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Concerns about radioactive contamination dog Rio Tinto’s Madagascar mine

  • The Rio Tinto-owned QMM mine in southeast Madagascar could be polluting water sources in the region with radioactive contaminants, activists say.
  • Elevated background levels of radioactive uranium and thorium, and lead in water bodies near the mine, are most likely a result of mining activity, according to new analysis released by the Andrew Lees Trust UK.
  • The company has refuted claims that it is responsible for high radiation levels in the environment, attributing them instead to the natural sources of radioactivity in the area.
  • The lack of agreement about the existence and nature of the contamination means there is no clarity about remedial measures and who is responsible for providing safe drinking water to about 15,000 local people whose water sources could have been compromised.

Activists have accused mining giant Rio Tinto of dragging its feet in addressing the fallout from a breach that occurred at its mine in Madagascar five years ago and that it only acknowledged this year.

The Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) is the U.K.-based charity that commissioned studies that uncovered the breach at the ilmenite mine operated by Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM), in which Rio Tinto holds an 80% stake. Rio Tinto, headquartered in the U.K. and Australia, only confirmed the breach in March this year. “It took two years of persistent inquiry before RT admitted QMM’s breach of the buffer zone. The company had claimed compliance despite the findings of two technical studies — one of which it commissioned,” Yvonne Orengo, director of ALT UK, told Mongabay, “so it would be consistent to expect barriers and delay to any admission that elevated uranium and lead in waters around the mine are related to QMM operations.”

ALT UK recently released a new analysis that showed, based on data collected by QMM, a spike in levels of uranium, thorium and lead in surface water from samples collected downstream from the mine. “These increases were sufficiently large that there was better than 99% confidence that they could not have occurred by chance,” Steven Emerman, a Utah-based geophysicist and hydrology consultant who did the analysis, said in a statement.

The mine is located in the Anosy region near the port city of Tolagnaro, also known as Fort Dauphin, where QMM extracts ilmenite, a key source of titanium dioxide, used as white pigment in a wide range of products from paint to toothpaste. The company has downplayed the gravity of the breach and denied it has any role in contaminating the environment around the mine, including water sources. In response to Mongabay’s questions, the company shared a statement saying that a baseline study done before mining began showed “that the area surrounding QMM has naturally elevated levels of radiation,” adding that it was “not a QMM-related impact.”

Rio Tinto’s QIT Madagascar Minerals mine in southeastern Madagascar. Image courtesy of Google Earth.

Central to the controversy is whether the measured radioactivity around the mine is wholly natural or aggravated because of the mining activity. An analysis commissioned by ALT UK, conducted by Canada-based radiation expert Stella Swanson, found that waterways surrounding the QMM mine contain elevated levels of uranium, in some places 50 times higher than WHO drinking water guidelines. This could be because the mining operation displaces and redistributes naturally occurring radionuclides, sometimes causing concentrations to increase beyond acceptable limits, according to the report.

The breach occurred when mine tailings used in dam construction entered into a buffer zone that separates the mine from a sensitive wetland. While Rio Tinto said that the breach happened in 2014-15, ALT UK says it occurred between 2013-2014, according to data from the study commissioned by the company.It raised concerns about contamination and questions about whether the company was doing enough to prevent damage to the surrounding environment and harm to local communities who depend on regional water sources. About 15,000 people use nearby sources of surface water for drinking.

The ALT UK studies suggest that the mine generates wastewater rich in radionuclides and other contaminants, which finds its way into surface water bodies and groundwater. There are also concerns about exposure to dust carrying radionucleotides, and to radioactive radon gas, which is released when uranium and thorium decay and is linked to lung cancer. The decay of these two elements also produces lead, a heavy-metal contaminant.

“Current data available do not indicate that QMM is exposing local communities to health risks, particularly around exposure to radiation,” the Rio Tinto statement said.

The lack of consensus means the question of what remedial measures need to be taken, and who is responsible for implementing them, remains contentious. Rio Tinto has agreed to support further investigations into the impact of exposure by an independent consultant.

Activists including Orengo say this is too little, too late. “First, the company must acknowledge the relationship between uranium and lead contaminants and QMM’s mining activity,” she said. “Then it must manage the mine’s wastewater and provide alternate safe drinking water sources for affected communities.” 

ALT UK has also said Rio Tinto is attempting to deflect attention from contamination that could be linked to its mining operations to other causes of water pollution like biological pathogens, which places the burden of providing safe drinking water on the Malagasy government. “We understand that Rio Tinto representatives have met and are consulting with the WHO, Malagasy ministers and other actors at national level to discuss the Swanson report findings, but as yet there are no open communications or engagement about our studies in Anosy,” Orengo said.

In its statement, Rio Tinto did not mention the involvement of these parties, saying only that it continues to “work in close collaboration with the Government of Madagascar to identify opportunities for partnering around public health issues.” The WHO told Mongabay it had received a letter from Madagascar’s ministry of health requesting its support, but said it was not involved in the process at the moment.

(Banner Image: A stream near the village of Mandena in Anosy region, upstream from the QMM mine. Image Courtesy of Andrew Lees Trust)

Malavika Vyawahare is a staff writer for Mongabay. Find her on Twitter: @MalavikaVy

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