* Waste storage tanks at refinery risk overflowing due to
* Refinery's owner says plant open for business after report
* Gov't regulators fear more rain will create new
By James Regan
SYDNEY, April 15 Australia's Queensland state
said it has run checks on a nickel refinery owned by mining and
real estate magnate Clive Palmer to determine if operating in
heavy rains recently caused it to spill hazardous waste into
Queensland State Environment Minister Andrew Powell said the
35,000-tonnes-per-year refinery was experiencing problems with
run-off from a waste storage facility due to a deluge caused by
a cyclone that hit Australia late last week.
Powell told a local radio station his department was
informed by the refinery that the storage tanks were
"overtopping" with tailings, or hazardous ore refuse, prompting
an inspection by government environmental regulators on Monday.
"We have taken samples and they are obviously off at labs at
the moment to check if any of the contaminant has found their
way into those local waterways," Powell said.
"But certainly there is no denying the fact the facility is
now at capacity... So if the refinery continues to operate and
place further tailings into that facility, then clearly that's
going to continue to overtop," Powell said.
Palmer, who bought the refinery from BHP Billiton
in 2009, issued a statement saying the plant was still producing
nickel after The Australian newspaper on Tuesday reported
operations had been suspended as a result of toxic sludge
spilling over tailings dams designed to contain the material.
"Queensland Nickel is compliant with environmental standards
and the plant is open for business," Palmer said in the
Powell said his department has been talking to Queensland
Nickel for more than twelve months over the need to upgrade
waste storage practices used at the 40-year-old refinery.
"If it rains again then we have a serious issue again,"
Cyclone Ita dumped more than 150 millimeters of rain in the
region of the refinery after making landfall further north on
Friday and tracking south. Australia is most prone to tropical
cyclones between November 1 and April 30.
A spokesman for the refinery, Andrew Crook, said recent
increases in the traded price of nickel, a metal used to help
make stainless steel, was keeping the refinery in the black.
The London Metal Exchange three month nickel price
hit a 14-month high of $17,917 a tonne, or $8.12 a pound this
week, which the spokesman said was more than $2 per pound above
the refinery's break-even point.
Nickel has staged a near-uninterrupted rise since January
after the Indonesian government banned exports of nickel ore,
cutting off a key supply source for Chinese
(Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman)