When large numbers of dead fish littered the banks and mouth of the Markham River, the Labu people brought the issue to the media to demand answers from the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), Morobe Provincial Government (MPG), Morobe Mining Joint Venture (MMJV) and other appropriate authorities. Sometimes later, the people of Gabansis found some dead fish in the Zansam tributary to the Markham River and also demanded for investigation by appropriate authorities.
DEC responded to the Labu people’s demand and carried out an aerial investigation to find answers to this mysterious dead of fishes in the Markham River. However, the answers given by DEC were unconvincing and did not go down well with many NGO groups and right thinking citizens.
Oseah Philemon reported in the Post-Courier on the 21st of January, 2012 that DEC attributed the cause of the dead fish to large landslips near the Kumalu, Langimar and Banir rivers. The logic behind that assumption was that the landslips may have released large amounts of soil into the river systems which depleted dissolved oxygen levels, thus the fish died due to lack of oxygen.
Nevertheless, photographs posted in the newspapers showed that the dead fish in the Markham River were mostly carp, tilapia and eels. Carp, tilapia and eels are known to survive in stagnant water bodies, which usually contained low levels of dissolved oxygen. Moreover, eels are known to burrow into mud banks and live out of the water for some time, as they can breathe oxygen directly from the atmosphere. Therefore, the reasoning that the dead fishes found in the Markham River died from lack of oxygen does not add up because these fish species tolerate low levels of dissolved oxygen under natural conditions. Something more than landslips caused fish in the Markham River to die.
DEC mentioned that the department relied on MMJV to supply them with mine water discharge data on a weekly basis. This information not only gave away the department as an ineffective regulator of the environment in PNG, but it also showed how easily DEC could have been fooled by mining companies through the manipulation of mine water discharge data. It does not require rocket science for any ordinary Papua New Guinean to understand this logic.
Two types of water permits are usually administered by the DEC, the Water Extraction Permit and the Water Discharge Permit. In the case of dead fish in the Markham River the most important permit is the mine Water Discharge Permit. This is the permit that allows for MMJV to discharge water and contaminants into the Watut and Markham rivers.
Section 82 of the Environment Act 2000 confers the right to any person or organization to release water or contaminants under prescribed conditions and standards into the environment. However, there is no indication in the Act as to what those prescribed conditions and standards are. But the same section of the Act states that the permit confers the right to any person or organization to release water or contaminants into the environment subject to any prescribed conditions or conditions endorsed on it. Therefore, since the Director of DEC is the ultimate authority on the issuance of environmental permits, this suggests that the Director of DEC sets the prescribed conditions and standards on environmental permits.
Several NGO groups have asserted that environmental permits are classified documents and it has been frustrating to obtain copies of these documents from DEC. Consequently, the water permits that were granted to MMJV are classified information as well, so the prescribed conditions and standards on those permits are also classified.
Since water permits are classified information and the issuance of permits is the prerogative of the Director of DEC, it was not possible for the public to know the types of water permits that were granted to MMJV. Nevertheless, David Wissink of MMJV confirmed in the Post-Courier of 14th May, 2012 that the company operated on a permanent and a temporary permit, and a copy of that temporary permit is also posted on the Papua New Guinea Mine Watch website. The permit showed that MMJV was actually allowed to increase its water discharge per hour.
That temporary increase in water discharge obviously increased the contaminant level. Thus the dead fish in the Markham River were obviously killed due to a sudden increase in the level of contaminants in the river for a specified period only.
It was also reported in the Post-courier of 28th May, 2012 that more dead fish were found at Zansam, and Unitech scientists were tasked by the MPG to investigate the matter. After investigating the scientists stated that their findings were inconclusive because DEC had not done any studies in the area therefore there was no baseline data to qualify their investigation.
The Unitech scientists are professionals in their own right and they know that there are many ways to skin a cat, and scientists are trained to use both orthodox and unorthodox methods to conduct scientific investigations. Thus the lack of baseline data should have not been an issue for these scientists, as unorthodox methods could have been used to derive data that would have qualified their findings. Nevertheless, the scientists decided to keep mum and strike a deal with MPG to continuously monitor discharge from the Markham and Watut rivers so that they could be paid for consultancy services.
The Unitech scientists downplayed the possibility of fish poisoning from MMJV’s operations. They admitted there was cyanide in the water samples they collected, but they suggested that the cyanide was possibly washed off from surrounding rocks and soil and attributed the cause of the dead fish to bacterial infection. However, there were no qualifying statements given by the scientists as to why they believed bacterial infection and naturally occurring cyanide could have been responsible for the dead fish. Therefore, bacterial infection and poisoning by naturally occurring cyanide are remote possibilities and could not have been responsible for the dead fish in the Markham River.
It is well known that MMJV has a mutual relationship with the MPG, therefore the study carried out by Unitech scientists may have been a censored investigation. Thus the scientists may have been instructed to carry out the investigation as a matter of formality and to appease public outcry, but not to communicate the findings.
From the investigations carried out and the responses given by DEC and the Unitech scientists on the dead fish in the Markham River, it was obvious that impartiality was absent in the environmental investigations that were carried out. MMJV provided helicopter for DEC to do its aerial investigations and the MPG, which has a mutual relationship with MMJV, contracted Unitech scientists to investigate the cause of dead fish in the Markham River. So how could there be impartiality when the investigator was sponsored by the perpetrator of the environmental destruction or its cronies?
Dead fish in the Markham River and the non-impartial investigations carried out are typical of the many environmental issues and investigations this country has experienced since the year 2000. Nonetheless, lack of impartiality in environmental investigations and the downplaying of environmental disasters perpetrated by multinational corporations are just branches to a more deeply rooted issue.
The root cause to non-impartial environmental investigations and the pollution of the Markham, Watut, Angabanga and many other rivers by multinational corporations lies in the Environment Act 2000. This is the unleashed animal that has compromised the integrity of environmental protection in this country and has granted immunity to perpetrators of environmental destruction, while rendering customary landowners and other citizens powerless in the fight for their basic human rights.
The Environment Act 2000 is totally flawed and provides loopholes for which perpetrators of environmental destruction can escape prosecution, and the fines to be imposed for environmental destruction are pathetic. Therefore, the only viable solution to improving environmental investigations and to resuscitate environmental protection in this country is to repeal the Environment Act 2000 in its entirety. Unless and until this monster is repealed in its entirety, citizens and the environment of this country will continue to suffer in the guise of economic development.