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Accepted Paper:

Perpetual danger: The Sepik Development Project and the construction of risk  


Michael Main (The Australian National University)

Paper short abstract:

The EIA for the Sepik Development Project is informed by a techno-scientific understanding of risk that is in direct conflict with qualitative constructions of risk. This paper argues that the risk paradigm in the EIA is inadequate, and other views of risk are vital to avoid a catastrophic outcome.

Paper long abstract:

The Sepik Development Project is the latest incarnation of the long-proposed Frieda River mine, located at the headwaters of the Sepik River system in Papua New Guinea. In November 2018 the privately-owned mining company PanAust submitted a multi-volume EIA report that came to over 7,000 pages. The EIA was released for public review, which is a statutory requirement, in October 2019. I was one of several people commissioned to provide “expert advice” in relation to the EIA. This paper focuses on the most contentious aspect of the proposed development, which is a vast dual-purpose dam designed to hold acid-sulphate producing mine waste as well as drive a hydroelectric power station at the headwaters of the Frieda River. The designers of the dam classify the consequence of its failure as “extreme” and rank its construction risks as “high to extremely high”. In order to mitigate these risks the designers recommend on ongoing stewardship program that must be continued “in perpetuity” so as to avoid eventual failure of the dam and the realisation of the extreme consequences of its collapse. This techno-scientific view of risk dominates the global mining industry and is in direct conflict with the social, cultural, and qualitative constructions of risk that are perceived by impacted landowners, civil society organisations, and this independent reviewer. This paper argues for a broader understanding of risk that needs to be brought to challenge the dominant risk paradigm that informs the EIA of the Sepik Development Project.

Panel Mora08
Local effects, global alliances, and Environmental Impact Assessments at resource extraction projects