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Madagascar Villagers Sue Rio Tinto Over Pollution Concerns

Legal Battle Targets Mining Giant for Environmental Damage

by Ikeoluwa Ogungbangbe

A group of villagers from the Anosy region in southern Madagascar is taking on the mining giant Rio Tinto, accusing it of environmental pollution that has allegedly led to dangerous levels of uranium and lead ingestion. The legal claim, initiated by 64 residents, targets the QIT Minerals Madagascar (QMM) mine in Fort Dauphin, which is predominantly owned by Rio Tinto, holding an 80% stake. The villagers allege that the mine’s activities have led to the contamination of local lakes and waterways, upon which up to 15,000 people in the area depend for their drinking and domestic water needs.

This legal action, facilitated by the law firm Leigh Day, is predicated on the findings of blood tests conducted on community members living in proximity to Fort Dauphin. The tests reportedly revealed elevated lead levels in their systems, surpassing the thresholds set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Disturbingly, one individual’s lead concentration was found to be so high that chelation therapy, a medical procedure to remove heavy metals from the bloodstream, has been deemed necessary.

The potential health implications of such contamination are grave, particularly for vulnerable populations like children and pregnant women. Lead exposure is notorious for causing irreversible brain damage in children, leading to a spectrum of cognitive and behavioral disorders. Similarly, uranium exposure poses risks of developmental damage, increased cancer rates, and kidney dysfunction.

The QMM mine, the center of this legal dispute, specializes in extracting ilmenite from the sands near Lakes Besaroy and Ambavarano. Ilmenite is a critical ingredient for manufacturing titanium dioxide, a white pigment extensively used in a variety of products, including paints, food, and cosmetics. This isn’t the first time Rio Tinto’s operations in Madagascar have come under scrutiny. A 2019 study highlighted the presence of high uranium and lead concentrations in the water downstream from the mine, raising alarms about the safety of local residents who rely on these water sources for drinking.

Paul Dowling, Leigh Day’s lead partner on the case, emphasized the discrepancy between the profits Rio Tinto garners from its Madagascar operations and the alleged environmental and health damages inflicted on local families. “While Rio Tinto extracts large profits from its mining operations in Madagascar, our clients’ case is that they and other local families are being forced to consume water contaminated with harmful heavy metals. In bringing this case, our clients are seeking accountability and justice for the damage that has been caused to their local environment and their health,” Dowling stated.

As of now, Rio Tinto has not issued a response to the allegations presented in the legal claim.

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