BHP Billiton: The big polluter

By Alex Loverh

Environment and social justice campaigners will be confronting top executives of BHP Billiton, the largest mining conglomerate in the world, at their AGM scheduled to occur in Brisbane on November 26. The campaigners will be focussing on BHP Billiton’s abysmal record in the areas of Indigenous rights, environmental sustainability and climate change.

BHP Billiton came in for stinging criticism at its last AGM, held in London on October 23, 2008. Using the brief “question and answer” time at the meeting, the board of BHP-Billiton were presented with declarations and evidence of the mining company’s record by representatives of campaign organisations from the Philippines, Colombia and Indonesia and the Indonesian province of West Papua.

The London Mining Network, whose members attended the BHP Billiton AGM last year, cited a number of blocking and delaying tactics used to suppress any forms of criticism or dissent from the floor. The London-based Colombia Solidarity Campaign, CAFOD (Catholic Agency for Overseas Development), JATAM (the mining advocacy network in Indonesia) and WALHI (Friends of the Earth Indonesia), PIPLinks (Philippine Indigenous People’s Links), and the Society of St Columban (Columban Fathers) presented evidence of BHP Billiton’s destructive global record.

PR exercises

When attempting to detail any criticism of BHP Billiton’s activities, company chairperson Don Argus reportedly interrupted speakers with refrains such as “ask a question, not make a statement”; that the AGM was “not a political meeting”; and that people should instead just read the company’s Sustainability Report. Responding to comprehensive criticism of the impact of its operations, mining executives continually referred their critics to the BHP Billiton Sustainability Report — a PR dossier listing the company’s achievements in “supporting” local people and the environment. The report describes BHP Billiton’s vision for a “stewardship” with “all players in a commodity life cycle working together to maximise the value to society from the mining, processing, manufacture, consumption and end of life cycle of that commodity — without harming the environment”. These sort of phrases are peppered throughout the document, which seeks to present the corporation’s mining operations as benign activities.

BHP Billiton purportedly aims to address environment and social justice concerns as part of its operational ethic, but what it omits from these reports demonstrates how far removed its PR spin is from reality. Thus, since the 2008 AGM, the UN General Assembly has passed the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, making “free prior informed consent” a minimum standard for operations on Indigenous lands. Neither BHP Billiton nor the International Council on Mining and Metals, of which the company is the biggest member, has endorsed the declaration. This is hardly surprising given the mining giant’s record of bribery, lack of information, and economic blackmail — usually carried out indirectly by its proxies in joint-ventures or partnerships.

Aid agency CAFOD reported the killing of a local councillor at an October 2007 peaceful protest against the Sibuyan nickel mine in the Philippines, which BHP Billiton has been granted exclusive rights to operate. The corporation’s operations on the Guajira Peninsular in north-east Colombia have been responsible for the displacement of the entire local community, and it has ignored the attempts by the mine workers’ union to get the company’s coal mines declared hazardous. The corporation is also turning a protected Indonesian forest in central Kalimantan into a coal mine. According to the Mines and Communities website, “BHP Billiton’s coal mine is changing the nature of 65,858 hectares of protected forest, which cover the upper reaches of the area’s main rivers. The coal is being sent to generate electricity, creating greenhouse gas emissions and contributing to global warming.”

Before merging with UK-based Billiton, Australia’s BHP came to worldwide attention for the destructive role it played in Papua New Guinea at the Ok Tedi gold mine. A World Bank report in 2000 stated that the Ok Tedi mine should be closed because “significant and unacceptable environmental impact is occuring in the Ok Tedi and Fly Rivers below the mine”. The World Bank noted that these impacts — irreversible damage from the dumping into the rivers of 80 million tonnes of mine waste every year for 20 years — “will be felt for a long time after mine closure”. At the end of the 1990s BHP made a US$28.6 million out of court settlement with local residents in which the corporation was granted legal indemnity from future mine-related damages.

The corporation highlights its supposed efforts at reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Thus BHP Billiton subsidiary Illawarra Coal’s Sustainability Report lists “reductions in greenhouse gas emissions” in its coal mining operations from 3.61 million tonnes in 2006-07 to 3.5 million tonnes in 2007-08. But in 2007-08 Illawarra Coal produced 8.9 million tonnes of coal, the burning of which added millions more tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere than Illawarra Coal’s small reduction of greenhouse gas pollution from its mining operations.

Furthermore, BHP Billiton has a 30-year plan to significantly expand its coal mining operations in the Illawarra region. A $45 million upgrade is being planned to its long-wall mining project in the Illawarra region. Environment group Rivers SOS points out that “if this mammoth project is approved by the Minister for Planning, it guarantees subsidence impacts throughout the whole area, including large sections of waterways and wetlands in Sydney’s drinking water catchment and the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment nearby”. Rivers SOS has exposed the entire mining approval process as flawed — where supposedly independent inquiries into mine plans are assessed by panel members working for or patronised by the mining industry. No appeal against mining approvals is allowed.

Uranium mining

BHP Billiton, through its Roxby Downs uranium mine in South Australia, draws 37 million litres daily from the Great Artesian Basin. Special purpose water legislation allows BHP Billiton to take this water from the Great Artesian Basin for free thanks to the Roxby Downs Indenture Act. This same legislation overrides the SA Aboriginal Heritage Act. This puts BHP Billiton in the legal position of determining what consultation occurs with traditional owners, who is consulted, and the nature of any consultation.

BHP Billiton’s recently approved expansion of operations at the Olympic Dam uranium mine will prove to be ecologically catastrophic. The Friends of the Earth (FoE) website exposes the corporation’s uranium mining practices, pointing out that “radioactive tailings wastes are exposed and open to the environment and currently amount to about 100 million tonnes”. FoE points out that the “production of tailings will increase seven-fold to 68 million tonnes annually. The tailings contain a toxic, acidic soup of radionuclides and heavy metals. There have been numerous spills and leaks and large numbers of bird deaths have been recorded in the vicinity of tailings dams.” In December, when an Olympic Dam mineworker took photos that showed liquid radioactive tailings leaking from the tailings retention system, BHP Billiton responded by issuing a threat of “disciplinary action” against any worker taking photos of the mine site.