Environmental scandal at uranium exploration project in Bahi, Tanzania

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For more than five years, a number of foreign companies has intensively explored potential uranium reservoirs in different parts of Tanzania. Recently, a mining licence has been issued for the Mkuju River Project, partly owned by ARMZ, Russia. For this project the borders of the UNESCO protected world heritage Selous Park has been accepted by the WHC. Also concerned are the wetlands in a hollow without outlet in Bahi in Central Tanzania, some 50 km west of the capital Dodoma. For the inhabitants of this otherwise semiarid region it is of big important for growing rice, fishing, grazing, manual salt production in small amount, etc.

From the very beginning, the exploration was forced by high governmental levels, particularly by the Ministry of Mining. The inhabitants or their rights were not respected. Even the simplest security measures as filling up the exploration dikes were not brought into action. As far as we know, there was also no monitoring of possible releases of radioactivity for instance by the TAEC Tanzania Atomic Energy Commission or of other dangerous materials like heavy metals.

The residents of the village expressed their objection of the uranium mining plans in several gatherings and with the collection of signatures, because they fear the destruction of their natural resources.

In the end of 2012, several companies - Mantra Resources, International Gold Mining, Tanzoz, and the specialized US drilling company Layne - against the citizens' volition executed an intensive drilling programme on the territory of the villages Bahi Makulu and Illindi. In Bahi Makulu, particularly an area called Mashamba Mapya ("new field") was concerned. It had been prepared for growing rice only five years before.

Since about 2008, the CESOPE NGO informed the population in the concerned locations about the possible impacts of uranium mining, and about their possibilities to defend their citizens' rights in this case granted by the land rights legislation.

Acute health problems occuring

Since the rains starting in December 2012, an accumulated number of health problems is appearing with people having contact with the water from the concerned area.

  • skin: rash, fissured skin, ("drying-out"), blain
  • eyes: stinging pain particularly if exposed to light or wind, unceasingly tearing, redness
  • gastrointestinal tract: at humans who drank the water bloody squitters occur

The problems generally occur after contact with water in the concerned areas. After contact a certain time passes before the symptoms appear. The longer a person was exposed to the contaminated water, the more massive the problems occur. People who had worked for several days on the concerned fields are seriously sick. Usually, the symptoms disappear again if new contact to the water would be avoided. Particularly at the eyes irreparable damages have to be expected, particularly after intensive exposition.

CESOPE has interviewed more than 200 concerned people. The actual number of persons concerned is significantly higher. Pictures and videos as well as a documentation produced by the Tanzanian Channel 10 confirm the symptoms. Julia Neumann with uranium-network.org confirmed the people's suffering in an on-site visit.

Particularly agricultural workers employed in the area of the "Mashamba Mapya" suffer the described symptoms. But wind also pushes water into other areas of the wetlands - from there, particularly from the villages of Kikuyu and Gaiti (Manyoni District) reports on similar phenomenons have been brought. Nobody can remember something like this ever happened in Bahi before.

The local health station denies the occurrence of those cases. Skin problems and bloody squitters would be attributed to alcohol consumption; some people would throw batteries into beer. At the health station sick persons at least receive medicine which wouldn't help though. The health authorities of the Bahi county speak about allergies and downplay the problem.

As the district authorities don't undertake anything, CESOPE brought more than 40 especially serious cases to the hospital in Mvumi with eye experts supported by the Christoffel Blinden Mission (CBM). There they also spoke of allergies, but took the issue serious. Towards CESOPE the experts expressed the fear that - without (speedy) treatment - permanent eye damages would have to be expected. Later, towards official entities, the problems were downplayed.

Observations on-site and results of analysis

The CESOPE team was on-site several times to get an impression of the situation, and to take samples. A part of the drilling wholes were overflooded, others ones in dry areas with water accumulated due to the rainfalls couldn't be visited. In the dry areas the CESOPE team obsered the following:

  • The drilling wholes of the exploration drillings were still open.
  • Next to the wholes residues of cured materials (similar to installation foam) were found.
  • Empty cans of chemicals and other wastes lying around, partly burried superficially and brought to the surface again when fields where ploughed.
  • Rainwater in direct vicinity of the drilling wholes were colored reddish, and layers of whitely mud were noticed.
  • Rice plants suffered, faded and became yellow, although they stood in water.
  • In these areas the CESOPE team on-site measured very high pH, which however couldn't be detected in the water samples after some days anymore.
  • In other areas ponded for rice growing no increased pH occured - nevertheless people suffered the described symptoms.

Results of the samples submitted in Tanzania are not available yet. The national central laboratory seems according to latest messages to have found worrying results. The evaluation of results of samples analysed in Germany could not be finished yet. So far they don't provide a clear picture.

The farmers in Bahi Makulu (in the area of Mashamba Mapya) have so long excluded several hundred hectars from the watering as they fear similar problems as they occured in the already flooded areas of the exploration spots. They complain workers of the uranium companies were equipped with protective equipment when they used the chemicals while the farmers now have to work on the same barefoot and with bare hands.

Dumps ripped open by ploughing show the exploration and drilling companies left behind problematic materials. The farmers wait for advice by the government how to deal with the situation, but feel left alone.

Meanwhile, the concerned area unfortunately has been flooded without human activities due to strong rainfalls.

The significant constraints with the rice growing cause relevant damage of property and income for the inhabitants of the villages respectively for the land stewarts. Besides that, the food supplies are negatively impacted because of the reduced rice growing.

Sickness and statements of an exploration hand

A worker involved to the exploration work was willing to join a detailed interview after he seriously sickened. Many / almost all of the local exploration workers experienced health problems.

This is a summary of essential statements of the video documentation:

Symptoms: Some two weeks after finishing his four weeks employment first symptoms occured.

Skin problems: extreme itchiness, first particularly at contact with water. Different treatments with salves, tablets, traditional medicine worsen the problem: rash, fissures, blains... The problems would have started at the thumb where skin and nail changed color and peeled off. Skin came off in layers. The problem then expanded to hands, arms and head. General loss of fitness, steady wight loss, loss of virility.

Working conditions / observations:

Participation in 30 drillings within one month; the company is to have carried many more drillings into execution. Special task: to catch the drilling material in a bucket and to sort the material (grading) after mearuring the uranium concentration. Drilled rock material left together with water and added chemicals from the drilling machine. Liquid and solid ingredients are separated in a kind of cyclone. The liquid is released to the environment, while the solid material is caught and sorted on uranium concentration. Only small sample amounts are packed for further analysis. Most material is buried near to the surface on-site together with all other waste materials.

If strong material is reached (here in general also higher uranium concentrations occur), a mixture of four different chemicals is poured into the drilling hole. Then with the drilling material foam is escaping spreading over the surroundings and hardening later. In case the drilling did not hit water anyway, it is added.

In many cases groundwater leaked for weeks. The company didn't do anything, partly cattle drovers blocked the holes at some point.

As the worker had to hold the pipe directly next to the cyclone the drilling material left from, he was constantly exposed to dust and aerosols. He had indeed helmet, mask and safety glasses, anyway particularly the face was covered by dust and dirt, gloves often were perished, so that he often had to sort the samples with bare hands. He didn't receive any help from state centers, village administration etc. The treatment in local hospitals didn't bring any relief.