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The socio-environmental and financial impact of gold mining in the Solomon Islands

To many visitors, the scattered, emerald green necklace of atolls that constitute the Solomon Islands are an undiscovered paradise. An archipelago with over 900 islands in the Southwest Pacific, this country also has a terrain that consists of rugged mountains, volcanoes, rainforests, and spectacular coral reef ecosystems.

While it is particularly rich in natural resources, the bulk of its population depends on agriculture, fishing, and forestry for at least part of their livelihood. The past few years has seen rapid growth in the country’s resource extraction sector. 1 The Solomon Islands government is thus looking to the mining industry as the next big revenue earner whilst the country embarks on creating a post-conflict economic recovery.

Mining has long been a major source of income for a number of Melanesian countries such as Papua New Guinea and Nauru. But like its two neighbours, the extractive industry in the Solomon Islands has faced various setbacks. 2 At many mining operations in the region, environmental sustainability is a target that remains to be met.

In April 2016, ​thousands of islanders living in the vicinity of an open-cut gold mine mere kilometres from the capital, Honiara, braced themselves for a major disaster as torrential rainfall triggered a substantial spillover of untreated water from the mine’s tailings dam. 3 Directives were issued to prevent people from using water at nearby rivers due to the risk of chemical contamination, and this also had the effect of disrupting many islanders’ access to water. 4

In a ​paper published in 2017, researchers examined the mining facilities of the open-cut gold mine which had the tailings overflow incident, and cautioned that any further uncontrolled water release from the tailings dams may contaminate downstream areas. 5 The challenge of maintaining safe water levels means that contamination, arising from a combination of factors, may continue to present a risk to local communities and the environment. 6

Cyanide is a toxic pollutant that has a legacy association with large scale mining operations. Many large mining operations still use the gold cyanidation process to extract gold. Although aqueous solutions of cyanide degrade rapidly in sunlight, cyanates and thiocyanates may persist in tailings for years. In addition, local artisanal alluvial mining was also reported in the region. 7 Artisanal and small scale gold mining outfits usually use mercury in their operations, and there is also an ever-present risk of further contamination by this silvery liquid. 8

In order to develop the local economy, the people of the Solomon Islands are seeking opportunities to financially benefit from mining operations. However, there is a financial, social, and environmental cost associated with mining operations that use toxic chemicals. With fragile communities and highly delicate ecosystems, Pacific island-nations will need to commit to a high standard of environmental protection that compels mining outfits to mine in a clean, sustainable, and ethical way. Clearly, the economic, social, and environmental success of mining ventures over the next generation depends on not repeating the problems of the past.

This high standard can be achieved with Clean Mining’s scalable, non-toxic solution for gold mining companies. Clean Mining’s cyanide-free and mercury-free gold recovery reagent and dewatering process can make a positive impact at mining operations of all sizes, and mining companies operating in areas with fragile ecosystems can be assured that their operations will create positive socio-environmental, economic, and financial impacts without the risks of cyanide and/or mercury contamination that would threaten the livelihoods of mining communities.

 

Clean Mining is part of the Clean Earth Technologies group.

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[1] Matthew G. Allen and Douglas J. Porter, “Managing the Transition from Logging to Mining in Post-Conflict Solomon Islands,” The Extractive Industries and Society​ 3, no. 2 (2016): pp. 350-358, ​https://doi.org/10.1016/j.exis.2016.01.002​.

[2] For more on the mining-related issues faced by neighbouring Melanesian countries, see, Geoff Crispin, “Environmental Management in Small Scale Mining in PNG,” ​Journal of Cleaner Production 11, no. 2 (2003): pp. 175-183, https://doi.org/10.1016/s0959-6526(02)00037-9​.

[3] Catherine Wilson, “Can the Solomon Islands’ Gold Ridge Mine Serve as a New Model for Resource Extraction in the South Pacific?,” Mongabay Environmental News (Mongabay Series: Southeast Asian infrastructure, September 24, 2018), https://news.mongabay.com/2017/11/can-the-solomon-islands-gold-ridge-mine-serve-as-a-new-model-for-resource-extraction-in-the-south-pacific/

[4] For more on the evidence that tailings entering the environment may contaminate food and water chains, see, D. Kossoff et al., “Mine Tailings Dams: Characteristics, Failure, Environmental Impacts, and Remediation,” ​Applied Geochemistry 51 (2014): pp. 229-245, ​https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeochem.2014.09.010​.

[5] Simon Albert et al., “Environmental Change in a Modified Catchment Downstream of a Gold Mine, Solomon Islands,” Environmental Pollution​ 231 (2017): pp. 942-953, ​https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2017.08.113​.

[6] Ibid, 943.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid, 952.

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