Madagascar: Rio Tinto ilmenite mining breached environmental buffer zone, allegedly contaminating local waterways with radionuclides; co response included

Author: Yvonne Orengo, The Ecologist, Published on: 20 May 2019

"Rio Tinto 'admits buffer breach'", 9 April 2019.

Rio Tinto (RT) has finally shared a report from a field investigation in which the company concedes that partner QIT Minerals Madagascar (QMM) mining activities extended into the adjacent Lake Besaroy during the construction of its so-called “berm”. A buffer zone breach was first raised in The Ecologist in 2017 and a study of the extent of the violation, commissioned by the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK), was published in 2018. The mine tailings contain...radionuclides...they have entered the adjacent Lake Besaroy with the risk of toxic effects on local water sources...Rio Tinto/QMM is claiming the breach was an “unintended occurrence”...Rio Tinto’s admission arrives just ahead of the release of the Andrew Lees Trust’s Independent Radioactivity Review conducted by Dr Stella Swanson, a radioactivity specialist...Swanson’s study has identified elevated uranium levels in the local water as high as 50 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidance for drinking water quality...Rio Tinto/QMM claims the water has “naturally elevated levels of uranium” due to the pre-existing high background radiation levels...

Local people in rural Anosy are entirely dependent on local natural resources for their survival and livelihoods...According to local sources, a meeting was held on the 4 April to disclose the results of the research, but was not openly advertised. Some locals...found the presentation “very scientific” and difficult to understand, and documents were not shared...when locals took to the streets in 2018 to protest against QMM’s inadequate compensation for their lost lands and livelihoods, and they blocked access roads to the mine site, QMM’s response was to take legal action resulting in the imprisonment of protestors...Rio Tinto has committed QMM to an action plan to verify the berm design and remedy any gaps...before the end of 2019. It has also committed to a new radiation study in 2019...

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto provided the following statement to The Ecologist: "We note the independent report recently issued by ALT UK, which Rio Tinto and QMM supported, providing data and input...The report makes a number of recommendations, many of which we have found to be constructive, and, we have begun an in-depth assessment of how best to address these...the report concludes that it is highly likely that exposures to naturally occurring radiation in the area surrounding the QMM mine do not exceed IAEA dose limits. We recognise that available monitoring data does not currently allow us to prove this conclusively...The safety of our employees and the communities in which we operate will always be our top priority...It is critical to ensure that the sensitive issue of drinking water is managed appropriately to avoid encouraging any incorrect understanding among the local community...We will meet with the regulator to support them in reassuring the communities and to take any appropriate actions - including any further monitoring or studies relating to the mine’s impact."

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Related companies: QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM) (part of Rio Tinto) Rio Tinto