Change in deep-sea tailings placement practices in Papua New Guinea through deep sea research
Submitting InstitutionUniversity of the Highlands & Islands
Unit of AssessmentEarth Systems and Environmental Sciences
Summary Impact TypeEnvironmental
Research Subject Area(s)
Earth Sciences: Geochemistry
Environmental Sciences: Environmental Science and Management
Engineering: Resources Engineering and Extractive Metallurgy
Summary of the impact
Deep sea tailings placement (DSTP) techniques have been pioneered in
Papua New Guinea (PNG): a mining reliant economy in a seismically active
region, facing major environmental challenges in the safe handling and
storage of mine tailings on land. Dr Shimmield's team researched impacts
of DSTP on the marine environment specifically to inform and develop
guidelines for the use of DSTP to reduce environmental impact, thereby
lowering risk and increasing private sector investment. Guidelines have
been established as regulation by the PNG Government providing reassurance
to private investors, facilitating an increase in mining exports to 60% of
total export (2010).
For more than 20 years UHI researchers have investigated deep ocean
environments, including physical oceanography (Prof Sherwin), deep sea
ecology4 (Dr Hughes) and sediment mobility5 (Dr
Howe, Dr Shimmield and Prof Black) producing more than 120 peer reviewed
publications. Over time the group's research has become increasingly
focussed on understanding human impacts on the marine environment2,
specifically the redistribution of waste in the oceans by the physical
environment. The research outputs include detailed knowledge of how
different water masses are detected and mapped (Sherwin), transport and
fate of particulate matter5 (Shimmield, Howe, Black) and the
impact of human inputs on marine life forms (Hughes).
This project history gave the researchers the experience and knowledge
required to design and lead a comprehensive research programme to
investigate the environmental impact of the deposition of mine tailings in
the deep sea of Papua New Guinea (PNG) (2006-2010). The research programme
formed part of the Mining Sector Support Programme (MSSP) of PNG, funded
by the 8th European Development Funding Initiative.
Mine tailings are the waste product resulting from the removal of target
metals (e.g. gold) from mineral ore. Traditionally tailings are stored on
land in `tailings dams', however due to high incidence of seismic activity
and frequent heavy rainfall, dams in PNG are at high risk of failure,
causing catastrophic damage to the environment and human health.
Consequently deep sea tailings placement (DSTP) techniques have been
pioneered by mine operators, involving the discharge of tailings in deep
Understanding and mitigation of mine-induced environmental impacts is
essential to secure private sector investment for mining operations on
which the economy of PNG relies. The objective of MSSP was to investigate
how to mitigate mine-induced environmental impacts, including impacts of
DSTP, therefore reducing risk and increasing private-sector investment.
Dr. Shimmield's team researched the effects of DSTP at 2 PNG mines: Lihir
Gold Mine which has been actively discharging tailings since 1996 and
Misima Mine, closed in 2004 after discharging tailings for 15 years,
allowing an assessment of the recovery of the marine environment after
tailings placement1. Research involved investigating ocean
currents and mixing, the behaviour of metals3 and the effect of
tailings on benthic communities4 including the risk of elevated
metal contents entering the food chain.
The research established a metal "fingerprint" of tailings compared to
natural sediments1, which enabled the transport of fine
tailings within the deep ocean to be ascertained. Key findings of the
- Significant differences in biological assemblages present at DSTP and
DSTP free areas, indicating a relative decline in species number at DSTP
- Impacted sediments contain high concentrations of metals, including
ecotoxic elements (e.g. Cu, Cd, As)1, 3.
- Evidence of post-operational recovery of deep sea benthic communities
impacted by mining operations1.
- Elevated arsenic levels in surface waters were not linked to DSTP but
result from runoff of acid mine drainage at Lihir Gold Mine.1
- Final Report: Independent Evaluation of DSTP in PNG1
- Guidelines for the use of DSTP in PNG
- Specific Guidelines for the use of DSTP at Lihir Gold and Ramu NiCo
References to the research
2. Kalanttzi I., Shimmield, T.M., Pergantis, S.A., Papageorgiou,
N., Black, K.D., Karakassis, I., (2013) Heavy metals, trace
elements and sediment geochemistry at four Mediterranean fish farms,
Science of the Total Environment 444 128-137. (Journal Impact Factor:
3. Law G, Shimmield TM, Shimmield GB, Cowie G, Breuer E and
Harvey SM. 2009 Manganese, iron, and sulphur cycling on the Pakistan
margin. Deep-sea Research Part Ii- topical Studies In Oceanography
56(6-7):pp305-323(19). (Journal Impact Factor: 2.243)
4. Hughes, D.J., Levin, L.A, Lamont, P.A..,Packer, M., Feeley, K.
& Gage, J.D., 2009. Macrofaunal communities and sediment structure
across the Pakistan Margin oxygen minimum zone, north-east Arabian Sea.
Deep Sea Research II, Topical Studies in Oceanography 56: 434-448.
(Journal Impact Factor: 2.243)
5. Howe JA, Wilson CR, Shimmield TM, Diaz R and carpenter
L. 2007. Recent deep-water sedimentation, trace metal and radioisotope
geochemistry across the Southern Ocean and northern Weddell Sea,
Antarctica. Deep-sea Research Part II-Topical Studies In Oceanography
54:1652-1681. (Journal Impact Factor: 2.243)
Peer reviewed Research Grants:
1. EU 8th EDF Funding Independent Investigation of Deep Sea
tailings Placement in PNG, £1,538k
The following research funded grants provided skills and knowledge that
were utilised in delivering the PNG work and hence the guidelines,
regulation and policy used by the Papua New Guinean government to regulate
the mining industry
1. NERC Arabian Sea Grant, Benthic processes in the Arabian Sea:
mechanistic relationships between benthos, sediment biogeochemistry, and
organic matter cycling, £360k
2. NERC Oceans 2025 Theme 3; Pelagic and benthic biochemical processes
response to spatial variability in topographically controlled mixing.
3. NERC Oceans 2025 Nuclear counting Equipment (capital funding). £68,375
Details of the impact
Research undertaken by Dr. Shimmield's team to investigate the
environmental impact of the deposition of mine tailings in the deep sea of
Papa New Guinea (PNG) (2006-2010) informed the development, by the
research team, of a set of `Guidelines for the use of DSTP in PNG'2.
These Guidelines were presented publically in 2008, published in 2009 and
in 2012 these guidelines were formally adopted by the government of PNG3,8
(Mineral Resource Authority & Department of Mineral Policy and
Geohazard Management) and established as regulation to control and manage
mining impacts on the marine environment. The Guidelines outline
international best practice for regulatory frameworks and environmental
considerations including, initial mine development, preliminary site
evaluation, environmental baseline surveys, mining operations, future mine
closure plans and post-mining monitoring.
Dr. Shimmield also developed `Specific Guidelines' for the use of DSTP at
Lihir Gold and Ramu NiCo mines. Mine Specific Guidelines outline effective
operational and environmental management plans for a specific site, based
on data obtained during the research cruises and detailed study of local
ocean currents and mixing, the chemical signature of the mine tailings
relative to natural sediments, and the structure of deep sea communities
in the area. Following publication of the research finds (2010), which
detailed the link between elevated arsenic levels in surface waters and
acid mine drainage at Lihir Gold Mine, Lihir Gold Ltd. changed the
management of spoil heaps at the mine to prevent runoff of acid mine
drainage reaching the marine environment9.
The research resulted in the development of regulatory and mine specific
guidelines to regulate the impact of mining on the marine environment and
has lowered the risk associated with mining operations in PNG,
contributing to an increase in PNG's economic performance through mineral
production and exports, specifically the export of copper and gold, from 3
billion Kina (£0.94 billion) in 2001 to 8 billion Kina in 2010 (£2.5
billion)8. Export trends will continue to increase as in 2011
Ramu NiCo were granted consent for a further $8 billion mine following a
court hearing in which Dr. Shimmield was an expert witness8.
Dr. Shimmield outlined in court the research leading to the development of
Guidelines which will enable effective environmental management of mine
tailings, leading to the court finding in favour of Ramu NiCo8.
Change to Political Mind-set: The research on the impacts of
DSTP on the marine environment, and the development of `Guidelines for
the use of DSTP in PNG' created a fundamental shift in the government
perception of the importance of understanding environmental impact. At
the 2011 Annual PNG Mining Conference, the Acting Managing Director of
the Mineral Resource Authority of the PNG Government, stated "when a
licence to mine was granted thoughts were on how to get the maximum
amount of mineral out of the ground as quickly as possible now the
first thing that is thought of is what will the environmental impact
be of getting the minerals out of the ground, this is a huge cultural
change on how we view mining in PNG and its effects on our environment"8.
Improved Public Understanding: The research team led a series
of awareness campaigns with local villagers throughout the research
project. These campaigns improved dialogue between the PNG public and
the government by providing an independent (research team) body for the
public to engage with and voice concerns. As a result villagers went on
to attend the International Conference on DSTP Practices and
Environmental Monitoring4, organised by the research team in
PNG (detailed below). Research was widely publicised in the media6,7
to raise awareness and to facilitate better public understanding of DSTP
practices and environmental impacts.
Stakeholder Engagement: An integral part of the research
project, was provision of an International Conference on DSTP Practices
and Environmental Monitoring. This conference took place on 4th - 7th
November 2008 in the Madang Resort, Papua New Guinea4. The
conference presented and discussed all aspects of the work with over 250
delegates, including PNG landowners & villagers, government,
lawyers, international scientists, NGO's and mining companies. This
conference provided a platform to present results of the research and
draft guidelines. Guidelines were discussed with all stakeholders at the
conference. From this discussion and stakeholder input, the guidelines
were finalised and published in 2009.
Implementation in other regions: The International Marine
Organisation (IMO) received a set of Guidelines which were presented as
an information paper to the Scientific Group meeting of the London
Convention/London Protocol in 2011 (London Convention Scientific Group
2011)5. The European Committee for Standardisation are using
the basis of the guidelines to develop Sub-Sea Tailings Deposition
Evaluation Guideline for Europe.
Sources to corroborate the impact
- Details of the research activities in PNG can be found on the website
- General Guidelines for the use of DSTP in PNG.
- Confirmation of Guideline uptake by PNG Government
- A major part of the research programme was stakeholder engagement.
Details of the International Conference on deep sea tailings placement,
can be found at:
- Information paper to the Scientific Group meeting of the London
Convention/London Protocol in 2011 (London Convention Scientific Group
(ramumine.files.wordpress.com) (Scottish Association for Marine Science
- Media Publication: "An Alternative: Deep sea tailings placement"
published in Mining Australia, May 2013. http://www.miningaustralia.com.au/features/an-alternative-deep-sea-tailings-placement
and "Down to the Depths" Article published in Mining Magazine, June
Issue, 2013, www.miningmagazine.com
- Media Publication: A 30 Minute interview was given by T Shimmield
discussing DSTP on PNG National Television (EMTV News) for the national
news programme. This was an important part of the stakeholder engagement
aspects of the research programme, and provided a platform for public
engagement to build upon.
The Following Organisations can provide corroboration of the claims made
in this case study:
- The Acting Managing Director, Mineral Resource Authority, Papua New
Guinea, was a key figure representing the Government of PNG throughout
this research and led on the implementation of Guidelines produced from
the research as legislation. The Acting MD will also be able to give
insight into the direct impact the research has had on the economy and
environment of PNG, and the switch in Government priorities (putting
environment at the forefront of new mine projects) as a result.
- Lihir Gold Mine is owned by Newcrest. Impact of the research at
specific mines can be corroborated by Lihir Environment Compliance and
- UHI research on deep ocean environments and human impacts on the
marine environment gained recognition by international peers and in
2005, a senior figure in the Geomar Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research,
Kiel, recommended SAMS to the Chief Executive of the SYSMIN Project as
having the skills and expertise to take forward an Independent
Evaluation of Deep Sea Tailings Placement in PNG as part of the Mining
and Sector Support Programme (MSSP). Following this recommendation, SAMS
were invited to design a comprehensive research programme and were
awarded funding to take forward and execute this programme in 2006.