enormous volumes of waste.

The chair refused to rule out the dumping of mine waste in rivers or oceans at the company's existing or new operations - practices know in the industry as 'riverine and submarine tailings disposal'despite industry trends towards outlawing these practices. Companies such as BHP Billiton have developed policies that indicate they will not utilise waterways as a dumping ground for mine waste and groups ranging from World Vision and Oxfam to the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union have supported a call for a ban on these practices.

media enquires: Techa Beaumont 0409 318 406


As a proxy on behalf of shareholders from the Rio Tinto Ethical Shareholders group, MPI raised issues relating to Freeport and also queried the company's ongoing majority stake in Bougainville Copper Limited, that operated the Panguna mine that lead to civil war on the small Pacific island.

The Panguna Landowner Association- Women landowners from the mine site who carry the traditional authority over land which is passed matrilineal in Bougainville called upon Rio Tinto to ensure that they were consulted at the earliest opportunity regarding future plans for the site. Discussions over the mine's future have proceeded between the Bougainville autonomous government and RIo TInto's subsiduary Bougainville Copper LImited (BCL) without any efforts to get the views or include the appropriate and rightful customary owners of the land. MPI conveyed their message directly to BCL's chair following the formal proceedings.

The company's financial reports did not include any estimation of liabilty for or future value of the Panguna operation, and states "the directors do not have reliable, accurate or objective information on BCL" despite a majority ownership of the company. (p52 Rio TInto Full Financial Statements 2007)

Other shareholder questions on the company's Hope Down operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia expressed concerns regarding the threats posed to important cultural heritage sites of the local Indigenous traditional owners whose archeological significance has not yet been fully investigated. Initial research conducted rated the site as one of the most significant archeological finds in Australia.

Shareholder John Poppins requested information on the buffer zones that would be developed around the site, and also regarding the impacts caused by the dumping of potable groundwater from mine site dewatering processes into a creek system, leading to a loss of important cultural sites, natural ecosystems as well as the depletion of important water resources.

Excerpts from an independent report by WALHI -Friends of the Earth Indonesia on the Environmental Impacts of the Freeport Operation:

available at



Tailings toxicity and aquatic impacts: Freshwater aquatic life has been largely destroyed through pollution and habitat destruction in the watercourses which receive tailings. The suspended solids from tailings (TSS) are directly harmful to fish gills, eggs, and organisms which are photosynthetic, predatory or filter feeding. Copper inhibits respiration in fish gills. Bioavailability and toxicity investigations have shown that much of the dissolved copper in river water affected by Freeport-Rio Tinto’s operations is indeed bioavailable and present at toxic levels. Dissolved copper at the range of concentrations found in the lower Ajkwa River is of chronic toxicity to most (30% to 75%) fresh water organisms. Actual toxicology testing by CSIRO and Freeport’s analysts shows tailings water and sediment are toxic to shrimp larvae (Caridina sp), adult river prawn (Macrobrachium rosenbergii), minnow larvae (Cyprinodon variegatus and Pimephales promelas), river algae(Chlorella), rainbowfish embryos and larvae (Melanotaenia spledida), and invertebrate animals Gammarus and Nassarius sp.

Heavy metals in plants and wildlife: Levels of toxic heavy metals selenium (Se), lead (Pb), arsenic (As), zinc (Zn), manganese (Mn) and copper (Cu) are significantly elevated in Freeport's tailings compared to natural jungle soil. The concentrations of several of those metals in the tailings exceed US EPA and Australian sediment guidelines, and scientific phytotoxicity thresholds, indicating that toxic effects on plant growth are expected. Controlled tests and field sampling show that plants grown in tailings accumulate these heavy metals in their tissues, posing risks to wildlife that feed on them. At risk through exposure to metals from tailings in the food chain are:
• kingfishers and other fish-eating birds
• brush turkey, fantail and other birds that eat invertebrates in foliage or soil
• cassowaries and other large fruit-eating birds

At high risk through exposure to metals from tailings in the food chain are:
• mammals such as flying fox or similar-sized animals that feed wholly or partially on fruit
• mammals such as bats which feed on invertebrates in foliage
• mammals such as cuscus which feed on vegetation
• large mammalian omnivores such as pigs

Contamination of estuary food chain: Metals from tailings are contaminating the Ajkwa Estuary food chain. Areas which have received Freeport's tailings have significantly higher concentrations of toxic metals copper, arsenic, manganese, lead, silver, and zinc than nearby unaffected reference estuaries. Wildlife in the mangrove area is exposed through eating plants and invertebrates, which take up heavy metals from tailings sediment, particularly copper. Fish caught in the Ajkwa Estuary have higher minimum levels of copper in flesh than fish from nearby reference sites, and non-mobile aquatic animals living in the Ajkwa Estuary are contaminated with copper in their bodies at levels 100 times higher than normal, up to an extraordinary level of one gram per kilo. The ERA study predicts that small birds and mammals which feed exclusively on estuarine invertebrates may suffer reproductive impairment and reduced fitness, and larger predators (such as raptors) in turn will have less food available as these small birds and mammals become less abundant in the Ajkwa Estuary area.

Ecological disruption: Freeport states that “The estuary downstream of our tailings deposition area is a functioning, bio-diverse ecosystem with abundant species of fish and shrimp.” However, the presence of mobile species such as fish and shrimp in the Ajkwa Estuary is not proof that the estuary is healthy, nor that it is safe in the future. Dissolved copper is present in mangrove waters at levels which are of chronic toxicity to 30% - 90% of saltwater organisms. There are currently around 35% fewer species of fish, shellfish, crabs and polychaetes present in Ajkwa Estuary compared to the reference sites. The ERA predicts that up to 68% of aquatic species are at risk in the upper estuary.

The outer Ajkwa estuary, which includes the nearshore Arafura Sea, has between 40% to 70% fewer families of bottom-dwelling animals, and their biomass per area is half that of nearby reference estuaries. Besides these figures, calculation of technical indices of biodiversity confirms that there has been significant disruption to the ecology of the Ajkwa Estuary.

Impacts in Lorenz National Park: The World Heritage-listed Lorentz National Park wraps around the Freeport concession area, its area having been reduced to accommodate the mine. The Lorentz World Heritage Area is one of Indonesia’s conservation jewels. The alpine portion of the World Heritage site is affected by polluted groundwater from Freeport-Rio Tinto’s acid and copper producing waste rock dumps. Meanwhile, the coastal portion of the World Heritage site is affected by deposition of tailings. Around 250 million tons of tailings will be carried out of the Ajkwa Estuary and into the offshore Arafura Sea, and measurements show a plume of dissolved copper from Freeport's tailings already reaching 5 to 10 km offshore. Tailings are carried by the monsoon current along the coastline, and may come to form up to 20% of the future sedimentation in Lorenz National Park mangrove areas. The ERA found that mangroves and bottom-dwelling organisms in Lorenz National Park have elevated copper levels, with tailings the likely source, since upstream sites within the Park are unaffected.

Regeneration in the Ajkwa Deposition Area: Mine tailings, which will eventually comprise most of the 230 km2 ADA area, at depths of up to 17 meters, lack organic carbon and other key nutrients, and have very poor water holding capacity. Tests have shown pure tailings cannot support adequate germination or growth of most native or garden plants without intensive fertilisers, compost and/or the import of topsoil. Company efforts to rehabilitate a small and relatively shallow area of tailings have involved unsustainably high inputs and elaborate irrigation systems.

The large ADA area which has experienced dieback from tailings will not return to its original species composition after tailings deposition ceases. Native species which regenerate in tailings are neither especially useful to local communities nor representative of the diverse species which comprised the native jungle and riverine rainforest destroyed within the ADA.

Transparency: Freeport-Rio Tinto operates without transparency or sufficient regulatory oversight. There is no information and public discussion of the current management and future for the mine, including alternatives for waste management, and mine closure planning. Despite legal requirement for public access to environmental information, the company has not made key documents public, including the ERA, nor has it made public any independent external audits since 1999, breaching its environmental permitting requirements. The ERA underestimates key environmental risks, does not look at options for reducing waste disposal impacts, and the independence of the ERA peer reviewers is questionable.

Techa Beaumont, Mineral Policy Institute, Australia


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