Inco's Goro Project Faces Environmental Challenges

On February 4th, 2002 the French government released INCO's Installation Classee (IC), which includes the Environmental Impact Assessment for the Goro project, for a one month public consultation period. The 800+ page document was not publicly available until the evening of the 7th, and then only in French. Scientific reviewers that MiningWatch Canada had lined up at the request of our partners in New Caledonia were not able to work in French. We are currently working with francophone scientists to do the review (see Toronto Globe and Mail article, March 9, 2002).

The formal response from the highest body of the indigenous Kanak (the Senat Coutumier) read: "Aware of the economic opportunity that an industrial project such as the one presented by GORO-NICKEL represents for New Caledonia, the Customary Senate of New Caledonia, as an autonomous Institution, CANNOT ACCEPT AND APPROVE THE GORO-NICKEL INDUSTRIAL PROJECT as presented, particularly with regards to the protection of the environment and of the health of the inhabitants of New Caledonia."

Just in time for the February 1 deadline, efforts by New Caledonian environmental activists and the leadership of the indigenous Kanak paid off when the French Environment Minister submitted a nomination for the entire coral reef system of New Caledonia to the World Heritage Centre for consideration for World Heritage listing. The Centre accepted the nomination in principle but determined that the nomination was inadequate in that it lacked some of the scientific and technical data necessary, and requested the French government to refine the nomination. That work is now being done by the Natural History Museum of France.

Now that the Centre has accepted the nomination in principle it is incumbent on the relevant State party not to allow any activity that could potentially jeopardise areas proposed for listing. Local activists consider INCO's coastal mine to be a major threat to the reefs. The provincial government of New Caledonia opposes the World Heritage proposal as it fears it will interfere with nickel mining.

There is a question of whether the French Government has put itself in a conflict of interest position as it also has a 15% stake in the proposed nickel mine. Perhaps this explains France's hesitation to provide funding for the project.

In February, Inco's Scott Hand confidently announced that Inco has an "agreement-in-principle" with the French government for $350 million of "very favourable tax assisted financing" for the Goro project. The public consultation period on Inco's Installation Classée ended on March 6th, 2002. But to date, Inco has not received its permit to start building the facilities for the mine. New Caledonian sources claim that the French government has decided to suspend its financing deal for the project until the EIA has been improved. Inco's Bill Napier (V.P. Environment) says that while it's true that Inco has not yet received its permit based on the Installation Classée (IC), it has not been asked to redo the IC. He denies that France has decided to suspend its financial agreement-in-principal with Inco. Napier also pointed out that the IC only represents about 5-7% of the engineering for the project and that further critical data on dams etc. will be provided later. In the meantime, Inco has already moved heavy equipment onto the site and is starting to build the infrastructure for the mine. Napier says this work is being done under a regular permit.

In the meantime, INCO has privatised a public road that leads through the mine site and has stationed a guard post at the end of road. Napier says that there are plans to build a new road to go around the site.

[for more information see our backgrounder What's Inco Doing in New Caledonia?].