MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Major tailings dam spill at Solomon Islands 'disaster' gold mine

Published by MAC on 2016-04-08
Source: Solomon Star News, Radio NZ, others

Local owners of the Gold Ridge gold mine have begun 'dewatering' process

Major tailings dam spill at Solomon Islands 'disaster' gold mine

Tens of millions of litres of water has escaped from a toxic gold mine tailings dam in the Solomon Islands declared a ‘disaster zone’ by the government last year

Stefan Armbruster

8 April 2016

Eight-thousand people live downstream from what was, until two years ago, the country’s largest mining operation. Heavy rain last week pushed the already critically full Gold Ridge dam to overflow uncontrollably for the first time in more than 20 years.

The shutdown Gold Ridge mine was sold last year by an Australian company to local mine site landowners for $100.

‘We are panicking’

Scientists and villagers fear an environmental disaster is looming.

    “We are panicking, honestly we are panicking, we don’t know what is happening. Woman, pikinini, everyone of us (is) upset,” downstream community leader John Keara told SBS World News.

    “The government didn’t do anything for us. They ignore it, they ignore us. Now we become victims already.”

Tens of millions of litres of water escaped from the dam, that contains arsenic and cyanide and heavy metals in its sediment.

    “At the moment there’s really no way to stop the spill way. The spillway was put in to relieve pressure and reduce the risk (of a dam collapse),” said Dr Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer from Monash University.

    “That’s the way it’s supposed to work but the issue though is it’s not the end scenario you want, untreated tailings water getting out into the environment.

    “There is an arsenic issue in the water with processing ore, it comes from the gold ore. Other heavy metals include selenium, mercury is often a very important one, and range of other heavy metals like copper and zinc.

    “We need to make sure we are monitoring all of those downstream.”

Gold Ridge shut down after extreme flash floods

Australian miner St Barbara shut down Gold Ridge two years ago after extreme flash floods hit the Solomon Islands, damaging the mine and leaving the tailings dam dangerously full.

Australian Federal Police were deployed to protect the mine from looters, but the water treatment plant and dam pumps were already damaged.

The Solomon Islands government would not allow St Barbara to release untreated water from the tailings dam.

A frustrated St Barbara last year sold the mine, and all legal liability, to local landowner company Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL) for $100, with the government’s consent.

    “St Barbara completed its commitments relating to the sale of the Gold Ridge project in November 2015 and has no remaining obligations in relation to the mine,” the company said in a statement.

As a condition of the sale, St Barbara last November installed a new water treatment plant and pumps to dewater the dam but they were only turned on last month.

    “So far we’ve discharged over 200,000 cubic litres of water and the water has almost stopped discharging from the spillway,” said Walton Naezon, chairman of GCIL.

    “We have discharged about 96,000 cubic litres of untreated and more than 120,000 cubic litres of treated water. There are some issues but we haven’t experienced any big ones.

‘Disaster zone’

The uncontrolled flow over the spillway is estimated at another 100,000 cubic litres of water.

    “We sent the samples down to Australia and we rule out cyanide, and almost ten different results that came back, it was low. The arsenic was a bit high,” he said of tests conducted more than a year ago.

After the sale last year, the Solomon Islands government declared the Gold Ridge mine a “disaster zone”.

    “You can certainly point fingers at everyone in some capacity and at the end of the day. The environmental risks have not been taken seriously by all parties involved,” said Dr Mudd.

    “That’s government, the mining companies and the communities have underestimated it.”

Water samples taken from the tailings dam and downstream this week are due to be tested at the University of Queensland but that will not stop the spill.

An unreleased Health Ministry media statement dated 5 April obtained by SBS warns the water “may contain high levels of arsenic”.

    “All downstream communities are advised to immediately STOP using the Kwara, Tinahula and Matepono rivers until advised by MHMS (Ministry of Health and Medical Services) and the World Health Organisation that it is safe to do so.

    “Do NOT use river water for drinking, washing, bathing/swimming or fishing”.

The Ministry of Health has not responded to an SBS enquiry about the unreleased statement or what action they have taken to inform downstream communities.

    “We asked them not to use the water, even though the water is clear,” said Walton Naezon, chairman of GCIL.

    “The people are still using the water to swim, they are still using the water but we advise them to reduce the usage.”

Heavy rain threatens tailings facility

7 April 2016    

Gold dam scare

THE controlled de-watering of Gold Ridge tailings dam in central Guadalcanal is reportedly gone out of control due to heavy rain in the area.

Downstream villagers have lodged complaints to health authorities in the past week about the safety of the water that was released into their streams.

This had prompted teams from the Ministry of Health’s Environment Division and Guadalcanal Province Health Division to visit the dam early this week.

Pictures sent to the Solomon Star saw water from the tailings dam flowing freely into the nearby streams.

“From our observation, the dewatering process appeared to be out of control,” one of the members of the team visiting the site told the Solomon Star.

“Due to the heavy rain in the area over the past few days, water from the dam was allowed to flow freely through the spillway into the streams below,” the officer said.

He said the team had taken samples of the water, which will be tested for its safety in the coming days.

The officer added that they were surprised authorities overseeing the dewatering process have excluded the Ministry of Health in the exercise.

“It’s the Ministry of Health’s technical officers who should be heavily involved in the process.

“They are the ones who should be manning the dam’s spillway, taking samples every time the tailings water are released to ensure no contaminated water is released into the environment.”

The dewatering process started late last month.

Guadalcanal premier Anthony Veke yesterday confirmed technical officials from his province were dispatched to the tailing dam site because of the heavy rain in the area.

MrVeke said the directive given to the officers was to get an independent report on the ground following the rain in the last few days.

“With the level of rain in the last few days, we are of the view that it will put the lives of our people living downstream at risk,” MrVeke said.

“Therefore, we decided to send a team to collect information on the dewatering process in the area,” he added.

MrVeke said the team should arrive in Honiara today and will produce a report to the Premier’s office.

The premier also pointed out that Guadalcanal has been left out in the process of consultation of the tailings dam dewatering process.

“We have not been seen as an authority that needs to be informed of the tailings dam dewatering process.

“Therefore, we decided to do our own investigation of the situation,” he said.

The Solomon Star understands the Minister of Health and his Permanent Secretary have been briefed about the situation yesterday.

Secretary of Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL), the local company that now owns Gold Ridge mine site, Benjamin Afuga, said water released from the dam are treated.

He said any claim to do with contamination of the river downstream must come from a specialist.

“I just received a report from Dr Simon Albert of University of Queensland who carried out an assessment from the top of Metapona river and downstream,” Mr Afuga said.

“The report did not mention anything about contamination,” he added.

Chairman of Gold Ridge Mining Limited (GRML) Walton Naezon earlier said the de-watering process will take about three months to complete.

He said one cubic meter of the treated water from the facility will be discharged into the nearby river.

 “After the dewatering of the one cubic meter of water from this dam, we will make sure that the remaining waters are treated and dewatered.

“This is one of the company’s priorities to make sure that the six meters of cubic water content in this dam are dewatered this year,” Mr Naezon added.

According to operators of the tailings dam treatment plant, about 550 cubic meters of water are expected to be treated per hour and the treatment duration will take up to 59 days.

The Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Environment and Climate Change Dr Melchior Mataki said during the course of the dewatering, the ministry will work alongside the company to make sure that the company complies with the conditions of its licence.

Guadalcanal community downstream of troubled Gold Ridge mine fear dewatering is out of control

Lindsay Newland Bowker

7 April 2016

Sadly, this news this morning from the Solomon’s, underscores the universality of the issues of disenfranchisement and lack of accountability to fundamental community needs and values that is endemic to the "social license to operate" as defined and promulgated by the mining cartel and adopted by local communities and indigenous peoples themselves..

In this case, the mine owners are disgruntled landowners, indigenous peoples, who foolishly orchestrated a sort of hostile takeover of the never profitable Gold Ridge Mine. Local control motivated by profits and a piece of the pie without adequate technical knowledge and adequate capital is as dangerous and as disenfranchising to surrounding community as operation by any miner.

All mines require adequate capital. excellence in technical and scientific knowledge, and a standard of design and operation that is accountable in the first instance to environmental security and preservation of community . Local control and local input must be about securing this for every mine that is allowed to operate and expand.

This 20 million cubic meter TSF has hovered on the brink of collapse for over a year. Landowners sought what St Barbara had been denied before it was locked out: permission to dewater at a very high rate of release and without treatment.

Because of downstream community and environmental issues UNESCO stepped in with its own independent technically expert team and established standards on a safe rate of release and a requirement for treatment. Local government had been prepared to grant an untreated release at unsafe levels. All that took a long time and the dam was in a crisis when all these discussions began (as at Mt. Polley).

Dewatering of treated waters began only a few weeks ago but not in time to bring the dam to a stable level of surface water volume before the rainy season began. Local control has not brought increased levels of accountability to environmental security or to the safety and preservation of downstream communities.

Like so many other mines that have failed at a catastrophic level this deposit was never properly assessed in the first instance. Flow sheets, and tinkering with them over several turnovers in ownership, all propped up by the World Bank, IFC and the Australian Export Credit Agency never found a flow sheet that could profitably mine this anomalous deposit. Recovery rates at each new expansion or tinkering got lower and lower.

The latest tinker and expansion had already been initiated and miners already knew it had failed again when they went looking for some hapless buyer that they found in St. Barbara, after quite a time. (there was no long line of eager offerors). St. Barbara has since admitted they did no independent assessment pre acquisition but relied on the representation of Australian Government.

Very shortly after St. Barbara's ill-advised acquisition, the rapid rate of deposition to the TSF, well beyond what facility designers had prescribed (it was filled to near max in a much shorter time than was planned life of mine) had pushed it to the verge of crisis. This is the story behind almost all catastrophic tailings failures. Bad practice and/or miner incompetence.

St. Barbara went back to Australia leaving no personnel to manage the mine or reduce the threat level when local government refused to allow them a huge discharge of untreated water to avert collapse. St. Barbara refused to install the promised water treatment facility and during their absence their site was taken over by artisan miners. Government refused the security and protection St Barbara expected as a condition of returning in any way. (Throughout the life of the mine, miners and the Australian Government have "papered over" the fundamental issues of technical incompetence that plagued this mine as a matter only of political risk and social unrest, of unpredictable fluctuations in commodity prices, and a disorganized and incompetent local government.)

Local government locked St. Barbara out and local landowners who were owed much money under prior agreements took control and ownership including responsibility for all liabilities. They naively assumed, as many citizens do, that all mines are cash in the ground and that there would be a long list of interested parties to co-venture with landowners in the reopening and operation of the mine.

After quite a while the only partner to step forward, AXF, a conglomerate of extremely wealthy Chinese individuals, has no experience whatsoever in mining (they are in the entertainment and commercial property development business... Not clear what motivated AXF but Bowker Associates is investigating whether again tinkering by the Australian Government, perhaps in connection with qualifying for investor immigration requirements that trades presence and investment of foreign entities for investment in desired or high risk projects ). AXF created a separate entity for this partnership which was executed in December 2015. AXF, like the hapless landowners, probably didn't even know what questions to ask before it signed on.

So this apparently out of control dewatering, as it seems to the excluded and most directly threatened Guadalcanal community downstream, has no mining competent persons involved locally to assess and oversee and accomplish a safe dewatering. (At least no contracts with competent engineers and scientists have been announced). There is no one of competence to speak to the concerns of the Guadalcanal community; no one of competence to give any meaningful assurances at all.

Speaking concerns is not enough to solve the complex problems of mining necessary to satisfactory levels of environmental and community security. Concerns, when addressed to the absence of competence can't possibly bring fruitful or timely solutions. To be effective on mining threats, spoken concerns must come with that competence and demand that that competence be provided as part of the operating and oversight of the mine.

This applies as well to concerns about fair and equitable implementation of the Samarco settlement and to the nature of mobilization required to bring that about.

It illustrates that local control, especially without adequate capital for management and adequate technical knowhow is not inherently a positive and where a serious danger is present, as at this mine, puts the entire downstream at risk with no means of mitigating the danger.

Dewatering starts at Solomons gold mine

1 April 2016

The local owners of Solomon Islands Gold Ridge gold mine have begun the dewatering process at the mine's overfull tailings dam.

This comes several months after a water treatment plant was installed for the purpose which is deemed an important step towards restarting the mine operation.

The chairperson of Gold Ridge Community Investments Ltd, Walton Naezon, said a series of lab tests found the treated water surpassed WHO standards for safe water and saw them awarded a licence to begin draining the dam.

"And our licencse is to dewater about 540 thousand cubic meters of water. And we will do 12 thousand cubic meters a day at about 500 cubic metres an hour. So that is the licence we got and we have started and we hope to go for the next three months."

Work towards reopening the project appears to be finally gaining momentum.

Walton Naezon said the next three months would also see structural and engineering assessments carried out at the mine complex in preparation for reconstruction work to begin.

In December, Gold Ridge Community Investments Limited signed an agreement with Australia-based Chinese company AXF Group to take on operation of the mine.

Mr Naezon signalled that things were finally moving forward and said he was looking forward to a meeting with AXF Group.

"I think the government is doing a lot of good things," said Mr Naezon.

"I think they are helping the process and their policy is pretty clear and we are ready to go ahead and get this partner across in the next month and finalise the joint venture agreement and shareholder arrangement and then we will start developing the project."

Gov’t to closely monitor Gold Ridge dewatering

1 April 2016   

THE Government, through the Ministry of Environment, Climate Change, Disaster Management and Meteorology will be working closely with the Gold Ridge Mining Limited to monitor the current dewatering of the Tailings Storage Facility (TSF).

This was revealed to the media by the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry, Dr Melchior Mataki, during an interview at the site on Wednesday.

He said, the ministry will work alongside the company to make sure that the company is complying with the conditions of the license.

It was understood that, the government has also given temporary approval for the Gold Ridge Mining Company limited to also discharge untreated water from the Tailings Storage Facility (TSF), during the cause of the current dewatering process.

Dr Mataki explained that, the discharge of untreated water is paramount at this stage, basically to reduce the water level of the TSF.

The Government has granted approval on March 19th for the dewatering process to take place following wider community consultations and consideration of samples from the TSF to make sure the discharged water is safe.

It will take about three months for the process to be completed with the first 1 meter of treated water to be discharged into the nearby river this week.

The company is expecting to discharge 6 meters of treated water from the dam this year.

Meanwhile, the dewatering process has relieved uncertainties among downstream communities, the company and the government of the risk of overflowing during the rainy season with the potential to trigger an environmental disaster.

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