(First published in Norwegian 11 Apr 2008)
By Erik Hagen
Norwatch wrote April 10th that the local population in Nyakabale village in Tanzania is worried about their own health. The village is neighbouring a gold mine run by the company AngloGold Ashanti, partially owned by the Norwegian Government’s national pension fund. The population has said to Tanzanian master degree student Manfred Bitala that their health problems and bad harvests must be due to pollution from the so-called Geita mine.
Bitala has submitted a master degree thesis at the University of Dar Es Salaam, proving that the level of heavy metals in the population’s food plants is up to 9000 times as high as maximum levels set by the UN. Soil samples show a level of up to 6000 times as high.
A spokesman from the company writes in an email to Norwatch that the Geita mine is built on the same place as where a previous mine was situated during colonial times. The mine was supposed to have been operating the first few decades of the 20th century.
“It is unclear to us, given the absence so far of the full report, whether the researcher has used a methodology which differentiates between the products of AngloGold Ashanti’s mining activities, and the legacy of those earlier operations. There is no suggestion thus far that it does”, writes Alan Fine in AngloGold Ashanti to Norwatch.
He writes that since they have not more detail on the study, it is extremely difficult for AngloGold Ashanti to assess the accuracy and validity of the research. Fine says that the company carries out regular monitoring around the village, and that their results do not coincide with what they have so far been explained regarding the content of the study.
To explain the pollution caused by the previous owners of the mine, Fine points to a safety, health and environment report produced by the company in 2002, shortly after their production at the mine began. It reads, according to Fine:
“Historic records indicate that approximately 6 million tonnes material was placed as tailings during the operation of the old Geita Mine. Currently Geita Gold Mine estimates that there is approximately 1.5 million tonnes in the stockpile, leaving what is believed some 4.5 million tonnes that has migrated into the Mtakuja River since the mine’s operation in 1938.
These sediments have contaminated the Mtakuja River water and the mine sediments have resulted in high heavy metal levels in aquatic and wetland vegetation.”
“It would be necessary to confirm mining as the source as opposed to other causes of background high levels of the heavy metals”, Fine writes to Norwatch.
He underlines that small scale artisanal mining could be a potential cause of elevated mercury levels found. He says that levels of cadmium, arsenic and mercury may be associated with also other sources, such as volcanic activity, fishing and other industries, and that it is possible that the geology causes a generally high level of heavy metals in the area.
Without samples, a leap of faith
“Naturally we will investigate the findings once we have seen them, and the methodologies and locations employed. If it can be shown that our activities are responsible for any ill health in the vicinity, we will naturally take action in that regard.”, writes Fine.
Fine claims that the symptoms that Norwatch have described regarding the population in the area generally do not fit those seen with chronic overexposure to the heavy metals – the common manifestations being neurological, psychiatric or skeletal.
“At any rate, in order to confirm ill health as a consequence of heavy metal toxicity it would be necessary to confirm blood/tissue levels – otherwise the suggested linkage is a leap of faith”, writes Fine.
Norwatch will follow up this story, hearing with medical experts on the area.