3 Sep 2013

Artisanal miners an ongoing problem at Solomons gold mine

4:27 pm on 3 September 2013

Allegations of the use of mercury are among ongoing issues at the Gold Ridge mine in Solomon Islands.

It is four years since the country's sole mine was reopened - a decade on from the ethnic tensions that forced its closure.

Both the mining company and the government are being urged to attend to a range of problems - from reports of river pollution to what are thought to be growing numbers of illegal miners and traders.

Annell Husband reports:

Gold Ridge is thought to contribute about 20% of the country's gross domestic product. St Barbara Limited took ownership of the mine just under a year ago and according to the company's website is the sixth owner since open pit mining began in 1998. The managing director and chief executive says the company is very concerned about illegal miners - not because of the gold they're taking but because of the risks to their safety. Tim Lehany says up to 200 illegal miners - including children - go into the pits every night and the site's terrain and issues of customary land ownership make it difficult to stop them. He says it's not the job of the mining company's security team to get into physical confrontations.

"TIM LEHANY: We believe that is the role of the Royal Solomons Police. These people are all armed with bush knives, we've had threats made, we've had stones thrown and particularly people who're intoxicated can get pretty excited and that just adds another dimension to this whole thing."

Tim Lehany says Gold Ridge Mine Mining Limited, is working closely with the police. He says he wants to see more people being arrested and charged.

TIM LEHANY: It's a complex problem. There are lots of aspects to this illegal mining activity and I think it needs to be tackled on a number of fronts. So first of all, I think people need to be arrested and charged with trespass and then of course you can also work on the side where the gold is actually going and where the money changes hands.

Tim Lehany says arrests at the international airport near Honiara of foreign nationals is proof that the government is trying to do something about the trade in illegal gold. He denies the involvement of Solomon Islands politicians in the trade - but Transparency Solomon Island's chairperson Ruth Liloqula says their involvement is a known fact. She says a government minister is a licensed dealer and all sorts of other unlikely people - including nurses and students - are being used as front people for those buying the illegally-mined gold at discounted prices.

RUTH LILOQULA: Unless the government acts there is no way the only mining company we have in the country is going to solve the problem of illegal miners. Because the people that have been licensed to deal in gold are the ones that are encouraging this practice.

But Ruth Liloqula says Transparency Solomon Islands' biggest concern is the possibility of mercury contamination at the mine. She says Transparency understands some of the operators are either using or going to get local miners to use mercury for extraction.

RUTH LILOQULA: The possibility of what is happening in Ghana with the use of mercury and no attention is paid to environmental damage and river system pollution... So we need the government to follow the law - the law is pretty good. But at the moment we are not following it.

St Barbara's Tim Lehany says the mining company doesn't use mercury but he's also heard the rumours of its use and says if they're true, that's a very serious issue. Earlier this year Solomon Islands' parliament heard that villagers along the Metapona River could no longer use the water for drinking, bathing, washing their clothes or fishing - nor could they grow crops along the riverbanks. But Mr Lehany says if that is the case it's nothing to do with Gold Ridge.

TIM LEHANY: We're not contributing to any poisoning, in inverted commas, of the river. As I've said, we have an extensive sampling programme, we can demonstrate that we have not contributed to the condition of the river. Greater concern to us are the sanitary conditions in the villages downstream that pollute the river

Tim Lehany accepts that human effluent is unlikely to affect crops but they could stop growing for a variety of reasons. But the MP who represents the communities who live downstream of the mine's tailing dam says they have additional concerns. Martin Sopage says more than five thousand people would be affected by a dam failure and they want the mining company to discharge some of the water.

MARTIN SOPAGE: The dam is continuing to rise and the construction is continuing to build up and the water is continuing to build up so we can't think this is safe for us at the downstream. So there's a very risk for us in the community there.

But Tim Lehany says lifting the tailings dam is no cause for concern.

TIM LEHANY: What I can say is that we put a lot of work into diverting run off away from the dam. So we manage the dam by making sure that as little water as possible from rainfall runs into it. In periods of extreme rainfall the dam level rises. We pump as much as we can back to the plant and that's the way we manage it.

But Tim Lehany says the company has a licence to discharge water from that treatment plant, which it uses to clear the water of cyanide, arsenic and other toxins used in the mining process. He says the company has done everything that is reasonably required of it and has been in continual discussions with the environment department.