Windhoek, Namibia – Somewhere in the middle of the vast Namib desert is a settlement by the name of Arandis. It has been here since 1975, ever since the Anglo-Australian mining firm Rio Tinto came to set up its Rössing uranium mine.
It needed a place to house its black workforce.
Almost forty years later, the glamour of the olden days has passed, when uranium prices were high and competition low. Arandis is still the home of the workers, but has lost the financial support of the company. It looks like it is doomed to decay. The town lies like an island in the middle of endless rocks, sand and dust. The streets are dull and lifeless and the houses only distinguishable by the colours in which they’ve been painted.
There’s a saying here: “If you leave Arandis, you will die.” One of those who repeat the phrase is Hoseas Gaomab, who worked in the mine’s laboratory for 23 years. He knows many men who have died. But he doesn’t know why.
Gaomab, aged 73, is a fragile old man. He first came to Arandis in 1975, a year before the Rössing mine started operations. He was there when it became the largest open pit in the world. When it almost single handedly turned Namibia into one of the leading uranium producing countries – by supplying Europe, the US and Japan.
The question is, at what expense this has happened. Many men who worked here in the mine’s early days claim to suffer from severe illnesses including cancers, hypertension and anaemia. Gaomab is sick, too. He suffers from a disease that has made his legs and hands numb for the much of the past 20 years.
I had been feeling weak, but the mine doctors always said it's okay... The doctors only ever tested us for flu. if I had known, I would have asked them to test me for radiation.
“I had been feeling weak, but the mine doctors always said it’s okay,” he told Al Jazeera. He can barely walk, or get up from the armchair in which he sits.
Discovering the risks, too late
For a long time it simply didn’t occur to Gaomab that his illness could be work-related. Then, in 1993, a medical student named Reinhard Zaire arrived, interviewing miners and taking blood samples. “He asked us how long we worked for Rössing and when we got sick. Then he called us together to tell us we were irradiated.”
This was the first time he heard about the existence of radiation in the uranium mine. “The doctors only ever tested us for flu,” he said. “If I had known, I would have asked them to test me for radiation.”
Aside from Zaire’s claims, there is no proof that Gaomab has been fatally irradiated. And chances are slim that he will ever find out. There are no records available from the company of what happens to workers once they leave Rössing. After their retirement, the men return to their homes in rural Namibia, where they rarely have access to proper healthcare facilities.
“To date, there have been no confirmed occupational illness related deaths,” said Rio Tinto spokesperson Penda Kiiyala.
However, there is great scepticism among people here in Arandis towards the company and their medical staff.
“The mine is a big company, they can tell everyone what to do. They tell you what’s wrong with you and you have to believe them,” said Gaomab. Although scientists have previously linked diseases such as those reported in Arandis to the exposure of radiation, nobody – other than Reinhard Zaire – has investigated them in the context of the Rössing uranium mine.
Zaire studied the effects of long-term exposure to low levels of radiation believed to be found in the Rössing mine. He concluded that there was an increased risk for uranium miners to develop malignant diseases such as cancer. Shortly after the report was published, Zaire was dismissed by the Namibian Ministry of Health and Social Services, his research permission was revoked, and he was accused of practising as a medical doctor illegally.
Rio Tinto – facing a lawsuit in the UK at the time, in which it was accused of damaging an employee’s health – slammed Zaire’s report.
Doug Brugge from the Tufts University in the United States has conducted research on the impacts of underground uranium mining on the Navajo tribe in North America. Brugge is sceptical to give the issue “the kind of framing” Zaire suggested. “For me, to just talk about low-dose ionizing radiation exposure is inadequate. Other things like the metal toxicity of uranium also plays a role and how the workers were exposed to radiation,” he said.
We had to smoothen out the yellowcake with our hands before we sampled it. There were no gloves, those things only came later.
Gaomab and a former lab colleague, Petrus Hoaeb, described the health and safety regulations at Rössing as inadequate in the early days. “For the sampling we used to suck up the yellowcake through a pipette,” said Hoaeb. “Whenever there was crushing, there was dust everywhere.”
Gaomab agreed: “We had to smoothen out the yellowcake with our hands before we sampled it. There were no gloves, those things only came later.”
Yellowcake is a solid form of concentrated uranium which is produced after the ore has been crushed and processed. It is usually stored in drums for transport and not hazardous if handled with appropriate precautions.
“During the lifetime of the mine, safety measures have been in place based on international best practice and applications at the time,” Rio Tinto’s Kiiyala told Al Jazeera. Monthly urine samples are also taken from each worker. This serves “as a check to ensure no internal contamination risk exists”.
Contrary to what the workers say, Rio Tinto emphasises that all workers have access to the results of tests made on their samples.
Rössing Uranium, the Namibian subsidiary of Rio Tinto, denied that workers were exposed to any kind of radiation in its open pit mine. “The biggest danger for the employees is the silica dust inside the pit,” said Alwyn Lubbe, an external relations officer for Rössing who spoke to Al Jazeera inside the mine’s premises. “The uranium levels are extremely low. The radiation is very low, it’s natural. Even when they process it in the final product recovery.”
Lubbe maintained there was also no toxicity leaking from the waste dumps next to the mine, which loom in the background. “There are no hazards here,” he says. From where he stands on the viewing platform, he looks at the huge hole stretching out below him and says: “Only depleted uranium is dangerous for the human body,” referring to the processed uranium that is used in nuclear power plants and in many weapons ammunitions.
According to Tufts’ Doug Brugge, the biggest threat is not the uranium itself, but its decay products, like radon, a gas that is set free when uranium is mined. “The daughter products of radon are the ones that settle in the lungs,” Brugge said. Solids such as uranium and radium can enter the human system only when inhaled or ingested. “If someone touches the ore, it can get into the body through hand and mouth contact. Once they are in the system the radiation is very strong.
“That there is radiation here and that it can cause health effects is not in question. The question is whether the way the people are exposed to it are leading to those health problems,” he said. “It sounds like what really needs to be done is research on health conditions and exposure.”
Despite the slim chances of success, Gaomab’s former colleague Petrus Hoaeb has decided to take the company to court. Hoaeb met Al Jazeera in his home, sat next to his son. Hoaeb Junior is spearheading the case for his sick father. The lack of knowledge is the biggest hurdle to overcome, he said. “If a researcher comes to you and says: ‘This is what we found,’ then you know how to fight. But if you have limited knowledge, it is very difficult.”
Currently the two parties are negotiating outside of court for a possible compensation package for Hoaeb, who was booked off work sick for twelve years before he was eventually fired in 2012. He failed to provide proof that his sickness was due to radiation exposure.
Hoaeb Jr has a different plan, however. He is about to travel to Namibia’s capital, Windhoek, to discuss further proceedings and to decide what Rössing has to offer.
“We are fighting for a large number of people,” he concluded. “Those who have died and those who are sick.”
Follow Victoria Schneider on Twitter at the Dirty Profits Exposed project: @DirtyProfitsExp
This report was produced with the support of the Facing Finance campaign.