ALT UK’S inquiry into the violation of an environmental buffer zone by Rio Tinto’s QMM mine in southern Madagascar

QMM mine in Mandena (2018)

Rio Tinto/QMM’s breach of an environmental buffer

Since 2016, the Andrew Lees Trust (ALT UK) has been researching the breach of the environmental buffer zone by Rio Tinto’s QMM mine operations at the Mandena site in the Anosy region, southern Madagascar.

The Trust has been concerned about the breach because local people have the right to a safe and healthy environment and, being highly dependent on direct access to natural resources for their food security and survival, the breach has potentially impacted water quality and the estuary system of lakes and rivers on which local people depend for fishing, drinking water and other important services. Citizens also have a right to information in relation to any release of pollutants to the environment due to QMM’s operational activities.

The Trust first raised the issue of the buffer breach and concomitant risks at the 2017 Rio Tinto AGM and has engaged with the company’s HQ in London over the last two years on questions arising.

The Trust commissioned two independent studies in relation to the breach of the buffer zone: one from the hydrogeology expert Dr Steven Emerman of Malach Consulting, to evaluate the extent of the QMM breach; the second from Dr Stella Swanson from Swanson Environmental Strategies, to review the radioactivity levels of the mine. The reports from these studies are available at www.andrewleestrust.org/andrew.htm

For almost two years Rio Tinto /QMM denied the breach and claimed that the works in Mandena were “compliant”, despite the findings of their own contracted experts, Ozius, in 2018, who demonstrated the mine’s encroachment beyond approved permissions.  ALT UK continued to pursue answers and demand transparency. As a result, in a report issued by Rio Tinto in March 2019, and publicly at the 2019 AGM, the company finally admitted to the QMM breach of the buffer or sensitive zone by as much as 90 metres in places, and beyond legally approved permissions. Additionally, the company admitted to using QMM mine tailings to build its “berm”, which has extended onto the bed of Lake Besaroy.

The QMM breach at Mandena is of concern for a number of reasons: it violates the public protection of waterways where people fish and gather drinking water; it exceeds the permissions granted to Rio Tinto/QMM by the Government of Madagascar to observe an already reduced buffer zone (from the statutory 80 metres to just 50 metres wide) as negotiated in 2014. The 50m limit was approved by the environment regulator, the Office Nationale pour L’Environnement (ONE) in 2015, after QMM had already breached the 50m limit that they proposed in their Social and Environmental Management Plan (SEMP); the breach violates national environmental law that protects sensitive zones, such as the waterways and lakes adjacent to the QMM mine, which are also protected under public domain legislature; it has exposed the lakes to mine tailings and increased the risk of toxic waste water from the mining basin entering the lakes; in this, it exposes local people who depend on the lakes and waterways for fishing, drinking water and other services, to health risks. See Google Earth Images of the mine breach here

The violation of the buffer zone by QMM received no sanction or penalties from the state regulator, ONE, as would be expected, and despite the obvious breach of national laws and agreements, and impacts on the local peoples’ environment.

Fisherfolk on the waterways next to the QMM mine ( image courtesy of A Kraemer)

QMM Mine tailings and radioactivity

Rio Tinto has admitted that QMM’s mine tailings have been used to build the QMM “berm”. Moreover, the berm construction has encroached onto the bed of Lake Besaroy next to the mine site, bringing mine tailings into contact with the local estuary system.

Mine tailings and waste water from the mining basin contain enriched radionuclide content, because the ilmenite extraction process concentrates the radionuclides that are present in Monazite and Zircon, contained in the mineral sands.

The QMM ‘berm” is a structure intended to prevent tailings and waste-water from the mine basin from entering the adjacent lakes and waterways. As such, it would need to adhere to international dam construction standards, safety requirements and monitoring. However, in Rio Tinto’s recent listing of their mine storage facilities, the QMM mine is rated by Rio Tinto as having  “No embankment: excavated storage facility” (Rio Tinto, 2019). This description ignores the existence of the “berm”, or its function as a dam, and thereby potentially circumvents the prerequisite safety criteria.

The concern that toxic waste has entered the local water system has been deepened by ALT UK’s independent radioactivity review that identified elevated uranium levels in the water around the mine’s waste water discharge points, 50x times higher than World Health Organisation (WHO) safe drinking guidelines in some places.

The company has claimed that the elevated uranium levels identified in the water around the mine are all naturally occurring due to high background radiation levels. In reality RT/QMM cannot make this claim since they failed to carry out the necessary monitoring, or deliver relevant scientific data to support their argument. Indeed, ALT UK’s radioactivity expert, Stella Swanson, who has some 40 years standing in the industry and who consulted closely with Rio Tinto’s own expert, found QMM’s monitoring of ingestion pathways for radioactivity around the mine (water, soil, food) to be “unacceptable”.

Questions and demands

In April 2019 ALT UK brought its concerns to the Rio Tinto AGM, and is still in discussion with Rio Tinto HQ about what has happened and what needs to be done.  This includes asking that the company follow WHO guidelines to provide alternative safe drinking water sources for communities living around the mine site; a full translation into French of the main 68 page Swanson radioactivity review for local stakeholders, QMM staff and government and national agencies involved in monitoring the QMM mine; also a full, independently led and appropriately designed local communications programme to understand and address local concerns about the mine’s radioactivity levels – such as can educate and inform local communities about radioactivity, address their questions and concerns, and help them manage their lives around the QMM mine to assure their health and safety e.g. reduce incremental exposure.

woman with Eel Andrakaraka (image courtesy of A Kraemer)

In 2017, before commencing its studies, the Trust insisted that the findings of its independent radioactivity review be shared with local communities in appropriate and accessible ways. The Trust has this year offered a six-page communications advisory paper to Rio Tinto, which advocates an independently led communications programme and identifies experts who can assist QMM with this challenge. As yet the company has not responded to this communication paper.

Rio Tinto’s CEO did respond to two questions/demands at the Rio Tinto 2019 AGM: to agree the translation and address the communications issue. However, the company declined to take up the Trust’s and Swanson’s recommendation to address a high priority item: the provision of alternative safe drinking water sources for locally affected communities.

A recording of the entire Rio Tinto 2019 AGM is available here ; ALT UK questions appear at times : 49.25 and again at :  1.45.26

The Trust believes the safe drinking water issue should be placed within the context of understanding that 1) it is a WHO guideline given the health risks to local people, 2) QMM has failed to distinguish between pre-existing natural background levels in the water and the impacts of their mining operation, and 3) the violation of the buffer zone by QMM received no sanction or penalties from the state regulator, ONE, as would be expected, and despite the obvious breach of national laws and agreements, and impacts on the local peoples’ environment.

Local governance and transparency

Additionally, ALT UK is finding it extremely hard to access the 2018 ONE report that reported the QMM buffer zone work as “compliant”; and then, subsequently, a further ONE document that apparently evaluates the breach impact as “negligible”. ALT UK has repeatedly asked Rio Tinto to provide the relevant ONE reports but without success; the ONE also failed to respond to a request for relevant report/s.

This failure to share reports, especially when Rio Tinto/QMM is paying ONE for the evaluations of the QMM mine, reinforces local concerns about the relationship between QMM and ONE. At local level there have already been complaints that the relationship between QMM and ONE is “compromised”- including a public complaint made by a local deputy to the Minister of Environment during a visit to Ft. Dauphin in 2018.

Following a letter of enquiry sent in 2019 by ALT UK in collaboration with Publish What You Pay, Rio Tinto has shared details of payments made to ONE during the relevant SEMP approval and evaluation reporting time frames. On average the company appears to be providing support to ONE in the region of USD$30-40,000 per year, with a tendency toward on-going financial contributions, such as may risk dependency and create conflicts of interest; especially if works undertaken by ONE are not then readily available for scrutiny.

The amounts also suggest that no external, independent expertise was engaged by ONE to assess the buffer zone breach in 2018, or the impacts of constructing a berm using mine tailings that extended into the lake – e.g. on water quality; this suggests that the validation of the QMM works as “compliant” has not been concluded following a thorough technical examination such as would be necessary. For example, Rio Tinto paid almost USD$60,000 to Ozius just to study the buffer zone encroachment. No such increase in funds appear to have been made available to ONE in order to engage its own experts for the evaluation process; nor has it been suggested that ONE have referenced the Ozius report, which in any case clearly demonstrates the breach of the buffer and encroachment onto the lake. Indeed it remains unclear how ONE reached its conclusions on the status of the breach or the impacts of the encroachment as “negligible”.

Rio Tinto/QMM openly states that the company is making payments to ONE, as allowed under the MECIE decree; however, the company’s failure to make the ONE reports available when asked represents a serious lack of transparency and risks undermining robust, objective and credible governance at local level.  Most especially so when Rio Tinto/QMM are citing the ONE regulator and its reports publicly to claim “compliance” with their government approved Social Environmental Management Plan (SEMP) or convince shareholders of the “negligible” impact of QMM’s buffer breach on the local environment.

Weaving Mats in the villages around Mandena (image courtesy of A Kraemer)

Community engagement and accountability

Throughout the process, ALT UK has learnt that many community members knew little or nothing about changes to the QMM mine plan e.g. a reduced, 50 metre buffer (SEMP 2014-2018); or of further changes to the operational plan made in January 2019, such as normally require open community consultation. ALT UK is concerned that full consultation processes may not be happening, or may be confined and simplified to direct engagement with Mayors and Chef du Fokontany for rapid decisions and approvals.

Following complaints made to Rio Tinto HQ in 2017, the Trust was informed that internal training and procedural processes at QMM have been reviewed in order to improve QMM’s local social engagement mechanisms with communities; a new “Norme des Procedures” has been developed and apparently came out of that work. ALT UK has been promised sight of this document – but so far has not received a copy.

Poor or limited consultation processes with communities and lack of transparency over availability of data and information has been a concern of the Trust over many years.  Throughout this inquiry, ALT UK has had to be extraordinarily persistent throughout the dialogue with Rio Tinto in order to advance its enquiries and it took significant pressure from ALT UK for the company to finally admit the buffer zone violation. Rio Tinto has still not addressed many of ALT UK’s technical questions and documentation requests. Importantly, ALTUK has had to work full-time on these issues for over two years.

Research and advocacy work of this kind is demanding, time consuming and requires considerable technical assistance from independent scientists. No such resources are readily available to local communities in Anosy. In this, the two-year process highlights the difficulties for local citizens to hold the company to account, especially when they are faced with the daily challenges of surviving on less than $2 per day.

Indeed villagers appear to have had no capacity to prevent the loss of the inland Lake Ambavarano to the new perimeters of QMM’s 2019 butterfly mining (next phase of dredging), which QMM claims local people “rarely use” but which locals do employ for at least four months of the year in the “Asiotry” period, as well as accessing forest products around the lake all year; nor to stop QMM’s destruction of forest in the buffer area of the conservation zone in Mandena to create a new access route; both of which demonstrate a disregard for local people’s access to vital natural resources, and the power asymmetry that favours the company’s interests.

ALT UK’s research around QMM buffer breach/radioactivity levels has not involved any locally based NGOs /CSOs.  The work has been highly technical in nature with the focus on establishing scientific facts. Additionally, ALT UK was required to work under a confidentiality agreement from Rio Tinto in order to access QMM’s radioactivity monitoring data and associated reports, which has further impeded partnerships or local collaboration in the process. ALT UK has ensured some direct contact with community members in Anosy, thanks to the ALT UK Director’s long-standing personal relations in the region. This has helped maintain checks on local realities and concerns, but has only been possible intermittently, and on an ad hoc basis.

In this regard there is still a great deal of work to do in order to understand what is happening around the QMM mine in Mandena, how consultation and communications with communities is happening with QMM, whether citizens’ rights to a safe and healthy environment and their rights to information are being fully respected, how good governance can be achieved around the mining operation, and in what way any environmental or social abuses will be appropriately and justly addressed and remedied.

Vegetable gardens

Impacts, discussion and dissemination

The ALT UK research and advocacy work on the QMM breach has already had a number of impacts, with the company making a series of admissions and commitments. However, follow up on the outcomes of these commitments is required, as well as improved independent monitoring and evaluation of the QMM mine.

The Trust has engaged with a number of international agencies throughout this research and advocacy work, and collaborated closely with some NGOs, including Publish What You Pay, the London Mining Network and Friends of the Earth. It has also communicated with groups, researchers and individuals who have concerns or interests in the Rio Tinto QMM operations, including members of QMM’s International Independent Advisory Panel (IIAP) and Biodiversity and Natural Resource Management Committee (BNRMC), to alert them of the buffer breach and concomitant risks.

The issues and the studies /findings have been shared widely through online networks such as POLLEN and the Madagascar Environmental Justice Network, and via direct correspondence from ALT UK, including with activists, researchers, members of the Malagasy diaspora, academics, shareholders/investors, conservation organisations such as the IUCN and WWF Madagascar, other relevant bodies such as Extractives Industry Transparency Initiative, Transparency International, and with the World Bank – under whose project funding timeline the QMM violation occurred (World Bank PIC programme).

Ethical investors are particularly focused on the extractives industry’s management of mine tailings following the Brumadinho tragedy earlier this year. The Church of England Pensions Fund, for example, has launched an initiative to promote improved safety and regulation of mine tailings storage facilities. The breach of the buffer zone in Madagascar raises specific questions about QMM’s management of its mine tailings, and associated risks; these have been explained in detail in Emerman’s second report, and been the subject of extensive enquiry by ALT UK to the company.

The QMM buffer zone breach raises questions about Rio Tinto/QMM’s respect for local people’s human rights to a safe and healthy environment and their rights to information. It also raises questions about the manner in which public private partnership projects of this kind are monitored, evaluated and held to account when they fail to respect the environmental standards expected of them – including in terms of their own corporate commitments, the national regulatory frameworks and laws, and by the international funders and organisations who have partnered with them.

Reports and Contact

Reports and related articles can be found at www.andrewleestrust.org/andrew.htm

Key issues are also explained here: https://theecologist.org/2019/apr/09/rio-tinto-admits-buffer-breach.

For further information please contact: yorengo@andrewleestrust.org

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