$30m worth of damage at Vale nickel mine as protests over chemical spill turn violent

Mining giant Vale is facing $30 million worth of damage at its Goro nickel mine in New Caledonia after an acid spill into a creek sparked violent protests.

Earlier this month, Vale was ordered to suspend operations at its $6 billion plant after 10 000 litres of acid effluent spilled into a creek and killed thousands of fish, and was the fifth spill at the plant in as many years.

However many indigenous locals want to see the operation shut down,coming out in protest of plans to reopen the plant under new environmental and procedural rules.

Tensions boiled as dozens of young protesters torched vehicles, equipment and buildings at the site, nouvellecaledonie reported.

The action lasted for around 48 hours, with activists forming blockades on roads near the mine where they lit fires and used mine site vehicles such as excavators and loaders to ward off police.

Local media reports several shots were also fired by the angry mob.

The situation eased on Monday after talks were held between members of the activist group, believed to be from local tribes, and New Caledonia’s Customary Senate.

Speaking to the media, the newly elected president of New Caledonia’s Southern Province Philippe Michel hinted at the need for a more sturdy social licence to operate, Euronews said.

“We got to this point because, clearly, part of the local youth, particularly from the southern tribes, reject the perspective of maintaining the plant in activity, even with the reinforcement of safety procedures.”

The project, where Vale is has developed an unconventional nickel treatment method called high-pressure acid leaching, or hydrometallurgy technology, has been steeped in saga and conflict for over ten years.

Several chemical spills have been reported over the last few years, including during commissioning in 2009 when more than 40,000 litres of acid spilt, 2 500 of which ended up in the river.

“There is an inherent risk in Goro’s type of operation,” said Gavin Mudd, a professor of environmental engineering at Monash University in Melbourne.

The Goro mine produced 4,100 tonnes of nickel in the first quarter, up 41 per cent on a year ago.

The plant has a production target of 60,000 tonnes of nickel at full capacity.

An executive director at Vale told local media closing the plant was not an option for the company.

“If there is no activity for several months, we will shut the plant, but that’s not the case. The closing of the plant is not on the table,” Poppinga said.

It is believed 14 of the people involved in the riots were arrested on Tuesday.

More to come.

Images: lnc.nc/diaporama

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