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Public pressure needed to stop Karoo uranium mining threat

29 March 2016
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A bold community effort is vital to prevent the destruction of more than 750 000 hectares of Central Karoo farm land by uranium mining giants – and avoid far-reaching health, environmental and economic consequences.

The potential hazards of uranium mining were severe, said University of Witwatersrand academic Dr Stefan Cramer.

“After uranium mining, no more farming is possible on the damaged land. Rehabilitation of the veld will take centuries.

“Groundwater tables will be lowered over large areas, even outside the mining concessions, as mining and milling consume large amounts of scarce water.”

Cramer said radioactive wastewater would be seeping into the drinking water aquifers of the Karoo.

“Especially during drilling and blasting, but also during trucking and milling, large amounts of contaminated dust will be created and will spread with winds across the Karoo. This will create a fine layer of radioactive dust over wide areas.”

Although Mohair and wool were major export products of the region, grazing animals would be the first to be affected by contamination, said Dr Cramer, who is currently conducting research into the possible effects of shale gas exploration in the Karoo region.

“These toxic compounds are bio-accumulated, particularly in the liver and kidneys of veld animals. Radon emissions from mine sites and waste dumps cause lung cancer in animals and people.”

An Australian mining company, in a joint venture with a local BEE partner, has applied for mining rights to more than 750 000 hectares of Central Karoo farm land.

“Environmental impact studies have already been finalised, after a successful exploration campaign of which nobody took note.

“Most of the uranium will come from shallow open pit mines, predominantly from a 70km long ore body between Rietbron and Aberdeen.”

The problem, said Dr Cramer, was that this information had been more or less hidden from the public despite massive documentation of the negative impacts of uranium mining elsewhere in the world.

In the Karoo, he said, none of the affected municipalities had informed its citizens of the situation and there was no Integrated Development Plan reflecting the imminent arrival of an industry that was set to change the face and economy of the region.

“In the past, there were failed attempts by a handful of companies to mine uranium just outside Beaufort West,” said Dr Cramer.

“But the relatively low grades of the shallow ore and the low prices of uranium after the nuclear disasters of Chernobyl (Ukraine, 1986) and Fukushima (Japan, 2011) discouraged the companies from proceeding.”

He said prices were still depressed, but mine operators hoped for a “nuclear renaissance” in the wake of new nuclear power stations to be built in South Africa and elsewhere.

“A few experimental mines at Ryst Kuil and Rietbron near Beaufort West have left a legacy of uranium dumped in the veld, with radiation levels several times above permissible levels.

“These radiation hot spots constitute a health threat, especially to grazing animals in the area.”

There was little to gain and much to lose from uranium mining in the Karoo and the supposed boost to the economy was tilting at windmills, said Dr Cramer.

“Municipal authorities cite the jobs to be created and additional income in taxes and royalties and hope for the stimulation of local businesses.

“During the construction phase, the company says that it will create up to 1 000 jobs, but remains mum on the specific qualifications.”

Cramer said it took about a year to build a mill for treating the uranium ore in the vicinity of Beaufort West.

“Once built, the company plans on employing only 250 permanent, mostly technical, staff for the sophisticated treatment process or operators of heavy machinery.

“Few local jobs will therefore be available, given the poor skills base in the Karoo.

“In contrast, thousands of permanent jobs in agriculture and tourism – and even in renewable energy projects in the pipeline – will be lost.”

Cramer said taxes and royalties would “go almost exclusively to the national government and may or may not come back to the Karoo”.

“But local municipalities will sit with the added tasks of fixing the damage to rural roads and providing housing and social services to the sudden influx of outside labour.”

Local authorities would also have to manage the fall-out from a “boom-and-bust” cycle in the local economy, he said.

“Experience shows that only very well-run and economically prospering municipalities can actually take advantage of such industrial activities.”

All was not lost, he said, since submissions from the public could still be made despite the deadline for public participation process objections having past.

Cramer said the company would also have to comply with a Department of Water and Sanitation directive that Water Forums be set up in every area targeted for mining, with members of the public being invited to attend these forums.

“If ever a mining licence is issued, this can be appealed against in court,” he said.

“We owe it to future generations living and farming in the Karoo to stop this devastating industry before it is too late.”

For more information, please visit Stop Uranium Mining in the Karoo on Facebook.