It appears that Vale SA has run into a spot of trouble at the Goro laterite nickel mine in New Caledonia. Turns out it was a rather large spot that will take $30 million to repair.
Following a 10,000-litre acid spill that ran into a nearby creek and killed thousands of fish earlier this month, Vale was ordered to suspend operations. This is reportedly the fifth such spill in as many years. The first spill occurred during plant commissioning in 2009. It was a reported 40,000 litres, 2,500 of which found its way into the local river.
The recent riots were sparked when local youths protested the reopening of the plant, even with the promise of more stringent safety precautions. There are many who would like to see the project permanently shuttered. Over 48 hours, activists torched vehicles, equipment and buildings at the mine site. They blockaded the roads near the mine, reportedly using mining equipment including excavators to keep the police at bay.
The situation was defused earlier this week with successful talks between the protesters and New Caledonia's Customary Senate.
CMJ readers will remember that Inco owned Goro until the Canadian company was bought by Vale in 2006. Inco had been working for many years before that. The lure of the laterite deposit is that it lends itself to low cost open pit mining. Treatment of the ore differs from treating sulphide ores, such as those in the Sudbury Basin. Inco developed a unique high pressure acid leaching (HPAL) process to recover the nickel, and it appears the acid needed for the process is prone to escape.
(This writer remembers being told many years ago by an acquaintance who worked at Goro that it was the first and only time he had carried a pistol on the job.)
Acid spills cannot taken lightly, and any mineral processing plant might have an accidental discharge. The first lesson is that it is better to establish safety procedures and prevent spills from happening.
The other lesson Canadian miners might learn is to more thoroughly engage local communities where they operate. If people see the tangible benefits of a project and their participation in it, they will be much more likely to help it succeed. Thus, a social licence to operate is given with a sense of good will.
I'm not saying that Vale did anything wrong in its outreach efforts with local youths and villagers in New Caledonia.
But community engagement is a continuous process. It cannot fade away because a mine and mill is in commercial production. Transparency and discussion must never cease. Only in that way can a mine and its neighbours both reap the rewards as the project matures and grows.
One of the worst things to have happened to a Canadian mining icon was to be sold to a stranger from a society bearing little relationship to ours. Just look at the deaths at the Sudbury operations as an indicator. In days long ago at the Elliot Lake camp we did not have spills of acid. I know as I worked in the Denison mill.
Ben Whiting, P.Geo.
“… it appears the acid needed for the process is prone to escape.” Acid is not prone to do anything. It is faulty planning and human error which leads to acid spills. Fix the plant and train the people properly and you will not have these kinds of repeated spills.