Oceanic Islanders use Federal Law to Sue British Mining Giant Rio Tinto for Alleged Ecocide and Human Rights Crimes

SAN FRANCISCO – In an era where political leaders, corporations and consumers are debating the environmental costs of doing business globally, a new lawsuit by a group of landowners is challenging the role and liability of corporations in developing countries.

Using a Federal law that allows such civil actions, residents of Bougainville Island in Papua New Guinea (PNG) filed a class-action lawsuit today in the United States against London-based Rio Tinto, one of the world's largest mining companies. The suit claims the company engaged in a joint venture with the PNG government to maintain a copper mine on the island, which resulted in international environmental violations and crimes against humanity stemming from a military blockade motivated by civilian resistance to the mine.

The Rio Tinto lawsuit could have broad implications for other groups seeking redress from crimes committed during wartime by private companies acting in concert with local governments.

The lawsuit was filed in the United States District Court in San Francisco. The suit seeks to represent Bougainvilleans who continue to be exposed to toxins resulting from the Panguna mine, individuals who lost property due to ongoing 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 is the parent company of subsidiary U.S. Borax Inc., headquartered in Los Angeles. The plaintiffs are seeking damages for massive environmental destruction, human rights violation and for discrimination against the islanders.

Environmental Events Leading to the Lawsuit

At the core of the lawsuit is the Panguna copper mine and the political events that erupted since the mine was established. Bougainville Island, located northeast of Australia, is part of the Independent State of Papua New Guinea. The people of Bougainville had lived on their rain-forested land continuously for thousands of years.

Between 1969 and 1972, the Australian Colonial Administration leased land on the island to Bougainville Copper Limited (BCL), a mining subsidiary of Rio Tinto. The suit claims that landowners unsuccessfully resisted intrusion onto their land, and many Bougainvilleans were forced to relocate or flee the island. Three principal villages were relocated.

According to the suit, Rio Tinto then destroyed entire villages, razed the rain forest, sluiced off a hillside and established the world' largest open-cut mine, two kilometers across and half a kilometer deep. The mine excavated 300,000 tons of ore and water every day during its operation between 1972 and 1988.

The suit alleges that Rio Tinto laid the groundwork for environmental disaster by improperly dumping waste rock and tailings and emitting chemical and air pollutants without regard for the villagers. The tailings turned the fertile Jaba and Kawerong river valleys into wasteland, according to the suit. Fish and whole forests died and water became non-potable, turning 30 kilometers of the river system into a moonscape. As tailings made their way down the Jaba River to drain into Empress Augusta Bay, the Bougainvilleans major food source of fish was also destroyed in the bay.

According to the suit, Rio Tinto'smine operators also dumped chemicals directly into the Kawerong River, leaving the river alkaline and copper green. The mine also emitted dust clouds that created upper respiratory infections and asthma in villagers.

The suit charges, that environmental damage destroyed the villagers' food production and cash cropping systems. The Bougainville people began dying more frequently from upper respiratory infections, asthma and tuberculosis (TB). Coughs, colds and chronic ear infections became more common in children.

Political Events Leading Up to Lawsuit

When Panguna Mine originated in the late 1960s, Bougainville was an Australian colony. Australia granted independence to Papua New Guinea in 1975, insisting that Bougainville become part of the nation state.

In March 1988, the Bougainvilleans organized into the Panguna Land Owners Association and petitioned Rio Tinto for greater control of the land around the mine. By November 1988, when BCL ignored requests, individual Bougainville militants engaged in acts of sabotage that forced the mine to close. According to the suit, Rio Tinto stepped in and assisted PNG's military actions that were designed to stop the rebels.

According to the suit, PNG coordinated with Rio Tinto to bring in troops to Bougainville, allegedly providing helicopters for troop transport, to crush the resistance. By April 1990, the PNG army imposed a military blockade of Bougainville.

"The men and women of Bougainville stood up for themselves and forced the open-pit mine that was ravaging their environment to close, but they paid a terrible price at the hands of the PNG army which was encouraged by Rio Tinto," said Steve Berman, lead attorney for the plaintiffs. "The complaint alleges that Rio Tinto used their huge economic influence to effectively turn the PNG army into their private police force in the attempt to break the will and spirit of the Bougainvilleans, They didn't, and the villagers want justice for the horrible pain and suffering they were forced to endure.

PNG's blockade of Bougainville cut off medical supplies to pressure the people to submit to PNG control and reopen the mine, the suit claims. The siege resulted in deaths from preventable diseases such as TB and whooping cough, in more than 2,000 children in the first two years. Between 1990 and 1997, approximately 10,000 Bougainvilleans died as a result of the siege, the suit claims.

"We intend to prove that Rio Tinto treated Bougainvilleans with no respect and thought of them as inferior in every way: socially, economically, racially and politically. This lack of basic human compassion is one of the many reasons that Bougainvilleans are demanding justice," said Steve Berman.

The suit also claims that approximately 15,000 civilians died as a result of armed acts by PNG troops. PNG military actions included aerial bombings, burning of houses and villages, wanton killing and acts of cruelty, rape and degrading treatment, alleges the suit.

"By exerting financial pressure, Rio Tinto played an active role in the demise of the Bougainville's environment and people, as surely as if they'd pulled the trigger themselves," said Paul Luvera, co-counsel for the plaintiffs. "This case seeks justice for those who are still struggling to recover a life for themselves on their own land."

Headquartered in London, Rio Tinto operates more than 60 mines and processing plants in 40 countries. Claiming consolidated assets of US$12.8 billion in 1999, the company employs more than 34,000 workers worldwide.

Steve Berman is managing partner of Hagens Berman in Seattle. Recently cited as one of the nation's top litigation attornies by The National Law Journal, Berman is a nationally recognized expert in class action litigation. Berman represented 13 states in lawsuits against the tobacco industry. He was the prime architect of the groundbreaking Liggett Tobacco settlement, which resulted in the release of thousands of previously privileged tobacco industry documents. Berman also served as lead or co-lead counsel in several other high-profile cases including the Washington Public Power Supply litigation, which resulted in a settlement exceeding $850 million. Other cases include litigation involving the Exxon Valdez oil spill; Louisiana Pacific Siding; The Boeing Company; Morrison Knudsen; Piper Jaffray; Nordstrom; Boston Chicken; and Noah's Bagels.

Paul N. Luvera, partner at Luvera, Barnett, Brindley, Beninger and Cunningham in Seattle, is a leading trial lawyer in the United States. Luvera served as co-trial counsel in the State of Washington's trial against the tobacco industry. Luvera is a member of the International Academy of Trial Lawyers.

Peter Gordon, managing partner of Slater & Gordon in Australia, is also working on the case. Gordon is one of Australia's leading litigation lawyers. Gordon has conducted major class actions both within Australia and oversees on behalf of Australian consumers.

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About Hagens Berman
Hagens Berman Sobol Shapiro LLP is a consumer-rights class-action law firm with offices in nine cities. The firm has been named to the National Law Journal’s Plaintiffs’ Hot List seven times. More about the law firm and its successes can be found at www.hbsslaw.com. Follow the firm for updates and news at @ClassActionLaw.

EDITORS NOTE: Accredited media may request copies of the complaint, background material or the video news release by contacting Ashley Klann.

Ashley Klann
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