A dam in the Solomon Islands that was recently declared a danger zone will be drained of water to prevent it from overflowing.
Stefan Armbruster | SBS
Water will be drained from the Solomon Islands gold mine tailings dam, which was declared a disaster zone by the country’s government this week.
An uncontrolled water release could damage the dam wall holding back tens of millions of tonnes of toxic sludge. Thousands of villagers live in the valley below along the Matepono river system.
Permanent Secretary for the Department of Environment and chair of the National Disaster Council Mel Mataki, confirmed to SBS a dewatering licence would be issued.
The licence will allow the pumping of 540,000 cubic metres of water from the dam, but Dr Mataki would not detail other conditions.
The mine formerly owned by Australian company St Barbara was sold to landowner company Gold Ridge Community Investment Ltd (GCIL) in May for A$100, including all environmental and rehabilitation liability.
Gold Ridge was shut down in April 2014 after flash flooding filled the tailings dam to dangerously high levels.
Looters then overran the site and destroyed the mine’s water treatment plant for pumping the tailings dam water into the local river system.
The Solomon Islands government repeatedly refused St Barbara’s applications to release the untreated water to ease the threat of the dam’s failure.
A World Health Organisation report commissioned by the Solomons government released in April found releasing untreated water containing arsenic, cyanide and other heavy metals would be “not toxic to humans”, but as a short-term measure only.
Local landowners have long expressed concerns about dewatering.
“We are concerned over the de-watering process that they will carry out at the tailings dam,” Timothy Urobo of the Ravu downstream communities told Solomons Islands Broadcasting Corporation.
“I did a site visit just recently and found out that it is dangerous for us, the downstream communities, especially people who are living along the Metapono river and also the surrounding villages including Ngalimbiu to Balasuna.”
Chair of landowner company GCIL Walton Naezon told the Island Sun newspaper water will not be removed from the dam until a water treatment plant is installed and communities properly consulted.
St Barbara agreed to replace the twice vandalised water treatment plant as a condition of the sale to landowners
It did not respond to an SBS enquiry about when the plant would be operational, but company representatives have reportedly returned to the mine site in the last week.