Conservation news

Rio Tinto-owned mine is polluting Malagasy water with uranium and lead, NGOs say

An aerial view of the southeastern coast of Madagascar. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

  • Some sites near a Rio Tinto-owned mine in Madagascar have recorded uranium and lead levels 52 and 40 times in excess of WHO safe drinking water standards, a recent analysis found.
  • Around 15,000 people in Madagascar’s Anosy region depend on these water sources, including for drinking, a coalition of NGOs in the U.K. and Madagascar, pointed out, calling on the company to provide safe drinking water to the communities.
  • Mine operator QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), which is 80% owned by Rio Tinto, extracts ilmenite at the mine, a process that generates wastewater rich in minerals like uranium and lead, according to a report commissioned by the Andrew Lees Trust UK.
  • QMM in its response to the NGOs indicated that the high concentrations were naturally occurring and denied that it was polluting the water.

Activists have accused British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto of contaminating water sources around its ilmenite mine in Madagascar. At some sites, uranium and lead levels have been recorded at 52 and 40 times respectively the World Health Organization’s safe limits for drinking water.

Some 15,000 people in southeastern Madagascar depend on these water sources, a report by Publish What You Pay (PWYP) Madagascar said. A coalition of NGOs based in the U.K. and Madagascar is demanding that Rio Tinto provide safe drinking water to these communities immediately.

QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), which is 80% owned by Rio Tinto, said in its responses to the NGOs that it is not polluting the water and that the contamination observed is naturally occurring.

Rio Tinto came under fire last year for destroying a 46,000-year-old sacred Indigenous site in Australia. The company pushed back against a years-long campaign by ​​Indigenous people to preserve their heritage as it sought to expand an iron ore mine. It apologized in 2020 after facing a backlash from investors that ultimately led to the resignation of its CEO and two other top executives.

A satellite view of the Rio Tinto-owned mine in the Anosy region of Madagascar.

At a meeting in August, Mamialisoa Andrianasolo, a representative from the Office National pour l’Environnement (ONE), Madagascar’s top environmental regulator, said they needed to proceed with caution on the new claims. The reports we have till now show there is no contamination, Andrianasolo said.

The Malagasy government holds the remaining 20% stake in QMM. ONE’s oversight of the mine’s activities is funded primarily by fees paid by QMM. The agency’s role came under scrutiny after the Andrew Lees Trust UK (ALT UK) and others identified a breach in the mine’s buffer zone, which ONE failed to flag. In 2019, the mining company admitted that it had encroached on an estuary bordering the mine in 2014-15 in violation of environmental norms.

Over the past five years, ALT UK has commissioned a series of reports showing heavy metal contamination downstream from the mine. The NGOs say QMM is dragging its feet in acknowledging water pollution concerns, to the detriment of Malagasy communities who depend on contaminated water sources for all their water needs, including drinking, fishing and domestic use.

Exposure to lead is linked to problems in fetal development, premature birth, and learning disabilities in children. Even in trace quantities, the metal can harm the heart, kidneys and reproductive organs. In Flint, Michigan, a crisis erupted after nearly 17% of piped water samples collected reported lead above the U.S. federal government’s “actionable” limit of 0.015 milligrams per liter (mg/L). The WHO’s standard for drinking water is 0.01 mg/L.

In Madagascar, more than 40% of the 54 samples considered in the ALT UK-sponsored report registered lead contamination, in one case as high as 0.39 mg/L. For uranium, more than a third of the 54 measurements exceeded WHO norms.

While uranium is mostly associated with radiation exposure, its chemical properties make it dangerous too. It can damage the human body, especially kidneys and the reproductive system, according to the U.S. EPA. Ingestion of uranium is linked with autoimmune disorders and high blood pressure.

QMM mines ilmenite from mineral-rich sands along the southeastern coast of Madagascar. The mine, spread over 6,000 hectares (14,800 acres), abuts wetlands and lies in the vicinity of a river and two lakes. The ilmenite yields titanium oxide, which is processed into white pigment used in paints, plastic, paper and dye.

The mining, done using floating dredges on mining basins, generates wastewater that has high concentrations of minerals like uranium and lead. This toxic wastewater enters the Mandromondromotra River and possibly groundwater aquifers too, the NGOs say.

But determining the mine’s true impact is difficult because baseline data is missing for water quality. The nonprofits rely largely on QMM to share this information, which they allege the company does not share readily.

At the same time, ALT UK is calling on the Malagasy government and other civil society organizations to study the health impact on people living around the mine. Despite the delays and outstanding questions about whether and how the mine is tainting water sources, the activists say the need to provide alternative water sources is urgent.

During the August meeting, a participant asked Steven H. Emerman, a specialist in assessing environmental impacts of mining, and the author of multiple studies for ALT UK, whether treating the contaminated water was an option.

“The important thing is to stop making the problem worse before you worry about cleaning up the water,” Emerman said. He told Mongabay in an interview later that the mine was continuing to dump inadequately treated water into waterways.

Emerman said the company was only using “passive water treatment” for its toxic wastewater, which means channeling it into natural wetlands or artificial settling ponds. This does not require hefty investments like an active treatment plant.

The discharge is released into a wetland, but Emerman’s analysis showed that even this limited effort to clean up the water is not working. “Passive water treatment is also called wishful thinking,” he said. “They do it in countries where they can get away with it. Rio Tinto cannot be doing this in Australia.”

Mongabay reached out to Rio Tinto for comment but did not receive a response by the time this article was published. The article will be updated if Mongabay receives a response.

(Banner Image: An aerial view of the southeastern coast of Madagascar. Image by Rhett A. Butler.)

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