Rössing slow to publish study on cancer rates among workers

By Jade McClune

A former spokesperson for Rio Tinto in Namibia has strongly denied that the global mining giant was withholding the findings of its long-range study on the impact of radiation on the health of mineworkers. The study included the medical records all workers employed at Rössing Uranium Mine since 1976.

In response to follow-up questions from Confidente, the new managing director of Rössing, Johan Coetzee, at the end of 2019 said he was hopeful that they would be able to start briefing their employees early in 2020.

Rössing, the oldest open-pit uranium mine in the world was sold in mid-2019 to a Chinese state-owned firm, China National Uranium Corporation Ltd (CNUC), for what appeared to be a fraction of its worth, raising questions as to why Rio Tinto would sell one of its prized jewels at fire-sale prices.

Rio Tinto in July 2019 handed over management of Rössing to CNUC after the Chinese firm acquired Rio’s 68.62 percent stake for a mere US$6.5 million, plus a “contingent payment” of up to $100 million, which would depend on “uranium spot prices and Rössing’s net income during the next seven calendar years.”

Rössing PR officer Daylight Ekandjo at the time of the sale said they would release the findings of the study within weeks. “Rössing was informed earlier this year that the University of Manchester’s School of Combined Health Sciences, the expert group commissioned by Rio Tinto to carry out the study of cancer rates among Rössing mine workers, has indicated a delay in the completion of the study. The delay is a result of a number of factors, including additional time taken in data gathering and work required to analyse the complicated data sets; the results are now expected in the coming weeks.”

Asked about it in mid-December, a former Rio Tinto spokesman, speaking off the record, denied that they were trying to suppress the report on cancer rates and the effects of exposure to radiation.

STUDY COMPLETED

Coetzee subsequently said in an official statement on 31 December 2019 that “We can confirm that the study has now been completed. As often happens with major detailed scientific studies, they can take longer than expected due to complexity. We remain committed to making the findings public, and are in the process of obtaining the necessary regulatory approvals from the Government of Namibia. We are hopeful that we will be able to start briefing our employees and communities early in 2020.”

When Confidente asked Rio’s caretaker manager Richard Storrie about this in December 2018, Storrie – who managed the handover to CNUC – said the experts were still analysing the data, but gave assurances that it would be available to the company by mid-2019. A company statement on 21 June 2018, however, said “stage 2 (statistical analysis of the data) has been completed. A preliminary analysis result will be presented… at the end of June 2018, and the final report is expected in December 2018.”

CUT AND RUN

Asked whether the findings of the study had affected Rio Tinto’s decision to cut and run, Storrie countered that market factors were decisive and that with uranium spot prices at less than US$30/pound at the time, Rio Tinto would not have been able to sustain operations at Rössing until 2025, the year it projected closure of the mine.

The global uranium market is oversupplied and prices were not expected to recover soon. “As a low-grade uranium mine, [Rössing] will remain at the higher end of the cost curve. With the uranium market not expected to make a significant recovery in the short to medium term, the reducing contract portfolio will not provide sufficient mitigation for the high unit cost,” he said.

Company officials also confirmed that Rössing did not pay corporation tax for several years, but denied that it had been involved in illicit transfer pricing or tax evasion, saying their financial records and government regulations would clarify why Rössing paid no corporation tax in Namibia for years on end.

The health scoping study, which started in 2015, was expected to take only three years to complete and would include all workers employed at the mine between 1976 and 2010, with at least one year’s continual employment at the mine during that period: around 12,500 workers.

PENSION FUND FIASCO

Meanwhile, the lingering saga over the distribution of the pension surplus continues. All former members of the Rössing Pension Fund (RPF), who had not received payment were last year asked to register their claims with the Fund’s administrators before the end of March 2019, when the remaining N$87 million was due to be distributed.

It is immediately not yet clear how far this process is, but many people have expressed unhappiness and suspicion that the distribution was not handled fairly.

The director of the Namibia Consumer Protection Group, Milton Louw, whose consultancy firm, Aardvark Investments, was contracted to track down the remaining members of the Fund whose claims had not yet been processed, was in a separate matter arrested in December on charges of theft of computers from the Electoral Commission of Namibia.

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