Thousands of fish dead after acid leak at New Caledonia nickel plant
Source: Radio Australia, 6 April 2009
The southern province Government of New Caledonia will decide next week whether to take any action against the Vale-Inco Nickel plant after a serious environmental accident on Wednesday. Almost a hundred thousand litres of toxic sulphuric acid spilled into the North Bay Creek and out into Prony Bay, leaving the area littered with thousands of dead fish and crustaceans. The Worldwide Fund for Nature is asking that the plant's licence be suspended while it addresses the causes of the accident.
Presenter Paul Allen
Speaker Worldwide Fund for Nature Country Director Ahab Downer
(Listen to the audio)
DOWNER: Thousands of fresh water fish were found at the mouth of the creek where it empties into the Prony Bay and on the marine end or in the salt water there was also significant fish and crustation mortality, so again thousands of fish were collected, that creek for all intents and purposes was in good environmental health.
ALLEN: And what sort of environmental health would you say it is in now?
DOWNER: I'm just guessing now, but given that 14,000 -18,000 litres of 98% pure sulphuric acid was dumped into that creek, I would say that there is very little living organism that managed to survive that sort of insult, if you like.
ALLEN: Has anybody from the Vale-Inco Nickel plant given you an explanation as to how this leak could happen?
DOWNER: I spoke to Jean-Francois David, who is the assistant director of Vale-Inco, Goro Nickel plant and Mr David explained to me step-by-step what did occur. They had been undergoing tests in the acid fabrication plant. The acid which Vale-Inco produces as part of their process to extract nickel from the ore that they will be exporting when the refinery opens and the acid plant has been undergoing testing for I guess a number of months and there was some sort of rubber joint somewhere in the circuit, somewhere in the pipeline within the factory itself which failed and it wasn't for two minutes that they understood that there was actually a pretty massive leak. By that time, I guess tens-of-thousands of litres of acid had flowed out of the circuit and into the factory, some of which was retained within the factory itself. The excess is supposed to spill into a special retention basin in the event of such an accident, but unfortunately that retention basin was undergoing some repair and the valve giving access to that basin was closed and so the only other place that this acid could go was out of the factory and down the slope and into the North Bay Creek.
ALLEN: Well, it sounds like a series of rather catastrophic failures at the plant. Is there any sort of recourse or any legal action that can be taken?
DOWNER: Well, according to the Southern Province which issues the permit that allows Vale-Inco to go into exploit their refinery, this was a breach of contract, or I would say they can be held responsible because that retention basin was not in operation while these tests were ongoing and that is a stipulation of the contract they have with the Southern Province just to avoid this type of accident. In the short term, thousands of fish have been pulled out of the Prony Bay and out of the North Creek and the Southern Province has asked them to stop producing acid for the moment and to fix the basin leaks before anything occurs in future. For our part, we didn't think that was sufficient and we asked the authorities to revoke their exploitation permit until such time as proper measures can be put into place to ensure that future accidents like this don't happen. Indeed, the Southern Province can press charges and what the outcome of that will be, will be decided in the coming days and coming weeks. On behalf of the WWF, we are not asking that licence be revoked forever, but rather that it be revoked until such time as it can be shown that the monitoring and emergency measures are really up to snuff. Already there is a great outcry by a lot of the New Caledonian population about what has occurred. There is a lot of calls for shutting the plant down, there's a lot of angry politicians, there is a lot of angry civil society participants and NGO's.