Thursday, 11 July 2013

Komo - the Forgotten Landslide

This Google Map of Komo airstrip, in the southern highlands of Papua New Guinea, is way out of date. The map shows the airstrip in the centre, a short runway only about 1 kilometre in length. But the runway is a lot bigger now. It is the longest runway in the whole country, longer than the runway of the country’s main airport, Jacksons, at Port Moresby. At 3.2 kilometres long and 45 metres wide it is comparable to a major international airport.

The upgraded airfield will not serve a new mass tourism destination. Residents of the nearby town of Tari and surrounding villages will not by flying off on holiday. Komo is a cargo airport. It was built to accommodate the Antonov An-124, the world's second largest cargo aircraft with capacity for 140 tonnes. The An-124's 73.3 metre wingspan is longer than that of a Boeing 747. Komo airfield was upgraded specifically to serve the ExxonMobil led PNG PNG (liquefied natural gas) project, for delivery of heavyweight equipment to the Hides Gas Conditioning Plant, located 10 kilometres away. PNG LNG is one of the world’s largest LNG projects, an investment of about $16 billion. It is anticipated that over 250 billion cubic meters of gas will be produced. The mountainous terrain means that convoys of trucks take several hours to reach PNG LNG project sites. Highways are steep, narrow and in poor condition. The upgraded Komo airfield speeds up delivery of equipment as PNG LNG approaches its 2014 target date to commence production.

The first Antonov-An-124 flight loaded with equipment for PNG LNG landed at Komo airfield on 3rd May 2013. Flights only cover a short distance, from Port Moresby, and are only planned for a six month period. Flights are only conducted during daylight hours because of the high altitude, at an elevation of 1,475 metres, and frequent fog conditions impeding visibility.

The Komo airfield project required the moving of 10 million cubic metres of earth. Aggregate came from a limestone quarry located high up the steep slope of Gigira mountain. As the airfield was under construction, early in the morning of 24 January of 2012, a chunk of the top of Gigira mountain, from the area immediately to the northwest of the quarry, cascaded downwards. Mud and limestone slabs obliterated the villages of Tumbi and Tumbiago and partially covered the quarry. The 1 kilometre long landslide, consisting of 3 million cubic metres of earth, was one of the worst ever recorded in the country. At least 25 people were buried under the debris. The Red Cross said the death toll could have been as high as 60.

Stanley Mamu, who monitors the PNG LNG project on the blog LNGWatch, was quick to raise the alarm over the response to the landslide. As crucial evidence was lost, a hasty investigation by Papua New Guinea's National Disaster Committee (NDC) identified heavy rainfall as the trigger. But there had been no reports of unusually heavy rain. The villages had been inhabited for 6,000 years, with no previous problem with geological instability. Some community leaders were consulted in the investigation, but not the majority of landowners, and not the surviving relatives of the victims. Villagers’ testimony that blasting has been used at the quarry was denied by ExxonMobil. Landowners thought that the quarry might have loosened the ground, and the flow of two rivers had been blocked, which might have led to a build up of water pressure that eventually gave way. The landslide cannot be dismissed as a ‘natural disaster’. The quarry might have been a contributory factor. The very next day, work resumed in the area and ExxonMobil assured investors that the landslide would not lead to a delay in meeting the target production date.

At the Landslide Blog, Dave Petley, Professor of Hazard and Risk at Durham University, stressed the need for a thorough, independent investigation by an experienced team. He was amazed that the mainstream media did not pursue the matter. The BBC did not follow up after its initial report of the disaster. Catherine Wilson's report for IPS News documented an alarming disregard for the survivors. Proceeding with the LNG project took precedence over helping victims. By 9 March, 3,000 people were in temporary shelters in close proximity to the landslide. Humanitarian aid to victims had not been released. Effort was focused on clearing the road to resume the airfield construction. Bereaved relatives claimed that they were 'placed under duress with threats of repercussions' should they attempt to obstruct clearance of the road so that it could be re-opened. Most of the bodies were not recovered. Homeless people, still with no state assistance, watched as the road was bulldozed on top of the remains of villages and buried bodies.

Dr. Kristian Lasslett of Ulster University, Papua New Guinea Coordinator for the International State Crime Initiative (ISCI) was critical of the government response and the investigation. Analysis by natural scientists is insufficient because 'complex social factors mediate these types of events'. Political, social and economic factors make populations more vulnerable to geophysical and climatic hazards. The PNG government's disregard of  local people's intimate knowledge of the landscape and observations of the impacts of the LNG project was unsurprising: 'Too often in Papua New Guinea local knowledge is ignored'. Moreover, the government failed to act as an effective regulator, instead undertaking the role of a business partner supporting ExxonMobil and its contractors. The response to the landslide was just one instance of this perversion of the role of government, which dates back two decades.

In September 2012, ISCI published a report on the landslide, ‘The Forgotten Disaster: Outstanding Issues Arising from the Tumbi Landslide’, with input from Stanley Mamu and Catherine Wilson and testimony from eyewitnesses. The NDC investigation was compromised by collaboration with ExxonMobil and protecting the firm from scrutiny. Examination of documentation uncovered the fact that the project's own Independent Environmental and Social Consultant (ISEC) had flagged up failing safety precautions and risk assessment at the quarry, stating that ‘the Project has circumvented correct procedures in the interests of schedule', driven by the pressure to meet the 2014 target date for starting LNG production. Risk assessment should have factored in any landslide risk from heavy rainfall and geological instability inherent to the area. Any fragility in the surface features of the quarry and surrounding area, making it liable to give way in the event of heavy rainfall, should have been picked up. Dave Petley stated that: ‘My working hypothesis, which needs to be tested, it that the quarry played a role in increasing the increased susceptibility of the slope to failure’.

It was not the first time that unstable ground had led to an accident at the PNG LNG project. A contractor at the Komo airfield site was buried alive in November 2011, when a trench collapsed. There was another fatality on the Komo site less than a month after the landslide, in February 2012. A contractor was run over by a front-end loader. Alertness to the risks of unstable ground should have been raised by a previous mudslide, in November 2010. A dump site blocked water which resulted in overflow of mud from the gas conditioning plant construction site. Mud flowed more than 4 kilometres along Akara Creek. Fish were killed and villagers had to be provided with a fresh water supply.

An independent inquiry into the landslide which destroyed Tumbi and Tumbiago was promised, but never took place. By December 2012 Kristian Lasslett reported that there was not even a memorial plaque honouring the victims. But another major landslide, at the Komo airfield, site marked the anniversary, almost to the day. On 28 January 2013, shortly before the enlarged airfield was scheduled to open, between 5,000 and 7,000 cubic metres of earth material slipped from an area of the airfield under construction. Fortunately no injuries were reported.

An interview with Steve Coll, on Democracy Now,  looks at the Exxon Mobil's level of influence in US politics, taking advantage of melting ice to advance oil exploration north of the Arctic Circle and attempts by 11 villagers in Aceh, Indonesia, to sue the firm for alleged human rights abuses, dating back to 2001. Part two of the interview explores Exxon Mobil's role as a 'corporate state within the American state' and operations in the Niger Delta and Chad. For more information about ExxonMobil's global operations check out Steve Coll's book Private Empire.


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