A gold mine abandoned by an Australian company and threatening a possible environmental disaster in the Solomon Islands is once again up for sale amid rising concerns over the leaking of toxic sludge.
Stefan Armbruster | SBS
A gold mine abandoned by an Australian company and threatening a possible environmental disaster in the Solomon Islands is up for sale.
Land owners are now in a race against time to find a new investor to reopen the mine and secure its tailing dam.
“That’s the most difficult thing we are trying to do,” said Ben Afuga, a local landowner and a director of GoldRidge Community Investment, the mine’s current owner.
“So we do a make-up, put on some cosmetic and hopefully attract someone who hasn’t seen this woman before and is happy to go with her in bed, so we are looking for someone to sleep with and hopefully that will be our husband for the full life of this mine,” he said, alluding to the mine’s chequered history.
In the mountains behind the Solomon Islands capital Honiara there are fortunes to be made and lost.
Four owners have tried to tap the fortunes of Gold Ridge. The mine has gone from promising an economic bonanza for the Solomon Islands to an environmental hazard.
Gold Ridge was shut down after it was hit by devastating flash flood and then looted in April last year.
St Barbara pulled out, leaving the mine’s tailings dam critically full.
“A dam like this, it needs to be actively monitored and managed, and it doesn’t appear to be the case.”
“It needs active management, the chemistry of the water, the volumes going in, the volumes going out, potentially through evaporation or discharge,” said Dr Gavin Mudd, an environmental engineer from Monash University.
“If that’s not being actively managed that does raise concerns that you could get to a very risky scenario.”
The mine’s water treatment plant was destroyed in last year’s looting.
“If it was working that would be another way to reduce the water volumes in the dam and help reduce the risks overall, but for a dam like this it needs to be actively monitored and managed, and it doesn’t appear to be the case,” Dr Mudd said.
The land owners are poor and they cannot even afford an office in the capital Honiara to sell their mine but they try to maintain the tailings dam.
“It’s not properly managed, it’s not properly designed for the highest waters go across [the spillway] because it will cause erosion and there are slides going down and also the toxin of the chemical, so it is risky,” said former mine worker and landowner Densley Tari.
He says the tailings dam is at the highest level he has ever seen it. Last week Tropical Cyclone Raquel just missed the mine.
Landowners fear it would take just one more flash flood for the spillway to overflow, eroding the dam wall.
“It will break, causing the dam wall [to] collapse,” he said.
The government last year rejected St Barbara’s application to release untreated water.
A World Health Organisation (WHO) report commissioned by the government supported emptying some water in the short-term, saying pollutants would be naturally diluted.
“The science used by the World Health Organisation … is quite reasonable, I don’t disagree with that at all,” said Dr Mudd.
“The way that should be handled is better oversight and better governance to address community concerns, but that requires a lot more active role from government, but that seems to be obviously missing.”
The water is not the main concern. A more serious problem is the tens of millions of tonnes of toxic sludge in the tailings dam that could be released.
“What are more dangerous are the levels of arsenic and cyanide in the tailing sediments which are extremely higher than the ANZECC (Australian and New Zealand Environment Conservation Council) and WHO guidelines in the order of 30 and 30,000 times higher for cyanide and arsenic respectively,” the government said in a statement in April.
“Once things get out of hand, it will be treated as a natural disaster and the government has an obligation to help in that situation,” said Mr Afuga adding the government had given guarantees.
Previous owners, Australia’s St Barbara lost $A300 million in two years digging holes at Gold Ridge.
“What are more dangerous are the levels of arsenic and cyanide in the tailing sediments… in the order of 30 and 30,000 times higher for cyanide and arsenic respectively.”
When the government banned the release of untreated water on environmental grounds, a frustrated St Barbara sold Gold Ridge and all legal liability to the local landowner group for $A100.
“We think it’s a good deal, very cheap for us. We took this opportunity and grabbed it,” said Mr Afuga.
“Just like in any business there are risks, and it depends on how you manage the risk, and we’re prepared to take on the risk.”
In a statement to SBS, St Barbara said the land owners’ group is experienced in the mine’s operation
“The chairman of GCIL is a former minister of mines involved in the original state agreement for the Gold Ridge Mine and many of the directors and the landowners represented by the deal have previously been employed at the mine since its inception in the 1990s and have a long history with the mine,” it said.
“All indications, through the Solomon Islands media and feedback received directly from Solomon Islands government representatives, indicated full support for the … sale.”
“St Barbara is also funding construction, delivery and installation of a water treatment plant (the prior two plants having been destroyed through vandalism) and left pumping equipment in place for the immediate controlled dewatering of untreated water.”
The Solomon Islands minister for mines was unavailable for comment.
One potential suitor has already walked away and another is wanted, before the next extreme weather event hits.