NIGER: Desert residents pay high price for lucrative uranium mining
AREVA uranium exploration in Canada- same mineral, different context
DAKAR, 30 March 2009 (IRIN) - After a visit in late March from French President Nicholas Sarkozy to Niger, residents in the uranium-exporting desert country continue questioning whether AREVA, a company primarily owned by the French government, will honour its promise to protect communities from mining hazards.
Studies and residents’ testimonies have pointed to health and environmental dangers from mining operations owned and operated by both AREVA’s subsidiaries and the Niger government.
Salifou Adifou, 67, worked for 40 years as a driller at Niger’s SOMAÏR (Aïr Mountains Mining Company), a public-private venture with AREVA owning 63 percent.
The retiree told IRIN he has undiagnosed health problems. “I have stomach and chest pains, but since retirement [in 1999], I cannot afford health care.” Adifou said his friend who had worked as a miner is now bedridden.
Neither knows the cause of his health problems, Adifou told IRIN.
The AREVA majority-owned mine called COMINAK (Mining Company of Akouta) commissioned an environmental study of its operations in Arlit in 2006, which reported that the number of deaths linked to respiratory infections was twice as high in the mining town (16 percent) as in the rest of the country.
Arlit’s population is 110,000.
“The wind carries dust contaminated with the long-lasting radium [time required for it to lose toxicity is more than 1,600 years] and lead…Samples taken from 5km within site…Sandstorms [and] atmospheric waste from mines could be aggravating factors for pulmonary [illnesses] in the region,” the researchers wrote in COMINAK’s environmental study.
But AREVA dismisses the link between mining and elevated health problems in its January 2009 report on mining activities in Niger. “These problems are typical in desert zones…they are not linked to mining activities.”
Nevertheless AREVA directors have agreed to set up health diagnostic centres in all countries where it extracts uranium, starting with Gabon, according to the Paris-based human rights legal association Sherpa. "It has been two long, difficult years to get to this point with the company to give workers a voice," Sherpa director Yann Queinnec told IRIN.
Plans are still being finalised, said Queinnec, but the agreement is that each centre would have an advisory board with representation from workers, local officials, non-profit organisations and AREVA.
Queinnec said it took years “to craft an agreement that will be different from other accords signed in the name of protecting workers," of which key components, the lawyer said, remain unfulfilled.
The Paris-based Commission of Research and Independent Information on Radioactivity (CRIIRAD) has written of “serious safety lapses” in and near AREVA mining sites in Niger.
In 2007 CRIIRAD researchers said they found locals selling contaminated scrap metal from mining sites and the materials were eventually used in housing construction, kitchen utensils and tools. In 2003 CRIIRAD had recommended that AREVA identify and dispose of contaminated metals.
Radioactive waste – possibly used in road construction – may be responsible for the abnormally high levels of radiation, according to CRIIRAD. In 2007 CRIIRAD researchers wrote that radiation levels were up to 100 times above average in front of the AREVA-funded hospital near the COMINAK mine.
In response to criticism that mining has contaminated increasingly scarce drinking water in northern Niger, AREVA published a statement in January 2009 that “monthly bacterial, bi-annual radiological, and annual chemical analyses show the absence of [water] contamination.”
But environmental studies carried out by CRIIRAD and Sherpa in 2005 in mining communities showed water radiation levels up to 110 times higher than World Health Organization (WHO) safe drinking water standards in industrial areas and 10 times higher in urban areas.
Uranium extraction requires water to clean the mining site, treat the mineral and cover workers’ and their families’ water needs, according to AREVA.
Pastoralists have also accused AREVA of depleting the region’s water.
By AREVA’s calculation the company has pumped 270 million cubic metres of groundwater during the past 40 years from its two mines in Arlit, of which 35 percent has been for mining activities and the rest for the town’s use.
AREVA spokesperson Yves Dufour said recently in the French media that AREVA’s future water needs in Imouraren, 80km south of Arlit, will be only a fraction of the eight billion cubic metres of desert groundwater available in the area. AREVA is investing US$1.5 billion in Imouraren in what is expected to be the country’s largest uranium mine.
Hydrologists estimate that rain-fed groundwater sources – similar to the aquifer AREVA is tapping 150m beneath the desert – can take some 200 years to replenish.
Though the Niger government owns one-third of the uranium mines, Almoustapha Alhacen – head of the Arlit-based environmental NGO Aghir In’Man – told IRIN he holds AREVA wholly responsible for the north’s environmental and health problems. “AREVA is in Canada, but does it exploit uranium as savagely as it does here? Have Canada’s cattle also died?”
Pastoralists have blamed a number of cattle deaths on contamination of wells from which animals drink.
AREVA extracted an estimated 3,200 metric tons of uranium in northern Canada in 2007, slightly more than in Niger for the same period. In a May 2007 survey of 1,000 residents living near AREVA’s uranium mining operations in Canada, 80 percent respon ded they supported uranium exploration.
|AREVA is in Canada, but does it exploit uranium as savagely as it does here?
AREVA Resources Canada’s spokesperson Alun Richards told IRIN his company rents daily charter planes to transport 350 employees from their remote northern homes to the mining site in Saskatchewan province explaining how workers, mostly nomads, “need to be near their extended family networks”. In addition, the Canadian mine gives local communities $80,000 per year to carry out their own environmental impact studies. “People do not read studies. They trust results more if they test their own food and rivers they fish from,” said Richards.
Mines in Canada are “heavily regulated” by some 30 government agencies, from fisheries to nuclear safety, he added.
Half the work force is hired from the local community, Richards told IRIN. “It is just as important that we maintain our social obligations and community standing as it is [that we] meet environmental and health regulations,” Richards said.
Even though AREVA France invests $1 million a year for community development in northern Niger, according to its records, NGO leader Alhacen said most mining community residents have “generally negative” views about the industry.
When asked why a private company that shares ownership with the Niger government should bear most of the burden of community development, Alhacen said multinationals working in Africa should recognise their corporate responsibility.
Niger’s living conditions – as measured by health, education and income - are among the worst worldwide, according to the UN.
AREVA France has said its approach is not to dispense “charity” but rather to engage locals in running projects and to increase coordination with donors. Alhacen said damages from mining far outweigh the benefits in Niger. “AREVA [France] publicises that it pays for 200,000 medical visits a year. We do not see that here. Even so, that is admitting that tens of thousands are getting sick every year,” said Alhacen.
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
|Desert rebels demand more uranium royalties (file photo)
Since June 2007 the Niger government has placed more than half the country under a state of alert as a result of a decades-long rebellion
that re-erupted in February 2007. Hundreds have died and thousands have been displaced in the last two years as a result of fighting.
Rebels who have attacked military posts and water and electricity plants that feed AREVA operations are demanding more mining profits for community development and more protection from mining’s hazards. They have accused the government of overlooking what they call AREVA’s environmental non-compliance in exchange for mining royalties.
The government dismisses the rebellion as a front for smuggling.
Minister of Information Mohamed Ben Omar told IRIN: “The government has made every effort to protect local populations from harmful mining practices. Just because of profits, we are not looking the other way,” he said. “We have ratified every international relevant convention [on mining] and taken all necessary control measures.”
But leader of the rebel front that launched the February 2007 attack, Aghaly Ag Alambo, told IRIN that mining communities are still not safe. "AREVA is not the main problem. It is not AREVA's job to provide for Nigeriens. It is the government that has failed its people."