MAC: Mines and Communities

The impacts of gold mine tailings in Australia

Published by MAC on 2004-03-16

Gold's failing tailings

By Ean Higgins, The Australian

March 16 2004

The first thing Steve Kean noticed was the dead lizards on his prospecting lease, beside Australia's biggest gold mine near Kalgoorlie. Parts of the area became boggy, and the trees and vegetation started looking sicker and went the same way as the lizards.

Then the kangaroos became ill, Kean says, after drinking from the ponds that started forming on his land.

"They don't drop dead straight away - it's a cumulative effect - the toxins gradually build up in the system," he says.

Kean's prospecting lease became impossible to work, he says, becoming a "toxic cocktail" of cyanide, arsenic, and xanthate. "How would you like to work in a hole with that on your skin ?" Kean asks.

Kean's small, private Optimum Resources has been fighting a battle for more than a decade against Kalgoorlie Consolidated Gold Mines, owned in equal measure by Australia's Newmont group and the Toronto-based multinational Barrick.

He says his land has been contaminated by two gigantic, 460ha tailings dams containing the ends of the gold-making process left by mixing ore, water, and chemicals including sodium cyanide used to leach out the metals.

Kean says the poisonous substances have been leaking through the walls and from the bottom of the dams into ground water, and back up. But he says this is only "the tip of the iceberg" of the environmental pollution which extends well beyond his lease.

Kean also claims that state government agencies failed to do their job. "The departmental regulators are a disgrace to the industry, not just for not looking after my rights but for not protecting the environment," he says.

For years, KCGM contested Kean's claims at virtually every point, and he seemed to be on the losing end of a David and Goliath battle based on conflicting scientific argument.

But now the tables have turned in Kean's favour. An independent report commissioned by the Western Australian Government and tabled in Parliament this month, looking at a range of issues concerning KCGM, found merit in the thrust of Kean's claims.

In his report, Curtin University of Technology academic Tony Cooke said: "The evidence supports the contentions of Optimum Resources that their lease has been directly and adversely effected (sic) by the location and management of the two TSF's (tailings dams)".

Cooke said it appeared seepage had occurred into the floodway between the two dams, and "groundwater mounding" had intensified the problem. He warned: "The situation is of adverse consequence to the environment in general and potentially to public health and safety." Among other things, the Adelaide-Perth railway line runs through the area, the report notes.

In tabling the report, State Development Minister Clive Brown said the allegations of administrative bungling would be put to the State's Corruption & Crime Commission, although making clear there was no evidence that any "acts or omissions could be attributed to corrupt dealings".

So seriously did Cooke take the situation that he recommended that if the dispute between Optimum and KCGM could not be solved within "a reasonable period", the two tailing dams should be shut down -- a move which would effectively close the mine and its 800,000 ounce annual production, worth $US320 million at current prices. Cooke also said the decision to increase the height of the wall of one of the tailings dams should be reviewed in light of the report.

The affair still has a long way to go -- KCGM and the other parties have until early April and possibly longer to provide formal responses to the Cooke report before the Western Australian Government will decide how to act, a spokesman for Brown says.

The Australian put a series of questions to KCGM about Kean's specific allegations of contamination and dying animals, and Cooke's findings of leakages. KCGM spokeswoman Danielle Van Kampen responded with a general statement: "Our extensive management practices -- which are consistent with the International Cyanide Management Code -- are designed to protect human health and the environment and include protective infrastructure, monitoring and inspection to ensure environment, birds and wildlife are not adversely affected. We're confident we manage our facilities well.

"More importantly, we believe there is no adverse impact on environment or public safety. With respect to the Cooke report, we are pleased that the report acknowledges some of the previously identified, long-running issues that KCGM has been working hard to resolve over a number of years, such as that of the Optimum Resources leases. It is our firm belief that the Optimum leases have not been adversely affected by the KCGM tailings dams and we trust an impartial analysis of all relevant evidence relating to the tailings storage facility would support this belief."

What the Cooke report highlights is that, while the Australian gold mining industry claims to use world's best practice in its operations, it involves some extremely dangerous chemicals and processes. Those are now coming back under review, and not just as the subject of environmentalist pressure. Apart from the Cooke report, the federal Government is on the trail of the key ingredient in the gold mining process: sodium cyanide. The National Industrial Chemical Notification and Assessment Scheme (NICNAS) has been reviewing the use and transport of the chemical and will come out with a draft report in June.

While the argument of the industry is that it abides by the rules, the NICNAS review will look at whether the rules are good enough. While most regulations affecting these sorts of activities are governed by States, through memorandums of understanding, NICNAS can generally impose its will, its director, Margaret Hartley, says.

The initial findings presented at a series of seminars this month by NICNAS officers caused a stir in the gold industry.

"We are predicting an environmental risk of some source to birds and animals," Hartley says, referring to tailings dams.

Hartley's group is also looking at the transportation of sodium cyanide, which is mostly done in trucks, tankers or rail cars containing solid pellets or briquets, but in some cases as a liquid.

There have been some minor transportation accidents in Australia, including a case where a driver dumped a residual load of liquid cyanide in the desert. A big bird kill was reported some years ago at one mine.

Hartley is looking at one horror scenario in which "you have a tanker of sodium cyanide and it tips over and leaks into a local creek". According to the Kyrgyzstan government, that is exactly what happened in 1998 when a cyanide-laden truck fell off a bridge and plunged into a river, resulting in hundreds of people turning up to hospital and at least one fatality -- an account disputed by the company involved.

One very public catastrophe occurred in 2000, when a gold mining tailings dam in Romania, then controlled by Australian company Esmeralda Exploration, collapsed during a period of heavy rainfall. Some 120 tonnes of cyanide poured into the Tisza river, as well as heavy metal sludge. The spill killed 100 per cent of the plankton in the upper stretches of the river, 1240 tonnes of dead fish were dragged out, and some pollution reached the Danube. Hartley says that theoretically, NICNAS could recommend closing down the sodium cyanide industry. In reality, it was less "black and white", but new measures could involve engineering restrictions such as requiring tailing ponds to be covered.

"I would be expecting there will be recommendations for changes in using this compound," she says.

Apart from the gold industry, the NICNAS review could potentially affect the three manufacturers of sodium cyanide: Orica, Australian Gold Reagents and Ticor.

Ticor Chemicals general manager Rick Benjamin says his company had never had an accident, and "any further restrictions would adversely impact on our costs".

Anglo-Gold Australia general manager Barrie Parker says that without cyanide, there would be no gold industry in Australia. "There is no commercially available alternative technology at the present time, and there hasn't been for a century," Parker says. Technology has improved, however, in reducing the toxicity of cyanide entering the tailings dams, he says, with a range of chemical treatments available.

This argument is being used by Barrick in another controversial development at Lake Cowal in NSW. Back in 1996, the state government knocked back the proposal, then put forward by North Ltd (now part of Rio Tinto), for environmental reasons -- the site is near wetlands recognised as important for migratory birds. But in 1999, the Carr Government reversed gear and approved the $US270 million ($367.6 million) plan.

The difference, says Barrick spokesman David Tucker, is that the location and size of the tailings dams were adjusted, new controls of waste on and off the site put in place, and a "cyanide destruct circuit" installed to bring the cyanide concentrations to less than half the specified maximum levels.

The green movement is not convinced, and is continuing a vigorous campaign against the project, which has recently commenced construction.

As Parker points out, cyanide is always going to have a bit of an image problem. "It all goes back to the days it was used in the gas chambers," he says.

C News Limited 2004 -


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