February 06, 2012

Radio Australia: Newcrest's Fiji mine waste should not be underestimated

Giving independent scientific validation to why the people of Namosi's observed concerns about extensive damage to their natural surrounding is appropriate, Radio Australia has a very interesting perspective presented by an Australian Environmental Engineer on the magnitude of this mining project and the correlating risks.

More interesting is the perspective that the impacts could go well beyond the Namosi locale like the Rewa River.

Newcrest's Fiji mine waste should not be underestimated
Updated February 6, 2012 18:19:29

A leading Australian environmental engineer says photos of pollution from Newcrest's Namosi gold and copper exploration site, in Fiji, suggest heavy metals and sulphuric acid have been released into the environment.

The photos, taken by concerned landowners, show a plume of cloudy water in the Waidina River, collapsed banks and a leaking drill site.

Namosi is in rugged terrain on Fiji's main island of Viti Levu, 30 kilometres west of Suva.

Dr Gavin Mudd, Senior Lecturer in Engineering at Monash University, told Jemima Garrett the toxicity of the metals and acid should not be underestimated.

Presenter: Jemima Garrett
Speaker: Dr Gavin Mudd, Senior Lecturer in Engineering at Monash University
Listen here.

MUDD: There's two key aspects from the photos that stand out to me; one is the amount of sediment and erosion problems going on there but the other one, which I think is more serious, is what we call acid mine drainage. Now, acid mine drainage is, I suppose, essentially the leachate that can come out of mines. Basically, if you take sulphide minerals, like pyrite, expose them into the surface environment, where it can then react with water and oxygen and produce sulphuric acid, and that sulphuric acid, of course, dissolves up copper, zinc, nickel, ..a whole range of different of different heavy metals that can be a quite serious concern for aquatic ecosystems.

GARRETT: You say that if Newcrest had had the usual sort of environmental management plans in place, this sort of pollution wouldn't have happened. Why?

MUDD: Well, a lot of companies have environmental management systems in place and certainly Newcrest do do that and, to me, the interesting question is why do we still get problems like this popping up? If the systems are in place, they should be able to prevent this. They should be able to manage the erosion, they would identify risks such as acid mine drainage as being very serious. And I know companies like Newcrest do understand these types of risks. The question to me really cuts to the heart of the rhetoric versus the reality, I guess. These things are well known in the industry. They should be able to be managed.

GARRETT: This is only the exploration phase. If the project gets up it will be a very big development. How does it compare in size to something like Ok Tedi in Papua New Guinea?

MUDD: I think, based on the resource figure that Newcrest are reporting for the Namosi Joint Venture, it is on a similar scale to Ok Tedi, and perhaps even a bit bigger. It is a very large project so, therefore, if things go wrong the risks are therefore very large as well! And we've seen that at mines like Ok Tedi in Papua New Guinea, the old Bougainville mine, of course, which led to severe social and environmental problems that still have not been resolved. I would urge caution because you want to make sure if you are going ahead with these types of projects that you do get it right, that you have good management plans in place, you resource the monitoring and the environmental management properly and so, that way, you can ensure that you are not leaving a legacy that is negative, that overall you can leave a positive legacy. That, to me would be the way I would approach it.

GARRETT: Fiji is currently going through the environmental impact assessment process for this site. What should the Fiji government be looking for in that assessment?

MUDD: I have read through the guidelines that have been published by the Fiji government and they are quite extensive and they do cover a lot of the range of issues and it is now up to Newcrest to decide which way they plan to develop Namosi. Are they going to be building a tailings dam or are they going to use marine tailings like Lihir? Now, on that type of question, to me, I certainly think there is a good case to be made that they can deliver a conventional land-based tailings dam and deal with risks such as earthquakes and so on. If you look at a country like Chile, they've learnt from the past, in terms of when earthquakes happened and tailings dams collapsed because they weren't engineered to withstand earthquakes. So these are all the options that should be considered. The other critical aspect with any kind of environmental impact assessment is good baseline data i.e. what was everything like before the mine started? Now that can be on environmental grounds, surface water quality, ground water, marine and so on but also the biodiversity. But also, social as well, because a lot of the concerns that people have about some of these large developments are not just environmental but also social. So good quality baseline data that can really answer in the future any questions about what changes have been caused by the mine versus what might be natural or maybe climate change related, or all sorts of various factors. But good baseline data, good options and thorough assessment of different options -these are all the things that should be looked at as part of any environmental assessment.

GARRETT: Fiji hasn't had a big open-cut mine like this before and I guess it is going to be looking at preventing problems rather than cleaning up the mess afterwards. What sort of regulation and what sort of monitoring will it need to protect the environment?

MUDD: There is a whole range of things that really cut to the heart of that. One is extensive surface water monitoring, and by that I mean not just at one spot you know maybe a handful of times a year but regular. At places like the Ranger uranium mine they now actually have online monitoring where they have probes permanently in the creeks to monitor the water quality continuously and that gives you excellent detail to look at what is being released from the mine in terms of any sort of run-off from the mine but also making sure, especially in the rugged terrain, that exists on the islands in Fiji, it may be that you need to monitor multiple streams not just one. So really in that sense extensive monitoring and independent checks on that monitoring.

GARRETT: This mine, if it goes ahead will be a big mine on a small island. It is in the headwaters of Fiji's biggest river, the Rewa River and it is also quite close to the Coral Coast where the tourism industry is located. Is it possible that this mine is just too big for the situation that it finds itself in?

MUDD: That is certainly one line of thought. At the moment, of course, it is really up to Newcrest to answer that and for the government to accept Newcrest's position, or for the community to say no, actually we do not think this is worth the risk. And that is, I suppose, where everything is up to at the moment. So you can only hope that the studies are thorough, that there are extensive baseline studies, that good options are put on the table and they are all assessed comprehensively. So, at the moment that is an open question. It certainly is a very challenging situation and it is not something that should be taken lightly at all.

No comments: