Fears of radionuclide-enriched water pollution as Madagascar mining breaches legal limits

Antanosy woman and children collect water products.

Rio Tinto's QMM ilmenite mine in Madagascar has breached a legal buffer zone, exposing local people to “unacceptably high” environmental risks, a new study by the Andrew Lees Trust has found. YVONNE ORENGO and STEVEN EMERMAN report

Original forest fragments have been destroyed, standing water areas of the original lake have been built over, and mine tailings have been piled into the lake, exposing the estuary to the risk of radioactive substances.

In April 2017, The Ecologist published concerns about the violation of an environmental buffer zone by the mining group Rio Tinto’s subsidiary, QIT Minerals Madagascar (QMM). 

Recent studies undertaken by Rio Tinto (RT) and independently by Dr Steven Emerman, the hydrology and mining expert for The Andrew Lees Trust and an author of this article, confirm that QMM’s mine activity on the Mandena site has extended well beyond legal permissions and encroached onto the lake bed where people fish, collect reeds and other water products.

The Andrew Lees Trust reports are available in French and English.

After three months, Rio Tinto has failed to produce an official statement about the buffer violation, or answer related questions raised by The Andrew Lees Trust.

Sensitive environment 

QMM is mining ilmenite, an industrial whitener, from coastal sands of southern Madagascar.

Situated alongside an estuary along the southeast coastline, the mine is operating in a sensitive environment with highly variable weather conditions, including cyclones and seasonal flooding, and a volatile water table.

The extraction of ilmenite leaves behind ponds of water and tailings enriched with radioactive substances (radionuclides). There are concerns that radionuclide-enriched water from the mine tailings will flow into the estuary by flooding or seepage. 

Malagasy law requires an 80-metre buffer zone between any investment activity - such as mining - and sensitive areas such as lagoons, marshy areas and wetlands, so as not to disturb the ecological balance. This means an 80-metre area should be left between the lake edge and the mine activity.

QMM claims it was unaware of the national 80-metre buffer restriction until 2013. 

Reducing the buffer

QMM therefore applied to the Malagasy Government to waiver the 80-metre restriction for their operation. Their proposed changes were presented in a Social and Environmental Management Plan (SEMP 2014-2018).

QMM proposed to reduce the legal buffer limit by 30 metres, from 80 metres to 50 metres. In reducing the buffer, QMM also proposed to build a “berm” or dam between the edge of the mining operation and the revised 50-metre buffer delimitation.

More egregious than the decimation of an additional 14.4 hectares of unique littoral forest acquired from the buffer reduction, is the fact that QMM’s mine has not respected the revised 50-metre limit and has extended onto the lake bed itself. 

There are restrictions to private legal ownership within natural public areas (domaines publics naturels) in Madagascar of which reserved lands (pas géométriques), such as river beds, are included. 

Malagasy law requires permissions from the local authority for extractive activities within these reserved lands. No evidence that such permissions have been sought and secured has been provided by Rio Tinto/QMM. 

Mine encroachment

Comparing two visual images of the same area of the mine site in question from 2009 and 2016 clearly shows the encroachment and destruction of original forest area.

The 2009 image illustrates the very marshy nature of the lake, which shows in dark pools between the trees.

QMM’s encroachment within and beyond the revised buffer has decimated the ecosystem. 

Original forest fragments have been destroyed, standing water areas of the original lake have been built over, and mine tailings have been piled into the lake, exposing the estuary to the risk of radioactive substances. 

QMM admitted to having “entered in this zone” and to having “stacked materials for a period of time. However, QMM maintained that it is still compliant within the limits of the SEMP and that “no mining took place within the 50 metres.”

This is not the same as admitting that no “mining activity” has taken place, which is what their permission exacts, and which would include operational or construction aspects of the mine.

Water risks

In the ilmenite extraction process, zircon and monazite are present as by-products. Both minerals contain the radionuclides uranium-238 and thorium-232 and their decay products (other radionuclides such as radium-226).  These Naturally Occurring Radioactive Materials (NORM) are present in the mine tailings, and in water present in the dredge pond.

Any movement of water from the dredge pond into the lake risks transporting the water that is enriched with these radionuclides (relative to natural background levels), due to its contact with the tailings, into the adjacent waterways and the food chain of local people.  

There is nothing between the dredge pond, with its radionuclide-enriched water, and the estuary, except a “berm” made out of sand. 

The dam

The company’s proposal to build a 30-metre wide “berm” is primarily to afford the space needed for the mine anchorage and infrastructure, without which the dredging plant cannot function.   

This “mur de soutènement” (retaining wall), as QMM refer to it in their SEMP, can also be considered a dam in that QMM claims its purpose is also to prevent water transport between the mining basin and the lake.

The QMM dam is almost certainly composed of highly permeable, well-sorted beach sands and tailings – such as the company suggests they have used. 

Dr Emerman deemed this structure unfit for purpose and observed that the safety criterion used by QMM for the dam is similar to the criterion that would be used for the design of storm drains at a shopping mall parking lot". 

In response, QMM argued that it is only temporarily mining this area, and that the area of the mining basin is “much smaller in volume than the neighbouring lakes.” They said, therefore, that they are not required to observe or apply internationally recognized safety criteria for a dam.

Unacceptable standards

Based on rainfall, Dr Emerman has calculated the annual probabilities of seepage from the basins and of overtopping of the dam to be “unacceptably high.

Rio Tinto/QMM claimed that management of water levels is ongoing and asserted, the dredge pond is generally operated at an elevation below the neighbouring lakes and below the natural topography.” The term “generally” compromises the commitment of rigorous monitoring of water levels, required under the permissions granted against QMM’s SEMP. 

Equally concerning is when the dredge pond is dewatered by discharging radionuclide-enriched water into the environment without treatment; then current safety protocols for confining radionuclides to the mining basin are completely irrelevant.

The company’s repeated assurances that the QMM mine poses “no risk” in respect of its radioactivity levels have yet to be substantiated. 

The Andrew Lees Trust has commissioned an independent review of the mine’s radioactivity levels and aims to release it later this year. 

Greenwashing

Inevitably the question arises as to why QMM would risk its ‘green’ award winning profile by violating a legal buffer and placing the environment and local people at risk.

The reduction of the buffer zone gains the company an additional 14.4 hectares of land and enables them to access the highest quality and lowest cost deposits of the mineral necessary for the project to remain a going concern. 

In Rio Tinto’s own words, without reducing the buffer by 30 metres “a 9 percent reserve loss would be incurred and the extraction sequence would be non-optimal. This means without the additional access to mineral wealth, the project is simply not viable. 

The company claimed that QMM’s project changes afford “protection of the ecosystem and as community access.” However, their violation of the buffer and encroachment onto the lake bed has compromised the pre-existing forest ecosystem.

Local people gain nothing from the buffer reduction, whereas QMM, a mine that struggled to deliver a dividend in 2015, is not viable without it. In reality, QMM has adjusted the perimeters of the mine to accommodate its own interests and passed the environmental costs on to local people.

Long-term concerns

There is no discussion in QMM’s SEMP that demonstrates Rio Tinto/QMM has given any consideration as to what will happen when the current dredging operation is complete and groundwater levels return to normal. 

There are already countless outstanding questions in relation to the buffer violation, the radionuclide content of mining basin water discharge, the management of water levels, dam construction criteria, and the actual width of the dam. 

Questions need answering for the local populations who rely on local rivers and lakes as a substantial natural resource to meet their daily needs.

Under its sustainability commitments, Rio Tinto states its vision “to be a company that is admired and respected for delivering superior business value and for being the industry’s trusted partner.” Part of building that trust, it says, is to find “ever smarter answers to complex global and local issues."

It is hard to see how QMM reflects Rio Tinto’s aspirations when their operational plan has failed to provide for an 80-metre legal buffer zone and an area for its mine infrastructure, or when nobody wants to admit the gross errors at play or consider the risks they present to local people. 

The Authors 

Yvonne Orengo is an independent communications practitioner and director of the Andrew Lees Trust, a British charity set up following the death of its namesake in Madagascar in 1994. Based in Madagascar for over six years, she developed the Trust's strategic programme and has followed the evolution of Rio Tinto's QMM project for over 20 years.

Dr Steven H. Emerman is the owner of Malach Consulting, which specialises in evaluating the environmental impacts of mining on behalf of mining companies, as well as governmental and nongovernmental organisations. Dr Emerman has 31 years of experience teaching hydrology and geophysics and has 66 peer-reviewed publications in these areas.

Right of Reply

A spokesperson for Rio Tinto said: "Rio Tinto and QMM take their responsibilities to the communities and environment around the Fort Dauphin operations very seriously and have done so ever since construction began in 2006.

"The regulator, ONE, regularly monitors performance and it has publicly recognised that QMM is operating in compliance with all local laws, its Social and Environmental Management Plan and other permits.  ONE confirmed compliance in its latest report on August 23rd which is available directly from ONE.

"We have also established two forums to ensure independent expert oversight of our work, including the Biodiversity and Natural Resources Committee, which is chaired by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

"Contrary to allegations that we have not shared information, QMM have been very transparent, working with the Andrew Lees Trust in an unprecedented way over the past 15 months. 

"We have repeatedly requested a discussion with Dr Emerman to reconcile the different interpretation of the same information and invited the Andrew Lees Trust and their scientific adviser to visit QMM to witness the work we are doing first-hand. It is very disappointing that these offers have all been declined."

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