Nickel And Maligned
By Nicole GoochApril 27, 2012
How did indigenous New Caledonians allow a risky chemical mining process to be tried and tested in their home, one of the world’s biodiversity hotspots? Well, the fish may be getting scarce, but there are jobs in it.
Driving to work early one morning in 2008, miners from the tiny village of Goro, at the southern end of New Caledonia, stopped to clean their headlights and specs in disbelief. The La Trûû River, which runs through the village, had turned fluorescent green overnight. "It was incredible, I had never seen anything like it," says Maeva Dremon, whose husband woke her up in shock at 4am.
Just a couple of hours' drive out of New Caledonia's capital, Nouméa, the landscape changes dramatically. The road first meanders through valleys of vivid red soil and prehistoric scrub before rising above one of the humpback whales' favourite breeding grounds — the island's southern blue lagoon, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage area.
But then another spectacular phenomenon, this one man-made, suddenly emerges from the next valley: a vast armada of shiny metal and fumes that fills up the entire horizon in the blink of an eye. It is a nickel refinery belonging to Brazilian mining giant Vale, worth USD4.5 billion and due to start full production next year. But it is off to a rocky start.
The refinery's history, spanning more than 10 years of construction, is a saga of conflict with the local population over human rights and environmental degradation. Hoping for a fresh start, Vale brokered a so-called Sustainable Development Agreement with New Caledonia's indigenous Kanak leaders in 2008. The company now aims to become the world's largest nickel producer, with an anticipated annual output of 60,000 tonnes of refined nickel and 5,000 tonnes of cobalt, most of it destined for China. So far, however, Vale has sold only about 3,000 tonnes of semi-finished metal, to Clive Palmer's Queensland Nickel (QNI).
And despite the agreement, tensions and questions over the refinery still abound. Maeva Dremon now laughs as she recalls the green water episode — it turned out to be the fault of a "non-toxic" chemical tracer added further up the river by technicians at the refinery, but she is also deeply anxious about the future.
Dremon says she is "frightened" and sometimes wishes the agreement had not been signed, as it allowed the mine to go ahead.
"I am glad my children have been able to find work at the mine," says Dremon. "But it is a difficult choice, because, on the other hand, I am worried about the future. We need to protect our environment, customs and traditions, and I am scared that these are getting lost in the process of modernisation."
During testing at the plant on April 1, 2009, more than 40,000 litres of sulphuric acid were spilt, 2,500 litres of which escaped into a river that flows into the UNESCO World Heritage bumper zone. Some 3,000 fish were killed, among them four species endemic to New Caledonia and two listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature "red list". According to an independent inquiry lead by the Lloyd's Register, the accident was caused by the failure of an expansion joint, and testing at the refinery had begun despite the fact that the basin designed to contain spillages was not yet operational. The same report highlights that Vale New Caledonia did not make proper contact with the government until the next day, further infuriating the population and leading to mass protests in Nouméa.
Vale was due to face court over the pollution, but in August 2011 the police tribunal dismissed the case, citing the time lapse since the accident. According to local media, the time lapse was due to the fact that the tribunal was waiting for advice from New Caledonia's Southern Province government, as it had drafted the environmental laws. Martine Cornailles, president of the environmental NGO Ensemble pour la Planète, was fuming. She says the NGO was "appalled that Vale has escaped a moral judgment, because the police investigation left no doubt: from mistakes to guilty negligence, the accident was bound to happen." A determined Ensemble pour la Planète finally won an appeal against Vale this week. The mining company has been fined 3750 Euros, about AU$5000, for the April 2009 acid leak into the river. But Cornailles says it is only thanks to the tenacity of the local NGOs that Vale has been prosecuted, three years after the accident. Ensemble pour la Planète is now waiting for Vale to be judged under civil law for prejudice to the fauna and flora.
Mining is not new to New Caledonia. The French Pacific Collectivity of 250,000 inhabitants, with a vote on independence due between 2014 and 2018, owns 25 per cent of the world's nickel resources, making it the green ore's third largest producer. Nickel is used in the manufacture of stainless steel — for kitchenware for instance, or guitar strings, as well as in construction — which makes it a very valuable commodity. But this mine is different.
Vale New Caledonia is testing on its Goro site an unconventional nickel treatment method called high-pressure acid leaching, or hydrometallurgy technology. If it succeeds, it should allow the difficult extraction of low-grade nickel ore in the face of dwindling global stocks of high-grade ore. However, acid leaching has proved difficult to master elsewhere, including in Australia, and it's never been trialed on such a scale.
The Vale New Caledonia site is classified as a "SEVOSO II" risk, the highest possible level of risk of an industrial accident by European Union standards — a classification system created after a chemical cloud from a factory in Sevoso, Italy, poisoned the town's population and killed more than 3000 domestic animals in 1976. As such, Vale has had to make arrangements with hospitals in Australia to treat possible burn victims. Spread out over 22 hectares, the project involved building, in addition to the nickel-processing plant, an industrial port, a coal-fired power station, acid and limestone factories, a waste treatment plant, offices, accommodation for 3,000 workers, a warehouse, tailings' storage and a 24-kilometere-long waste outflow pipe into the lagoon.
But according to Conservation International, New Caledonia is a "biodiversity hotspot", meaning it contains one of the richest and yet most threatened reservoirs of plants and animal life on earth. Cornailles still can't believe Vale is allowed to mine in an area that has such a high rate of endemic biodiversity. Ensemble pour la Planète has brought Vale to court at least 10 times but has won only twice. "It's like banging our head against a brick wall, given the colossal human and financial means of Vale compared to those of the small group of volunteers that make up Ensemble pour la Planète," says Cornailles. The NGO recently mounted three more civil procedures, including one against a new tribunal authorisation that allows Vale to clear more land officially classified as an "ecosystem asset".
Treated liquid waste from the nickel refining process is also to be spewed out at a rate of up to 3,000 cubic metres per hour into the lagoon bordering the UNESCO World Heritage site. The liquid residue will contain dissolved metals, including manganese, as well as calcium, chloride and sodium sulphate. "At a distance of a few dozen metres from the diffuser, with the exception of manganese, concentrations are within the range of natural variations found in seawater," says Vale on his website.
Yet across a narrow sea straight from the mine, on the island of Ile Ouen, people of the village of Ouara are still to be convinced of the safety of the refinery. Fishing is a vital food source, and the locals are not impressed with the release of the plant's metal waste into the sea.
Clan Chief Olivier Wethy says his people are not necessarily against the mine — in fact many of the Ile Ouen youth work at the mine and the tribe has created a successful transport business that subcontracts to Vale, but they are opposed to dumping waste in the sea.
"The government and Vale completely ignored our rights as indigenous people to take part in decisions about our environment, and to live up to our responsibilities towards future generations with regards to the protection of our environment," says Wethy.
The agreement was signed by the leader of the Aire Djubéa Kaponé — a customary structure which regroups the Kanak clans of the south of New Caledonia. Wethy and his clan also belong to the Aire Djubéa Kaponé, but in early 2008, before the agreement was signed, they erected a Bois Tabou on a sandbank near the island. Called Pii Kon Dââ Boâ, the Bois Tabou was a tall wooden carving that symbolized the need to negotiate and a no-go area. For this, they had the support of the environmental indigenous rights group Rhéébù Nùù, led by Raphael Mapou, who later also signed the agreement.
Now chief of staff of New Caledonia's Customary Senate, Mapou played a key role in the protests against the mine over the past decade. In 1992, he was mayor of Yaté, a neighbouring village of Goro, when the Canadian mining company Inco first acquired the rights to the Goro nickel deposit, "for next to nothing," according to Mapou. And then, in the early 2000s, "the mine suddenly sprang out of nowhere, and Inco began cutting down hectares of forest, even though the mine didn't have an operating permit yet, or an approved environmental impact assessment," recalls Mapou.
Rhéébù Nùù leaders tried to negotiate at first, but Mapou says they were frustrated by a lack of transparency and, as Kanaks, he says they felt ignored and isolated. In 2004, the Southern province government of New Caledonia awarded Inco its first operating permit, yet Mapou says its environmental impact assessment was "completely flimsy". In April 2006, as trucks and tyres went up in flames, black smoke rose above the deep red of the south and the usual silence of the lunar landscape was interrupted by helicopters and the firing of tear gas in the most violent of clashes between protesters and the police so far, though not the last protest. Construction work at the refinery was brought to a halt, and, according to media reports, protesters caused USD10 million worth of damage, leading to more than 30 arrests, including that of Mapou, a short while later.
Rhéébù Nùù was vindicated a few months later, however, when the administrative tribunal of Nouméa revoked Inco's operating permit. But later that same year Vale, at the time known as CVRD, took over Inco, and obtained a second operating permit for the refinery by the end of 2008. Construction never ceased.
In the meantime, intra-community turmoil increased — over the legitimacy of the mine and over the use of violence to respond to it. Many Kanaks feared a return to the widespread violence that marred New Caledonia throughout the 1980s, during the pro-independency struggle against France.
Vale New Caledonia now owns 74 per cent of the refinery, while New Caledonia's three local provincial governments own 5 per cent, and the Japanese consortium Sumitomo Mitsui SUMIC controls the remainder. Vale also benefits from a saving of USD100 million thanks to a tax incentive scheme for French investors worth about USD481million dollars. According to a French Senate report, this arrangement is "unrivalled" and Vale is set to make further savings under a New Caledonian law that grants mining companies 15 years of production tax free, followed by 50 per cent tax-free for the next five years.
Given Mapou's long-time stance against the mine, it came as a surprise then to many when he and the Aire Djubéa Kaponé customary leaders agreed to the sign the agreement. Under its terms, Vale is to provide funding for the reforestation of more than 2,000 hectares of land, as well as for a number of community development projects and l'Oeil — "the Eye" in French, a new environmental monitoring body for the south. Mapou is president of l'Oeil until June this year, while Cornailles, from Ensemble pour la Planète, is second vice-president.
"I know that for many people, signing the agreement felt as if we were simply giving up, especially for young Kanaks in their twenties, for whom this fight was the equivalent of the one we fought in the 80s against France," says Mapou.
"But I warned them: if you want to keep on fighting to win, people will have to die. And we fought in the 80s for independence, but here we are nearly 30 years later and we are still in a process of decolonisation towards independence, if we ever get there."
Signing the agreement was a matter of "being realistic" and of "trying to stay true to oneself" by being able to turn the mine into something positive, says Mapou.
It was not an easy decision, he says. "We didn't want this refinery, but we had also become very divided because the mine had lured people to it with lucrative promises of work, and it was causing a lot of friction within villages."
Accused by many of corruption following the signing of the agreement, Mapou says that he has "never received a cent from either Inco or Vale.
"When Vale took over Inco and was trying to find its feet in New Caledonia, the company owners played the game and the final content of the agreement was drafted on the basis of what we wanted, even if we didn't get everything."
Mapou's main concern today is that Vale has agreed to abide by prescribed emission thresholds, but, given that chemical mining is a new field of knowledge, he says, "We will only know of the mine's true environmental impact once the refinery is totally operational, and provided the monitoring and evaluation systems are well designed."
L'Oeil is preparing a new set of environmental indicators, but Mapou says he is worried it will not be ready until 2014-2015, and scientists already have noticed gas leaks over the trees near the refinery and problems with the treatment of wastewater that is discharged into the rivers.
Back at the village of Goro, under a heavy canopy of rainforest, Maeva Dremon echoes these worries. Her husband has come back empty-handed from his last two fishing trips, and she says she feels tiny compared to the big multinationals — Vale and BHP Billiton are just two among other mining companies to have expressed interest in recent years in acquiring mining rights to another low-grade ore nickel deposit near Goro.
"In 50 years' time, or 100 years' time, what will happen? What will be left for our great-grandchildren of the environment and of our culture?" asks Dremon.
Meanwhile, Vale had announced in May 2009 that it would deploy "a plan involving 84 concrete actions" aimed at improving prevention and containment of industrial risks associated with its operations.
But when asked how many of these safety actions had since been implemented, Vale did not reply by the time of publication. A spokesperson said however that the company has invested 21 per cent of its total budget into the protection of the environment.
Martine Cornailles, on behalf of Ensemble pour la Planète, has written to the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, asking it to assess the "health risks and environmental destruction" caused by Vale and other mining operations in New Caledonia.