Groups Call For Safe Operations At New Caledonia Mine

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Company reportedly fixing pipe, claims no damage to environment

WELLINGTON, New Zealand (Radio New Zealand International, Nov. 27, 2013) – The head of New Caledonia’s Rheebu Nuu environmental group, Raphael Mapou, says it will only condone to restart of the Vale nickel plant if it can guarantee its safety.

The US$6 billion plant was shut down nearly two weeks ago after it became public that an effluent pipe going through a World Heritage lagoon had burst.

Mary Baines reports.

Raphael Mapou says after all the incidents of the past, the bursting of the pipe is one accident too many. His words are translated.

"RAPHAEL MAPOU (TRANSLATED): We will assess the developments next December and then we will say yes or no to the restart of the construction. The ball is now in the camp in the company and in the camp of the government of the southern province."

Previous incidents include a 670,000 litre spill of a solution containing acid in 2010. The WWF New Caledonia manager, Hubert Geraux, says the burst pipe shows Vale is incapable of preventing major faults.

"HUBERT GERAUX: Behind the pipe there are many other problems, and we must ensure that the other risks are better managed than the pipe. Vale showed us its incapacity to detect and react to problems."

[PIR editor’s note: Radio New Zealand International reports that five New Caledonian environmental groups are demanding Vale pay US$7.8 million for damages caused by the previous acid spill four years ago. Vale was fined US$5,000 by a lower court last year, but the new demand was heard in the Noumea appeal court. Vale's lawyer says the demanded amount is too high in comparison to the "extremely modest" damage, although environmentalists insist tens of thousands of fish dies as a result.]

Mr Geraux says the pipe is just one example of Vale causing environmental damage. He says Vale’s residue storage basins are leaking and polluting ground water, high concentrations of sulphur dioxide are killing nearby forests and chemicals are polluting streams.

"HUBERT GERAUX: The forest close to the plant is dying quietly but surely because of sulphur dioxide. The silt and chemical pollution in the different creeks around the industrial site is enormous."

But Vale’s delegate director, Yves Roussel, says since it found trees were being exposed to sulphur dioxide through the burning of stock piles nearby, it has changed its procedures. And he says the company is working to fix problems with the lining of the residue storage basins.

"YVES ROUSSEL: The truth is that we have an issue in the liner that we are fixing now. And there was no spill. And all the water that may have been contaminated has been pumped. It’s not a big volume. I can assure you that there are no chemicals in the river."

Vale says an initial investigation shows the pipe burst because too much air was in it, and a broken detection system meant the leak wasn’t picked up. But it insists the fracture was discovered less than two weeks after it occurred and there has been no environmental damage. It plans to resume operation at the end of the year. Mr Roussel says because it is all new technology, it is not unusual for some issues to occur.

"YVES ROUSSEL: We may discover some issues. We are, in our view, near the end of this process. And we have had some incidents inside the plant that we are fixing. We have had only one spill."

The southern provincial government has been criticised for not checking the pipe in almost two and a half years, when it was supposed to do so every six months. But its general secretary, Marilyne Arcaini, says it is Vale’s obligation to check the pipe, which it did in 2012. She says while the company is responsible for the equipment it owns, it has to comply with regulation - and Vale’s equipment will be checked by independent experts to ensure it is up to standard.

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