Tag Archives: tailings dam

Brazil dam disaster: firm knew of potential impact months in advance

Unreported documents show mining company was aware of threat before country’s worst environmental disaster – but firm failed to take action, prosecutors allege

Dom Phillips and Davilson | The Guardian | 1 March 2018

Six months before a dam containing millions of litres of mining waste collapsed, killing 19 people in Brazil’s worst environmental disaster, the company operating the mine accurately predicted the potential impact of such a disaster in a worst-case risk assessment.

But federal prosecutors claim the company – a joint venture between the Brazilian mining giant Vale and the Anglo-Australian multinational BHP Billiton – failed to take actions that they say could have prevented the disaster. The prosecutors instead claim the company focused on cutting costs and increasing production.

“They prioritized profits and left safety in second place,” said José Adércio Sampaio, coordinator of a taskforce of federal prosecutors, summarising the criminal case against the joint venture and its parent companies.

When the Fundão tailings dam failed on 5 November 2015, it unleashed about 40m litres of water and sediment from iron ore extraction in a wave that polluted the water supply for hundreds of thousands of people, decimated wildlife and spewed a rust-red plume of mud down the Doce river.

Yet more than two years later, nobody has accepted responsibility.

Previously unreported internal documents from the joint venture Samarco show that six months before the collapse, the company carried out a worst-case assessment of the dam, near Mariana in Minas Gerais state.

The Fundão dam had a catastrophic failure in 2015, causing flooding and at least 17 deaths. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

The document – one of hundreds submitted to the court by prosecutors – warned that a maximum possible loss from a “liquification break” could mean up to 20 deaths, cause serious impacts to land, water resources and biodiversity over 20 years, and cost $3.4bn.

The prosecutors’ complaint also includes harrowing accounts by survivors from Bento Rodrigues, a small community obliterated by the mud released in the disaster.

Wesley Izabel managed to save his two-year-old son, Nicolas, but his daughter, Emanuelle, 5, slipped from his fingers to her death.

When the mud engulfed her house, Darcy Santos heard her grandson Thiago, 7, cry “help me, Jesus!” before he was suffocated.

In 2016, 21 people were charged with qualified homicide, including Samarco’s former CEO and representatives from Vale and BHP Billiton on its board of directors. All the defendants and three companies were also charged with environmental damage.

A separate civil action by prosecutors seeking $48bn in damages was launched in 2016 and is still being negotiated. In January last year, prosecutors and the three companies signed a preliminary deal worth $680m to guarantee recuperation work.

In statements to the Guardian, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton said they rejected the charges, that safety had been and remained a priority and that the dam complied with Brazilian legislation. The companies have separately said they would defend their employees and executives.

Separately from the civil action, the three companies made a deal with the federal and state governments in March 2016 to carry out repair, restoration and reconstruction programmes. They have spent more than $1bn on a huge clean-up and relief operation, separate from civil actions launched by prosecutors.

Samarco has also paid about $6.7m in fines levied separately by the state government of Minas Gerais – but none of the 24 fines totalling $105m imposed by the Brazilian government’s environment agency, Ibama.

“Samarco believes there are technical and juridical aspects in the decisions that need to be re-evaluated,” the company said in a statement.

None of the 375 families who lost their homes have yet been rehoused.

“It is a lot of injustice,” said Sandra Quintão, 45, whose small restaurant in Bento Rodrigues was swallowed by the mud.

Until the disaster, Samarco was a Brazilian success story. In 2014, despite falling international iron prices, it declared a net profit of $1.3bn.

But prosecutors allege that its directors encouraged the company to keep cutting costs.

When the dam failed, it unleashed about 40m litres of water and sediment from iron ore extraction. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

According to minutes from an August 2015 board meeting, which were included in the legal proceedings, company directors said: “Despite the improvements in cost reduction the world is not standing still and further improvements are needed.”

The importance of safety was also stressed at board meetings. At a meeting in August 2012, the board praised Samarco’s safety performance and said the company should “maintain its focus on eliminating fatal risks”.

Prosecutors say that the Fundão tailings dam, one of several huge earthworks built to store iron ore mining waste, had always been problematic.

“The dam had been giving problems year after year,” claimed Sampaio, the prosecutor.

Almost as soon as it started operating in 2008, the dam presented problems with its drainage system and signs of erosion, according to photographs and inspection reports included in court documents.

Samarco lowered the reservoir, changed the drainage system and embarked on a series of remedial works.

After the disaster, Samarco, Vale and BHP Billiton commissioned an investigation by the international law firm Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton (CGSH). Published in August 2016, it found that construction flaws had damaged the dam’s original drainage system and described attempts to correct the problems.

The report also pointed to three small seismic shocks in the area about 90 minutes before the dam failed. “This additional movement is likely to have accelerated the failure process that was already well advanced,” it said.

The CGSH report did not apportion any blame and Samarco said it would not comment on it. Many of the issues it described are also included in the prosecutors’ complaint.

Seepage, saturation and cracking were seen at the dam in 2013, and again in August 2014, the report said. Samarco reinforced the dam with a berm.

Sandra Quintão, a survivor from Bento Rodrigues, with her daughter in front of a temporary new house in Mariana. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

A month later, Pimenta de Ávila, a consultant who had previously carried out work for Samarco, reported that “static liquefaction could be present”, documents show. He inspected the area in December 2014 and told prosecutors he had informed Samarco the situation “was not under control”.

Samarco continued raising the height of the dam. According to the CGSH report, this was done in part to enable the company to correct drainage problems.

In separate responses to the Guardian, all three companies denied the prosecutors’ charges.

Samarco did not respond to questions on the dam’s problems, its failure and the risk assessment. In a statement, it said prosecutors had “disregarded the defences and testimonies presented during investigations”, which it said “prove that Samarco did not have any previous knowledge of the risk to its structures”.

BHP Billiton, which owns half of Samarco, said in an email: “We have no reason to believe BHP people knew the dam was at risk of failing. BHP and its representatives will defend these charges.”

Vale, which owns the other half of the joint venture, said in an email that it “repudiates vehemently the complaint presented by prosecutors because innumerable pieces of evidence and testimony presented in the case files that proved that Vale was never responsible for the operational management of the Fundão dam were disrespected”. Vale said: “Board members were always expressively assured of the regularity of the structures.”

According to minutes included in court documents, Samarco’s board of directors, which included representatives of Vale and BHP Billiton, was briefed several times between 2009 and 2014 on the dam’s construction problems and efforts to fix it.

Minutes for all of these meetings – included in court documents – state that representatives from all three companies attended.

At the time of the disaster, the Fundão dam was fitted with devices used to measure liquid pressure and water level, but according to the prosecutors’ case, several were either not working, lacked batteries or had been moved to another dam. Samarco declined to comment on this.

President Michel Temer’s business-friendly government wants to increase mining, even in sensitive areas like the Amazon, and make environmental licensing more flexible. Photograph: Nicoló Lanfranchi

There was no warning siren. When the dam broke, residents were warned by telephone calls or – in Quintão’s case – by a neighbour who roared up on a motorbike shouting: “The dam has burst!”

Samarco said that at the time of the disaster, sirens were not legally required.

The court case, which is being heard in the town of Ponte Nova, is in its preliminary stage and the judge is yet to decide whether it will be heard by a jury.

It was suspended in July after the former Samarco CEO Ricardo Vescovi and another defendant complained that wiretaps were recorded outside of the investigation period, and that the inclusion as evidence of corporate emails and chats invaded their privacy.

The case resumed in November, after the judge decided that corporate emails and chats could not be included and ruled to separate out the cases involving foreign defendants.

Samarco and its owners are keen to return to production. In December, Samarco was given preliminary licences by the Minas Gerais state government’s environment agency for a new reject storage system at the plant.

President Michel Temer’s business-friendly government wants to increase mining, even in sensitive areas like the Amazon, and make environmental licensing more flexible.

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Mining waste dams threaten people and the environment: UN

UN Body Urges Mining Companies To Put Safety First

New UNEP report “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident” finds mining waste dams threaten people and the environment

Earthworks, MiningWatch, Amnesty, London Mining Network | 23 October 2017

An international coalition of non-governmental organizations welcomes the new Assessment Report Summary released last week in Geneva by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), which urges States and the industry to end deadly and damaging mining waste spills by enforcing a “zero-failure objective.”

The joint UNEP-GRID Arendal assessment, “Mine Tailings Storage: Safety Is No Accident,” highlights over 40 mining waste failures over the last decade, including eight ‘significant’ spills since 2014 alone. These failures have killed some 341 people since 2008, damaged hundreds of kilometers of waterways, affected drinking water sources, and jeopardized the livelihoods of many communities.

The report was prompted, the authors write, by mining waste “disasters and rising global concerns about the safety, management and impacts of storing and managing large volumes of mine tailings.” They cite examples such as the Ajka-Kolontár operation in Hungary in 2010 (MAL Hungarian Aluminium), the Mount Polley disaster in Canada in 2014 (Imperial Metals), the Buena Vista Del Cobre spill in Mexico in 2014 (Grupo Mexico), the massive Samarco dam breach in Brazil in 2015 (Vale and BHP Billiton), and the very recent Tonglvshan Mine spill in China in 2017 (China Daye Ltd.).

UNEP and GRID-Arendal point to thousands of mining waste dams worldwide that pose a potential threat to people and the environment located downstream, noting that: “The increasing number and size of tailings dams around the globe magnifies the potential environmental, social and economic cost of catastrophic failure impact and the risks and costs of perpetual management. These risks present a challenge for this generation, and if not addressed now, a debt we will leave to future generations.” — UNEP-GRID Arendal Assessment Report Summary, October 2017

The summary report makes 18 recommendations, including two overarching ones:

  • “The approach to tailings storage facilities must place safety first by making environmental and human safety a priority in management actions and on-the-ground operations. Regulators, industry and communities should adopt a shared zero-failure objective to tailings storage facilities where ‘safety attributes should be evaluated separately from economic considerations, and cost should not be the determining factor’ (Mount Polley expert panel, 2015, p. 125)”
  • “Establish a UN Environment stakeholder forum to facilitate international strengthening of tailings dam regulation.”

Other recommendations include:

  • Transparency: “Establish an accessible public-interest, global database of mine sites, tailings storage facilities and research” and “Fund research into mine tailings storage failures and management of active, inactive and abandoned mine sites.”
  • Accountability: “Expand mining regulations to include independent monitoring and the enforcement of financial and criminal sanctions for non-compliance.”
  • Best Practices: “Avoid dam construction methods known to be high risk,” and “require detailed and ongoing evaluations of potential failure modes, residual risks and perpetual management costs of tailings storage facilities.”
  • Financial Securities: “Enforce mandatory financial securities for life of the mine;” “establish a global financial assurance system for mine-sites,” and “fund a global insurance pool.” Also, “ensure any project assessment or expansion publishes all externalized costs, with an independent life-of-mine sustainability cost-benefit analysis.”

The undersigned organizations support the UNEP recommendations and urge all UN member States and governments to implement them swiftly in collaboration with all concerned, including non-governmental organizations and affected communities.

The UNEP-GRID-Arendal summary report and recommendations are available here.

QUOTES

“Mine waste storage facilities are like ticking time bombs, putting communities and waterways in harm’s way in the event of catastrophic failure. Even after the Mount Polley and Samarco disasters, which should have served as urgent wake-up calls, governments and companies have done far too little to prevent future disasters. Mining trade associations have tried to create the impression for regulators and investors that mining waste containment failure has been addressed, when that is far from accurate. We welcome the independent assessment by UNEP and urge companies and governments to act on these recommendations.” Payal Sampat, Earthworks

“Catastrophic mining waste failures are on the rise worldwide and on all continents. These environmental disasters indiscriminately hit developed and developing countries alike, and clearly appear to be driven by financial factors, not technical ones. This timely and much needed UNEP assessment should act as wake-up call for all States involved in regulating the mining industry. Safety must come before costs.” Ugo Lapointe, MiningWatch Canada

“We believe the recommendations from this UNEP summary report pose a serious challenge to mining companies to improve the rigour of their management of tailings facilities. Last week, we quoted the report in a challenge to the BHP Board in their London AGM to explain how they would ensure their responsibility for rigorous waste management. Their lack of a clear answer demonstrates how far these companies still need to go.”  Richard Harkinson, London Mining Network

“The long-reaching human rights impacts of catastrophic dam failures must not be underestimated. Indigenous peoples and marginalized communities around the globe face enormous uphill struggles for justice and accountability in the wake of mining disasters. Companies must not be permitted to short-cut their human rights responsibilities for the sake of cost, nor governments abdicate their human rights obligations when approving and regulating tailings storage facilities. The UNEP assessment is a welcome acknowledgement of the importance of tailings storage safety in the protection of human rights. “ Tara Scurr, Amnesty International Canada  

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Gold Ridge to restart within 18 months

Solomon Star | 11 August 2017

AXF Gold Ridge Pty Ltd of Australia says it has secured additional investor funding to start the immediate recommissioning of the Gold Ridge Mine Project.

“This investment will see mine production on track to start within 18 months,” a statement issued by the company on Wednesday stated.

“In an unprecedented partnership arrangement, Gold Ridge Community Investment Ltd (GCIL), which comprised the local land owners, owns 10% of Gold Ridge Mining Limited,” the statement added.

AXF Gold Ridge holds the balance of 90%.

The statement said additional capital and technical expertise from the Hong Kong publicly listed new shareholder Wanguo International Mining Group strengthens AXF Gold Ridge.

“New capital will help the Gold Ridge Mine Project reach its full potential.

“Wanguo International Mining Group led by Mingqing Gao has provided technical expertise to the Gold Ridge Mine Project for the past year.

“The strength of the partnership between landowners and AXF Resources, combined with the support from the government, has given Wanguo the confidence to commit as an investor to this project.”

Gold Ridge Mine’s principal landowners and community leaders confirmed their continued full support and commitment to the project during consultation.

Landowners agreed that by working together, the recommissioned Gold Ridge Mine would achieve new heights (Yu mi tugeda bae mekem Gold Ridge mine waka gud).

Richard Gu, Managing Director of the AXF Group and Director of AXF Gold Ridge Pty Limited, said:

“I feel humbled and proud that the project has reached this stage.

“I look forward to a long and fruitful development partnership with Gold Ridge Mine landowners, our investor, and the people and government of the Solomon Islands”.

Senior executives from AXF Gold Ridge including Chairman-elect Mingqing Gao, Richard Gu, and Dr Shaun Ren visited the Solomon Islands this week to celebrate the milestone with landowners and government officials.

At a meeting with Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, chairman-elect Mr Gao reinforced:

“The reopening of the Gold Ridge Mine will send a strong message to the investment community that the Solomon Islands is open for responsible and transparent mining business”.

Over the next 18 months, the come said the Gold Ridge mine site will undergo a complete refurbishment with infrastructure upgrades to improve site access and the construction of a new power station.

“An independent review of the tailings storage facility will be commissioned to minimise risk to local communities.

“Community relations activities will ramp up with one of the priorities the establishment of socially inclusive engagement mechanisms with landowners and local communities.”

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Another ‘world class’ mine embroiled in controversy

Report blasts Antofagasta Minerals’ Los Pelambres mine in Chile

Valentina Ruiz Leotaud | MINING.com | 22 May 2017

An 18-pages long report released today by the London Mining Network slams Antofagasta Minerals’ 60%-owned Los Pelambres copper mine, located in the central-northern of Chile in Coquimbo Region.

In a move that comes just a couple of days prior to Antofagasta’s annual general meeting in London, the document titled In the Valley of the Shadow of Death? A Report on Antofagasta Plc, Minera Los Pelambres and Los Caimanes, highlights allegations of corruption, environmental damage and water depletion caused by the project’s waste tailings dam.

According to the report, the El Mauro tailings dam, with a capacity of 1,700 million tonnes of mine waste, is the biggest in Latin America, surpassing Brazilian Samarco dam by 100 times. The magnitude of the dam, the dossier reads, is a cause of concern for both environmental groups and local residents, who think a similar the disaster to that that took place at Samarco in 2015 could happen in their own community.

Samarco’s breach was linked to small earthquakes and El Mauro’s facility not only is located in a highly seismic region, but it is also expected to grow in size as part of the Los Pelambres’ plans to expand production. “People living in the village of Caimanes would be expected to evacuate their homes within ten minutes of a breach at Antofagasta’s El Mauro dam,” the report states.

Los Pelambres has published a government-approved emergency plan, however, “residents’ attempts to access this plan using the Transparency Law have not been attended to,” today’s report adds.

Community concerns have resulted in a series of actions that date back to 2006 and that have delayed the company’s idea of building two new grinding mills and a desalination plant.

One of the major actions against the El Mauro tailings dam took place in July of 2013 when the Chilean Supreme Court ruled the tailings dam a “danger to human life” and made Minera Los Pelambres officially liable for any loss of human life in the event of a collapse of the dam.

El Mauro dam. Photo from Los Pelambres’ website.

Such ruling highlighted that the dam is constructed to withstand an earthquake of between 7.5 and 8.3 magnitude with an epicentre 80 km away, when the actual closest epicentre is just 60 km away. Thus, the company was ordered to submit the aforementioned emergency plan to reinforce the dam in case of an earthquake.

Later on, in May of 2014, Los Caimanes residents won a case against Minera Los Pelambres in the court of Los Vilos Province. The tailings dam was ruled a “Ruinous Work” (Obra Ruinosa – which asks for the demolition of the facility), in reference to the risk of the dam’s collapse in the event of an earthquake. However, the ruling was appealed in April of 2015, the company presented a safety action plan and a strategy to reduce the dam’s liquid content and, in the end, Los Pelambres won the appeal.

In October of that same year, in a case relating to the ongoing construction of the dam wall (“Obra Nueva”), the Chilean Supreme Court ordered Minera Los Pelambres to restore the free flow of uncontaminated water to the Pupio basin, where the tailings dam is located, and to do this by demolishing the tailings dam or by executing other actions that would help solve the situation. The company was permitted one month to present such alternative option.

In August of 2016, following an appeal of a prior decision against it by the Supreme Court, Los Pelambres was permitted to leave the dam in place, while improving its safety features and providing access to water in the area through pipes and tanks, rather than restoring the natural water flows.

The latter decision came following a May 2016 “Agreement of understanding and cooperation between the mining company and the residents of the Pupio valley,” which lays the groundwork for the expansion of the mine and tailings dam, or possible construction of another tailings dam in the area.

This agreement, says London Mining Network’s report quoting researchers and residents, had a lot of influence in the August of 2016 appeal and was led by lawyers that later on withdrew from the case. The document stated that families who signed would receive around £35,000 which, says LMN, wouldn’t sustain them for long. The activist group also says the money wouldn’t guarantee many of them the amount of land, or the standard of living, they had prior to the construction of the tailings dam.

On top of this, the report adds, the agreement would not compensate for the water scarcity caused in the area by the dam.

“Residents now rely on deliveries of bottled water for use in agriculture as well as human consumption. The river in the Pupio basin has had groundwater diverted away from El Mauro dam into wells; less water is readily available, and this water supply is likely to be contaminated.”

When it comes to claims of pollution, the document cites a 2012 independent investigation undertaken by Andrei Tchernitchin from the University of Chile, who found high levels of manganese, mercury, iron, nickel and molybdenum in water sources in the area, caused by permanently occurring leakages into the groundwater channels in the area.

The report also quotes a Chile’s environmental regulator 2016 charges against Los Pelambres for extracting water from unauthorized sites, building unapproved wells and failing to reforest some areas as required by law.

Minera Los Pelambres produces levels of around 400,000 tonnes of copper and 8,000 tonnes of molybdenum per year.

The company did not respond to MINING.com‘s request for comment by closing time.

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Solomon Islands Gold Ridge Mine Stori

gold-ridge-trucks

Ol mine trak long Goldridge mine long Guadalcanal, long Solomon Islands

Caroline Tiriman | ABC Radio Australia |13 September 2016

Wanpla land owna grup emi papa blong Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL) long Solomon Islands itok oli hamamas olsem oli nap painim moni na halvim tu ikonomi blong kantri taem Gold Ridge mine bai stat wok ken.

Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited ibin baem despla mine long A$100 long  St Barbara wanpla mining kampani blong Australia long 2015.

Gavman itok  olsem emi no bin wanbel long pasin em St Barbara mine ibin mekim long lusim wok blong en long kantri.

Oli bin sutim tok long despla mine olsem emi no bin lukautim gut tailings dam we emi save putim ol posin pipia blong mine.

Taem despla dam ibin pulap emi save kapsaet na bagarapim ol wara na environment na despla isave bin kamapim planti wari long ol pipal.

Nau wanpla, Chinese-Australian property developer AXF i tingting long baem na wok wantem ol papa graon long ronim despla mine.

Walton Naezon, chairman blong Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited itokim  Radio Australia olsem bai oli givim mining plan igo long gavman long despla tupla wik ikam.

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Australian real estate investor circles Solomons ‘disaster’ gold mine

Children play in the Tinahulu River downstream from the Gold Ridge mine. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

Children play in the Tinahulu River downstream from the Gold Ridge mine. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

The Solomon Islands environment ministry has condemned the ‘immoral’ behaviour of an Australian miner for selling an abandoned gold mine to traditional landowners for A$100.

Stefan Armbruster | SBS World News| 3 September 2016

In the latest twist of the saga involving the troubled, 20-year-old operation, Chinese-Australian property developer AXF is now preparing to buy the mine. Sixteen months after the sale of Gold Ridge, the country is struggling to deal with its toxic tailings dam and is considering legal action.

St Barbara last year sold the site, with all legal liability, to a local traditional landowner company, Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL).

The government declared the tailings dam a ‘disaster’ zone shortly afterwards over fears it would overflow, possibly undermining the dam wall, and cause a collapse releasing millions of tonnes of toxic sludge.

Earlier this year after heavy weather, the tailings dam full of sediments containing high levels of arsenic and cyanide, overflowed for the first time, sending millions of litres of untreated water into the local river systems.

Thousands of subsistence farming villagers live along the Tinahulu river and use it to wash, fish, cook, drink and swim.

“We are so worried because if the mining operations come again, we don’t know what is going to happen,” said John Kera, chief of New Rere village downstream from the dam.

However, the river diluted the tailings water and tests showed contamination was below World Health Organisation thresholds.

“Our immediate focus is on securing the tailings storage facility, knowing full well what the impacts would be on the downstream people,” said Dr Melchior Metaki, permanent secretary of the Department of Environment.

“The major pollutants (in the dam), arsenic and cyanide, are really high.”

The Solomons government is now relying on help from the UNDP, funded by the Australian government, to assess what the landowners have bought from St Barbara.

“Knowing full well the recipient (GCIL) doesn’t have requisite capacity and resources to adequately manage the tailings storage facility, in my view it’s not morally correct to do. It’s not morally right to do that,” said Dr Metaki.

“Common sense tells me it would not be accepted in Australia.

“Of course, legal recourse is something we’d need to be advised on how to properly take that forward.”

He added the landowners also bear some blame as: “it takes two people to put it down on paper”.

St Barbara in a statement said it: “does not comment on baseless speculation”, adding the “Solomon Islands Government was aware of the sale process and the sale outcome”.

“Many of the shareholders and directors of GCIL had personal associations with and concerns for the success of the Gold Ridge Project since it was first established in the mid-1990’s, with the GCIL chairman (Walton Naezon) being a former Minister of Mines and Energy.

Gold Ridge tailings dam spills untreated water in April 2016. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

Gold Ridge tailings dam spills untreated water in April 2016. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

“St Barbara has no liabilities or commitments in relation to Gold Ridge.”

St Barbara sold up after a year-long dispute with the Solomon Islands government that prevented dewatering of the full tailings dam.

Heavy flash flooding in 2014 shut the site down and it was looted until Australian Federal Police were flown in to protect the mine.

St Barbara lost about $300m while operating the mine and its share price jumped on news of the sale.

The Gold Ridge landowners say they have no regrets buying the mine.

“It’s time that my people had some ownership over the project,” said Walton Neazon.

“We took the liability on from St Barbara with the confidence we can handle this liability.”

“We have dewatered untreated water during height of bad weather at the beginning of this year (but) we have dewatered 1.3 million cubic meters of treated water,” Mr Neazon said describing it as being like “mineral water”.

The water level in the dam is now about two meters below the spillway.

At the height of the tailings spill, the health department issued a press release warning people not to use the river water and added, “finally if the dam wall breaks, there may be a risk of drowning or injury due to the increase water flow”.

The Australian-funded UNDP study will test the dam wall and “look at contingency planning should there be an extreme case,” said Mr Mataki.

“We cannot say it is safe because there hasn’t really been any structural integrity assessment done on the dam wall itself.”

Abandoned Gold Ridge mine processing plant. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

Abandoned Gold Ridge mine processing plant. (Stefan Armbruster SBS)

As the Solomon Islands grapples with this man-made ‘disaster’, Gold Ridge landowners have been negotiating to sell the mine to a subsidiary of major Chinese-Australian property developer AFX, headed by Richard Gu.

“We had people in Australia check AFX, and we checked ourselves. Yes, we know it’s a property developer,” said Walton Naezon.

“AXF, regardless of their lack of knowledge of the mining industry, we want to partner with them because they’ve got the money to redevelop the mine.”

Landowners hope to sell a 90 per cent stake for an undisclosed amount.

The three-year-old AXF Resources has limited investments in gold and oil shale projects in Western Australia, New South Wales and Queensland.

Managing director Dr Shaung Ren has decades of experience in the mining industry and heads up a small team.

“We are working with consultants and other industry experts, some who have previous experience at Gold Ridge, to complete due diligence work with a view to repair, refurbish and upgrade the Gold Ridge plant to bring it back in to operation,” he said in a statement.

The sale has not been completed and conditions include “that the historic legal liability is either fixed or stays with the original owner”.

“Although this is the responsibility of the original owner, AXF has extended a credit facility to fund the management and operation of the water treatment plant to reduce water levels in the tailings storage facility.”

The department of environment’s ‘disaster’ declaration still stands and no mining can commence until it is lifted.

“This is a man-made, potential disaster, a new type of risk for us,” said Dr Metaki.

“The order made by the minister has not been lifted yet. Until we are satisfied that the measures that are in place can really reduce the risks associate with tailings storage facility, the minister will not be able to lift that state of disaster.”

There is no official estimate for the clean-up cost or remediation of the site.

“We will have to look at people who caused it in the first place,” Dr Metaki said.

“It is something the government cannot do because of the resource implications it has and because there has been negligence along the way.”

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Is Brazil’s worst environmental disaster a warning for the Sepik?

Brazil’s Doce River still foul eight months after dam collapse

In southeastern Brazil the 1.6 million people living along the Doce River are still struggling not only with health risks, but also with a crisis of public confidence.

Is this what could happen to the Sepik river if the Frieda mine goes ahead? 

brazil river

DW | July 5, 2017

“I was making ice cream, and didn’t hear the noise,” recalls Neuza da Silva Santos. “My sister arrived, yelling that the dam had broken, and I went outside. The river was already full of sludge. I went back inside and closed the window because I thought I would be coming back. We ran.”

Da Silva Santos didn’t come back. Her decision to drive away ended up being fateful, as she survived the collapse of the dam by getting in a car; 19 other people were not so lucky.

Reports show that although Brazilian mining company Samarco, the dam’s owner, knew about a leak at the impoundment 10 hours earlier, there had been no warning siren.

Dredging near the town of Rio Doce shows the extent of ongoing contamination

Dredging near the town of Rio Doce shows the extent of ongoing contamination

According to the United Nations, 50 million tons of iron ore and toxic waste were dumped into the river that day. The sludge covered riverbanks and cropland along the entire length of the 853-kilometer (530-mile) river, killing fish and other wildlife, and contaminating the drinking water supply for much of the river valley. Toxic sludge reached the Atlantic some two-and-a-half weeks later.

It’s considered the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

Did the mining companies act irresponsibly?

The mining industry accounts for more than $1.4 billion (1.23 billion euros) in the city of Mariana, where the disaster occurred. According to a report by Brazilian daily “Folha de São Paolo,” Samarco was attempting to quintuple the size of the Fundão waste reservoir by connecting two different tailing dams when the collapse happened.

Samarco is a joint venture of Vale and BHP Billiton, two of the world’s largest mining companies. Brazil’s Globo television network revealed that the company’s sensors had detected possible danger of collapse in 2014 and 2015 before the actual failure – although the company said the dam had passed inspection in July.

In an act of protest against the mining companies, a Brazilian boy holds a sign saying: "How much is life worth?"

In an act of protest against the mining companies, a Brazilian boy holds a sign saying: “How much is life worth?”

Critics say that due to a sharp fall in global iron ore prices in 2015, Samarco may have been more focused on expanding its production in order to avoid financial losses – and that emphasis may have overridden basic safety concerns.

Dirk van Zyl, a professor of mining engineering at the University of British Columbia, told Bloomberg News that dam failure like the one seen on the Rio Doce “is a lot more expensive than doing things right.”

Zyl noted that a dry-mining waste storage technique used in Chile, where earthquakes are common – although much safer – costs 10 times as much as the tailings dam solution. He also noted that an initial estimate on the cost of recovery from the Fundão collapse done by Deutsche Bank put the figure at more than $1 billion.

Blow to indigenous people

Krenak called the aftermath of the dam collapse an indirect massacre of his people

Krenak called the aftermath of the dam collapse an indirect massacre of his people

For the indigenous Krenak community, which lives on a hill between a dry streambed and the polluted Rio Doce, the disaster did more than destroy their water supply.

“Watu” is the Krenak name for the waterway, meaning “sacred river.” The Krenak cacique, or chief, Geovany Krenak, says that the waterway is intimately connected to his people. “The river is part of my culture, my life, my essence. We see the river as sacred. To the extent that you destroy something sacred, you harm a culture.”

The community swam, fished and played in the river. Now its primary food source is gone, as is its place to cool off on hot days – or even obtain drinking water.

Water trucks paid for by Samarco have been supplying water to the community since the disaster, but residents complain that this water has high levels of chlorine that irritate the skin and stomach.

For Geovany Krenak, the issue goes beyond the physical problems the community is facing and touches on an existential one. “The wars came, the hydroelectric dams came, mining came. All of that, indirectly, is a way of eliminating the people,” he declared.

For the Krenak community, the river was a sacred source of water for life

For the Krenak community, the river was a sacred source of water for life

Future dam failures?

Agencia Publica, a Brazilian investigative news organization, reports that government leniency and corporate impunity are recurring themes in Brazil’s handling of environmental disasters.

Eduardo Santos de Oliveira, a member of a task force of prosecutors handling the Samarco case, told Agencia Publica that the cause of such a disaster “as a rule, [is] a sum of omissions or bad decisions.”

BHP Billiton and Vale will pay up to $5.1 billion over 15 years in a settlement with the Brazilian government. In June 2016, Brazil’s Environment Ministry fined Samarco an additional $41.6 million for damages to protected areas.

However, Brazil’s Supreme Court issued a temporary decision July 1, 2016, suspending the settlement on the grounds that the case should be decided by a lower court in Minas Gerais where the dam broke. Vale and Samarco said they would appeal.

But the large fines in this high-profile case are an exception, not the rule. Observers in particular point to regulatory failures in preventing such disasters.

Brazil’s slap-on-the-wrist regulatory culture raises the possibility that the country will see more disasters like the Fundão dam collapse as its mining and other industrial infrastructure ages and deteriorates.

“Folha de São Paulo” reported that Brazil has 16 mining-related dams that are considered insecure, and that toxic mud continues to leak from the broken Fundão dam, despite a judicial order for Samarco to stop it.

Toxic sludge from the mining dam collapse even reached the Atlantic Ocean

Toxic sludge from the mining dam collapse even reached the Atlantic Ocean

Need for clean drinking water

For people all along the Rio Doce, these potential threats are taking a back seat to the immediate need to find potable water.

The city of Governador Valadares, with a population of roughly 280,000, had no water at all for nearly two weeks following the dam break.

Compounding river contamination issues, the area has also suffered drought.

André Cordeiro Alves dos Santos, a Federal University of São Carlos researcher, said the rainy season proved insufficient to supply cities and towns of the Rio Doce watershed with adequate water resources.

“It rained less than average, [so] some cities that were using other water sources are now having difficulties because many rivers and wells dried up.”

Samarco is sampling and analyzing the Rio Doce water supply for Brazil’s federal environmental authority, which found that iron and manganese levels were both greatly over the allowed limit.

Excesses of iron can provoke diarrhea and vomiting, while high doses of manganese affect the central nervous system and can lead to tremors, weakness and impotence.

Pedro Costa, the father of an 18-month-old infant, shared his fears. “I’m really worried about the water quality. The companies say that the water is fine, but other sources say it’s not. So measures need to be taken, and the guilty parties really need to be punished.”

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