Deficit of trust in Rio Tinto’s social and environment program
Rights to information, to safe drinking water and a healthy environment underpin Rio Tinto’s social licence to operate. Indeed, the company goes to great lengths to promote its social and environmental program and reassure shareholders it is a “responsible operator”. Rio Tinto’s destruction of the sacred site at Juukan Gorge in Australia brought global attention to failures in the company’s operational culture. Rio Tinto must now demonstrate its social commitments are not just hollow talk.
For southern Madagascar, and four years into a dialogue with Rio Tinto about the breach of an environmental buffer zone and contamination of local waterways by its subsidiary Qit Minerals Madagascar (QMM), the lack of answers, a deficit of trust, and urgent need for action begs the question: can change come soon enough?
However, the investigation that followed the blowing up of the Juukan Gorge exposed narrative disjoints when it emerged that the claimed “misunderstanding” which led to the destruction was nothing of the kind. Rio Tinto targeted the area because of its high mineral wealth – it was an informed decision.
In Madagascar, an investigation by the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) into the QMM buffer breach reveals the same modus operandi and language: a “misunderstanding” and “mistake”, when in fact the mine’s breach was also the result of a strategic decision to access the richest mineral deposit, just like at the Gorge. Only in Madagascar, there has been no response or sanction by the government, which holds a 20 percent stake in the QMM mine. There has been no national investigation or inquiry. The breach was an illegal incursion of the environment beyond the mine’s permitted boundaries. It placed mine tailings into the local lake and exposed ongoing risks from leakage and overflow of contaminated mine wastewaters into the local environment. Data reveals that QMM’s wet mining process concentrates radionuclides in the mining basin. Elevated levels of uranium and lead have been detected in waters around the mine, 52 and almost 40 times higher than WHO safe drinking water guidelines, respectively, in some places.
Villagers in Anosy are not compensated for damage done by QMM to their lakes and waterways, especially from toxic wastewater, when most have no alternative but to draw drinking water from these sources.
ALT UK has repeatedly lobbied Rio Tinto to address QMM’s wastewater discharge, and to urgently provide safe drinking water to local communities. This work has included publishing independent studies into the QMM breach and water quality and working with partners including Publish What You Pay (PWYP Madagascar and UK) and Friends of the Earth. Far from agreeing, thereby honouring its own water commitments and communities’ pressing needs for potable water, the company insisted at its 2019 AGM that elevated levels of uranium found in waters around the QMM mine are “naturally occurring” due to high background Naturally Occurring Radioactive Material (NORM) in the mineral rich sands. A lack of credible supporting evidence, together with an independent review demonstrating that Rio Tinto’s monitoring of radioactivity at the QMM mine was “unacceptable” (Swanson 2019), has forced the company to address failures and commission a new study. New water data – the first from Rio Tinto’s external provider, JBS&G – was shared last July and QMM asserted that “all results … were within the relevant WHO guidelines for drinking water quality”.
However, hydrology expert Dr Emerman, commissioned by the ALT UK to analyse these findings, points out that Rio Tinto failed to comply with standard procedure by interpreting the JBS&G study as if no previous water data had been collected. Dr Emerman’s integration of the new data with existing water data has reinforced his previous analysis, which confirms the detrimental impact of QMM’s operations on regional water quality (Emerman 2020). Rio Tinto ignoring pre-existing assessments is like wiping sums off a blackboard when they present too knotty an equation – one that sits uncomfortably with decades of assuring Malagasy people there were no radioactivity issues around the QMM mine. But disappearing data only raises more questions. Especially when Rio Tinto already acknowledges in its 2019 Annual Review that the QMM operation presents “a significant risk from a water and broader environmental perspective”. If the levels of uranium are now low, within the WHO limits as QMM claims, the inevitable question arises: what happened to Rio Tinto’s previous argument that the highly elevated levels of uranium found in waters around the mine were “naturally occurring”?
What is the explanation for the disappearance of contaminants? Why were previous water data collected by QMM, and independently by ALT UK, not included in the JBS&G analysis according to standard procedure? And why, when JBS&G mapped the collection of a water sample from a mining rehabilitation pond was that data excluded from the report? Although not a drinking water source, it could provide information about the loadings of contaminants in wastewater discharged from the QMM mining pond. ALT UK requested QMM wastewater data almost a year ago, were promised it in July 2020, and are still waiting for it. This data is important because drinking water is not the only concern. Local people depend on the lakes for fishing, domestic water and livelihoods. Any contamination of water and the surrounding environment affects their long-term health and wellbeing.
Withholding information does not build trust. Nor does prolonged silence. Since 2018, the dialogue between my charity ALT UK and Rio Tinto has faltered. It noticeably chilled when our independent radioactivity review was published in 2019, and after we refused Rio Tinto’s request to remove the uranium finding from the report. The company has attempted to push responsibility for answers onto QMM and regional leadership. However, our dialogue is premised on the need for oversight by the parent company. QMM has failed to generate workable levels of trust, both for villagers who say that “QMM does what it wants” and for the ALT UK. Indeed, our experience when assisting local communities has revealed worrying levels of coercion, manipulation and disinformation in QMM’s social engagement practices.
Is the parent company faring better than its Madagascar subsidiary? It took two years of persistent inquiry for Rio Tinto to finally admit QMM’s buffer zone breach. Numerous related information requests and technical questions remain outstanding. In the same way, it is hard to comprehend how senior executives could have been unaware of Juukan Gorge’s importance. It is baffling when Rio Tinto fails to provide answers to technical questions when asked – especially those related to communities’ rights to safe drinking water. At one point in our exchange, a company officer exclaimed Rio Tinto was “not set up for this kind of engagement”. A troubling admission given the company commitments to corporate social responsibility – and the substantial inequality of resources at play in the engagement. Can Rio Tinto be trusted? Not yet. Not while we still await answers to our questions, and while promises remain unfulfilled.
These currently include: QMM wastewater data promised six months ago; the pledge for more transparency about any changes to QMM’s wastewater management; an agreement to hold an annual meeting with the CEO. Rio Tinto cannot be trusted while communities remain at risk from contaminated water. We are just one of many NGOs with questions for Rio Tinto and demanding they act responsibly towards mine affected communities. One is fighting to protect an Apache sacred site at Oak Flat, which is targeted for demolition by Rio Tinto, contrary to all its promises following the Juukan Gorge debacle. The pledge by the incoming CEO to build trust with stakeholders may best start by answering questions in ways that are meaningful, honest and committed to action, especially when evidence points to the need for urgent and responsive remedy.
Toxic uranium legacy of Central Asia and its clean-up
Industrial-scale uranium mining began in Mailuu-Suu during the Soviet era in 1946 and lasted until 1968. Uranium ore from Europe and China was also processed in Mailuu-Suu during this time. However, the pollution remains, and Central Asian countries must cooperate to prevent further environmental disasters in the Ferghana Valley, as well as mitigate economic damage and resolve political issues.
Political tensions between countries in Central Asia have intensified since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Along with border conflicts and water disputes, problems have arisen from residual radioactive waste located in the Kyrgyz town of Mailuu-Suu in the Ferghana Valley, which has caused widespread pollution of river and farmland, and led to major impacts on the health and economy of people in Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.
As a result, the small town of 24,000 people is now surrounded by about 3 million cubic metres of uranium waste left in 23 tailings pits and 13 dumps. These sites have contaminated the Mailuu-Suu river, a major tributary of the Syr Darya which flows through Kyrgyzstan and into Uzbekistan, carrying radioactive waste into the densely populated Ferghana Valley.
The biggest problem is that earthquakes, landslides and heavy rainfall events have intensified in recent years, destroying uranium tailing storage sites along the river and mountain slopes, contaminating surrounding areas. A number of international organisations have worked to prevent further disasters in Mailuu-Suu. The World Bank has allocated more than USD 11 million to clean up uranium tailings. The European Commission launched an initiative in 2015 to remediate the most dangerous sites in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.
A town built on radioactive waste
According to the state surveys there are 92 radioactive and toxic storage facilities across Kyrgyzstan today. The most dangerous of these are the Mailuu-Suu uranium sites, because of numerous hazards threatening the tailing pits. Were these tailing pits destabilised, they would have potentially catastrophic environmental consequences for Kyrgyzstan and the neighbouring countries of Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan, with the radioactive waste contaminating the river as well as the soil and irrigated farmland surrounding it.
Uranium was first discovered in the region in 1933, and within 20 years 10,000 tonnes of uranium oxide was extracted in Mailuu-Suu. Residual radioactive waste in southern Kyrgyzstan currently poses a major environmental threat to the densely populated parts of the Ferghana Valley, home to about 14 million people.
Landslides are the major risk. There are more than 200 landslide-prone locations around Mailuu-Suu. There was little such threat in the 1940s, but landslide activity has intensified since 1954 due to increased rainfall. Landslides in Mailuu-Suu occurred several times in 1988, 1992 and 2002, damaging infrastructure and altering water flow. The most dangerous landslide is Koi-Tash, which happened in 2017 and could block the riverbed and spread radioactive contamination down the river.
The 1950s saw one of the most salient examples of the danger posed by vulnerable waste dumps. In April 1958, as a result of rainfall and high seismic activity, an alluvial dam collapsed into tailings pit #7 in Mailuu-Suu, pushing more than 400,000 cubic metres of radioactive waste into the Mailuu-Suu river, which then spread 30-40 km downstream in irrigated farmland in Uzbekistan. The effects of this disaster have lasted to this day, with the radioactive contamination of the river and surrounding soil and vegetation causing major health problems and fatalities. Such disasters also heighten tensions between the regional states. According to Kyrgyz official data, the gamma radiation on tailings pit surfaces are within 17-60 mR/hr; however, in the damaged areas, radiation levels reach 400-500 mR/hr. An exposure to 100 mSv a year (a millisievert, mSv, is equal to 100 milliroentgens, mR) or 10,000 mR is the point where an increase in cancer is clearly evident. At 400-500 mR/hr this would be achieved in 20-25 hours, or just one day. Radionuclides and heavy metals from these tailing pits and dumps are seeping into the surface and groundwater, polluting water and farmland and increasing the risk of cancer for local people.
The Institute of Nuclear Physics under the Academy of Sciences of Uzbekistan has found that radioactive contamination in the river was two times higher during spring compared with summer, as rainfall flushes out radioactive waste from tailing pits and dumps.
Scientists at the Institute of Medical Problems, Southern Branch of the National Academy of Sciences of the Kyrgyz Republic, have been investigating the radioactive contamination in the town of Mailuu-Suu since 1994. Their analysis shows high concentrations of radioactive contaminants in the river. Kyrgyz scientists have also found high concentrations of uranium in cattle, goats and rabbits living in the area. Other studies have discovered high concentrations of radioactive elements in the hair and nails of people in Mailuu-Suu. Research has even found radioactive elements in human placentas.
Contaminated water has led to higher rates of cancer, typhoid fever and birth anomalies. Cancer epidemiological research conducted in Mailuu-Suu between 2006 and 2015 found that 197 people died from cancer and 235 new cases of cancer disease were diagnosed in the town during this timeframe. This has been attributed to high concentrations of radon in the air. According to Ministry of Health of the Kyrgyz Republic, the cancer rate per 100,000 people here was the highest in the country, until 2013 when the rate decreased from more than 100 to 89. Lung, stomach, and breast cancer were found to be the most common types of cancer in Mailuu-Suu. Another study showed that the rates of some cancers of the digestive organs were two times higher among people who drank water from the river had than those who did not. However, further studies are needed to provide conclusive results. One of the most concerning findings is that the cancer disproportionately affects women. Seventy per cent of cancer patients are women. Breast cancer is the second most common disease after lung cancer in Mailuu-Suu, and every year on average 12 women are diagnosed and 12 die in this town.
Typhoid fever is another major problem for Mailuu-Suu residents. Kyrgyzstan typically has 50 typhoid fever cases in a year, but in winter 2013 about 100 people were infected in December in one of the villages in the region. In December 2014, when scientists from the Institute of Medical Problems tested water samples from the river, they found bacteria that causes typhoid fever in the water. It is unusual for this bacterium to be active in December, as it is usually found only in warm seasons. Scientists from the Institute of Medical Problems believe that radioactive elements are warming the river water and keeping bacteria active even in the winter.
Birth anomalies are an additional indicator of environmental radioactive contamination. A study by the Institute of Medical Problems showed that the incidence of birth defects in Mailuu-Suu was three times higher than in the country’s second largest city of Osh. Studies have correlated birth defects to the distance of the parents’ residences from radioactive waste sites. Polluted water is the major factor causing the development of congenital malformations, according to research by the Institute of Medical Problems.
Birth defects in Mailuu-Suu
Since 2005, local people have had access to clean water. The incidence of congenital malformations has since decreased but remains higher than in the other parts of Kyrgyzstan.
Cooperation between the Central Asian countries is critical to solving pollution of transboundary rivers, because these problems are not isolated to one country. For example, Uzbekistan’s Navoi region, a uranium mining and processing area, recorded an increase in cancer of the female reproductive system. Furthermore, economic cooperation is imperative for the rehabilitation and remediation of the tailing sites in the Ferghana Valley. In spite of support from the World Bank and the European Union, Kyrgyzstan needs further assistance. The Russian Federation spent about RUB 1 billion (USD 14 million) between 2012 and 2017 on research into the uranium tailings in Kyrgyzstan. Unfortunately, the government of Kyrgyzstan lacks the capacity to deal with this challenge itself and also needs help from neighbouring Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. The government was able to allocate only USD 150,000 to clean up the tailings in Mailuu-Suu, the Ministry for Emergencies reported in 2015.
River contamination damages Kyrgyzstan’s economy and has considerably raised healthcare costs for Mailuu-Suu residents. The majority of them cannot pay for treatment given their limited economic opportunities. An electric bulb factory is the only business offering employment opportunities. Take, for example, the damage caused by cancer in this town. On average, for 10 years of treatment, cancer patients in Mailuu-Suu collectively spend up to USD 1 million. Unfortunately, the government does not provide cancer patients with medical treatment and people must spend their own money. Medical treatment for a person with typhoid fever on average costs about USD 500. An average of 22 cases of typhoid fever are registered every year in Mailuu-Suu, causing annual economic damage of around USD 11,000.
In Uzbekistan, the cost of female cancer over 10 years in the Navoi region was RUB 1.17 billion (USD 16 million). The cost of hospital treatment, sick days and lost productivity, pay for health workers, and benefits for persons with disabilities all adds up and damages the wider national economy. The economic cost of water contamination is yet another urgent reason why Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan should develop a partnership to rehabilitate the Mailuu-Suu river.
Border tensions between the countries in the Ferghana Valley have been considerable since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The main issue is the border dispute between Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, while Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan have achieved considerable progress on their border dispute. There are also disputes over water between Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and other neighbours.
In addition to these issues, in June 2010 a tragic ethnic conflict broke out between Kyrgyz and Uzbek groups in the city of Osh. This left hundreds of people dead with thousands more injured. A large number of ethnic Uzbek refugees crossed the border into Uzbekistan. This caused political tensions between the countries and resulted in border closures.
Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan had cooperated over Mailuu-Suu prior to 2010. From 2000 to 2002, a specialist team from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan conducted geo-environmental studies, including analysis of soil, water, greenery and other samples to detect contamination in the uranium mine areas. In 2000 the Navruz project was launched to facilitate cooperation between scientists from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, as well as Sandia National Laboratories in the US. The project monitored water quality, radionuclides, and metals in the Syr Darya and Amu Darya rivers. This project was a model for transboundary water resource collaboration. The Institute of Medical Problems also conducted research with Uzbek colleagues in 2009 to analyse biological media and water.
However, after the 2010 border closures, cooperation with Uzbekistan came to a halt. Scientific cooperation can be a route towards political cooperation between the countries. Scientists from Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan could continue their work and help to research polluted areas. For instance, the border village of Madaniat in Uzbekistan, through which the Mailuu-Suu river flows, could be the first step toward scientific cooperation. This small beginning has the potential to create great change and lead to the improvements in the distribution of water resources and border delimitation and demarcation.
To prevent further conflict, Central Asian states must continue to work together on Mailuu-Suu, which could become a symbol of partnership between peoples. Political cooperation between countries in the Ferghana Valley is a bilateral solution to the problem of radioactive contamination of water, air and soil. The basis of political cooperation is enshrined in the Central Asian interstate water agreement signed by representatives of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan in Alma-Ata in 1992. Article 5 of the agreement states that countries should exchange information on scientific and technological advances in water management, integrated use and protection of water resources, as well as promote joint research on scientific and technical security problems, and examine project plans of water management facilities and economic assets.
On the basis of this article, the countries could write a joint regional project to address pollution in the Mailuu-Suu river, sign an agreement to jointly explore the problems, exchange information, address radioactive water contamination in regular meetings, and hold relevant conferences and seminars. By exchanging information, Central Asian countries can build consensus on cooperation among the signatories of the agreement of Commonwealth of Independent States, which was signed by representatives of Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Russia, Belorussia and Armenia on June 7, 2016, concerning the movement of radioactive materials. Article 8 of the agreement says that countries should exchange information by communication or formal requests concerning safety and physical protection during the handling and movement of radioactive sources.
In 2015, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) established the Environmental Remediation Account for Central Asia (ERA), at the request of the European Commission. The EBRD is managing this multilateral fund and framework agreements have been signed with Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Through this agreement Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan can sign additional agreements to cooperate over water contamination and exchange information concerning the Mailuu-Suu river. Mailuu-Suu is not the only uranium tailing site in the Fergana Valley; there are several more in Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Developing successful technical and management capabilities to better manage tailings in this town can serve as a model for other sites.
Uranium production cut to be extended in Kazakhstan
In early April, Kazakhstan’s national operator for the import and export of uranium, Kazatomprom announced that its facilities across Kazakhstan would be working at reduced capacity within three months which was expected to cause production cuts by about 17.5 percent in 2020. The statement was made in the wake of a state of emergency declared in Kazakhstan due to the novel coronavirus outbreak. Before the lockdown, the company was expecting the production output to reach about 22,800 tons in 2020. Kazatomprom has announced the company’s intent to extend production cut by 20 percent through 2022 in an effort to balance the global uranium market.
“We are simply not seeing the market signals and fundamental support needed to ramp up mine development in 2021 and take our low-cost, tier one production centers back to full capacity in 2022.”
The new regulations are expected to remove up to 5,500 tons of uranium from the anticipated global primary supply in 2022, with uranium production in Kazakhstan staying similar to the level expected in 2021 and ranging between 22,000 and 22,500 tons, according to the statement.
The country of almost 19 million people, Kazakhstan has reported more than 103,000 cases of infections with the fatality rate standing at 1,415 as of August 20. Harsh restrictions introduced by the country’s government to contain the spread of the deadly virus halted most economic activities, causing many people to lose their jobs. A range of companies has announced a temporary halt on production in their local manufacturing facilities until further notice. Officials in Kazatomprom are convinced that uranium prices and long-term contracting activity will remain unsustainably low due to the market uncertainty attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic. The company has not taken any decision regarding mine development activity beyond 2022 as it continues to monitor market conditions.
Kazakhstan is the world’s largest producer of uranium, with 60 years of experience in nuclear fuel supply. The Central Asian country possesses about 12 percent of the world’s recoverable uranium. There are about 50 known deposits and 22 uranium mines in Kazakhstan operated by state-owned Kazatomprom and through joint ventures. The country is also home to a low-enriched uranium (LEU) bank, the world’s largest reserve of its kind that can store up to 90 metric tons of uranium suitable for making fuel to feed a light-water nuclear reactor.
Kazatomprom’s attributable production represented approximately 24 percent of global primary uranium production as of 2019. All of the company’s mining operations are located in Kazakhstan.
Earlier this year, the company announced the deal with a Buenos Aires-based mining corporation Dioxitek, according to which Kazakhstan will cover the South American country’s short supply for its nuclear reactors.
Terraframe company mines uranium in Sotkamo, Finland
The Finnish Ministry of Economic Affairs and Employment announced that the Finnish government granted a permit for state-owned Terraframe company to extract and refine uranium from the ore obtained from its mine in Sotkamo, east Finland.
The Finnish government confirmed that the project meets the requirements of the legislation concerning nuclear and radiation safety, and the permit is valid for the whole operational time of the mine.
The ministry estimated the amount of semi-finished uranium products from the mine to be at the most 250 tons per year. They will be refined into yellowcake for manufacturing fuel for nuclear power plants.
At the moment, the main products of the mine are nickel and zinc.
The government ensured that “uranium will be utilized responsibly and only for peaceful purposes.”
Finnish Ministry of the Environment expressed the view that the recovery of the uranium can remarkably reduce the concentration of uranium in the waters in the area. Local environmental officials noted that the environmental impact in the area is smaller when the uranium plant is in operation than if mining operations there continue without the extraction of uranium.
Under Finnish law, people or organizations whose interests could be affected may file complaints to administrative courts.
Joni Lukkaroinen, CEO of the Terraframe, told national broadcaster Yle that complaints could delay the start.
The Radiation and Nuclear Safety Authority of Finland (STUK) was quoted by Finnish media as saying on Thursday that Finland would likely to be the only uranium producer in the European Union.
Ban on uranium and thorium exploration and mining decreed in Kyrgyzstan
Kyrgyz President Sooronbai Jeenbekov has signed a decree banning the exploration and mining of uranium and thorium deposits in Kyrgyzstan, his press service reported on December 16.
The decree is likely a reaction to protests that arose earlier this year against the development of uranium deposits after reports emerged about exploration works launched in the Kyzyl-Ompol area of the Issyk-Kul region.
The law aims to ensure safety from radiation and environmental safety by prohibiting geological exploration and development of uranium and thorium deposits in the Central Asian nation. It has also banned the dumping and transfer of the material, the report said.
Additionally, the report noted that the import of “raw materials and waste” containing radioactive substances is prohibited by law.
Thorium was discovered in 1828 by Swedish chemist Jons Jakob Berzelius, who named it after Thor, the Norse god of thunder. It is found in small amounts in most rocks and soils, where it is about three times more abundant than uranium.
The metal is fertile rather than fissile, and can only be used as a fuel in conjunction with a fissile material such as recycled plutonium. Thorium fuels can breed fissile uranium-233 to be used in various kinds of nuclear reactors. Molten salt reactors are well suited to thorium fuel, as normal fuel fabrication is avoided, according to the World Nuclear Association.