Mill Creek lawyer pursuing lawsuit for island nation

  • By Chris Fyall For the Enterprise
  • Tuesday, July 7, 2009 7:19pm

The only home Paul Stocker owns is a thatched, rosewood house on the tiny South Pacific island of Wuvulu, where he once owned a coconut plantation.

In 1975, his son met a beautiful native girl on the island, fell in love and started having children.

Stocker’s life changed forever.

The former Washington state legislator’s family now is sprinkled across the archipelagos near Papua New Guinea.

And Stocker himself, an 85-year-old attorney living in Mill Creek, is an unlikely man at the forefront of an international class-action legal battle that pits the indigenous people of Bougainville Island against the British mining conglomerate Rio Tinto.

The case was scheduled for a hearing July 6 before a U.S. District Court judge in Los Angeles.

It is, Stocker says, a “David versus Goliath situation.”

South Pacific paradise

Bougainville Island itself is large and lush. Until 1997, it was an island province of Papua New Guinea. Now it is autonomous.

Home to about 175,000 people, Bougainville is also the home of the family of Stocker’s daughter-in-law. Stocker has visited many times.

“There’s something about the island — the way it produces vegetation,” he said. “I’ve never been to a more beautiful place.”

In the late 1960s, though, Rio Tinto opened a large copper and gold mine on the island’s north end.

Until it closed in the 1980s, the mine pumped out thousands of tons of copper and hundreds of thousands of ounces of gold each year.

“When you get to the mine — I’ve never been to a worse place,” Stocker said. “They took a beautiful place and gave it cancer.”

Stocker and his allies accuse Rio Tinto of numerous violations of international law.

They allege in court papers that the company engaged in “racial discrimination, environmental devastation, war crimes and crimes against humanity” during and after the mine’s two decades of operation.

The mine closed because of acts of sabotage from locals. That happened just before a civil uprising that began in 1990. It lasted 10 years and claimed about 10,000 lives.

Stocker’s lawsuit accuses Rio Tinto of abuses during that dark time.

It says the company worked with the government of Papua New Guinea, which got 19.1 percent of the mine’s profits, to quell the uprising. Among other things, the lawsuit accuses the mining company of complicity in “aerial bombardment of civilian targets, burning of villages, rape and pillage,” court papers say.

Rio Tinto completely rejects the accusations, said spokesman Tony Shaffer.

“Rio Tinto took no part in the alleged war crimes or human rights abuses by the Papua New Guinea military,” Shaffer said. “The alleged incidents occurred after Rio Tinto left the island.”

Legal aid

Stocker isn’t trying the case himself. “It would be like a mouse attacking an elephant,” he said.

Instead, he got help from Seattle attorney Steve Berman, a nationally famous class-action lawyer whose firm won billions of dollars from tobacco companies.

Berman said mining companies are protected from lawsuits in Papua New Guinea so he’s trying to bring the case to courts in the United States.

Whether that’s legally possible — Rio Tinto argues the U.S. courts have no business trying a case from Papua New Guinea — is an issue that will be considered this week.

U.S. District Court Judge Margaret Morrow is scheduled to hear from both sides in a Los Angeles courtroom. Stocker plans to be there.

The courts have ruled against Stocker before. The State Department under President George W. Bush said allowing the case to move ahead could negatively affect international relations.

President Barack Obama’s administration has been silent on the case, Stocker said. His side is pushing forward.

A successful life

Stocker has had his share of success in the past.

A Navy gunner during World War II, he came home and eventually ran and won a seat in the state Legislature. He served eight years as a representative after winning election in 1953.

By the time Seattle played host to the World’s Fair in 1962, Stocker was tapped to become one of 14 fair commissioners — a group that included former U.S. Sen. Clarence Dill and nationally famous businessman Edward Carlson.

He’s had a good life.

He wants to make sure the people on Bougainville have the same opportunity, he said.

“All the people working this case — on both sides — none of them have had children there like I have, or have had grandchildren there like I do,” said Stocker, who hopes the lawsuit will extract money from Rio Tinto to pay for schools and hospitals and to build roads and bridges on the island.

Stocker also hopes he’ll win some money himself. He’s not above that, he said.

“I’m not a hypocrite. Sure, I like money, like anybody else. But I think people are more important,” Stocker said.

And, really, he thinks the island is more important.

He’s spent years of his life visiting his home and his family in the South Pacific. The place is beautiful, he said.

Sometimes, the South Pacific feels like home.

“A person can change from one (thing) to another. I can be the county lawyer, or I could be the guy over there running around with my shirt off,” Stocker said. “I feel at home there.”

Chris Fyall writes for the Herald of Everett.

Talk to us