Poisoned water, poisoned air
At the mine that supplied uranium for the first atomic bombs, massive demand for cobalt has thousands digging in deadly soil


"...Dear Tim,
I'm really pleased you found the article useful and I'd be happy if you shared it with your students.
Madelaine .."

here is her article published in the Star Nov 21st 2004

LIKASI, Democratic Republic of Congo—You do not drink the water in the Congolese mining centre of Likasi. And, if it were humanly possible, you would not breathe the air.

This city of almost 400,000 people is cursed — not just by all the usual waterborne bacteria and diseases that lay waste in developing countries, but also by an invisible predator that makes the air itself toxic: radioactivity. For Likasi lies in the shadow of Shinkolobwe, the mine that supplied uranium for the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Resurrected by cowboy capitalists, Shinkolobwe is now destroying lives closer to home. The water looks innocuous enough as it gurgles from the taps in the private home where I am staying. But forewarned of its lethal properties, I use bottled water to drink and brush my teeth. No such luxury is available to the local women. They fill huge yellow plastic canisters from a broken pipe on the street outside and they walk home with the poisonous water balanced on their heads. Their lives are at risk because this part of the Congo is in the grip of a massive, unregulated cobalt rush.

Demand from China, in particular, has quadrupled the price of cobalt in the last year, prompting anyone able to wield a pick and shovel to join in the frenzy.

In a country still devastated by war, there are few other ways to earn a living. So, dressed in T-shirts, shorts and flip-flops, an estimated 60,000 people go out each day to mine the fabled riches of the Congo by hand. In their desperation, they go wherever they think they can find cobalt, even if that means digging the radioactive soil at Shinkolobwe, where it is found in combination with uranium.

An estimated 7,000 miners work at the mine. In its recent report, Rush And Ruin: The Devastating Mineral Trade In Southern Katanga DRC, the London-based activist group Global Witness said the cobalt trade is ruining the Congo's economy and environment, and the livelihoods of its people.

There was a time when Likasi, indeed all of Katanga province, was the centre of a lucrative mining empire run by Belgian copper giant Union Minière du Haut Katanga. Likasi had paved streets, shops selling European goods and — a rarity at that time in Africa — streetlights. The mines, smelters and hydro-metallurgical plants in the Congolese Copper Belt boasted state-of-the-art technology. But that was before independence in 1960, before U.S.-backed dictator Mobutu Sese Seko seized power in 1965 and proceeded to ruin the country, then called Zaire. He nationalized Union Minière, then gutted its state-owned replacement, Gécamines. By the time he fled into exile in 1997, copper and cobalt production had virtually ceased. The mines were abandoned. The war that began in 1996, which eventually involved most of the Democratic Republic of Congo's neighbours, brought a new wave of pillaging by both foreigners and Congolese who spirited the country's natural resources across its borders.

The United Nations grew so alarmed at the scale of the plunder that it sent in experts who named and shamed the companies and individuals involved. But this is the Congo, where the war killed an estimated 3.5 million people between 1996 and 2003, with barely a murmur from the outside world. The Joseph Kabila government, which has ruled since February 2001, is weak and corruption rampant. Many of the men who aim to profit from cobalt's sky-high price are not about to let a lack of legal title, or the complete absence of health and safety practices, stand in their way. Amnesty International has called for a more robust response from the international community, saying that links between arms trafficking, resource exploitation and human rights abuses in the Congo must be severed. Global Witness is also trying to raise the alarm. But it is fighting an uphill battle against international indifference to the Congo and the greed of those profiting from the unregulated cobalt trade. "The reality here is that the vast wealth of Katanga is being siphoned off to benefit elites who control the trade," said Emily Bild of Global Witness.

And there is every incentive for the trade to continue. The Cobalt Development Institute in the United Kingdom estimates that global demand for cobalt, which was 43,000 tonnes in 2003, will soar to 130,000 tonnes by 2020. It is used in stainless steel, paint, batteries and the heat-resistant cobalt alloys used in turbine engines and missiles. It is also a key component in the batteries developed for new fuel-saving hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius and Honda Civic.

Canadian mining entrepreneur Jens Hansen probably understands the danger posed by Shinkolobwe better than anyone: He has mapped it. His company, Melkior Resources Inc., holds a concession that covers both Likasi and the area around Shinkolobwe. (Melkior was one of the companies named in the U.N. report on mineral plunder, but Hansen denies any wrongdoing. Because of legal wrangles with his Congolese partner, he has yet to start production on his concession.) A nuclear physicist by training, Hansen had hoped an aerial survey his company undertook in 1997 would expose new ore bodies. But the data from the overhead radiation detectors appalled him. "I realized there was a terrible problem at Shinkolobwe," he told me, pulling out a map to show me. Areas of high radioactivity were coloured pink, with more neutral areas in blue and green. He had expected to see the bright pink blobs at the mine itself and at Likasi, where Union Minière had research labs and metal-treatment plants.
The startling discovery was something resembling a pink intestine that snakes across the map. It is a small river leading away from the mine, whose waters eventually flow into the Congo River, a major source of food and transport for the entire country. Hansen's map registers bright pink radioactivity from the mine right to where the survey ended, 75 kilometres away. How much farther the contamination extends is anyone's guess. "People are selling fish from the river," said Hansen. "I told my guys, whatever you do, don't buy any fish from those guys." He thinks the pollution has probably worsened in the seven years since the survey. There is no effort at pollution containment being made at the mine.

Shortly after meeting Hansen last spring, I made the hazardous journey to Shinkolobwe. Enveloped in a cloud of red dust, we drove in behind two 20-tonne trucks, one empty and one carrying men to the mines. For the hour and a half it took to cover 40 kilometres of deeply rutted road, the men stood packed like sardines, with latecomers hanging precariously out the back. As we neared the mine, the roadway dust turned black with cobalt. We passed a scatter of huts, where everything — children, chickens, women selling bread and fruit — was blanketed with this radioactive powder.Near the mine, a makeshift barricade blocked our way. The area swirled with activity as young male miners, dressed only in T-shirts and shorts, filled sacks with cobalt and loaded them onto trucks bound for Likasi or the provincial capital of Lubumbashi for sorting, concentrating to remove other minerals and export. Six Congolese soldiers and two members of the president's special security detail — unmistakable in their black uniforms and maroon berets — staffed the barricade.

The Congolese government's contention that it had shut the site a month earlier, after pressure over safety issues, was clearly a lie. Instead of enforcing the closure, the guards were there to take their cut from mine production. The problem in a strange environment is that danger may not wear a familiar face. I walked over to a group of soldiers and chatted with them, handing out cigarettes, thinking I would need them on my side. But when I started interviewing miners about their lives at the pit, it was not the soldiers who made threats. A man I had overlooked because he was dressed in a T-shirt and jeans turned out be one of the "mine police." He angrily warned the miners to say nothing and was calling in reinforcements when we leaped back into our vehicle. One of the president's special security guards jumped in with us, asking for a ride to Likasi. We agreed, thinking his presence might deter an attack. He proudly showed us his personal haul — a plastic bag filled with several pounds of black cobalt grains. At more than $30 a pound, he would realize a tidy sum. He was part of a long line of people who would profit — some more, many less — from the country's mineral wealth.

Union Minière discovered Shinkolobwe in 1915, when a prospector followed up on stories of locals coating themselves in luminescent mud. Once production started in 1921, the mine supplied radium for some of Marie Curie's experiments and uranium for the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atom bomb. The Congolese ore used in the bombs dropped on Japan was refined in Port Hope, Ont., by Eldorado Mining and Refining Ltd. The refinery, which was nationalized by the Canadian government during the war, also processed Canadian uranium for U.S. military use. U.S. pressure closed Shinkolobwe after the war, but a cash-strapped Mobutu reopened it in his final years. His successor, Laurent Kabila, who took power in May 1997, allowed hand-pickers, as they are called here, to swarm over sites that the bankrupt Gécamines could no longer afford to work or that foreign companies had purchased but not yet developed. Joseph Kabila came to power after his father was assassinated in January 2001. Now, thousands of desperate locals, made jobless by Gécamines' collapse, are digging the radioactive ground for minerals, including cobalt and gold.

With picks and shovels in short supply, some of the Shinkolobwe miners have improvised, tearing down the metal signs warning of radiation danger and shaping them into shovels. Fearing an attack, we took a different route back and came across some miners trying to retrieve the body of a colleague from deep underground. There had been a cave-in, an all-too-frequent occurrence when miners cannot afford life-saving props in tunnels. The miners wanted us to take down their names to prove to the mine police they were working, even though they were not collecting cobalt. They were still calling after us as we pulled away. Within weeks of my visit, another cave-in took the lives of at least seven miners. Back in Likasi, I met with Kalinga Mwengala, 27. He buys cobalt at Shinkolobwe on behalf of one of the trade's many middlemen. From the lost generation of Congolese, he has never been to school and started working at the mine two years ago. Speaking in Swahili, Mwengala explained how the system works. It takes him about five days at the mine to buy enough cobalt for his boss to fill a truck. The going rate for the miners is 1,000 Congolese francs (about $3) for an 80-kilogram sack of raw ore. Mwengala earns about $48 for filling a 20-tonne truck. He is happy with the money that helps support his child, who is living with his parents. His boss is even happier. The amount of cobalt in each truckload of raw ore fetches about $30,000 on world markets, according to foreign mining executives in the Congo. I asked Mwengala if he knew the risks. "I know about the radiation at the mine," he said. "But I haven't seen any effect." He said he would continue working there but did not want his child to go into mining. "It's a bad life. Death is always near."

It is not just the miners who are in danger. Transporting radioactive cobalt ore in open trucks spreads the dust along the roadside, said Hubert Tshiswaka, executive director of Action Contre l'Impunité pour les Droits Humains (Action Against Impunity for Human Rights). Tshiswaka has studied Shinkolobwe's problems. The ore is concentrated in furnaces that pump out a pall of radioactive smoke that pervades the residential areas in Likasi and Lubumbashi. "It is criminal what is happening here," said Tshiswaka. "They are destroying a country." He has carefully documented the route the cobalt takes as it passes through many hands from mine to border. First come the mainly Congolese buyers, such as Mwengala's boss. They sell it to larger traders — a polyglot collection of Lebanese, Greek, Indian, Zimbabwean and South African businessmen — whose workers concentrate the ore, by hand or in a furnace, before selling it.

In its report, Global Witness identified the three largest trading houses as: Groupe Bazano, run by a Lebanese; Chemicals of Africa, an Indian company; and Société Minière du Katanga, owned by Chug Chetanga Prakash, who is based in Canada. Once the cobalt crosses the border into Zambia, Tshiswaka loses track of it. Much of it ends up in China.

A Chinese minerals analyst, Xu Aidong, told an international cobalt conference in 2003 that 28 per cent of China's imported cobalt concentrate came directly from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Global Witness said in its report that China, the main recipient of Congolese cobalt, imported 39,000 tonnes in 2003 and that its imports for the first five months of 2004 had already reached 22,000 tonnes.

But it is the impact on the local people that concerns Tshiswaka, who said the government has only pretended to take action to improve safety and health, while leaving Shinkolobwe open. He tried to collect statistics from local morgues to bolster his case for better health and safety regulations but found there was not enough information on the causes of death. Hansen of Melkior Resources found much the same thing when he asked a friend to check medical records at local missions to see if they revealed a radioactive cause of death. In a country where people die young — average life expectancy for a male in the Congo is 35 years — it is difficult to tell what role radioactivity plays. Said Hansen: "You look for lung problems, but a lot of people die from tuberculosis, so you don't know whether it has anything to do with radioactivity. It could be HIV/AIDS. "You look for stomach problems from eating radioactive fish. But again, diarrhea is a very common cause of death. It's very difficult." Hansen said he wrote a letter about the spreading radioactivity to the Congolese minister of justice in August 2000. Government officials told him they were happy for him to clean up the problem as long as he could find the money. He showed the survey to the people at Gécamines, but they didn't want him to scare potential investors. Everyone else he approached agreed there was a problem but did not know who would pay to fix it.

A 2002 World Bank environmental survey estimated that it would cost $300-$600 million (U.S.) just to stabilize the pollution problem at mines in Katanga, including Shinkolobwe. The U.S. government has inspected the site more recently. So far, nothing has been done.You would think that uncontrolled mining and possible export of uranium would ring alarm bells for governments worried about terrorism. But it seems that until the uranium is enriched into weapons-grade material, which is not happening in the Congo, nuclear authorities do not pay attention.

That may change; investigators from the U.N. mission in the Congo warned in July that uranium from Shinkolobwe might be finding its way into the hands of terrorists. In late October, a team of experts sent to the mine by the U.N. warned that the levels of radiation they found exceeded international safety standards. Calling the situation anarchistic, they recommended the Congolese government ensure that the mine is closed. In the weeks ahead, the U.N. experts plan to release more detailed results on the health, environmental and humanitarian hazards posed by Shinkolobwe. François Kayembe, president of the local network of civil society groups, joined me for lunch at a Likasi café called La Belotte on a day when we'd spent two hours talking to network members who said they were desperate that the outside world does not abandon them. A pall of smoke hung over the street and drifted in the café's open door. It was partly from the cobalt furnaces and partly from the dust stirred up by the ore trucks from Shinkolobwe as they rumbled down the main street. At every bump, they left bits of their deadly load. Respiratory problems had been a big topic at the morning meeting and Kayembe wanted to be sure I understood the widespread impact of the pollution. "Everyone coughs here," he said. We stopped talking for a moment. From the surrounding tables came a cacophony of coughing as the café's patrons tried to rid their lungs of the deadly dust.

Canadian journalist Madelaine Drohan is the author of Making A Killing: How Corporations Use Armed Force To Do Business.