MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Lafayette cyanide spill probed

Published by MAC on 2005-11-11

Lafayette cyanide spill probed

Robin Bromby, The Australian

November 11, 2005

EMERGING copper and zinc producer Lafayette Mining has committed one of the cardinal sins of mining in a developing country - it has caused environmental pollution from gold production, in this case by releasing low levels of cyanide from a tailings dam in the Philippines.

All mining has been suspended at the Rapu Rapu Island project while the company and the Philippines' environmental and mines agencies investigate the incidents. The mine has been producing gold since April and only started base-metal production on Monday.

Lafayette said the Philippine Government was concerned and the local people feared the dam would fail, sending pollution into their fishing grounds.

Lafayette chief executive Andrew McIlwain, speaking from the Philippines yesterday, said the company was well aware of the political sensitivity to such environment accidents. "I know that only too well - it's one thing we certainly didn't want to happen," he said.

The first accident happened on October 11 when a discharge pond at the mine became too full and 5 cubic metres containing low levels of cyanide was discharged into surrounding areas. Mr McIlwain said that the pond had been fixed.

The second incident occurred on November 1 when, following torrential rain, Lafayette allowed a controlled discharge from the tailings pond - which it was permitted to do. But this alarmed local people.

The incident remains minor by comparison with some of the worst accidents caused by Australian companies abroad, but the contamination has caused strong local reactions.

Perth junior Esmeralda Exploration discharged cyanide from its Romanian gold mine in 2000 and the pollution ended up in the Danube. BHP was blamed for killing sections of the Fly River in Papua New Guinea when it operated the Ok Tedi copper-gold mine there - and river pollution from the Panguna mine was one of the issues fuelling the rebel uprising on Bougainville.

In the Philippines itself, foreign access to minerals was severely hampered in the mid-1990s when Placer Dome's tailings dam burst at the Marinduque mine, causing damage that is still being litigated.

Lafayette is converting Rapu Rapu from a gold to a copper and zinc operation. It closed 1.5c down at 15c.

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