Gold Ridge tailings dam threatens to burst

The Solomon Islands government have declared the Gold Ridge mine a disaster area, with the tailings dam close to overflow and environmental catastrophe.

Tropical Cyclone Raquel brought unseasonably heavy rain to the region, filling the Gold Ridge tailings dam to within 20cm of full capacity, which could burst and allow the arsenic, cyanide and heavy metals-laden tailings to flow downstream, with potential to affect thousands of people.

Australian miner St Barbara recently sold the mine for a token fee of $100 to landowner company Gold Ridge Community Investment Limited (GCIL).

The sale included all of the miner’s liabilities, as well as a promise by St Barbara to fund construction of a new water treatment plant.

At the time of sale in May, Monash University environmental engineer Dr Gavin Mudd said the risks of collapse of the tailings dam were “extremely serious”.

“If you've got a one-metre gap between the water level and the tailings dam and the top of the wall, then obviously you're concerned if you're going to get a cyclone that comes through and dumps half a metre or a metre of rainfall through the area,” he said.

St Barbara CEO Bob Vassie said the Solomon Islands government repeatedly rejected proposals to commence pumping to lower water levels in the dam, even after recommendations from the World Health Organisation in February this year.

St Barbara lost more than $300 million in the two years it owned and operated the troubled Gold Ridge Mine.

Workers were evacuated from the Gold Ridge Mine in April last year after torrential rains from Cyclone Ita forced St Barbara to suspend operations.

1000 millimetres of rain were recorded in the four day period to 4 April 2014, with 500mm in a single day causing floods which killed 21 people and left 50,000 homeless.

Following the evacuation of the mine St Barbara faced an obstructive government, which banned employees of the company from re-entering the Solomon Islands.

GCIL manager and former local MP Walton Naezon said the new owners were in discussions with the government about dewatering operations.

“(It) must be perfectly done and then once we are all satisfied and all stakeholders satisfied and communities well-informed then we will continue with the dewatering process,” he said.

At time of the mine’s purchase in May, Naezon told ABC Radio National people had questioned NCIL’s experience with mining operations.

"You don't need to know mining to own a company,” he was reported as saying.