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New Caledonia nickel mine has survived costs, protests, intrigue

By Alex Perrottet

SYDNEY, Australia (Pacific Scoop, Sept. 23, 2011) – If times are hard for investigative reporters in today’s downsized media industry, spare a thought for those investigating international issues.

The Back to the Source investigative journalism conference held in Sydney on the weekend by the Australian Center for Investigative Journalism (ACIJ) drew professionals from around the world.

Keynote speaker Robert Rosenthal came from the United States where he leads America’s oldest not-for-profit journalism research body – the Centre for Investigative Reporting.

And closer to home, investigative journalists spoke of their challenges in breaking stories in the public interest, but a little far afield to attract much attention.

Nicole Gooch is a journalist with the ACIJ and was born in New Caledonia. She is coming to the end of a year-long investigation into the country’s new nickel refinery in the southern district of Goro, which is owned by Vale New Caledonia.

"Vale New Caledonia will be using high acid pressure leaching to refine the low-grade nickel," she said. "This technology has never been tried before on such a large scale. Once production at the mine starts, scheduled for about 2013, Vale aims to produce 60,000 tons of nickel and 4,500 tons of cobalt a year, making the Brazilian mining company a world leader in nickel production."

[PIR editor's note: Global commodity analysts have reported that the world nickel markets are keeping a close eye on developments at the Goro plant in New Caledonia, which is expected to hold about one-quarter of the world's nickel reserves, the price of which has risen about 38 percent since 2010.]

It’s no shock that big Brazilian mining companies are reaching out across the Pacific, but what Gooch is investigating are the protests, violent clashed and the environmental impact of the work.

"The refinery has been plagued by huge costs, indigenous and environmental protests, at times quite violent, and in particular, protests against the pipeline which will be carrying liquefied metal waste, treated, from the refinery into the sea, bordering the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) world heritage-listed lagoon."

Gooch said previously during testing, the company "caused a couple of major acid spills, one of which lead to pollution of a nearby river".

While many Australians were involved in constructing the refinery, there was absolute silence about the issues within Australia; so Gooch is finding out why. "It is a challenging story to cover," she said.

[PIR editor's note: In 2006, 32 people associated with the Rheebu Nuu environmentalist group were arrested while protesting the construction of the Vale nickel mine on-site. The group initially lodged complaints of corruption against government officials and that appropriate environmental impact assessments were not conducted. During the protest action, one policeman was seriously injured and around US$10 million of damage was done to equipment and installations at the site, although police were accused of using live bullets against protesters armed with metal bars and knives. The 32 were sentenced later in 2010 with suspended jail terms between one to five months in prison.]

"It impacts on so many areas of New Caledonia’s complex life – be it political, social or environmental. The backdrop is the fact that nickel mining in New Caledonia is ingrained in society and is the island’s main export, by far, and therefore it is a heated issue in the context of a country becoming more autonomous and needing to develop its own independent economy."

Being able to share the language and culture of both countries has been helpful [says Gooch].

"It definitely helped in terms of gaining insight into some of the issues surrounding the mine – as an English speaker I was aware of issues that I would not have necessarily known about otherwise," she said.

[PIR editor's note: New Caledonian judicial authorities indicted then-president Philippe Gomes for abusing his position on a 2005-2006 contract involving his personal business over the sale of 900 air conditioning units to Vale at the Goro Mine site, totaling close to US1.3 million.]

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