Rising water levels in tailings dam of Solomon Islands mine poses a threat to life and property.
Radio New Zealand
An Australian mine company says lives could be lost if there is not an immediate action to lower dangerous water levels in the tailings dam of the Gold Ridge mine in Solomon Islands.
The mine has been shut since April after extensive flooding on Guadalcanal.
The chief executive of Gold Ridge’s parent company, St Barbara, Bob Vassie, told Don Wiseman not a day passes when he does not worry about the growing threat posed by the tailings dam.
He says the water level in the storage facility is already too high and the company is prepared to take immediate action to ensure there is no unpredictable overflow, but the Solomons’ government is dragging the chain.
BOB VASSIE: What the company wants to do and is prepared to fund and has the equipment available already. Is to mobilise two pumps and a large generator and fuel system to be able to immediately pump high volumes of water, into the existing lines that go into the Tinahula River. On the basis that the water is of acceptable quality, given the Australian and New Zealand standards and that it would also be further diluted in the river. Because the only other alternative, is that the water level will climb and will go over top of the spillway and go into a gorge that has communities living along it.
DON WISEMAN: How quickly can you get in there?
BV: If we got the go ahead and we’ve been asking for this since the first of September. But if we got the go ahead today, we could probably get in, what we’ve been saying is seven days. But we’d look at every opportunity, with the support of the police and perhaps the Australian government or even the New Zealand government and people that deal with the Solomon Islands, that we would speed that up as much as we could.
DW: You need police support because you’ve had a lot of vandalism at the site and you can’t leave gear, the new gear you’d bring in you can’t leave that lying around?
BV: Exactly, I mean, well it’s been destroyed twice this year. And it’s not only just looking after the gear, it’s security. You know we have had threats on people as recently as last month who were trying to measure the situation at the tailings storage facility.
DW: The government has seemed co-operative but there’s been the elections so it’s been distracted somewhat hasn’t it?
BV: There has been an election, but we’ve been on about this for months. It’s just a stunning lack of leadership to make a very, very rational decision. This one thing, that could really cause a localised disaster, of either water or much worse happening.
DW: Are you suggesting that there could be lives lost?
BV: Yeah, it depends on the weather. If a lot of water comes down, it would over top the existing spillway. Now we were in the act of making a new lined spillway, but that equipment was destroyed. So the existing spillway, only has a sort of geo- fabric and conveyor belt to protect it. So in a higher rainfall event, what would happen is, water would over top and it would start to erode at the spillway. The more it erodes the lower the spillway gets and then compounds and you will get a lot of water coming out. If a lot of water comes out it will do two things. One is it will start to take tailings with it,which will be an environmental consequence that would not be good. The water you can generally deal with, because as we are saying, the water is OK. But bringing tailings into the environment is never a good thing. But then if it erodes enough that a lot of water comes out in a fairly quick time, there’s about a kilometre gorge before it hits the main river. That could cause localised flash flooding in those communities, which runs the risk of loss of life. Now, we’ve done all we can to try and convince the government to try and approve the alternative. Which is pumping clean water into the river, that’s not so clean itself. But what we’ve done now is warn the community, that if this was to happen, they need to be aware, that they may need to evacuate. And we have also in our response to the Ministry of Environment that if they are not prepared to approve our de-watering plan which was submitted twice now then we need to move from working to avoid a disaster to planning for one. And therefore the government should be developing evacuation plans, such that in the outcome there’s an environmental one that can be remediated rather than a loss of property and life.