NIGER: Residents of uranium mining town fear they're being exposed to radioactive poisoning
The people from Arlit are poor despite lucrative mining activity
Dakar, 28 April 2005 (IRIN) - When residents of the desert town of Arlit, Niger's uranium mining settlement in the far north of the country, started getting increasingly sick, they questioned whether this had to do with their overexposure to radioactivity and called in French NGOs to investigate.
Reports by the French teams found that water, soil and metal scrap from the area where two uranium mines are mainly exploited by subsidiaries of French company Areva-Cogema were contaminated with dangerously high radioactivity levels.
"Contamination levels in water samples were 10 to 110 times higher than standards considered acceptable by the World Health Organisation," said Bruno Chareyron, who carried out the tests at the laboratories of CRIIRAD - a French NGO specializing in protection against and monitoring of radioactivity.
"The French multinational Areva-Cogema and its subsidiaries ... released contaminated metal scrap from their site, distributed water contaminated with uranium to the populations, left radioactive waste in the open where desert winds could disperse it far away and disregarded internationally recognised international norms for the protection against radioactivity," the nuclear physicist told IRIN from France.
Such high levels of contamination could cause a whole array of illnesses including cancer, but the NGOs admit that it is difficult to substantiate that the uranium mine is the definitive source of the contamination without further research.
"There are very serious presumptions, even though they haven't been proven, that there is a link between some [of the workers'] illnesses and the radiation," said William Bourdon, president of SHERPA, an NGO aiming at protecting human and workers' rights against multinationals.
But the French multinational that operates the mine has consistently denied the allegations, and has attributed the high number of illnesses to the harsh desert climate.
"The most frequently observed maladies are allergic reactions that are characteristic of desert zones because of the abundance of sand and dust," Areva said in a statement issued on Monday.
Uranium is used to power nuclear power stations and is a key export for impoverished Niger. Mining of the very dense metal generates the release of radioactive gases and dust into the environment, which have to be carefully controlled.
SHERPA found that Arlit residents are suffering from a whole range of illnesses - including lung cancer, tuberculosis, and many skin diseases - that could be attributed to the mining activities, but proving the link is difficult, Samira Daoud, the Coordinator of SHERPA explained.
Almoustapha Alhacen has been working in the uranium mines for 27 years. Ten years ago he was gravely ill with tuberculosis. It was Alhacen who called in the NGOs because he wanted to know if his own illness and those of his neighbours were caused by the mines.
"Here, we have noticed we have a lot of diseases such as respiratory problems, tuberculosis, hypertension, difficult deliveries, impotence, hair falling out, cataracts, and that people died with inflated stomach," he told IRIN by telephone.
Areva-Cogema is the French multinational behind Somaïr and Cominak - the two companies extracting uranium in the desert, 1200 km north of Niger's capital Niamey.
The mines have been running for some 40 years, but before they opened the area was unpopulated except for the region's nomadic touregs.
The town of Arlit and nearby Akokan where the second mine is located, were constructed solely to accommodate mine workers.
The mining companies had to sink deep boreholes to supply the 70,000 residents of both towns with drinking water.
Though they have built the infrastructure for the town, Areva has not taken enough measures to contain the radioactive gases, according to Chareyron. Traces are turning up in the air, water and scrap metal which locals are using to make cooking pots for instance.
Last year, when a truck carrying uranium ore was involved in a collision the spill on the road was not properly cleaned up and one month afterwards radiation levels were still ten times higher than normal, explained Chareyron.
SHERPA, after interviewing residents, workers and medical doctors in Arlit found out that the mining company had not respected international norms for the protection of its workers.
For 15 to 20 years, no protection measure was taken for workers, neither protective equipment nor masks exposing workers to the deadly gases, Daoud said. Her organisation is considering suing the company on behalf of the workers.
She said several workers had suffered or died of pulmonary or skin diseases, but that the link was difficult to establish because medical doctors paid by the companies were extremely reluctant to put names behind patients' symptoms that could potentially be linked to mining.
"No cancer caused by exposure to ionising radiation has ever been found in the hospitals in the region," according to the Areva statement though it did promise to carry out independent research into the allegations.
The French NGOs and the local population all agree that more research is needed, but they don't trust Areva to be impartial. They want to see action now.
"One should not wait to count the number of people falling sick; the practice of good protection against radiation means doing the utmost to limit the diffusion of radioactive substance through water, air and food," Chareyron said.
He added that the company should better stock radioactive waste, repurchase contaminated scrap-metal that had been acquired by the population, consider long-term protection of underground water protection and improve the monitoring of radioactivity in the environment.
Arlit's inhabitants and authorities are also requesting better distribution of profits from uranium mining.
"We say they need to take care of sustainable development. We live a miserable existence - the nomadic and local populations do not benefit from any of this," Alhacen said.
He deplored that Niger made money exporting this energy producing metal while most of the inhabitants of Niger did not have electricity in their homes.
The authorities in Niger did not take side in the controversy, but agreed that 40 years of mining in the region had not benefited the local population much.
"As a representative of the state, we would wish for more to be done to alleviate the population's plight," Oumarou Djatti, the regional administrator for Arlit, mused.
Alhacen, who has set up his own NGO to increase environmental awareness in Niger, said he worried about the future.
"We ask them to be responsible. 40 years later, Areva has not done anything except use up and contaminate underground water", Alhacen said.
"I am extremely worried that our children will never forgive us."