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A legal minefield

Sydney Morning Herald - June 10, 2009

Nick O'Malley An Australian-owned goldmine in the Solomon Islands is facing accusations that workers were exposed to cyanide, and of intimidation and even racism by some of its expatriate staff.

A company executive denied there had been a cyanide leak, and said the claims of abuse had been investigated and could not be substantiated.

"We tried to talk to a lot of those people and we're certainly not hearing that stuff from them," he said. "You could say they are scared of us but I walk among those people and I talk to them and I don't get that feeling."

The mine, owned by the Brisbane-based Australian Solomons Gold, has an unhappy history. Legal battles between landowners and operators surrounded its development in the 1990s before it was ransacked during riots in 2000, pitting local groups against one another. ASG resumed the mine in 2004 and hopes to start production again next year.

Cyanide was first reported to be leaking from a tank at the mine's plant, two hours' drive from the capital, Honiara, in February. After a series of local media stories the company's country manager held a news conference reassuring locals that even if the tank had leaked, no cyanide could have escaped because it is surrounded by a concrete wall known as a bund.

Three men who worked on repairs to the tank and bund in March were diagnosed with cyanide poisoning and recommended for specialist treatment in Australia.

Dr Reginald Apia, of the Honiara General Hospital, told the Herald the three were still suffering dizziness, fainting spells and shortness of breath last month. One wrote in a statement that after work "my body was very itchy and I went and bathed in the river. I went to bed but I did not sleep properly and was shaking during the night".

But an industrial chemist hired by ASG, Shane Harken, says his tests revealed only faint traces of cyanide remained in the tank, which had filled with rainwater since the plant fell into disuse, and none within the bund.

He said there would have been no point in sending men to Sydney for treatment as recommended days after the event, as "I'll be blunt about this cyanide either kills you or it doesn't."

The company's Brisbane-based chief executive, David Roche, said the cyanide reports were "alarmist and scaremongering".

ASG will meet representatives of the Solomon Islands National Workers Union today to try to head off threatened strikes and roadblocks by its workforce. Some workers claim they have been threatened with dismissal for minor infringements, that expatriate managers have referred to them as "you f -ing blacks" and told them "I don't want to see you blacks sitting down like that". The claims could not be confirmed.

In another case an Australian contractor took an iron rod, drew a line in sand and ordered four drilling offsiders to stand on it. An internal inquiry into the incident says that he then "admonished" them using "occasionally profane language" for "poor work performance, ethics and lack of productivity !- whilst holding an iron bar".

It found his explanation that he only picked up the bar to draw the line was "reasonable and plausible".

"Furthermore and most importantly, there is no evidence to suggest that [the contractor] directly threatened to use physical force of any kind," it concluded. Carlos Maelaua, a local geologist who studied and trained in New Zealand, told the Herald he resigned earlier this year as a result of the ugly atmosphere. He says he was threatened when management learned he was active in the move to establish the union.

Many of the claims are detailed in signed statements gathered by an Australian geologist, Julian King, who was dismissed earlier this year.

Mr King says he was sacked for his sympathy for the union, but Mr Roche says he was dismissed for "inappropriate cultural behaviour". ASG will not explain what that means.

Mr Roche confirms the incident with the iron bar but says the contractor involved left the island days later. He says the use of such racist language would be grounds for sacking.

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