Communities living along the northern part of Lake Malawi in Karonga district have launched a spirited campaign to stop Uranium Miner Paladin Africa Limited from dumping ‘toxic’ waste into Lake Malawi.
They say the move will put people’s lives at risk and damage the environment. But it seems their fight is being stone walled by the company’s well organised public relations machinery and their own elected government, which has a 15 per cent stake in the company.
The Communities blame the company for deliberately dumping the waste into Sere and Rukuru rivers taking advantage of the country’s 34 year old weak mining law and inadequate enforcement capabilities.
The two rivers discharge into Lake Malawi.
Many people and livestock in rural Malawi rely on rivers and Lake Malawi for water and fish for consumption and commercial purposes.
Paradoxically, Malawi’s Atomic Energy Act No.16 of 2011 provides for the establishment of the Atomic Energy Regulatory Authority, which shall be responsible for radiation protection and safety.
But the establishment of this Authority is yet to take off the ground, according to the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Miningwebsite.
“It is beyond reasonable doubt that there shall be escalated radiation exposure to the people of Karonga and most parts of Malawi since the river directly drains into Lake Malawi. It is a known fact that the sludge, comprises of waste uranium rocks, acids, and other chemicals used in the processing of the yellow cake.
“The sludge still contains 85% of the initial radioactivity of the ore. As a result the sludge still contains 5% to 10% of the uranium initially present in the ore,” reads a statement signed by Influential Paramount Chief Kyungu and 33 Civil Society Organisations CSOs.
But Paladin Africa Limited counter argues that it commenced the release of the treated waste in compliance with the licence criteria set by the Malawi government and also World Health Organisation drinking water guidelines for uranium content.
To show their anger, one resident has dragged the behemoth company to the High Court and seeks to stop the company from continually dumping Uranium waste into these rivers.
“This process (of discharging treated waste) only commenced after an extensive public consultation process, which involved local communities and NGOs, who were invited to participate in the monitoring process,”Paladin said in an 18 page 27 responses to questions and queries from the Centre for Investigative Journalism Malawi (CIJM)in collaboration with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).
Karonga Business Coalition spokesperson Wavisanga Silungwe’s application to the High Court borrows heavily from research findings by an independent nuclear engineer, a French citizen, Bruno Cheyron.
Cheyron implored the villagers and NGOs in Malawi to seek answers from Paladin and the Malawi government on who will be held responsible for the consequences of the radioactive by-products once Paladin closes shop.
“Attempts by local anti-mining activists to provoke public disquiet with alarmist and misleading statements are regrettable and disappointing. In this context, an application foran injunction lodged by a local activist is groundless and will be opposed when the matter is heard by the High Court,” Paladin Africa Limited said.
In a miscellaneous civil cause number 29 of 2015, Paladin Africa Limited argues that the application to restrain it from using consent which the Minister under the Water Resources Act granted it is an abuse of the court process.
But the case has stalled because Paladin officials are allegedly not availing themselves for any inter-party hearings, where the High Court expects each part to outline the merits and demerits of their actions.
The company’s General Manager for International Affairs, Greg Walker, denied playing truancy saying he got communication from the High Court that the application for an interlocutory injunction has been set aside.
Judge Dingiswayo Madise in a June 9, 2015 judgement on the matter, ordered Silungwe to proceed by judicial review by challenging the decision to grant consent to Paladin to discharge its waste into the rivers.
However, Paladin said it is treating the liquid waste to meet the World Health Organisation (WHO) drinking water guidelines for uranium, “which is 30 micrograms per litre”.
The Malawi government awarded a license to mine uranium at Kayelekera to Paladin Africa Limited (PAL), an Australian and Canadian registered company in April 2007.
The Mines and Minerals Act (1981), enacted during the reign of former President Hastings Kamuzu Banda, has several deficiencies.
For instance, it vests the power in the President to grant mining licences with no consultation required with other stakeholders, it allows mining companies to operate by bilateral negotiations rather than consistent application of the law which means some companies may get special favours.
It is also devoid of measures to protect people displaced by mining, and has no health and safety regulations for specific mineral extractions such as Uranium.
The government awarded Paladin a licence on July 30th 2014 to discharge the waste during the next two or three wet seasons, depending on how long the mine remains on ‘care and maintenance.’
In February 2014, PAL suspended operations and put the Mine on what it called ‘care and maintenance’. It also laid off the bulk of its employees, about 300 people.
The company cited the declining price of Uranium on the global market in the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan in 2011.
However, in its quarterly activities report dated December 31, 2014,the company states that it has started a feasibility study to develop a detailed plan for the recommencement of production at Kayelekera when uranium prices justify.
“Operations will be restarted once the uranium oxide prices increase to over USD75/lb and the mine is connected to the national electricity grid. When these conditions are met, it will take six to nine months to restart mine production and USD60 million will be required to bring the mine back online,” said Walker.
Influential Chief Kyungu even asked the government to deport the company’s General Manager for International Affairs, Greg Walker, accusing him of blatantly disregarding the country’s mining legislation for his company’s benefit.
“He is arrogant and his company does not comply with environmental and safety standards at the mine,” Kyungu told the media.
Kyungu even threatened that he will forcefully ‘deport’ Walker from the country if the government fails to do so.
Walker did not respond to these allegations despite several emails.
The company denies the allegations saying the dam, where the liquid toxic waste is stored, spilled some of its contents into the Sere and north Rukuru rivers due to heavy rains.
“On 5 January there has been some “minor storm damage” at the mine. A 20-minute, high-intensity storm resulted in some 25mm of rain falling at the site. Up to 0.05 cubic metres (50 litres) may have overtopped into the local river system,” Walker said.
Paladin also contends that water in the two rivers has had elevated levels of Uranium even before they started operations at Kayelekera.
“An extensive data set collected since 2006 shows that there are naturally occurring uranium levels in the Sere River that have ranged up to 1.76mg/litre,” the Company’s Group Principal Hydro geologist David Holmes disclosed.
Holmes also disclosed that a section of the processing plant at the mine has been modified to enable it to treat waste to remove contaminants prior to release in line with national and international standards.
He said laboratory tests done in March 2014 produced favourable results including the removal of uranium.
“In July, a full scale water treatment plant was set up” Holmes said.
Meanwhile, the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mining said the government is launching an international investigation to ensure that the Mining project has not become a threat to people’s lives.
Three weeks ago, local fishermen started scooping loads of dead fish in the areas where the two rivers discharge into Lake Malawi.
However, four government agencies, in a joint press statement, said they would be launching another investigation to determine what is causing the death of fish.
They hinted that the fish might have died of a natural phenomenon that deprived the waters of oxygen.
In 2013, Paladin disclosed that it had a S$10 million Environmental Performance Bond with two commercial banks in Malawi to, among other things, cater for rehabilitation costs for signs of default during and after mine life.
The bond, in the form of irrevocable letters of credit, will deal with issues like water and environment contamination and the eventual clean up.