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New Caledonia Travel Guide

Société Le Nickel

The northern section of Nouméa is not as attractive as the southern; here, on Pointe Doniambo, is the giant metallurgical factory, Société le Nickel. Established in 1910 and expanded to its present size in 1958 and 1992, the smelter has about 2,000 employees (only 17 percent of them Kanaks). It processes much of New Caledonia's nickel ore, and the rest is exported to Australia and Japan in its natural state.

Ore for the smelter is collected from a number of giant, open-cut mines around Grande Terre by huge ore carriers, leaving terrible scars in their wake. Two distinct products are smelted: ferro-nickel and matte. The former, sold to a variety of industrialized countries, is 75 percent iron and 25 percent nickel, used in the manufacture of stainless steel. Matte, sent to the company's Le Havre (France) plant, is 80 percent nickel and cobalt, used in the making of high-quality steel products.

Toxic discharges of sulfur dioxide and nickel compounds from this smelter have caused serious health problems among the thousands of Kanaks living in the Cité Pierre Lenquette low-cost housing area directly east of the smelter (company regulations prohibit emissions when the wind is blowing south toward central Nouméa and Anse Vata). New Caledonia has the world's highest incidence of asthma-related deaths due to nickel dust thrown up by the mining and smelting.

If you're interested, the Service des Mines, on rue Édouard Unger between the smelter and downtown, has a collection of rocks on display weekdays (admission free).