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Islanders Win Appeal in Claim Against Rio Tinto

Date: 08-Aug-06
Country: US
Author: Steve James

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruled the case may be heard in the United States. A US District Court had dismissed the suit, siding with the State Department that the case could not be heard in US courts.

There was no immediate comment from Rio Tinto and a State Department official said it had no comment until it looked into the ruling.

The suit claims that London-based Rio Tinto conspired with the government of Papua New Guinea to quell civil resistance to an environmentally devastating copper mining operation, actions that led to the deaths of thousands.

The State Department argued the case could interfere with the peace process on Bougainville, which is the largest of the North Solomon islands and is part of Papua New Guinea, off the northeast coast of Australia.

The ruling remands the case to US District Court in San Francisco, and says Rio Tinto could be held liable for actions by the PNG government if the company's involvement is proven.

The suit was filed in 2000 and seeks to represent Bougainvilleans exposed to toxins resulting from the Panguna copper mine, people who lost property due to environmental contamination, and people injured or killed during the Bougainville conflict between 1989 and 1999.

Under the Alien Tort Claims Act, foreign nationals can bring suit in the United States against companies that violate international law. Rio Tinto's subsidiary, US Borax Inc., has headquarters in Los Angeles.

The Panguna mine and the political events that erupted since the mine was established are at the core of the case. Between 1969 and 1972, the Australian Colonial Administration leased land on the island to Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a subsidiary of Rio Tinto. The suit claims that landowners unsuccessfully resisted intrusion onto their land, and many Bougainvilleans were forced to move or flee the island.

According to the suit, Rio Tinto destroyed villages, razed the rain forest, sliced off a hillside and established the world's largest open-pit mine. The mine excavated 300,000 tons of ore and water every day between 1972 and 1988.

The suit alleges that Rio Tinto improperly dumped waste rock and tailings, emitting chemical and air pollutants. The waste destroyed local fish stock, it alleges.

The Bougainville people -- especially children -- began dying more frequently from upper respiratory infections, asthma and tuberculosis, the suit states.

According to the complaint, in 1990, villagers started an uprising which closed the mine, and in response, Rio Tinto and the Papua New Guinea government brought troops in to reopen it. The complaint alleges that Rio Tinto provided transport for the troops and played a role in instituting a military blockade of the island that lasted for almost 10 years.

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