Home > Human rights, LNG, Papua New Guinea > Startling new revelations about the Tumbi Quarry mudslide disaster

Startling new revelations about the Tumbi Quarry mudslide disaster

February 14, 2012 Leave a comment Go to comments

The quarry had been declared unsafe and contractors had already caused a major mudslide

LNG Watch

LNG Watch has uncovered evidence that not only was the Tumbi quarry declared unsafe by PNG LNG’s Independent Environmental and Social Consultant (IESC),  D’Appolonia S.p, but that the contractors (MCJV) involved in the construction of the Komo Airfield were behind schedule (the quarry was being used for construction activity at the airfield). This combination of factors, LNG Watch has discovered, was leading to inadequate risk assessment. This situation was compounded by Esso Highlands’ insufficient project stewardship. These failures, it can be revealed, have already led to one major mudslide which was caused by construction work taking place before proper engineering and environmental review.

In their March 2011 report the IESC observe (QA1 = Tumbi Quarry):

In a follow-up field visit made on 26 July 2011, the IESC complain:

The problem appears to be that the contractor working on the Komo airfield, was behind schedule. Indeed in their March 2011 report the IESC observe:

As a result of being behind schedule, the IESC claim that the project contractors were failing to take proper precautions. In a fortuitous statement, this failure to exercise due caution had already led to one major mudslide incident*:

Consequently, the IESC conclude:

We thus have evidence that project pressures were leading to a slip in risk assessment practices. Given that the Tumbi quarry was already declared unsafe, serious questions should be appearing in the mind of those conducting investigations into this tragic disaster that has taken dozens of lives.

LNG Watch has also uncovered further evidence that there may have been blasting at the Tumbi quarry. To date, Esso Highlands (EHL) has denied there was blasting activities at the quarry, despite the fact that Landowners have claimed dynamite had been used.

In support of the landowner’s testimony we have discovered that the operator was indeed planning to conduct blasting activities at the Tumbi quarry. In the 2nd Quarter Social and Environmental impact report published by LNG PNG in 2011 EHL states:

Perhaps this is not the smoking gun, but it is certainly suggestive that blasting was to be used. Adding to this suggestive evidence, is an observation made in the August 2011 report by the IESC. The IESC states aggregate for the Komo Airfield was in short supply, thus hampering an already behind project.

This would suggest that the Tumbi Quarry was not only in desperate need (making the use of blasting more likely), it also increases the likeliness that proper risk assessments were not undertaken before extracting aggregate. Compounding problems, EHL were not exercising “sufficient … stewardship”. Clearly the IESC were concerned that an under pressure contractor was deviating from their responsibility to the local communities, which was being compounded by a lack of EHL oversight.

While the National Disaster Committee (NDC) has dismissed landowner accusations out of hand in their January 26 report, clearly they have no reason to be so complacent. We now have evidence the quarry was declared unsafe in March 2011, the project operators were behind schedule, risk assessment practices were slipping, aggregate for the airfield construction was in short supply and Esso Highlands was not exercising sufficient stewardship. It beggars belief that the NDC failed to scrutinise the compelling evidence that has been produced by the project’s IESC.

To date, LNG Watch has demanded an independent inquiry, and we have the support of the traditional landowners from the Tumbi area. Of course there exists at present a slapdash report that was composed by the NDC on 26 January. Its findings have already been questioned by international landslide expert Prof Dave Petley, and indeed the leader of the NDC investigation team, Martin Path.

According to Martin Path an independent investigation unit has now been assigned to investigate the Tumbi disaster. This is not enough. LNG Watch and the traditional landowners demand a formal Commission of Inquiry that is entirely independent of the national government, the NDC, ExxonMobil (including their subsidiaries and contractors) and the Australian government. This Inquiry must include international landslide experts and social scientists. As Prof Petley has observed: “The methodology for such an investigation is well-established, but undertaking it requires very specialised skills.  Usually this will require an international team.” While Dr Kristian Lasslett has added:

“The investigative team should also have the resources to independently study the region, without over-reliance on datasets produced by ExxonMobil or its subsidiaries/contractors (unfortunately, there may be a dearth of independent data to draw on, which will make matters difficult). Furthermore, it is not enough to send in a team of natural scientists. While earth science specialists will of course be critical, the literature on disasters is clear, complex social factors mediate these types of events … Consequently, if the right research questions are to be formulated, social scientists with relevant expertise must be utilised.”

This demand for an independent Commission of Inquiry is formally supported by the undersigned parties:

  • The traditional landowners: Tokoya Piwago, Hibson Puma, Timothy Nogobe, Stanis Talu, Peter Potabe, Tiki Hale, Abe Okopi, Harabe Lembo, Daniel Huriba, Eric Kembe, Wandiago Kau, Tayali Ola, Kupiawi Aluya, Giya Hawi, Pila Pani, Olabe Kaloma, Urupu Andawi, Tom Waralo, Himuni Marako.
  • LNG Watch Papua New Guinea.
  • The Papua New Guinea Trade Union Congress
  •  The International State Crime Initiative

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* The IESC has documented this mudslide in their March 2011 report: “Erosion and sediment control are critical components of construction activities. The efforts to date have had mixed success. In general, significant effort is being placed on controlling erosion, but at the HGCP camp construction site a significant failure occurred on November 13, 2010 whereby a mudslide originating at the HGCP spoil dump site blocked water behind the Komo road. This water overtopped the mudflow on November 14 and this allowed the mud to flow to the Tagari River along the path of the Akara Creek, a distance of 4.65 km. Fish in the Akara Creek were killed in the turbid water and mud, necessitating that downstream villagers be provided fresh water by CCJV, an activity that started on November 15. The failure took place in spoil from the EPC4 top camp placed by CCJV apparently without distributing the engineering drawing to all responsible parties or without undertaking a thorough assessment of engineering and environmental/social risk. EHL internally assigned a Level II environmental non-conformance for this event and it is therefore not necessary for the IESC to assign non-conformance. It is expected that the Akara Creek incident was an important lesson-learned for the Project”.

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