AUSTRALIA dispatched a team of 33 police officers last night to help secure Gold Ridge mine site as operators St Barbara reportedly abandoned the mine in the wake of last week’s flood disaster.
The officers came at the request of Prime Minister Gordon Darcy Lilo, who was at the airport to meet them on arrival.
“I was disappointed with St Barbara,” Mr Lilo said last night.
“In the wake of the flooding disaster, they quickly moved to enforce the ‘force majour’ situation in the clause of the lease agreement to simply walk off,” he said.
St Barbara announced Monday it has suspended its operation at Gold Ridge.
All their expatriate staff, including Fijian security guards who have been working at the mine site, have already left the country.
Mr Lilo said he was alerted to the situation over the weekend and have to immediately instruct the Royal Solomon Islands Police Force to secure the mine properties up there in Central Guadalcanal.
“The mine assets at Gold Ridge belong to the government of Solomon Islands and if the situation gets worse and that the company has to wind up, these assets will return back to the government therefore it has to be protected,” he said.
St Barbara, an Australian company, blamed the flooding for their decision to shut down the operation.
It was also reported that land owners have also entered the mine site and try to steal properties, prompting Mr Lilo to direct police intervention.
The prime minister said there are valuable assets and dangerous chemicals at the site so he has to seek outside assistance from Australia to send its officer to assist the local police.
He said securing the mine will give space for the government to strategise and come up with a future solution to the mine.
Mr Lilo said St Barbara had previously discussed with the government about the financial problems it has been going through.
“Given the fact that the company has decided to go into a maintenance mode of operation, when this natural disaster happens and destroyed the infrastructures that connects the company operations, it really puts a lot of pressure on the company.
“So somehow the company was forced to enforce the ‘force Madura’ of the situation clause in the agreement to just walk out.”
Mr Lilo said Australia initially refused to send in officers but Canberra changed its mind when he told them he will look elsewhere if they don’t want to accept his request.
The prime minister said Gold Ridge is critical to country’s economy therefore it is important that it is secured.
“This mine is a very critical asset of Solomon Islands. Our economic progress is protected on the successful operation of the mine.
“If it goes tomorrow it will leave a big hole. And I tell you it will be a very tough time ahead of us. So I have to act quickly to save the situation we have right now,” Mr Lilo said.
However, he said although all the employee of St Barbra have left, it does not mean they have winded up.
He said the company has enforced the force majour situation to get their workers back but obviously it depends how people interpreted the situation.
“To me I have my own opinion around it. You don’t expect the leader of the country to say something too adverse about this whole thing,” the prime minister added.
As of last Friday St Barbara has placed its shares in a trading halt.
A statement from company’s CEO Tim Lehaney said the decision was made on April 3 after flooding caused extensive damage to roads, including road access to the mine and a single key bridge, which has isolated the mine from fuel supplies, food and medical supplies.
“The open pits have also suffered significant damage from flooding, with security risks escalating over the weekend and endangering the 200 personnel onsite.
“The safety of the Gold Ridge workforce, the majority of whom are Solomon Islanders, is our highest priority and accordingly the decision to evacuate all personnel from the site was taken,” Mr Lehaney said.
He said the company is in continuing discussions with the Solomon Islands government regarding the future of the mine.
By DANIEL NAMOSUAIA and EDNAL PALMER