Sadly, this news this morning from the Solomon’s, underscores the universality of the issues of disenfranchisement and lack of accountability to fundamental community needs and values that is indemic to the “social license to operate” as defined and promulgated by the mining cartel but also, as in this case, adopted by local communities and indigenous peoples themselves. In this case, the mine owners are disgruntled landowners, a collective of 17 tribes of indigenous peoples who owned the land of the mine site, who foolishly orchestrated a sort of hostile takeover of the never profitable Gold Ridge Mine. Local control motivated by profits and a piece of the pie without adequate technical knowledge and adequate capital is as dangerous and as disenfranchising to surrounding community as operation by any miner
All mines require adequate capital, excellence in techincal and scientific knowledge, and a standard of deisgn and operation that is accountable in the first instance to environmental security and preservation of community. Local control and local input must be about securing this for every mine that is allowed to operate and expand.
This 20 million cubic meter 50 m high TSF has hovered on the brink of collapse for almost two years. Landowners sought what St Barbara had been denied before it was locked out: permission to dewater at a very high rate of release and without treatment. Because of downstream community and environmental issues UNESCO stepped in at the request of the Solomon Island Government ( SIG) with its own independent technically expert team and established standards on a safe rate of release and a requirement for treatment. Local government had been prepared to and actually did grant an untreated release at unsafe levels far in excess of what UNESCO advised: 12,000 cubic meters per day vs 3, 572 cubic meters per day.
SIG & landowner/mine owners opted to await the installation of the water treatment which only went on line March 29th . By then overflow conditions had already been reached. Apparently also beginning that date an emergency untreated release was authorized but in fact it is literally overflowing the crest of spillway with no means of control or diversion so it cannot be properly called an “authorized release”. All that , from UNESCO report ’til March 29th, took a long time and the dam was in a crisis when all these discussions began ( as at Mt. Polley). Nothing was ordered by SIG or initiated by the 17 tribes who now own the mine to catch and hold any overflow even though it has been known for some time that an overtopping was likely. Local control has not brought increased levels of accountability to environmental security or to the safety and preservation of downstream communities.
Like so many other mines that have failed at a catastrophic level this deposit was never properly assessed in the first instance. Flow sheets, and tinkerings with them over several turnovers in ownership, all propped up by the World Bank, IFC and the Australian Export Credit Agency never found a flow sheet that could profitably mine this anomalous deposit. Recovery rates at each new expansion or tinkering got lower and lower from only 86% at outset to 69% when last operated. The latest tinker and expansion had already been initiated and miners already knew it had failed again when they went looking for some hapless buyer that they found in St. Barbara, after quite a time. (there was no long line of eager offerors). St. Barbara has since admitted they did no independent assessment pre acquisition but relied on the representation of Australian Government.
Very shortly after St. Barbara’s ill advised acquisition, the rapid rate of deposition to the TSF, well beyond what facility designers had prescribed (it was filled to near max in a much shorter time than was planned life of mine) had pushed it to the verge of crisis. This is the story behind almost all catastrophic tailings failures. Bad practice and/or miner incompetence. Important to note that according to Golder , serving as ad IFC , the TSF was not built according to the state of the art plans submitted to all by Ross Mining, the original developer. Critical aspects of the drainage system were never put in place. No as built drawings of the TSF have been presented in Golder’s work for IFC or by UNESCO.
St. Barbara went back to Australia leaving no personnel to manage the mine or reduce the threat level when local government refused to allow them a huge discharge of untreated water to avert collapse. (Such a release was not allowed under the terms of the IFC financing ) St. Barbara refused to install the promised water treatment facility which was destroyed during their absence their site was taken over by artisan miners. Government refused the security and protection St Barbara expected as a condition of returning in any way. (Throughout the life of the mine, miners and the Australian Government have “papered over” the fundamental issues of technical incompetence that plagued this mine as a matter only of political risk and social unrest, of unpredictable fluctuations in commodity prices, and a disorganized and incompetent local government.)
Local government locked St. Barbara out and local landowners who were owed much money under prior agreements took control and ownership including responsibility for all liabilities. SIG had refused to do so. They naively assumed , as many citizens do, that all mines are cash in the ground and that there would be a long list of interested parties to co venture with landowners in the reopening and operation of the mine.
After quite awhile the only partner to step forward, AXF, a conglomerate of extremely wealthy Chinese individuals, has no experience whatsoever in mining ( they are in the entertainment and commercial property development business…not clear what motivated AXF but Bowker Associates is investigating whether again tinkering by the Australian Government, perhaps in connection with qualifying for investor immigration requirements that trades presence and investment of foreign entities for investment in desired or high risk projects ). AXF created a separate entity for this partnership which was executed in December 2015. AXF, like the hapless landowners, probably didn’t even know what questions to ask before it signed on.
So this apparently out of control dewatering, as it seems to the excluded and most directly threatened Guadalcanal community downstream, has no mining competent persons involved locally to assess and oversee and accomplish a safe dewatering. ( At least no contracts with competent engineers and scientists have been announced). There is no one of competence to speak to the concerns of the Guadalcanal community; no one of competence to give any meaningful assurances at all.
Speaking concerns is not enough to solve the complex complex problems of mining necessary to satisfactory levels of environmental and community security. Concerns, when addressed to the absence of competence can’t possibly bring fruitful or timely solutions. To be effective on mining threats, spoken concerns must come with that competence and demand that that competence be provided as part of the operating and oversight of the mine.
This applies as well to concerns about fair and equitable implementation of the Samarco settlement and to the nature of mobilization required to bring that about.
It illustrates that local control, especially without adequate capital for management and adequate technical know how is not inherently a positive and where a serious danger is present, as at this mine, puts the entire downstream at risk with no means of mitigating the danger.
April 8, 2016 Additional Press & Video http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/04/08/major-tailings-dam-spill-solomon-islands-disaster-gold-mine
Lindsay Newland Bowker, CPCU, ARM Environmental Risk Manager
Science & Research In The Public Interest
15 Cove Meadow Rd.
Stonington, Maine 04681
Danger of continuing uncontrolled release recognized..dwnstream 8,000 warned but not offered any assistance . Naezan and the coalition of 17 tribes who own the mine, whose management of it has fallen well below international standards for responsible management, had initially denied that the release was uncontrolled and that it was harmful fully aware of the UNESCO findings and warning that the maximum safe daily release of untreated waters is around 3,500 cubic meters per day. The uncontrolled , uncontrollable release has greatly exceeded that. Naezan acknowledged 95,00o cubic meters over the dam without treatment since March 29th as of last Friday.April 7th. That is an untreated release rate more 3 times the safe rate known to SIG and Naezan’s coalition. SIG, fully aware of the UNESCO advice which they themselves sought, had nevertheless issued a permit to Naezan’s coalition for an untreated daily release of 12,000 cubic meters.
The Naezan group’s new partner, AXF, an entertaninment/commercial property conglomerate of wealthy Chinese investors with no mining experience whatsoever has been silent but according to Naezan have had management control since December. No deep pocket there though as they created a separate company for the partnership and Australian/Solomon Islands law does not have cut through provisions and strict liability as Brazil.
All are mum on cyanide also noted in the UNESCO report . The initial plan for the mine which started in 1998 and as approved by IFC and the Australian export credit called for cyanide removal at the end for the water only but not the tailings themselves. In a report by Golder for IFC they noted in 2011 this practice was below acceptable acceptable international standards and that the tailings should be treated before deposition and the waters treated before release.. That was the purpose of the water treatment plant. No action was ever taken to remove the cyanide from the tailings before deposition. ( The plan had been to close the wrongly built TSF and build a new one)
April 15 In a vague statement Solomons’ Island Environment Minister says Spill over under control and only treated waters being released now
No details were made available on how much water actually escaped and/or were pumped nder the permit for unteated release;, what the current level of water in the dam is; whether the treated waters are being held for monitoring and testing prior to release as advised by UNESCO to the Solomon Islands Government or whether the rate of treated release is otherwise at the rate advised by UNESCO to the Solomon Islands Government.
Should this TSF fail, based on modeling of past failures, this 20 million cubic meter 50 m high facility could easily spill 10 million cubic meters of arsenic and cyanide tainted tailings propelling them with that nearly 1 million cubic meters of waters and the wall of the dam itself into the settlement of the 8,000 downstream. If that should happen it would be the 3rd TSF failure in 30 months exceeding 10 million cubic meters. It would be only the 6th release of tis size ever in recorded history.
Even with Samarco’s man made catastrophe and its horrific images so fresh and current in global awareness, this long unfolding catastrophe has received no notice outside of regional and local press.