Copper ‘waste’ poisoning Kasese river
Long-standing pollution problem underscores the importance of properly decommissioning mining projects.
KASESE: Stockpiles of copper that were left behind after the closure of Kilembe mines may not have produced an ounce of copper for sale in the last thirty years, but have been producing something else: a steady flow of contaminants that have been draining into nearby water bodies.
According to the Department of Geological Survey and Mines, over 15 million tonnes of stockpiles were produced by the once vibrant mines between 1956 and 1980. Some of this stash has now ended up in the district’s water bodies.
The problem has intensified over the last two years, as River Nyamwamba regularly bursts its banks, dissolving bits of the heaps of stockpiles and washing it away. Also, water from the deep underground tunnels has been oozing out of the mines, carrying with it dissolved minerals into the river.
Thousands of Kasese residents who do not have piped water depend on River Nyamwamba and hundreds others eke out a living as fishermen on Lake George, Nyamwamba’s final destination. Lake George is a Ramsar site recognized as a breeding ground for several bird and fish species.
Oryem Origa, a Professor of Botany at Makerere University, says the discharges into the river contain heavy metals like Copper, Cobalt, Iron and Lead.
While he notes that these heavy metals may occur in small quantities, the threat, he adds, is that they are getting into the food chain where they accumulate over time. “Nyamwamba is a source of drinking water,” said Oryem, observing that Lake George too is a source of fish for the district.
Oryem has undertaken extensive research on water pollution caused by the Kilembe copper mines over the last two decades.
“The change in colour of the (river) water to greenish-blue s
hows the deposition of chemicals,” he explains, adding that he has also observed the greenish-blue coating on some of the rocks in the bed of the river.
Oryem has also tested tissues of the plants growing on and around the dumped stockpiles and found that they have three times more Copper and Cobalt than plants growing in other areas.
The consumption of food contaminated with heavy metals is linked to cancer, warns Oryem.
Last year, Tibet Hima Company, a consortium of Chinese companies took over management and operation of the Kilembe mines in a multi-million dollar deal but it appears cleaning up the waste was not part of the agreement.
According to Dr. Tom Okurut, the Executive Director at the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA), the Chinese investors will only be held accountable for the waste they will generate when their operations begin.
We have not got their plans but we expect them to clean up their own waste,” said Okurut. He further noted that the “Polluter Pays Principle” puts the burden of cleaning the environment on the producer of the waste.
However, Augustine Kooli, the Kasese District Environment Officer, argues that Tibet Hima Company, bought the assets and liabilities of Kilembe Mines Ltd, including the stockpiles.
“We need a comprehensive audit and plan on the cleanup,” Kooli advises.
But Alex Kwatampora, Project Manager at Tibet Hima Company, told Oil in Uganda, the company has already done an audit plan, adding that clean-up plans have been hampered by the regular flooding caused by the river.
“When we took over this area, there was no policy in Kilembe of treating water that flows from the mines into the water bodies. We have carried out an environment audit and are planning to commission an environmental impact assessment study, as part of the bigger plan for protecting the environment.”
He said that currently the company has only neutralised the potency of the copper sulphate going into the river.
In the meantime, the pollution continues, slowly building up contaminants in the lake.
Lake George has been described by scientists as a “highly resilient system that efficiently immobilises contaminants” limiting the potential health risks from the pollution, but there are fears that the contamination may dramatically increase if the lake starts to dry up.
By our special correspondent, additional reporting by Flavia Nalubega