A gold mine sold for A$100 by an Australian company to landowners in the Solomon Islands in May has been declared a disaster area by the government.
Solomons Environment minister Samuel Manetoali said the tailings dam at the Gold Ridge mine, 30km outside the capital Honiara, is in a perilous condition.
Heavy rain after unseasonal Tropical Cyclone Raquel last week has now filled the dam to about 20 centimetres below capacity, its highest ever recorded level.
The dam holds tens of millions of tonnes of toxic sludge and was not designed as a water storage facility.
Landowners and the government fear the dam wall will erode and could collapse, if there is an uncontrolled release of water.
The tailings contain concentrated levels of arsenic and cyanide and other heavy metals.
A condition of the sale by Australian miner St Barbara to GoldRidge Community Investment Limited (GCIL), a local landowner company, was the transfer of all legal liability.
Thousands of people live downstream from the dam and have welcomed the government’s disaster declaration.
“We will continue to discuss with the government other things related to dewatering,” said Walton Naezon, GCIL manager and former local MP, told the Solomon Islands Broadcasting Commission.
“(It) must be perfectly done and then once we are all satisfied and all stakeholders satisfied and communities well-informed then we will continue with the dewatering process.”
Australian miner St Barbara sold the mine to landowners in May after it was shut down by a flash flood and then looted in April last year.
Landowners hope to find a new investor to restart the mine and maintain the tailings dam.
St Barbara abandoned the operation after the Solomons government repeatedly refused to allow it to release untreated water from the already dangerously full tailings dam.
The Australian Stock Exchange-listed company lost over $300m in the two years it operated the almost 20-year-old mine.
As part of the A$100 deal, St Barbara must install a new water treatment plant so clean water can be pumped out of the dam into the local river system.
A World Health Organisation report commissioned by the Solomon Islands government earlier this year found the untreated the water would pose a limited environmental risk if released.
Bob Vassie, managing director and CEO of St Barbara said in a statement to SBS:
“New ownership of the mine has finally focused the Solomon Islands Government on the urgent need to start pumping to lower the water levels.”
“This is something the Government repeatedly rejected during our tenure, even when the World Health Organisation recommended it in February this year”.
The Solomon Islands government has been contacted by SBS for comment.