HONIARA, Solomon Islands – In April 2016, thousands of villagers living in the vicinity of the Gold Ridge Mine in the southwest Pacific nation of the Solomon Islands braced themselves for a major disaster as torrential rainfall triggered a spillover of thousands of cubic meters of untreated water from the mine’s tailings dam.
The Ministry of Health issued instructions to people to cease using water from the nearby Kwara, Tinahula and Matepono rivers for drinking, washing or fishing, due to possible risk of chemical contamination.
The gold mine is situated on the country’s main island of Guadalcanal, 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the capital, Honiara.
Stanley Holmes Vutiande, who lives in Navola village, located along the Gold Ridge Road leading to the mine and 2 kilometers (1.2 miles) from the dam, remembered when it happened.
“We fled because there was water overflowing from the dam and we thought it might burst, so people just panicked and took off,” he recounted. “There was general information to look for safety, for higher ground, but no specific instructions as to what to do.”
Joe Horokou, the environment and conservation director at the Ministry of Environment, said the incident “was bad because it took us by surprise,” even though the company had been given approval to discharge tailings from the dam. “The approval was given with conditions like before it is discharged the water has to be treated to acceptable standards.”
Despite the dire warning, the expected disaster didn’t materialize. The dam held, and stakeholders, including Gold Ridge Mining and the ministries of environment and health, commissioned numerous independent tests of nearby rivers and streams.
“Based on the findings of those analyses we were able to determine that, even if the water was discharged untreated at the time, it caused no immediate harm to the downstream communities … the water quality was safe within the dam,” Horokou said.
Vutiande also said that, at the time, he noticed nothing of concern in the water quality of the Tinahula River near Navola.
The incident was the first major test for the new landowner-led company, Gold Ridge Community Investment, which had taken ownership of the mine only the year before. After 17 years of foreign ownership and a checkered environmental history, the Gold Ridge mine is now being led by a local landowner-driven joint venture that is emerging as a potential new mine management model in the Pacific Islands region.
In 2015, Gold Ridge was sold for 100 Australian dollars ($73.8 at the time) to Gold Ridge Community Investment (now Gold Ridge Mining), by its Australian owner, St. Barbara. The company decided to abandon the mine, which contains an estimated 3.18 million ounces of gold, in the wake of extensive damage caused by Cyclone Ita and flooding the previous year.
The mine hasn’t been operational since, but following the signing of an agreement with Australia-based AXF Resources, which will provide the majority of investment, plans are now in place to resume extraction by the end of next year.
Walton Naezon, chairman of the landowner-led Gold Ridge Mining, said he is now keen to both reduce any risk the tailings facility poses to the surrounding environment and communities, and to increase public transparency of the company’s environmental processes. The top priority, he said, is dewatering, or emptying out the dam to ease pressure on its wall and decrease the chance of any further overflows.
Naezon spoke to Mongabay about implementing his vision of an extractive project where local communities are part of the corporate structure. About 3,000 to 5,000 people live in villages surrounding the mine, and traditional landowners own 30 percent of the company. They have already participated in making key decisions, such as the selection of an independent environmental consultant. They also observe operations at the tailings dam and take part in the company’s environmental testing and monitoring of nearby rivers and streams.
Larger than life in a blue Pacific print shirt, Naezon is bullish in his drive and optimism about the enterprise when we meet in a Honiara hotel. But he also comes across as astute, widely informed about the industry and its issues, and attuned to the sensibility and needs of his own people. No doubt this is a product of his previous career in politics, as well as skills and grasp of the cultural context as a traditional leader. He was minister of mining and energy from 1997 to 2001, minister for state government until 2003, and minister for commerce for another two years.
Naezon is visibly relaxed about the attention given the mining industry worldwide by what he refers to as the “greens” movement, commenting that it “makes the developer and company stronger.”
The revived Gold Ridge venture, at this stage, comes across as more than ticking the right boxes in order to be assessed a responsible corporate citizen. There is evidence of an attitudinal shift, a genuine motivation to alter the structure of power, participation and accountability.
As I stood in the water treatment plant at the edge of the vast blue expanse of the dam, reflecting the brilliant tropical sun, Gaheris Porowai, the supervisor, readily answered questions. He said that we were looking at 1 million to 2 million cubic meters (264 million to 528 million gallons) of water, with the water level currently 1.5 meters (5 feet) below the spillway. Treated water was being discharged, as permitted, at 500 cubic meters (132,086 gallons) per hour or 12,000 cubic meters (3.17 million gallons) per day, with water testing conducted twice weekly.
This will be done persistently, Naezon said, until the dam is empty.
“There should be no water there. In the next two years, no water, we don’t want to see water there,” Naezon said emphatically, adding that Golder Associates, the company responsible for the dam’s construction has also been reengaged to review its current state and potential future.
Phil Fairweather, Gold Ridge’s general manager, said that he and many other people had been attracted to the venture by the vision of building an enterprise on greater transparency, community inclusion and social and environmental sustainability.
“Any dewatering that is happening at the moment, for example, involves the communities,” Fairweather said. “It actually involves unqualified community people coming and observing the testing, coming and being involved in community awareness prior to any discharge and during.”
Local village chiefs, landowners and students are all invited to visit the tailings dam to learn about the water treatment process and witness its discharge.
“We want to see the mine open, but the health and safety and environmental responsibility is an utmost priority to us,” said Robert Rafaniello, the company’s deputy CEO. “And that is why as we lower the water, we will do more investigations into the stability of the dam, assess it. Does it need any strengthening to future-proof it for any other unknown event? Do we use the tailings dam in its current form, do we look at alternatives?”
In hindsight, the lack of continuity in the mine’s foreign corporate ownership since the late 1990s — and intermittent periods of closure resulting in inconsistent environmental practices — can be seen as factors in the problems being experienced today.
The start of mining in 1998, by the Australian company Ross Mining, coincided with the stirrings of civil unrest. The mine was forced to close a mere two years later when the violence escalated. While a peace agreement was achieved in 2003, Gold Ridge didn’t reopen until 2010 after acquisition by Allied Gold. The venture changed hands again in 2012, this time to St. Barbara. Then, in April 2014, calamity struck when a cyclone and torrential rain caused massive flooding that damaged mine infrastructure, raising concerns about the stability of the tailings dam and forcing a second shutdown. Losses and damages at the mine amounted to $27.7 million, 26 percent of the total economic impact of the disaster on the country.
Soon after, St. Barbara decided to exit the country, selling the mine and its legal liability to Gold Ridge Community Investment the following year, while the Solomon Islands government declared the site a disaster zone.
A model for the region?
The Solomon Islands is not the only Pacific Island state to experience environmental problems in the mining industry.
Natural and mineral resource extraction has, over decades, generated major revenues in a number of other countries in the region, such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru, while many more are now considering the lucrative potential of deep-sea mineral extraction. But in both island states the extractive industries have been plagued by environmental disasters. Both have failed to achieve environmental sustainability, and the economic windfalls have not led to substantial improvements in human development.
Glaring examples include the Panguna copper mine in Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, where the fallout from the destruction of land and waterways nearly 30 years ago remains unaddressed; as well as the OK Tedi copper and gold mine in the country’s Western Province, where massive discharge of mine waste into local river systems since the mid-1980s decimated fish and animal species and contaminated water sources and farmland. In the tiny state of Nauru, aggressive phosphate extraction has ravaged 80 percent of the country’s landscape.
In the Solomon Islands, the government is looking to mining as the next big revenue earner as it faces the challenges of post-conflict economic recovery and the exhaustion of commercial forestry after decades of unsustainable logging. The country is known to have significant mineral resources, including gold, silver, nickel and lead.
“The Gold Ridge mine reopening is very important for the government and Solomon Islands as it contributes significantly to the economy,” a spokesperson for the Ministry of Mines, Energy and Rural Electrification told Mongabay.
Nevertheless, the economic, social and environmental success of mining ventures over the next generation depends on not repeating the problems of the past.
A 2013 UNDP symposium on managing extractive industries in Pacific Island states highlighted some of the steps needed to overcome the hurdles. These include conducting better consultations with stakeholders and communities, developing a more complex understanding of customary land tenure, improving the transparency of political processes and revenue management, and achieving greater commitment to environmental protection, over and above the basic requirement of developers producing environmental impact assessments.
Expert observers have also expressed concerns about the influence of corruption and limited capacity of the government to manage the demands of regulating and overseeing mining activities.
“Too close an identification of political leaders with resource extraction companies has not served Solomon Islands well,” Graham Baines of the Bergen Pacific Studies Research Group has written (pdf). “The chance to build an economy based on sustainable timber production has been lost. And just as government institutions have been shown to be ineffective in controlling logging abuses, so, too, their role in guiding and controlling mining is weak and compromised.”
Recently the government has tried to address some of these issues with the launch of a new National Minerals Policy (2017-2021). It aims to guide reformed financial practices, industry oversight, and procedures for tailings management, corporate environmental audits, biodiversity management and the mitigation of deforestation and soil erosion.
“With the policy now launched, the ministry is working closely with the World Bank to begin implementing the policy, and this process is already under way, focusing mainly on the regulatory framework,” the Ministry of Mines spokesperson confirmed. This includes reviewing resource and manpower capacity and rolling out public outreach and awareness of the new policy.
Progress in these areas is vital to turning around the suspension of the Solomon Islands by the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), which in March of this year sanctioned the country due to assessed deficiencies in areas including licensing procedures, monitoring and control of production, and revenue distribution.
The revival of the Gold Ridge mine will bear witness to how much progress the government has been able to make in the short term.
In May, the government and company began consultations with landowners about the mine’s proposed reopening next year, seeking to address issues such as royalties and environmental impact.
There is evidence, though, that not everyone is satisfied and local environmental concerns persist.
Vutiande said that in Navola, “the water system was always a long-term concern since the opening [of the mine] by the previous companies. The water issue is an ongoing issue. There were a few times when there were people who found things that have died in the river, such as fish and frogs.”
Despite the company’s stated commitment to transparency, Gold Ridge Mining remains tight-lipped while it considers the range of options for dealing with mine waste. The decision as to whether the dam will continue to be used is still to be made, and the government is still awaiting the environmental management plan.
The contents of these will be the first step in translating the new Gold Ridge vision into reality and establishing, or debunking, its standing as a model for the rest of the region.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.
Editor’s note: This story was modified Sept. 24, 2018 to correct the 2015 sale price of the Gold Ridge Mine.