ExxonMobil’s New Guinea Nightmare
A lawsuit filed in the National Court last October on behalf of 435 surviving villagers alleges that no environmental impact study for the quarry was ever conducted, and that instead the PNG government issued a “blanket permit” for all of the project’s construction sites. (The government has not responded to numerous requests for comment.) The lawsuit also alleges that “poor workmanship standards and negligent acts and omissions…triggered” the landslide. A document attached to the complaint—the Tumbi Quarry Landslide Investigation Report, which was commissioned by a local clan chief shortly after the disaster—also alleges that ExxonMobil had been warned that the quarry was dangerous.
“The contractor was mining there when the landowners complained that the practice was not right because below it there is a deep cut into the earth with hanging rocks like an open cave,” said the report, which was conducted by a team of engineers, scientists and lawyers, adding: “The locals also recalled that one national supervisor even mentioned the risk of this and was terminated from his job.”
In September 2011, Yakasa was transferred to another site within the project. He said he heard from colleagues after he left that an internal investigation of the quarry was being conducted, which he assumed was at the direction of MCJV or Esso Highlands. Around the same time, three or four months before the landslide, according to the Investigation Report, MCJV shut down quarry operations. During the months that followed, villagers began to observe troubling signs.
In a 2013 sworn statement, whose key elements he confirmed in an interview last July, Jokoya Piwago recalled an ominous event that took place about a month before the landslide: “A huge boulder weighing about 30 tonnes burst out of the quarry rock wall and rolled down the Tumbi mountain down to the LNG road,” he said in the affidavit. “At that time [the quarry operator] for unknown reasons withdrew its machineries…at the Tumbi quarry without informing us, the employees and the villagers the reason as to why.” The Investigation Report notes that three to four days before the landslide, local landowners complained to quarry operators that Tumbi Creek, the stream running under the quarry face, was blocked, prompting MCJV to remove its equipment from the site with the aid of the police.
In its initial legal response to the lawsuit, ExxonMobil denied that “the landslide was caused or contributed [to] by the acts or omissions” of its subsidiary or any of its contractors. The company has filed a motion to dismiss the suit, saying it “lacks any legal or factual merit.”
David Petley, a geographer and landslide expert at Durham University in Britain, closely followed the Tumbi landslide and wrote about it numerous times on his blog. Petley has consistently criticized the NDC’s conclusion that the disaster was the result of excessive rainfall, arguing that the agency’s key assumptions don’t hold up scientifically. In a recent interview, he said that the Investigation Report, which lays blame for the landslide on unsafe practices at the quarry, presents a much stronger premise.
“Without wanting to prejudge the outcome, my view is that the claim is well-made and just, and the basis of the claim is correct,” Petley said. “Poor quarry management appears to have led to instability; the instability was manifested as a result of excessive water pressures, a weakening of the rock mass and changes to the stress state. These combined [to cause] a catastrophic failure of the slope and a long-run-out landslide. There is a wide range of very well-established techniques available to quarry managers to avoid exactly this problem.”
Petley said the only way to put the matter to rest would be to conduct an independent scientific investigation, which has yet to materialize. According to a source with direct knowledge of the quarry operations, Esso Highlands quietly commissioned its own investigation into the cause of the landslide and dispatched a team of geological experts to the quarry in the summer of 2012. The findings of that report have not been made public, and requests to ExxonMobil to confirm the existence of an internal investigation, and to provide a copy of the report if there is one, were ignored.
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The day after the landslide, PNG Prime Minister Peter O’Neill, accompanied by Esso Highlands managing director Peter Graham, flew to the site, where 3,000 mourners had gathered. “I came here today to say sorry to the relatives and families of those buried in this landslip,” O’Neill announced, before promising that he would immediately initiate recovery of the bodies and establish an independent investigative team to determine the cause of the landslide. Neither ever occurred.
ExxonMobil extended its condolences by means of a press release, followed quickly by a message that seemed more directed toward creditors and shareholders. “Our hearts go out to the people who have been affected by this tragedy,” it read. “The Project is currently working to get full construction activities back to normal.”
According to interviews with villagers and reports in the blog PNG Watch, Esso Highlands, despite its array of heavy excavating equipment, offered no assistance as the survivors frantically dug through the rubble to find the remains of their loved ones. (ExxonMobil denies this and claims that its subsidiary “provided timely assistance to the response and recovery effort.”) There was, it seems, a more pressing matter to be addressed: the landslide had buried a portion of a major road that connected the quarry to nearby Komo Airfield, which was being built to handle cargo planes bringing in material and heavy equipment for the more than 400 miles of pipeline. The airport and road were essential to the construction phase of the LNG project. But Esso Highlands needed the consent of local landowners to rebuild the road, and the landowners were not in a giving mood.
Protesters blocked access to the road several times in the weeks after the landslide, demanding compensation and an independent probe into the disaster. The government promised millions in humanitarian assistance; at the same time, according to press accounts, additional military and police forces—including the notorious Mobile Police Squads—arrived to quell protests and secure construction to open the road.