Protesters burn vehicles, buildings at New Caledonia nickel mine

The article below is reproduced in its entirety from 

Readers will find a short update on the situation further below. Photos courtesy of Les Nouvelles caledoniennes.

Protesters burn vehicles, buildings at New Caledonia nickel mine

By Cecile Lefort and Melanie Burton  | Reuters – Tue, May 27, 2014

Photo Thierry Perron, LNC

Photo Thierry Perron, LNC

SYDNEY (Reuters) – Rioters torched vehicles, equipment and buildings at Vale’s nickel mine in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia over the weekend, as anger boiled over about a chemical spill in a local river.

The $6 billion Vale plant at Goro in southern New Caledonia was closed earlier this month after some 100,000 litres of acid-tainted effluent leaked, killing about 1,000 fish and sparking renewed protests at the mine site.

The Vale plant has a production target of 60,000 tonnes of nickel at full capacity, compared with global supply of around 2 million tonnes. But it has been beset by problems in recent years, including several chemical spills and violent protests.

Tensions between the local population and Vale escalated over the weekend with young protesters frustrated at the latest spill by the Brazilian-based giant and a lack of response from indigenous Kanak chiefs, according to local media. Television footage showed images of burnt mining vehicles and equipment.

“There was damage at the site, but no damage to the plant. We had burned vehicles, one administration building was damaged, but no damage to the plant itself,” Vale spokesman Cory McPhee told Reuters.

Peter Poppinga, an executive director at Vale, told Les Nouvelles Caledoniennes newspaper that damage to the mining site was estimated at at least $20 million to $30 million, including the destruction of perhaps one third of the truck fleet.

“If there is no activity for several months, we will shut the plant, but that’s not the case. The closing of the plant is not on the table,” Poppinga was quoted as saying.

The scale of the damage could not immediately be independently verified.

Nickel mining is a key industry in New Caledonia, which holds as much as a quarter of the world’s known reserves. Vale’s plant is the second-largest employer in the southern province, with some 3,500 employees and contractors, including a large number of Filipino workers.


New Caledonia’s southern provincial government ordered an immediate halt to operations after the spill earlier this month and started legal proceedings under its environmental code.

The local government, which changed leadership last week, said it would not lift the production suspension until safety procedures were revised, an oversight committee was reinstated and an independent expert’s report was completed.

“We got to this point because, clearly, part of the local youth, particularly from the southern tribes, reject the perspective of maintaining the plant in activity, even with the reinforcement of safety procedures,” Philippe Michel, the newly elected president of New Caledonia’s Southern Province, told local television on Monday.

Global nickel prices hit a 27-month high earlier this month and are up by about 40 percent this year, driven by a decision by Indonesia to halt exports of raw nickel ores and news of the Goro closure. Indonesia’s ban left nickel buyers in China and Japan scrambling to secure supplies amid a fear of shortages.

“Vale’s got lots of issues in the country,” said Tom Price, a mining analyst at UBS in Sydney. “Nickel has recovered back to the marginal cost of production. It’s inviting for them to continue to invest, but it’s been a world of pain for them for quite a few years.”

Given market expectations of Goro production of just 15,000-20,000 tonnes this year, any impact on nickel prices from the closure would be sentiment driven, Price added. LME nickel prices rose 0.7 percent to $19,745 a tonne on Tuesday.

The Goro mine produced 4,100 tonnes of nickel in the first quarter, up 41 percent on a year ago. Vale is the world’s second-biggest nickel producer, but Goro made up just 6 percent of its nickel output in the first quarter.

The mine employs high pressure technology and acids to leach nickel from abundant tropical laterite ores.

“There is an inherent risk in Goro’s type of operation,” said Gavin Mudd, a professor of environmental engineering at Monash University in Melbourne.

(Additional reporting by James Regan; Editing by Lincoln Feast and Richard Pullin)


Photo Jacquotte Samperez, LNC

Photo Jacquotte Samperez, LNC

Further update: What this article does not mention is the 150 police officers involved last weekend in the removal of barricades, which resulted in 1 police officer being shot. On Tuesday, a further 2 officers were shot and wounded and 16 people arrested. The problem seems to arise from some 100 youth that are blocking the road, throwing rocks, firing shots and burning vehicles (as late as Monday evening). The people of Mont Dore (who are locked in due to the road blocks, and to their minds, “have been taken hostage”) demonstrated yesterday, demanding more information on police plans and greater security. As for the 1,350 Goro employees, nothing is certain for the moment. Some 12 million francs (about €100,000 or AUD 147,000) a day is said to be the cost of the partial unemployment payments that are going out to employees via the CAFAT (social security) system. Job loss and part-time employment are in the air as we wait to see if Vale will reopen. Gas that is normally imported for the trucks used at Goro is stocking up and Total is trying to find a way to sell it to other clients. The knock-on effect as the plant stays closed and the one southern road is blocked is greater than just a few unhappy people. One hopes for a fast and effective resolution, before it all spirals out of hand. That being said, it feels very much like a spiral already.

If you’d like to read the latest in French, do see Les Nouvelles caledoniennes. If you have news that you’d like to share with me and readers here, do post your comments. Hoping everyone stays safe and that the situation gets resolved quickly.


2 thoughts on “Protesters burn vehicles, buildings at New Caledonia nickel mine

  1. I am a technician working actually in a similar factory. With many years of experience in others handling chemicals as well.
    No automatic valve leaks effluents to a river. Only overflow of the tank or “manual opening”.
    This said, and in the event of manual error, there is ( should be?) an alarm triggered due to level variation or flow, seen and recorded in the “alarm record” or the DCS.

    If this is the third time it happens, in my honest opinion the personnel practices and company procedures should be reviewed carefully, and strictly.

    But an itch behind my ear tells me that it could be not an error…

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