The Gulliver Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd - BHP Dossier

68 BHP/Broken Hill Proprietary Company Ltd

See current profile on BHP Billiton Ltd.

Australia's largest company, with major interests in energy exploration, it now holds Utah's uranium interest. In the late 1970s it was reported "leading" the development of solar power in Australia (1)- little more has been heard about this since.

Founded in 1885 to exploit the fabulous deposits at Broken Hill, its 177,000 shareholders now ostensibly control huge resources of iron ore, manganese, coal, oil, gas and parts of the manufacturing sector (2).

In a deal called "absolutely scandalous" by the Australian Labour Party's science and technology spokesperson, Barry Jones, BHP acquired control of Utah International in early 1983, and virtually complete ownership the following year (3).

Meanwhile, Robert Holmes a Court, through two of his subsidiary companies, had made a daring bid for BHP and secured a toe-hold in the giant's lair (4).

The company's exploitation of Aboriginal land include:

With its new-found thirst for US take-overs, BHP in late 1984 made a bid for the Energy Reserves Group of Kansas, so as to possess an oil and gas asset with which to offset foreign exploration expenditure (9).

After attempting to become the biggest shareholder in BHP, and acquiring more than 30% of the company's shares by late 1987, Robert Holmes a Court reduced his holding in November 1987 by 2.5% (10). Alan Bond bought out Bell Resources, after Holmes a Court's dramatic post-stockmarket collapse in October 1987, then the company itself bought back a majority of the holding, leaving Bond with 10% - later 5% (11). However, 18% of the shares are still held by Elders IXL in a friendly arrangement with BHP (12).

In 1987 BHP and Utah formalised their alliance with the formation of BHP-Utah Mineral International Corp, thus becoming "one of the largest mining and minerals operations in the world", with major operations in Japan, Europe, the US and South America (13). Two years later, thanks to the tie-up between Elders IXL and BHP in Berwick Pty Ltd, Mitsubishi obtained a sizeable stake in BHP (in a fairly complex arrangement, whereby Berwick passed on to Mitsubishi shares received as dividends from BHP as part of its 50/50 JV with Elders IXL) (14).

Although the company sold its mining interests in South Africa in 1986 (after a large-scale middecade restructuring of interests) (15) and has continued to dispose of, or put on the back burner, other relatively small projects (for example, the Macraes gold project in New Zealand which it sold to Macraes in 1990 (16), its Kalimantan coal interests, and the Samarco iron ore mine (49%) in Brazil about which little has been heard in recent years) (17), its late 1980s projects are among the world's most important. They include 57.5% in the Escondida copper mine in Chile (potentially the world's third biggest), with JV partners RTZ (30%), a Mitsubishi-led consortium (10%), and the International Finance Corporation (2.5%) (18). (This is a mine which by early 1990 was well ahead of schedule (19) with 75% of its concentrates output earmarked for Japanese, West German and other smelters.) By the turn of the decade BHP was also one of the western world's fifth largest producers of coal (20), joined with Meekatharra Minerals at Ballymoney, County Antrim, Northern Ireland (21), and owning the Navajo mine on Navajo land in New Mexico, and others.

From 1985 onwards BHP has also been expanding considerably its iron ore interests, with the purchase of CSR and Amax's assets in Mount Newman (22), the development of the Iron Duke deposit in South Australia (23) and the Telfer mine in the Pilbara (Western Australia) (BHP 30%, Newmont Australia 70%) (20).

In early 1990 BHP also bought the 70% of Mount Goldsworthy Mining Associates it didn't own, thus making it sole owner (23).

As with other Australian mining companies, BHP has been lured by gold: not only in its "home territory", but in Mali, where it holds 65% of a significant Gold JV with the government near the village of Syama (24), and on several prospects in Papua New Guinea, specifically the Wala prospect in East New Britain (25).

The company has also ventured into mineral sands: it holds a licence to explore for these minerals near Maralinga - the site of 1950s and 1960s British bomb tests - which it negotiated with the Aboriginal landowners, the Maralinga Tjarutja (26).

In the past two years, community protests against BHP's projects have developed to such an extent that it is now one of the most criticised of any company in the industry.

Then, in a highly controversial decision condemned by many inside and outside Papua New Guinea, the mining partners gained permission from the PNG government to dump tailings directly into the 1100km-long Fly River system on the grounds that constructing a tailings dam was "not feasible" due to dangers of land slippage (such as the major collapse of 1984) (40). This decision is one of the most fateful and dangerous ever made in the history of mining in the Pacific region. Already in 1986, a monitoring programme had revealed occasional high levels of heavy metals and cyanide up to 80km downstream of the mine (with cyanide content up to 50 micrograms per litre). Toxicity tests carried out since 1984 showed that the tailings are highly toxic, with 9-day LC50s as low as 0.4% and 0.1% for freshwater fish and shrimps. In practical terms this means that half the fish will die (or are dying) when tailings are diluted 250 times, and half the shrimps will die when tailings are diluted 1000 times - as happens 50km downstream of the mine (41). In 1985 the PNG government condemned the partners for not constructing a permanent tailings dam and gave them until January 1990 to comply. With a change in government and the pressures caused by the closure of the Bougainville mine (see CIRA) the central administration finally relented on this crucial provision.

Further reading: for an excellent overview of the impact of the Ok Tedi mine on the people and the environment, see David Hyndman, "Ok Tedi: New Guinea's Disaster Mine", The Ecologist, Vol. 18 No. 1, 1988.

Contact: (in Aotearoa) Ngati Te Ato, c/o Nganeko Minhinnick, Box 250, Waiuku, South Auckland, Aotearoa (New Zealand). (re Burma) Burma Peace Foundation, 218 Liverpool Rd, London N1 1LE; tel 071-700 3032.

SOURCE: "The Gulliver File - Mines, people and land: a global battleground" by Roger Moody.

Published in 1992 by Minewatch, 218 Liverpool Road, London Nl ILE, UK, and WISE-Glen Aplin, Po Box 87, Glen Aplin Q 4381, Australia.

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