Nuclear News

The battle over uranium: Just how bad is it?

Written by  MARA KARDAS-NELSON - M&G Sunday, 14 November 2010 07:29
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One of the most abundant heavy metals in the earth's crust, uranium is a known radiological element and toxin. It is also a major by-product of gold mining, historically one of South Africa's greatest economic undertakings. The country additionally began mining specifically for uranium in 1949, primarily for export to the United States and other nuclear-intensive countries throughout the Cold War.

As the conflict between East and West subsided, uranium mining waned, with the gold output from the Witwatersrand reef also declining. Today, hundreds of thousands of tons of uranium by-product sit in mine dumps scattered across the country, with 100 000 tons of the heavy metal in Gauteng's Western Basin and Far Western Basin alone, according to Frank Winde of the North-West University at Potchefstroom.


Acid mine drainage (AMD) stemming from flooding mine basins or run-off from dumps can present a high rate of uranium contamination. In a 2009 paper, Winde states that the Wonderfonteinspruit, heavily affected by AMD decant originating in the Western Basin of the Witwatersrand, saw 3,6 tons of dissolved uranium dumped from 1997 to 2008, resulting in a 60% increase in the Donaldson Dam. The province's radioactive Robinson Lake, also a product of Western Basin decant, shows levels more than 40 000 times the background uranium concentration for water, according to data from the National Nuclear Regulator.

Uranium has been linked to lung, bone and other types of cancers, including leukaemia, kidney failure, neurological defects including learning disabilities, immune suppression, birth defects, respiratory infections, and skin and eye allergies, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). Most recently, uranium was found to be an endocrine-disrupting compound, meaning that it disturbs the natural activity of hormones, potentially affecting reproductive and immune function and acting as a carcinogen.

South African communities living near polluted waterways and mine dumps note increased rates of cancers, asthma, skin and eye irritation, kidney failures, birth defects, learning disabilities, and neurological disorders. Despite these complaints, "government hasn't done any kind of epidemiological studies on highly affected areas like the West Rand to determine the pathways of pollution, of which there are numerous pathways -- touch, drinking, airways -- on human health," says Democratic Alliance MP Gareth Morgan. "This is going to be a site of significant civil society action going forward and may very well result in significant civil claims in the future."

Poorly understood

While the effect on health of high levels of uranium exposure are extensively documented due to the element's use in major conflicts such as World War II and the Gulf War, effects from low dose, long-term exposure -- such as those from contact with mine waste -- are poorly understood. Due to lack of data, global uranium standards in drinking and agricultural water have varied over the years. Regulations also vary from country to country, with Germany recently reducing the amount of allowable uranium to 2 micrograms per litre, the lowest rate in the world. South African standards allow 70 micrograms per litre.

Critics contend that this variation is at least in part a result of pressure from the nuclear energy sector being dependent on uranium. According to Winde, the WHO raised the suggested amount of allowable uranium in drinking water when the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) noted an increase demand for the heavy metal and a resulting increase in price.

"That would imply that the WHO would somehow adjust its limits to meet the growing demand for uranium in a time when we need to satisfy that demand," says Winde. While this is "disputable", Winde points to a 1959 agreement between the WHO and IAEA in which both organisations promised to discuss their policies with one another before going forward.

A 2007 study by the German Society for Radiation Protection and the European Committee on Radiation Risk suggests that potential health effects due to low-level radiation have been severely underestimated, encouraging current estimations to be multiplied by a factor of 100 to 2 000. Studies have also primarily focused on radiological effects, rather than health effects resulting from toxicity, which can take place at much lower rates of exposure.

'Proving cause and effect is hard'

Scientists suggest that comprehensive research is difficult to conduct. "In order to research this well you need to follow affected populations for 40 years or longer, but we've only know about uranium, or at least when using it in [industry], for 60 years," explains Winde. The mobility of many mining populations further complicates, as well as the fact that "the latent period for some of the cancers is 10 to 40 years", with other effects being cross-generational, continues Winde. "So to have proper epidemiological data ... is difficult."

According to Carin Bosman, former director of water resource protection and waste at the Department of Water Affairs, "proving cause and effect from environmental impact is one of the hardest things to do, and that's what the mining companies rely upon. They say 'these people will have liver cirrhosis because they drink and they will have messed up lungs because they smoke.' It's always other reasons why there's a higher incidence of cancer, of stomach ailments ... of learning disabilities."

Given that the effects of low-level uranium exposure are still being studied, advocates claim that the precautionary principle as enacted under the New Environmental Management Act must be applied, in which the worse-case scenario is protected against.

Winde notes that as South Africa falls in line with the so-called global nuclear renaissance, sparked by an increase in uranium demand and pushing prices up tenfold between 2003 and 2007, old mine dumps are being re-mined for the metal, with other operations being set up primarily for uranium extraction, potentially creating new pathways of pollution.

"We are not very good at protecting the low-level, long-term exposure," says Jo Barnes, an epidemiologist at the University of Stellenbosch. "If you contact little bits for every day for five years, 10 years, 20 years ... will we see a drastic rise in cancers? Quite possibly, we don't know. Will we see a drastic rise in liver cancer? Maybe, but we don't know. We have to start preparing for the long-term now."

This article made possible through funding from the Open Society Foundation for South Africa's Media Fellowship

MINING

Notification of the Withdrawal of the Application of an Amendment of the Environmental Authorisation and Environmental Management Programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining Operation in Free State

The concerted efforts and submissions to the Department of Mineral Resources and Energy (DMRE), the Applicant and its appointed Environmental Assessment Practitioner (EAP) by the Protect Vaal Eden Committee, Vaal Eden community, and the Federation for a Sustainable Environment have resulted in the withdrawal of the application of an amendment of the environmental authorisation and environmental management programme for the Sweet Sensation Sand Mining operation adjacent to the Vaal River.  The EAP was notified by the DMRE that further specialist studies would be required to determine the impact the application for a screening plant and process would have on the environment and that a Regulation 31 amendment process, which involves a public participation process, must be undertaken.  The FSE welcomes the DMRE’s notification. Notification letter attached for download

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Mining activists in SA face death threats, intimidation and harassment - report

SATURDAY STAR | 19 APRIL 2019, 7:41PM | SHEREE BEGA Picture:Yvette Descham On August 13 2013, Billy M heard gunshots at the gate of his house. He didn't know who fired the gun, and, worried that local traditional leadership might be involved, he didn't report the incident to the police. For the next five years, the community activist from Fuleni, a small rural village in KwaZulu-Natal bordering one of SA's oldest and largest wilderness areas, the Hluhluwe iMfolozi Park, continued to receive threats.  "We know our lives are in danger. This is part of the struggle," he says, simply. Billy M's account is contained in a new report released this week, 'We know Our  Lives Are in Danger’: Environment of Fear in South Africa’s Mining-Affected Communities, which documents how community activists in mining areas face harassment, intimidation and violence. The report details how in Billy M's case, mining company Ibutho Coal had applied for rights to develop a coal mine in Fuleni in 2013. The development would have required the relocation of hundreds of people from their homes and farmland and destroy graveyards. "The mine's environmental impact assessment estimated that more than 6000 people living in the Fuleni area would be impacted. Blasting vibration, dust, and floodlights, too, could harm the community," says the report."During the environmental consultation processes, Billy M led opposition that culminated in a protest by community members in April 2016."The company reportedly abandoned the project in 2016 while another firm, Imvukuzane Resources is reportedly interested in mining in the area.The 74-page report, compiled by Human Rights Watch, the Centre for Environmental Rights (CER), groundWork, and Earthjustice, describes a system designed to "deter and penalise" mining opponents.The authors conducted interviews with more than 100 activists, community leaders, environmental groups, lawyers representing activists, police and municipal officials, describing the targeting of community rights defenders in KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo, Northwest, and Eastern Cape between 2013 and 2018. They report intimidation, violence, damage to property, the use of excessive force during peaceful protests, and arbitrary arrest for their activities in highlighting the negative impacts of mining projects on their communities. "The attacks and harassment have created an atmosphere of fear for community members who mobilise to raise concerns about damage to their livelihoods from the serious environmental and health risks of mining and coal-fired power plants," write the authors."Women often play a leading role in voicing these concerns, making them potential targets for harassment and attacks."But municipalities often impose barriers to protest on organisers that have no legal basis while government officials have failed to adequately investigate allegations of abuse."Some mining companies resort to frivolous lawsuits and social media campaigns to further curb opposition to their projects.  The government has a Constitutional obligation to protect activists," write the authors. Picture: Shayne Robinson, Section 27 Authorities should address the environmental and health concerns related to mining "instead of harassing the activists voicing these concerns,” remarks Matome Kapa, attorney at the CER.The report starts with the high-profile murder of activist Sikhosiphi “Bazooka” Rhadebe, who was killed at his home after receiving anonymous death threats in 2016. Rhadebe was the chairperson of the Amadiba Crisis Committee (ACC), a community-based organisation formed in 2007 to oppose mining activity in Xolobeni in the Eastern Cape.  "Members of his community had been raising concerns that the titanium mine that Australian company Mineral Commodities Ltd proposed to develop on South Africa’s Wild Coast would displace the community and destroy their environment, traditions, and livelihoods. More than three years later, the police have not identified any suspects in his killing."Nonhle Mbuthuma, another Xolobeni community leader and spokesperson of the ACC, has also faced harassment and death threats from unidentified individuals. "I know I am on the hit list.… If I am dying for the truth, then I am dying for a good cause. I am not turning back," she says.But other mining areas have had experiences similar to that of Xolobeni. "While Bazooka’s murder and the threats against Nonhle have received domestic and international attention, many attacks on activists have gone unreported or unnoticed both within and outside the  country."This is, in part, because of "fear of retaliation for speaking out, and because police sometimes do not investigate the attacks", the authors found.The origin of these attacks or threats are often unknown. "So are the perpetrators, but activists believe they may have been facilitated by police, government officials, private security providers, or others apparently acting on behalf of mining companies. "Threats and intimidation by other community members against activists often stem from a belief that activists are preventing or undermining an economically-beneficial mining project. In some cases, government officials or representatives of companies deliberately drive and exploit  these community divisions, seeking to isolate and stigmatize those opposing the mine."The Minerals Council South Africa, which represents 77 mining companies, including some in the research areas, responded that it “is not aware of any threats or attacks against community rights defenders where (its) members operate”.The authors state that while the mining sector and the government emphasise how mining is essential for economic development, "they fail to acknowledge that mining comes at a high environmental and social cost, and often takes place without adequate consultation with,or consent of, local communities".The absence of effective government oversight means that mining activities have harmed the rights of communities across South Africa in various ways. "Such activities have depleted water supplies, polluted the air, soil, and water, and destroyed arable land and ecosystems."Researchers also documented cases of police misconduct, arbitrary arrest, and excessive use of force during protests in mining-affected communities, "which is part of a larger pattern in South Africa".Last year, the Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS) at Wits University documented various efforts by traditional authorities to stifle opposition to mines in their communities. "In some cases, traditional authorities label those opposing mines as anti-development and troublemakers, thus alienating and stigmatising them.As a result, community members are often afraid to speak out against a mine in open consultations," CALS found.Research by the SA Human Rights Commission, too, has found that community members sometimes “are afraid to openly oppose the mine for fear of intimidation or unfavourable treatment (by the Traditional Authority)."The SAHRC says many mining-affected communities are experiencing “the creation of tension and division within communities as a result of mining operations.Sometimes, threats and intimidation against activists come from community members who have been promised economic benefit from the proposed project or are politically allied with the government or traditional authority."Local communities often do not benefit from mining activities, says the report. "Although South African law requires the development of social and labour plans (SLPs) that establish binding commitments by mining companies to benefit communities and mine workers, CALS has documented significant flaws in the development and implementation of SLPs."Despite the environmental and social costs of mining, the government is not adequately enforcing relevant environmental standards and mining regulations throughout South Africa. The SAHRC has found that the Department of Mineral Resources (DMR) often fails to hold mining companies accountable, "imposing few or no consequences for unlawful activities and therefore shifting the costs of pollution to local communities."Compliance with regulatory obligations, as well as monitoring and enforcement of such responsibilities, remains a crucial concern in the context of mining activities," says the SAHRC, noting how the DMR and other governmental agencies often do not respond to complaints filed against mines by community members.The report's authors describe how the lack of government action and oversight has also helped make the mining industry one of the least transparent industries in South Africa. Information that communities require to understand the impacts of mines and to hold mining companies accountable for harmful activities is often not publicly available. "Such information includes environmental authorisations, environmental management programs, waste management licences, atmospheric emission licences, mining rights, mining work programmes, social and labour plans, or compliance and enforcement information."The only way to access such information is through a request under South Africa’s access to information law, a procedure that the World Health Organisation has called 'seriously flawed' and which the DMR regularly flouts. In addition, mining companies and the government rarely consult meaningfully with communities during the mining approval process, resulting in uninformed and poor government and industry decisions that do not reflect community perspectives or have their support," says the report.The authors assert how the threats, attacks, and other forms of intimidation against community rights defenders and environmental groups have created an environment of fear "that prevents mining opponents from exercising their rights to freedom of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and undermines their ability to defend themselves from the threats of mining".In its November 2018 review of South Africa’s compliance with the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights expressed concern about “reports of human rights defenders, particularly those working to promote and defend the rights under the Covenant in the mining and environmental sectors, being threatened and harassed". It recommended that South Africa provide a safe and favourable environment for the work of human rights defenders to promote and protect economic, social, and cultural rights, including by "ensuring that all reported cases of intimidation, harassment, and violence against human rights defenders are promptly and thoroughly investigated and the perpetrators are brought to justice". Mining activist Mariette Liefferink, who made submissions to the UN committee, tells how it has become increasingly difficult to work as an environmental rights defender in South Africa.   "There is an overwhelming body of evidence of intimidation, whether it is by means of frontal attacks or more insidious attacks on activists."International and South African law requires South Africa to guarantee the rights of all people to life, security, freedoms of opinion, expression, association, and peaceful assembly, and the rights to health and a healthy environment, say the authors."The attacks, threats, and obstacles to peaceful protest described in this report prevent many community activists in South Africa from exercising these rights to oppose or raise concerns about mines, in violation of South Africa’s obligations." 

WATER

Development of the National Eutrophication Strategy and Supporting Documents

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