By PNG Echo
On January 24, 2012, almost two years ago to the day, 3 million cubic metres of earth, estimated to be 30 metres high, and 150 metres wide covering an area the size of 14 rugby fields, fell 560 metres from the escarpment to the toe in Tumbi in the Komo sub district of the Hela Province
The death toll
In the debris’ pathway were 25 people who were either killed instantly or, worse, were buried alive. (Official estimates put the death toll at 25 although it is mooted that it could be as many as 40)
Corporate giant Exxon-Mobil along with their subsidiaries and contractors have an operation in and around the scene of the landslide (Hides), an area, which includes the then, disused Tumbi quarry, where aggregate had been taken for use of the multi-billion dollar PNG LNG project.
The project was quick to distance itself from any potential blame.
Within 24 hours of the disaster, a senior community affairs official representing the international giants spoke to Radio New Zealand denying all responsibility and declaring the disaster to be “not man-made.”
The company spokesperson said that the main concern of the corporation was to reopen the main road so as not to cause delay to the target date for the first PNG LNG shipment. I’d imagine the relatives of the dead had different priorities.
The company’s seeming callous disregard for the dead and grieving was only matched by the apathetic response of the State of PNG. A preliminary report by the National Disaster Center, written just two days after the landslide, recommended that:
Body recovery operations should not be attempted due to the state, size (minimal) and or condition of body parts and the associated difficulty with accurate identification.
Once, again, I’d imagine the families of the victims would have felt differently.
True to stated intentions and according to Mr Andreaas Wabiria, a landowner and concerned citizen who signs himself as “interested in the Rule of Law,”
…two weeks after the landslide, Exxon-Mobil Agents with the support of fully-armed PNG Defence Force soldiers forced a by-pass road to be built over the landslide debris, without even moving the bodies.
It’s an affront to human dignity, no matter what caused the landslide.
Where does the blame lie?
The National Disaster Center, noted that the two common triggering mechanisms for landslides in the Highland’s region is rainfall and seismic activities. As there was no seismic activity they concluded the landslide was due to ‘”rainfall”: the causes “natural.”
Never did the report consider any extraneous factors such as ‘unnatural’ activities undertaken by the major project in the area – PNG LNG.
Mr Wabiria in a letter to government stakeholders noted:
“The Report [by the National Disaster Center]…fails to explore the contribution of the heavy-haul road used by prime movers to haul heavy-duty LNG pipes. The quarry access/haul road also crossed the area now destroyed by the landslide…”
Mr Wabiria in a ‘Human Rights Enforcement’ deposition to the National Court stated:
The EHL (Esso Highlands Ltd) is currently, blasting, drilling and excavating its way across the Hides ridge, building the well-head access road and filling up the sinkholes with the spoils of the unwanted excavated topsoil.”
Could this activity potentially trigger another landslide? Does any one really know? Does anyone really care?
What’s the difference?
Why was this disaster treated differently to the sinking of the ‘Rabaul Queen’ for instance?
The ‘Rabaul Queen’ tragedy triggered a Commission of Inquiry from which flowed consequences for the culpable and a comprehensive analysis of what triggered the disaster that is instructive for the future – insuring past mistakes are never repeated and another similar disaster avoided.
The Tumbi landslide has gone largely unremarked in spite of the National Disaster Center noting that it is “…the largest seen in PNG since the Kaiapit landslide in 1998…”
To date, Governor Anderson Agiru and Member of Parliament for the area Francis Potape, as well as the Office of the Prime Minister have seemingly given the matter little import - although extensive lobbying has been done by Mr. Wabiria.
Those who were buried alive in this landslide; those who died an unspeakably violent and horrific death, deserve better than having their lives count for nought – to have been cannon fodder. To what…?
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.