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Anxiety in Malawi over Australian uranium miner Paladin’s pollution of Lake Malawi

“It’s shocking that Paladin has disposed of millions of tons of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste on a plateau with very negative geological and hydrogeological characteristics,”

On the shores of Malawi’s lake of stars, activists raise uranium fears, Guardian, , 3 June 15 
uranium sludge to river Malawi

When dead fish were washed ashore in northern Malawi, activists and residents looked to a nearby uranium mine for answers – the latest battle in a protracted conflict with Paladin, the mine’s Australian owners “……
For many of the tens of thousands of people living in Karonga, a lakeside district in northern Malawi, life revolves around fishing. So when dead fish began to wash ashore, they were worried. Some blamed pollution from the nearby Kayelekera uranium mine, the country’s biggest foreign investment.

“People are fearful because there are a lot of fish dying in the lake, so people are suggesting that they are dying because of the discharge from the Kayelekera mine,” said Harry Hudson Mwanyembe, the chairman for health and environment on Karonga’s district council.

The Australian company that owns the mine, Paladin Energy Ltd, says it has complied with all its environmental obligations and routinely monitors aquatic life in the Sere River and elsewhere. It denies any responsibility for the dead fish but its operation in Kayelekera has been beset by controversy since it was openedby the late president Bingu wa Mutharika in 2009.

The disputeslegal battles and public concern over the mine go to the heart of what many call Africa’s resource curse. As one of the continent’s poorest countries – ranking 174 of 187 countries in the UN human development index – Malawi desperately needs foreign exchange, as well as employment and infrastructure. But its pursuit of extractive wealth has been stymied by a lack of adequate regulation and transparency as well as by corruption, activists say.

In Kayelekera, the pitfalls associated with launching a multi-million dollar enterprise, with government backing, in an area where people lack access to both information and power, are evident in the many rumours, claims and counter-claims surrounding the mine’s operations……

resident of Kayelekera, Philip Simbowe, said the government had sold the lives of Malawians for cash.

“Foreign companies like Paladin see that here in Malawi, we are naive and take advantage of us,” he said. “Knowing what we know now, we would advise other communities against allowing foreign mining companies in their areas because the benefits are not worth the risks.”

Reinford Mwangonde, who has challenged the mine’s operating procedures since before the licence was granted in 2007, says the multifaceted Paladin case highlights the importance of a strong regulatory environment.

“The government gave the mining licence for extracting uranium first and the laws came second. What sense does that make? You have to first introduce policies and instruments, beef them up, make sure stringent regulations are in place, then allow the industry to operate,” said Mwangonde, executive director ofCitizens for Justice, who chairs the Natural Resources Justice Network (NRJN), a coalition of 33 civil society groups.

The NRJN took Paladin and the government to court in 2007, arguing that Malawi did not have the appropriate laws in place for uranium mining.

The case was settled: Paladin agreed to a number of concessions, including the payment of $10m (£6.5m) for social development projects. The government agreed to enact new legislation for uranium mining, to review the 1981 Mines and Minerals Act, and to invest earnings from the mine in the local community.

During the case, NRJN activists claim they received threats and were intimidated by the police, government officials and traditional chiefs.

“There was a lot of divide and rule, which multinational corporations are good at. At times the police, instead of defending us, harassed us,” said Kossam Munthali, NRJN’s board chairperson and executive director of Focus, a Karonga-based NGO.

Paladin has since faced criticism over a spill caused by heavy rainfall in January, and its recent decision to treat and release run-off water into the Sere river, which eventually flows into Lake Malawi, a Unesco world heritage site.

The discharge, which began in April, was approved by the government, but NRJN has tried to block it………

Chareyron also raised concerns about worker safety, saying that although radioactive doses were below international limits for workers, they were still high.

“Following our visit to the mine [in February], we have serious doubts regarding the radiation protection practices and the accuracy of the evaluation of doses performed by Paladin,” he added……..

The biggest problem, according to Chareyron, is the stability of the mine’s tailings dam. Tailings – a sludge-like waste product – contain hazardous chemicals, including acid used in the processing of uranium concentrate, known as “yellow cake”.

“It’s shocking that Paladin has disposed of millions of tons of radioactive and chemically hazardous waste on a plateau with very negative geological and hydrogeological characteristics,” he said. “When we asked its staff if there was an emergency plan … they said no … There should at least be an emergency response plan in case of dam failure.”……


June 4, 2015 - Posted by | environment, Malawi

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