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ELAW Fellows Oksana Imetkhenova and Liubov Balandina returned to Ulan-Ude earlier this month with new tools and inspiration to protect Lake Baikal and surrounding forests.

Oksana (left) and Liubov

Oksana wrote:

“The ELAW Fellows Program was very intense and fruitful. It helped us a lot to see with our own eyes, ask questions, and learn new things — not only in the field of environmental law, but about the USA as a whole.”

Oksana is Chair of the Department of Ecology, Health and Safety at the East Siberia State University of Technology and Management. Liubov is finishing her degree in environmental engineering, and is getting a second degree in law, at the same University. Both work with the Buryat Regional Organization for Lake Baikal.

During their Fellowships, Oksana and Liubov met one-on-one with ELAW Staff Attorneys and Scientists, and U.S. experts in forest protection and litigation. They toured Oregon’s national forests with Zane Smith, a retired U.S. Forest Service officer who spent many years working on forest issues in Eastern Siberia. They met with local forest experts and learned about current research on forest landslides. They attended classes at the University of Oregon School of Law, presented their work at the Public Interest Environmental Law Conference, and collaborated with ELAW Fellows from Mongolia, Panama, Mexico, Canada, Turkey, and Uganda.

After nine days in Eugene, they toured Lake Tahoe with ELAW Board Member and mining expert Dr. Glenn Miller, met with a representative from the Lahontan Water Quality Control Board, and toured a controversial gold mine and surrounding community in Virginia City, Nevada.

Many thanks to the Earth Island Institute and the Trust for Mutual Understanding for making these ELAW Fellowships possible.

Maggie Keenan

Communications Director &
Fellows Program Coordinator

When tourists visit Panama, they enjoy the beaches, islands, and mountain forests.  ELAW Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel was in Panama this month with a different agenda.

Heidi used her marine ecologist’s eye to take in what’s threatening Panama’s natural environment.  She joined ELAW partners to tour a new highway project that has cut through Panama Bay, the site of a proposed mega-port near Colon, and the site of a gold and copper mine that threatens the Tonosi and Quema Rivers on the Azuero Peninsula.

   Heidi (right) and ELAW partners in Panama

“The coral reefs and mangroves in the area where ‘Puerto Verde’ is planned are showing very important signs of recovery from oil spills in the 1980s,” says Heidi.  “If this ‘green port’ — a miserable misnomer — goes forward, the mangroves will be cut and the seabed, including the reefs, will be dredged.  We met with subsistence fishermen and farmers in the area and none of them want the port.”

ELAW is working with partners at El Centro de Incidencia Ambiental (CIAM), Centro de Asistencia Legal Popular Programa para Refugiados, MarViva Panama, and Derechos Humanos, Ambiente y Comunidades to ensure that communities and grassroots advocates have the information they need to make their voices heard and protect Panama for future generations.

In February, we will welcome CIAM Staff Attorney Luisa Arauz for a two-week ELAW Fellowship.  Luisa developed an interest in nature and international issues at a young age from her father, a nature guide, and her mother, a diplomat.  Luisa will work one-on-one with ELAW staff and participate in the 2014 Public Interest Environmental Law Conference where she will speak about access to information and participation in environmental impact studies of proposed hydroelectric dams and genetically-modified salmon projects.
Maggie Keenan
ELAW Communications Director
& Fellows Program Coordinator

Waterways in south central Siberia’s Altai-Sayan Ecoregion are threatened by abandoned and proposed mining operations, and hydropower projects. This remote area, rich in biodiversity, sits at the junction of the mountains of Russia’s Siberian taiga, the steppes of Kazakhstan, and the semi-deserts of Mongolia.

ELAW partners Sergey Shaphaev and Elena Chernobrovkina are calling on ELAW for help protecting the Altai-Sayan from mining industry abuses and short sighted energy-projects.

Sergey and Elena work at the Buryat Regional Organization for Lake Baikal, based in Ulan-Ude.  They have collaborated with ELAW for many years and traveled to Eugene for ELAW Fellowships in 2012.

In the year ahead, we will provide Sergey and Elena with the legal and scientific resources they need to protect the Altai-Sayan, including our Guidebook for Evaluating Mining Project EIAs, which we have made available in four languages, including Russian.

We will keep you informed of our progress!

Maggie Keenan
Communications Director

Last week Staff Scientist Heidi Weiskel and I joined other NGO representatives to talk with World Bank representatives as they consider financing Oyu Tolgoi, a massive copper and gold mine in the South Gobi desert.  As has been widely reported, Mongolia has become the new frontier for mining.  As ELAW has reported, the government of Mongolia has issued 3,000 mining licenses for copper, coal, gold, silver, and uranium.  The International Finance Corporation – the arm of the World Bank that provides financing to private enterprises – is one of several international financial institutions considering financing the development of Oyu Tolgoi.

The project proponent (a Mongolian company, Oyu Tolgoi LLC which is a joint-venture between Turquoise Hill Resources, Rio Tinto, and a Mongolian state-run company) published an environmental and social impact assessment (ESIA) for the project in 2012.  ELAW staff scientists and attorneys worked with partners in Mongolia to evaluate the ESIA under IFC standards.  We found the ESIA failed to meet IFC standards in several respects.  In addition to other comments, we pointed out the following violations of IFC policy:

  • The ESIA is incomplete;
  • Many critical documents underlying the findings in the ESIA have not been made available to the public; and
  • The project proponent inappropriately dismissed the application of the Indigenous Peoples Performance Standard.
Mongolian herders in Bulgan Province

Mongolian herders in Bulgan Province
Photo: Lori Maddox

We also identified several ways that the project could be improved to reduce its impact on the indigenous herders who live a traditional nomadic lifestyle. The herders’ livelihoods and their land are likely to be destroyed forever if the project is implemented as proposed.  The most urgent concern about the project is its devastating impact on water resources in this arid land.  Among other concerns, ELAW urged the IFC to ensure that the Undai River is not diverted if the project advances and to require the company to employ dry tailings instead of the planned wet tailings.  Tailings are the waste product produced from the ore extraction process and can either be stored in a massive, toxic artificial pond near the mine or dried and back-filled into the areas of the mine where extraction has been completed. Storing the waste as dry tailings could reduce the water needed for processing by 90% and reduce the impact from the mine.

Heidi and I joined Oyu Tolgoi Watch (a Mongolian NGO concerned about the impacts of the project), the Bank Information Center, Sierra Club and the Accountability Counsel to talk with Executive Directors from the World Bank about problems with the project before the Directors decide whether to finance the project.  Before these organizations addressed Executive Directors, we were able to hear directly from an indigenous herder whose family has been impacted by the mine.  He spoke eloquently about the changes that have already come to the community and the fear that the mine could destroy their traditional lifestyles forever.

Heidi briefed the Directors about concerns related to water resource management.  I have focused on demonstrating that the IFC must apply its Indigenous Peoples’ policy to this project.

ELAW will continue working with Mongolian lawyers and organizations representing the communities impacted by mining.

Jennifer Gleason
Staff Attorney

Rahul Choudhary

Rahul Choudhary of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment (LIFE) works in a small group session on valuing damages and compensating victims of contamination

Today was the first day of the 2012 ELAW Annual Meeting, convened jointly by the Legal Initiative for Forests and Environment (LIFE), and the Goa Foundation. We have 43 participants from 22 countries here — a handful of new faces and a number of long time colleagues and friends.

Claude Alvares welcomed us to this beautiful place – the small state of Goa in Southern India. Goa is home to beautiful forests, rivers, beaches, wildlife reserves, and 60% of India’s iron ore. Claude and his wife and colleague Norma have been litigating against illegal mining operations in Goa since the late 1980s, and just achieved an impressive judgment from the Supreme Court stopping all mining in the state. The court recognized that all the individual claims pointed to a bigger, systemic challenge, and simply closed the door on the mines indefinitely. Until the legal problems can be resolved, these companies simply cannot continue. In addition to the problems common to mines the world over, such as water and air pollution and deforestation, Claude described how the mining trucks had all but taken over roads in the vicinity of the mines, rendering them impossible for the public to use. Many people have been run over and killed by the trucks, in addition to suffering contaminated water and air.

Ritwick Dutta talked about India’s National Green Tribunal (NGT), created in 2010 to hear environmental claims. The statute creating the NGT states that any aggrieved person can bring a claim to the NGT. Case law has since defined that to mean that any person may bring a claim because all Indian citizens have a duty under India’s Constitution to protect and improve the environment. The NGT turns cases around in an average of three months, which is the speed of light compared to other courts in India. And thus far, the NGT has ruled wisely on virtually all claims placed before it. The Supreme Court has issued an order transferring all cases that were filed since the NGT was created to the NGT, acknowledging the ability and capacity of that Tribunal to manage environmental legal matters. Although the NGT is issuing good, fair judgments and protecting India’s resources, Ritwick and his colleagues say that they need more horsepower to bring more cases to the NGT. Hundreds of hectares of forest are signed away each day, and the pace of development is accelerating all the time.

Our Indian colleagues are a terrific inspiration to us all. Welcome to Goa!

Lori Maddox
Associate Director

A recent headline in my news reader caught my eye – “Tech Billionaires Plan Audacious Mission to Mine Asteroids.”  I thought for a moment that the article might be a joke.  It wasn’t.

The rising price of metals and rare earth minerals is driving a global mining frenzy, so it is not surprising that people are looking to exploit potential mineral resources in space.  Here on earth, ELAW is working with partners in at least 15 different countries on projects related to mining.  We review mining laws and provide recommendations for strengthening environmental and community protections, we conduct technical reviews of new mining proposals, and we provide assistance to advocates who are helping communities affected by mine pollution.  It seems that not a week goes by without a new mining-related project landing on someone’s desk.

Although asteroid mining only exists in imaginations of billionaires at this point, there is another new frontier for mining — deep seabed mining — which poses an enormous and imminent risk to our oceans.

It turns out that there are deposits of metals, such as gold and copper, near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor.  One expert describes these vents as undersea hot springs where superheated, mineralized water rushes through the seabed and reacts with cold seawater to form chimney-like towers.  Only recently discovered in the last several decades, these vents are unique and relatively unknown ecosystems that flourish with life despite the lack of sunlight.  With improved technology, scientists are now able to explore and document the incredible creatures that live near these vents and they are discovering new species of fish, tube worms, crabs, and microorganisms.

There is still much to be learned about hydrothermal vents, but that is not stopping a handful of mining companies from rushing forward to mine metal deposits from the ocean floor.  ELAW partners in Papua New Guinea are opposing the world’s first commercial seabed mining operation by Canada’s Nautilus Minerals, Inc. that would strip deposits off the floor beneath the Bismarck Sea.  Other countries in the Pacific have issued seabed mining exploration licenses, or are about to.  Local communities are very concerned that seabed mining activities will cause significant harm to water quality, fisheries, and their economic livelihoods.

ELAW partner Effrey Dademo, and the non-governmental organizations Act Now! PNG and the Pacific Network on Globalisation, are hoping to mobilize public support for a petition that will be presented to Pacific leaders later this year asking them to take a precautionary approach to seabed mining.  Leaders in Australia’s Northern Territory have already heeded the call and issued a moratorium on seabed mining in coastal waters until 2015 so the impacts can be more closely studied before projects are considered.

Asteroid mining may seem unrealistic to some, but seabed mining is a real and imminent threat to our precious ocean resources.  It deserves global attention and concern before it is too late.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

In November 2010, a young family – husband, wife, son – showed up at the front door of the Jamaica Environment Trust (JET).  They lived at 10 Mile in Bull Bay in St Andrew, and were concerned that their community was at risk from the nearby mining operation of Caribbean Cement/Jamaica Gypsum and Quarries.  They told us of a significant flooding event in 2002, when many homes in their community were badly damaged.  The residents of 10 Mile were still seeing build up of the mining waste and feared the same thing would happen again.  We went with them that same day and saw what appeared to us to be a very worrying pile of tailings that had been dumped in a river course.

JET contacted the Company and the regulators, obtained the various licenses and rehabilitation plans, and in May 2011, were taken on a tour of the mining operations by Caribbean Cement’s Acting Quarries Manager.
On this visit, we observed that there was some effort underway to remove the tailings, but the situation still appeared unsatisfactory.  We did not think we had the required technical expertise to assess the risks to the community and to the environment or to make suitable recommendations, however, so we called on ELAW for help.  And help ELAW did.

ELAW Director Glenn Miller (second from right) and JET Staff

Professor Glenn Miller, a Board member of ELAW who is also a mining industry expert and a professor in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Science at the University of Nevada, agreed to visit the quarries in July 2011.  Glenn flew to Jamaica during an unusually rainy week, and on July 13, 2011, Glenn, Danielle, and I toured the mining area, escorted by representatives from the Company.

Because it was raining, Glenn was able to see where the river flowed, where it was blocked, and also the amount of silt in the water – the mine is very near to the coast.  We climbed on top of the huge pile of tailings, criss crossed with large fissures.  There was one moment when I looked at Glenn and Danielle standing on this obviously unstable material at the edge of a cliff and thought: But we are risking our lives! This thing could collapse at any minute! And we could see the houses of the community far below in the valley.

Glenn was able to confirm our impression of the mine – this was a highly unsatisfactory and dangerous situation.  After the site visit, we met both with senior executives of the Company and convened a large meeting of the regulatory bodies and showed them the photographs we had taken. Glenn then drafted a report containing a series of recommendations to improve the operation of the mine and begin rehabilitation, and this has been sent to the Company and the regulatory agencies.  JET will continue to monitor the operation and hope for some early improvements.

By coincidence, while Glenn was in Jamaica, there was a cyanide spill at an abandoned gold mine and he was able to give technical advice to the regulators and consultants involved in cleaning it up.

JET is very grateful to ELAW and to Glenn for helping us with this – and we hope our intervention will avoid a catastrophic slope failure in 10 Mile, Bull Bay, with serious consequences for those who live there.  We also hope for improvements in the regulatory environment for mining generally – as this particular mine really highlighted those weaknesses as well.

Diana McCaulay
Chief Executive Officer
Jamaica Environment Trust (JET)

Last fall we shared the twists and turns of a David and Goliath lawsuit in Papua New Guinea to prevent a Chinese mining company (MCC) and its Australian partner (Highlands Pacific) from discharging millions of tons of toxic mining waste near community fishing grounds off the country’s northeastern coast.    After a long and complicated trial early this year, in which noted marine and environmental scientists described the devastating environmental impacts of the company’s plan to pump a slurry of mine waste into Basamuk Bay, the National Court announced that it would issue its decision on May 23.  Over 1,000 landowners are plaintiffs in the case.  Along with their lawyer, Tiffany Nonggorr, they spent several months anxiously awaiting the judge’s verdict.  Everyone’s patience was tested when the Court postponed judgment day — twice.  Finally, July 27 arrived.

With the significant time difference between the U.S. and PNG, I knew that news would be breaking just about the time I’d be going to sleep.  I had my laptop open on the bedside table and periodically checked for news while nervously reading an article (that I now can’t remember) in The New Yorker.  I could barely stand it.  Soon, I started seeing updates from Effrey Dademo, an ELAW partner and attorney with Act Now! PNG.

At first, the ruling sounded as though there would be a clear victory for the landowners.  Effrey continued to report intermittently for over two hours, as the 67-page opinion was read aloud.  The Court rejected the mining company’s assurances that the waste would be “benign” and agreed with the plaintiffs that the waste would not stay deep below the water’s surface, but would likely be brought towards the surface by upwelling.  Turning to the legal issues, Justice Cannings concluded that the toxic mine waste would cause a private and public nuisance.  He also declared that the government’s decision to approve the mine waste disposal plan:

“amounts to an abuse and depletion of Papua New Guinea’s natural resources and environment – not their conservation – for the collective benefit of the People of Papua New Guinea and for the benefit of future generations, to discharge into a near-pristine sea (a widely recognised hotspot of biodiversity), mine tailings at a rate of 5 million tonnes of solids and 58.9 million cubic metres of tailings liquor per year. It constitutes unwise use of our natural resources and environment, particularly in and on the seabed and in the sea. It amounts to a breach of our duty of trust for future generations for this to happen.”

And then, the devastating news came.  Justice Cannings refused to permanently stop the mine waste disposal in part because the company had spent a considerable amount of money to build the system.  The decision had many people scratching their heads in shock and dismay at the final outcome of the case. (You can hear a Radio Australia  interview with Tiffany Nonggorr immediately following the judgment here).

The landowners were not deterred.  They immediately asked Tiffany to file an appeal with the country’s Supreme Court, which she promptly did.  On Monday, the Supreme Court blocked MCC from discharging mine waste into the bay until it could hear the appeal later this month!

The determination of communities along the Rai coast to protect their coastal environment is inspiring.  During the trial, several landowners described the sea as a “garden” that their daily lives depend on.  Their fight has prompted Green party legislators in Australia to push for legislation that would prevent Australian mining companies from engaging in practices, like deep sea mine waste disposal, in foreign countries that are illegal at home.

Liz Mitchell
ELAW Staff Attorney

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