By Erik Hagen
This English translation was published 24 March 2010.
In 2008 Norwatch wrote about the Tanzanian village of Nyakabale, which is located right by the AngloGold Ashanti gold mine. The Norwegian Government Pension Fund has invested heavily in the mining firm.
When Norwatch visited the village, the residents related that many of them had developed skin and respiratory tract diseases. Several of them developed ugly marks on their bodies a while after having bathed in rivers downstream from the company’s mine. A Tanzanian master’s degree thesis that Norwatch cited related that the levels of heavy metals in plant and soil samples was up to 9000 and 6000 times, respectively, as high as the recommended levels. Both the residents and the thesis blamed the mine.
After Norwatch had referred to the results in the master’s thesis, the case created big headlines in both Norwegian and Tanzanian newspapers. A new, independent investigation has now refuted the extreme poison levels from 2008. The investigation was carried out by the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, on commission from Norwegian Church Aid.
“It seems clear that the true figures are of a completely different magnitude from those that were found in the 2007 study. Nevertheless, our results are not completely without concern,” Åsgeir Almås, researcher at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, stated.
The area can in fact not be taken off the sick list, according to Almås. The laboratory results reveal that arsenic pollution may have occurred in the area.
Almås, who carried out the technical investigation in the Tanzanian village in June of 2009, is especially worried because some of the analyses showed high levels of the extremely toxic element arsenic. He discovered this in the sediments at the bottom of ponds, in the lower region of the mine’s waste disposal site.
“As high as 49.3 mg arsenic per kilogramme soil is a worrisome high level and is ten times as high as those of reference analyses in the district,” Almås related about one of the samples.
He explained that the top layers of the sediments show that leaks from the dam may possibly have occurred.
“Someone should be concerned about these arsenic levels and carry out thorough analyses,” he told Norwatch.
He emphasized that it had been a limited investigation and that it might be necessary to sample several layers downwards of the sediment and try to follow the water’s movements from the waste disposal site and further into the nearby ecosystems. In this manner it is possible to ascertain whether episodes of pollution have occurred and whether the company can be held responsible.
“It is apparent that the results for soils and sediments obtained in the Norwegian study differ from the findings of the [AngloGold Ashanti commissioned] SRK study and it needs to be investigated why the two different methodologies used yielded dissimilar results”, Alan Fine in AngloGold Ashanti wrote to Norwatch.
The company carried out an investigation itself last year through the firm SRK, which showed no pollution at all.
He pointed out that traces of arsenic occur naturally in soil and sediments in various concentrations and referred to the UN’s project The International Programme on Chemical Safety (IPCS), which defines an arsenic level in soil of 1-40 mg/kg as normal.
“We are currently of the view that they do not present cause for alarm”, Fine wrote about the results from the Norwegian report.
The company believes this on the basis of two factors:
• Only 1 of the 43 soil and sediment sample results showed higher arsenic levels than those that IPCS defines as normal values for soil. The location where the Norwegian study found an arsenic level of 49.3 mg/kg was relatively far from the company’s waste disposal site.
• Neither AngloGold nor Norwegian Church Aid has examined to what extent the arsenic in the different samples can be absorbed by plants and animals – the so-called bioavailability.
Almås is highly critical of the company’s own analysis. See separate report.
The Tanzanian postgraduate student who carried out the first study, Manfred Bitala, agrees that the results of the analyses from Norwegian Church Aid and from the company itself differ greatly from his.
He believes that the reason for the great differences between his and the two new reports may be that he carried out his investigation 3 years before the two others. In addition, he pointed out to Norwatch that the samples in the three investigations were taken from different locations and at different times of the year.