Concerns over spills at New Caledonia nickel processing plant
Questions remain over why spills keep occurring at the Vale nickel processing plant in New Caledonia.
A nickel expert says questions need to be asked about Vale's risk management procedures, workers' behaviour and the design of its processing plant in New Caledonia to find out why spills keep happening there.
Operations have been suspended at the Goro plant for more than two weeks after 100,000 litres of effluent, containing some acid, ended up in a creek.
Environmentalists and the indigenous population are calling for the plant, which is next to a World Heritage Site and has had five spills in five years, to be shut permanently.
Gavin Mudd, from the School of Environmental Engineering at Monash University, says the scale of the plant has always raised concern.
Dr Mudd told Mary Baines it's up to Vale to find out what's going wrong, and fix it.
GAVIN MUDD: There's always potential for accidents when you're managing large volumes of chemicals. And especially at a plant like Goro, which also has other aspects to it, in terms of high pressure and temperature. There's a lot of wear and tear on equipment, sometimes when you're dealing with such aggressive processing. Therefore the material selection has to be extremely particular, and generally the engineering is done like that. So in some ways the issue becomes is either something failing in process design and their process construction and their overall workers' behaviour - all of these things have to be looked at. I haven't compared the accident rate at Goro to many others, but certainly across the Australian mining industry there's been certainly some very bad accidents over the years as well.
MARY BAINES: What is the significance of the Goro nickel processing plant in a global context?
GM: The Goro nickel resources are certainly amongst some of the largest in the world, certainly good grade in terms of nickel and cobalt, so in that sense it makes it quite valuable as a resource. The problem of course is what we call nickel laterite type deposits, which means it's sort of a weathered oxide type mineral deposit, which is extremely difficult to process, and requires a lot of effort to actually process and get the nickel and cobalt out into sort of metal form or some other form that can actually be used later on in the refining, and then used as nickel and cobalt. Which is why the process that's been built at Goro, in terms of the large processing plant there, is actually quite large and very complex, because that's the amount of effort to get the nickel out.
MB: So what would be the implications of this processing plant in New Caledonia being permanently shut down, as some people are calling for?
GM: Well, nickel plants open and shut all the time around the world, that's not necessarily anything unusual. And certainly there's other nickel laterite plants, so if that did happen at Goro there may be a small term sort of risk of something for the nickel price or nickel supply, but I think the nickel market can adjust very quickly. Primarily I guess the real issues around Goro have been environmental in nature and social in nature, so that scale of activity of the project has always raised a lot of concern.
MB: It's the fifth spill in as many years to have occurred at the plant. Do you have any ideas why this keeps happening?
GM: No, not exactly, I haven't reviewed their internal systems, whether it is risk management or chemical safety assessment or other things, but certainly if you look at many industries, chemical risks and making sure that you store things safely, you transfer things safely, a lot of these are fairly standard day-to-day processes. So, in some ways it is a legitimate question to say well why do they seem to be having some big accidents that are very, very significant, whether it is a spill of sulphuric acid or other things. It's an open question and it's certainly up to Goro at the moment to work out what's going wrong and fix it, and fix it well.
Vale has declined numerous requests for an interview.
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