Graduate student brings water warning to remote Papua New Guinea

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Beth Hoagland trekked deep into the tropical forests in the highlands of Papua New Guinea carrying a message.

The rivers and streams are contaminated, she would tell the people living in the remote villages clustered around a massive gold mine there.

The Penn State graduate student and a team of researchers this past year conducted an independent analysis of the water near the mine and found heavy metal levels exceeding safe drinking standards set by the World Health Organization.

After a year of analyzing samples, Hoagland, along with researchers and human rights attorneys from Columbia University, set out in December to share those findings with villagers in the biodiverse Asian Pacific country.

“When we went to these communities, it was the first time they were hearing about metals that were in their water,” Hoagland said when she returned last month. “It was pretty incredible.”

The Porgera Joint Venture gold mine has been operating for decades in a remote region that has seen its population swell from around 5,000 to 50,000 as people arrived seeking opportunity. For many that means panning the rivers for scraps of gold inadvertently tossed out with the mining wastes.

For some, the mine brought benefits – improved infrastructure and royalties for the local people. But there are also concerns about human rights abuses and negative environmental impacts in the developing country, where regulations are much less stringent than in the United States.  

“The regulations are incredibly relaxed,” said Tess Russo, a Penn State assistant professor in the Department of Geosciences who was the lead scientist on the project. “The compliance point, where they [the mine] have to meet water quality requirements, is almost 100 miles downstream of this location. There are tens of thousands of people who live between the mine and the compliance point who rely on those waters.”

It was human rights lawyers from Columbia University, investigating claims of sexual abuse around the mines, who first traveled to the villages. The lawyers, heeding calls from the communities, reached out to geoscientsts at Columbia and Penn State to study potential river and air pollution.

Russo, also an associate in Penn State's Earth and Environmental Systems Institute, led the project's hydrology and geochemistry investigation. She traveled to Papua New Guinea in December 2015 to collect samples, and her student, Hoagland, analyzed them this year.

“We found a lot of these stream and rivers sites have elevated metal concentrations above World Health Organization drinking water limits,” Hoagland said. “We kind of expected it. You look at some of these sites and you can just see, the rivers are running red.”

The findings are especially concerning because many in the villages spend considerable time wading in the rivers looking for gold, and others drink from the waterways, particularly in times of drought. Officials with the mine distributed plastic rain barrels for villagers to use instead of drinking the stream water, but the barrels frequently run dry.

Hoagland collected new samples while she was there in early 2016, and plans to continue studying the area. Her work will focus on what happens when the mine closes, and stops its current practice of treating the water to mitigate environmental impacts.

“Beth is looking at how the mobility of these metals are going to change over time,” Russo said. “That's important, because when the mine eventually closes and stops treating the water, it's going to change how the metal travels. So instead of turning into little particulates like sand and dropping out of the water, they may stay dissolved and flow further down the stream and be in higher concentrations.”

While in Papua New Guinea, Hoagland and the team met with senior management from the mine and the government, and recommended stricter environmental regulations.

“It's been very interdisciplinary working with social scientists, natural resource managers, getting to interact with different people in government,” Hoagland said. “It's just been a really good way to get my hands into a bunch of different outlets.”

But most rewarding was delivering her message to the local communities, talking with them about their concerns and seeing their curiosity and engagement in the science.

“At the end of the day, I'd have to go back with these samples and filter and process them, and I had some younger, high school age students really eager to help,” Hoagland said. “That was probably my favorite part.”

Last Updated March 01, 2016