Rio Tinto denies responsibility for contamination

Contaminated mine waters in southern Madagascar pose health risk to locals.


You cannot see the hidden contaminants of Rio Tinto’s (RT) QMM mine in Madagascar as they discharge, seep or overflow into the estuary adjacent to the mining pond.

But new studies in a three-year inquiry by the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) demonstrate the RT/QMM ilmenite mine generates water enriched in uranium and other contaminants, which it releases through surface discharge and groundwater seepage.

The Trust is calling for the immediate provision of safe drinking water for communities in line with WHO guidelines.

Environmental violation 

In the waterways of Mandena where local people fish and gather their drinking water, Rio Tinto’s QMM mine is discharging its process waters from ilmenite and monazite extraction. 

These waterways should be protected from the mine by an environmental buffer zone, but earlier this year The Ecologist reported that QMM operations had violated the buffer zone and encroached onto an adjacent lakebed.

In 2019 RT admitted QMM’s breach of the buffer zone was a “mistake”. However, it denied that elevated uranium levels found in waters around the mine - 50 times higher than WHO safe drinking water guidelines in some places - are connected to its operation.

RT claimed elevated uranium levels are all “naturally occurring” with “no uplift” from the mine.

Mineral extraction

Mineral sands in the region of Anosy where the mine operates do have unusually high background radiation. However, it is common for radionuclides present in mineral sands to be concentrated to “problematic” levels by the extraction process. 

Radioactivity specialist Dr Swanson explained: “While uranium naturally occurs in the ore, once the ore is dug up and processed, uranium is released into the water in larger quantities than if it was left in place on the ground”.

Due to a lack of sufficient monitoring data from ten years of QMM operations - a lack that Swanson found “unacceptable”, questions remained regarding the distinction between natural background radiation levels and the impact of mining activity on the environment.

To address these questions, the Trust commissioned two new studies. 

Detrimental impact

Revisiting the QMM data, Swanson establishes elevated concentrations of uranium in the QMM mining basin as a result of extraction activity, with maximum levels reading as high as 2.029 mg/L. 

To explore whether these elevated uranium levels were migrating into local waterways, ALT UK organized for water samples to be collected from upstream and downstream of the QMM mine. 

The samples were tested in an American university metals laboratory for 46 elements and isotopes, and the results analysed by hydrology expert Dr. Emerman.

The results show a detrimental impact of the mine on regional water quality, indicated by the increases in uranium, thorium and lead in surface water from the upstream to the downstream side of the mine, which are statistically significant at better than the 99 percent confidence level.

The contaminants register above WHO guidelines for safe drinking water. Both Emerman (2019) and Swanson (2019) call for the provision of safe drinking water.

Health risks 

Exposure to high levels of uranium in drinking water over a long time can affect kidneys and bones.  Low levels of exposure to lead in children has been linked to damage of the nervous system and physical impairments. 

The company continues to assert that there are “no health risks” from the QMM mine, and tells citizens in Anosy: “Radioactivity is in everything; it’s in bananas”.

In reality, RT/QMM has not undertaken studies that measure all the pathways of exposure to radiation, including fish consumption and drinking water, in order to ascertain actual health risks. 

Although RT/QMM has now taken up Swanson’s recommendation for systematic monitoring of radiation pathways, local communities continue to draw their drinking water from lakes and rivers around the mine. 

Any effective treatment that removes uranium and lead, as well as pathogens and other contaminants, would immediately improve their drinking water and reduce health risks.

Whose responsibility?

Malagasy legislation defines drinking water as water intended for human consumption, which naturally or after treatment meets standards prescribed by decree. 

RT/QMM’s responsibility for managing contaminants from its mine is prescribed both in national laws, which include the Polluter Pays Principle, and in its own commitments to water management and sustainability goals.

Some 15,000 people living next to the QMM mine still largely draw their drinking water from surrounding rivers and lakes.

Government and NGO programmes working in the region do not appear to have reached them with potable water. 

The question is whether the Government and aid agencies should pick up the challenges and costs of treating QMM mine contaminants in order to provide safe drinking water for these villagers, or should the responsibility fall on RT/QMM.

Safe water  

The challenges of delivering potable water nationally in Madagascar are significant. National access was still registering a downward trend, as low as 26 percent of the population in 2016-17. 

Although RT/QMM has invested in local water treatment in Anosy with the national utilities provider (Jirama) and other actors, these projects are not required or designed to treat mining contaminants such as uranium and heavy metals.

Removing uranium from water, for example by reverse osmosis, can be difficult and costly. 

An affordable, appropriate alternative has been researched by an expert water technology organization, and this was presented to the company at a meeting in September, but Rio Tinto subsequently rejected the proposal without reasonable explanation.

Rio Tinto instead seeks to refocus concern on pathogens, a strategy that ignores the uranium and heavy metal contaminants and places the burden of safe drinking water onto the public purse. 

The company’s position has been robustly contested in a joint letter from ALT, Friends of the Earth and Publish What You Pay, which argues that although pathogens present a health risk, pathogen removal alone will not eradicate uranium and lead.

Consultation and inclusivity

The letter also challenges the extent to which QMM has consulted with mine-affected communities about the water challenges they face, their concerns, or the services they want and need.

Locals complain that QMM consultations are not happening as expected, and the relationship between QMM and the environment regulator, the National Office for the Environment (ONE), is compromised.

These governance issues were raised in a letter sent by Publish What You Pay Madagascar to the relevant Malagasy Ministries in August, with support from numerous civil society co-signatories.

Urgent solutions

Safe drinking water provision for rural communities in Anosy requires RT/QMM to acknowledge and manage QMM mine-related uranium and lead concentrations in receiving waters as a priority.

RT says it is consulting with Malagasy Ministry officials; but government capacity and funding is struggling to meet national potable water targets. 

Private sector actors are encouraged to contribute to the country’s safe drinking water requirements. 

Given its responsibilities, and QMM’s impact on local water quality, Rio Tinto needs to urgently advance a solution. One is on the table from experienced experts. There can be no further delay.

This Author

Yvonne Orengo is a development communications practitioner and Director of the Andrew Lees Trust, a British charity set up following the death of its namesake in 1994. She has followed the evolution of the QMM mine for almost twenty-five years, and has lived and worked in the south of Madagascar to develop the Trust's social and environmental programmes.

Image: Nahampoana water collection site upstream of QMM, image courtesy of  Andrew Lees Trust.

Right of Reply

Rio Tinto has consistently and meticulously worked to address the questions and concerns about water quality surrounding the QMM mine, including the conduct of joint studies and shared data. That process will continue, as our commitment is to ensure there is accurate, objective information on this vitally important issue.

Having said that, the report underlying these claims has a number of methodological issues and factual inaccuracies. For example, the report includes samples from outside the watershed in which QMM operates in the “upstream” data set, and includes samples from water sources that arguably humans would not utilize for drinking water (eg marshes or swallow muddy water as documented in the report’s photos) to support its claims. These and other issues in the report throw into question the validity of the findings.

We have been in discussions on these matters with the Andrew Lees Trust for a number of years and in that time, we have shared extensive amounts of data.  Earlier in 2019, along with ALT UK, we jointly commissioned Dr Stella Swanson to undertake a study and we agree with her recommendations that further data should be collected to allow for robust analyses and definitive conclusions on this question.

As a result, we have commissioned a long-term study, carried out by an independent, international technical consultancy, to collect environmental samples and analyse the community exposure to ingestion of natural-occurring radioactive materials through surface and ground water and to investigate whether QMM has a material impact on these levels.

The study will also be peer-reviewed by a panel of international and local scientific experts and policy stakeholders, including civil society organizations such as the Andrew Lees Trust, with the aim to provide all stakeholders scientifically valid information in order that appropriate decisions can be made.

Additionally and importantly at the local level, Rio Tinto meets and consults with the people living in the communities surrounding our operations on a regular and consistent basis. We are contributing in partnership to many local economic initiatives to grow the economy, create jobs and support local businesses. We are committed to communicating and engaging in a transparent manner with the communities in and around Fort Dauphin and are pleased to be a major employer in the region.

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