Meghalaya's uranium reserves: Why it is both a gift and a curse
Shillong: When the news emerged of a uranium effluent tank leaking at Nongbah Jynrin in South West Khasi Hills District of Meghalaya, it raised concerns whether mining activities were taking place or not. There were other concerns like how hazardous this could be for the people living downstream.
The subject on uranium mining in Meghalaya dates back to the early 70s and to understand how these tanks in South West Khasi Hills existed, let us take a trip down memory lane.
HOW DID THESE TANKS COME ABOUT?
To get a better glimpse of the story, EastMojo spoke with environmental economist Dr Bremley WB Lyngdoh, founder and CEO of Ecofriend World. Lyngdoh is one of the prominent faces and is also known for voicing his opinion against uranium mining.
According to Lyngdoh, it was back in the late 60s early 70s when Meghalaya was still fighting for its statehood when the Atomic Minerals Directorate had come here to do some survey looking for uranium and during their survey. They found a huge deposit in the Domiasiat area and the surrounding villages.
“It was during that time India had tested its first nuclear bomb in 1974 but this was another good source because our uranium is quite high grade. The actual experimental mining started in the early 90s and it went on from 1990-1995 and during that time the AMD had dug about 650 tonnes just for an experiment,” recalled Lyngdoh.
This led to public outcry from civil societies and villages in the West Khasi Hills District. “During that time, Hopingstone Lyngdoh was the representative. There were reports from his constituency that animals were dying and falling sick, fishes were already dying and the ecosystem was already changing even from those days,” mentioned Lyngdoh.
H Lyngdoh had opposed these activities from the very beginning in his capacity as an elected member of the Legislative Assembly and the KHADC. Because of the vigorous protests that H Lyngdoh had managed to organise, former Chief Minister Brington Buhai Lyngdoh then ordered the AMD to stop the exploratory mining and all operations at Domiasiat were shut down in the 1990s.
“AMD packed their bags overnight leaving their tools and gears behind and everything was contaminated. So they were summoned to clean up the mess, they were asked to dig huge tanks and seal from the top. So they dumped all their radioactive gears, tools in these concrete tanks and there were more than 1 concrete tank and were huge. These concrete tanks had a ventilating pipe, if it does not have ventilation the whole tank can just blow up since we’re dealing with high grade ore here,” mentioned Lyngdoh.
The actual experimental mining started in the early 90s and it went on from 1990-1995. During that time, the atomic minerals directorate (AMD) had dug about 650 tonnes just for an experiment.
15 YEARS LATER
On September 21, news was circulating on social media that one of the tanks exploded either leaked.
While speaking with EastMojo, South West Khasi Hills District's Khasi Students’ Union president Forwardman Nongrem mentioned that after the union heard about the news circulating on social media, the members had gone to the site.
Nongrem informed that due to incessant rain in the district, they have not been able to come to a conclusion but it was evident that the cracks in a few of the tanks have increased as compared to the previous years. He also added that they are able to ascertain these cracks are increasing since they ensure that every year an inspection is carried out by the union.
“Due to heavy downpour we were able to locate four tanks out of five. Once the weather is better we will visit the area again but the people living nearby did mention that there was a leakage that happened in one of these tanks,” said Nongrem.
GOVERNMENT CLARIFIES NEWS IS INCORRECT
On September 25, Meghalaya chief minister Conrad K Sangma clarified that the state government had informed the deputy commissioner and the UCIL on the first day itself when the reports on the explosion of the storage tank of uranium effluents at the Nongbah Jynrin village in South West Khasi Hills.
Sangma said that the deputy superintendent of police had gone to the site to survey and informed the government that there were no such leakages adding that the DSP also told that there was no such explosion or exposure. He said that the reports which they have received from both the district administration and deputy superintendent of police shows that there was no such incident.
'DO THEY NEED A MASS DISASTER TO BURN OUT ALL THEIR LIES?'
Following the government’s response that the news was incorrect, Nongrem raised several questions to the government.
“The government and its agencies have mentioned that we are spreading fake news. We want to ask the government – do they need a mass disaster to burnout all their lies? Do they need a mass disaster in order to let them stop spreading lies to the people of Meghalaya?” asked Nongrem.
He added that even in the past there were leakages emitting foul smell.
Within a radius of 2 to 3 kilometres from these uranium effluent tanks there are seven villages with over 800 residents. So far, no awareness programme has been carried out in these areas to educate the people living nearby about the effects of uranium.
According to Nongrem in 2017 -2018 there were mining activities taking place but was stopped after complaints were raised.
According to a report on August 2, 2016, the Meghalaya government (Congress) had revoked the decision to lease UCIL a land of 422 hectares in SWKH District.
Back in 1993, the union had strongly opposed the move to mine uranium in the state. The union till date has been able to voice their opinion and educate the citizens about the ill effects of uranium.
In 2017, when newly elected president of the KSU Lambokstarwell Marngar was sworn in, he said that the Centre had to declare Meghalaya as a state outside the Indian Territory before forcible uranium mining in the state. He had also said that KSU will oppose any move of uranium extraction.
Do they need a mass disaster in order to let them stop spreading lies to the people of Meghalaya?
AS A CITIZEN, WHY IT CONCERNS YOU
According to Bremley Lyngdoh, the destruction of the fragile mountain ecosystems in Meghalaya has sadly gone from bad to worst. “The most pressing environmental concerns in Meghalaya constitute deforestation, fragmentation of forests, soil degradation, biodiversity loss and contamination and silting of water bodies. This crime against the environment over the past decades has been caused by unregulated, unscientific, and illegal mining and logging, and the practice of shifting cultivation in our state,” said Lyngdoh.
He emphasised the need to train and deploy a new generation of social and environmental entrepreneurs who will trigger the paradigm shift in the hill state.
Lyngdoh added, “We need to move from the old business as usual approach to the new normal of doing business in harmony with the planet through renewable energy, regenerative agriculture and large-scale restoration of our forests and springs creating long-term sustainable livelihoods for our young people.”
WHAT ARE THE EFFECTS?
During his research 15 years ago, the effects of the mining were already taking place. The side effects were already visible from back then in the 90s. He had interviewed a few families and came to know that they have lost their little ones and even their cattle.
“The experiment gone-bad has left its mark. When I was there doing my research about 15 years ago and I was looking at the impact of the Supreme Court logging ban. I was never looking at uranium at all but I just happen to be in West Khasi Hills then and I just couldn’t close my eyes and walk away. This was a serious issue, I had heard about it but never seen the tanks so I went there with members of the KSU,” mentioned Bremley Lyngdoh.
He added, “Downstream there was a village where the actual workers and families lived and are like a leper colony excluded and tucked away in the hills that nobody cares or knows about them. Their children are completely deformed and I’ve never seen any other village like that. Almost 70% of the people are deformed and are mentally unstable.”
During his interaction with the locals, Lyngdoh found that these children were born around that time when the experimental mining was taking place. He also found out that the residents of that area were consuming the water that was flowing from the areas where the dams were since there was no other source.
Explaining that when there is uranium ore and when it is transforming itself all the time, there is some sort of gas that comes out and that is radon gas.
[Radon is a colourless, odorless, radioactive gas. It forms naturally from the decay (breaking down) of radioactive elements, such as uranium, which are found in different amounts in soil and rock throughout the world. Radon gas in the soil and rock can move into the air and into underground water and surface water.]
“When you inhale that gas it is deadly and one can get lung cancer over long term exposure. If a person stays there for a long time they will definitely get cancer. This is radiation it eats through metal, ore, steel, and what is human skin compared to these,” explains Lyngdoh.
He further added that it is the same thing with the vegetation and the animals were also affected. A lot of fish were dead and this has been going on from the early 90s, added Lyngdoh.
Meghalaya has the third richest uranium reserves in the country (13,500 tonnes) after Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.
“This was just an experiment and it has gone bad for the people, environment, ecosystem, wildlife. The irony is that once you open Pandora’s Box you can’t really close it, or contain it, it will continue to morph and mutate itself for generations for 88,000 years,” said Lyngdoh.
Meghalaya has the third richest uranium reserves in the country (13,500 tonnes) after Jharkhand and Andhra Pradesh.
IS THERE A SOLUTION?
Uranium mining is no new subject to any individual since it is an experiment that is taking place in all over the world and mostly in the indigenous territories.
Lyngdoh mentioned that the leaks in those pipes will continue but maybe fixed and in a controlled manner and there should be a Geiger meter/counter to measure the radioactive emissions on a daily basis so that people will know not to hang around in that area.
He emphasised the need to relocate those people living downstream. “The area should be left as a containment zone and no one should be allowed within 5 kilometre radius and let it rot. People should go there on a yearly basis and make sure that it is contained in the most professional sense,” Lyngdoh said.
KSU DEMANDS INDEPENDENT INQUIRY
KSU's Nongrem said that since the uranium issue is a life and death issue, the union want the government to setup an independent inquiry and that team should not have any members from the AMD or UCIL or any pro uranium agencies. “The government should immediately repair these damaged tanks and we want to pressurise the government to stop all its uranium mining activities,” Nongrem said.
Wanting the citizens to be aware of an incident that has been left aside, members of the union were also seen risking their lives by visiting these areas where the tanks are setup.
He also added the union has not come to any conclusion as yet concerning the reports of an explosion taking place. “It is also too soon for the government and its agencies to come to a conclusion stating that the news is incorrect,” mentioned Nongrem.
'THIS IS YOUR LAND, SPEAK UP'
According to Lyngdoh, people think that this is a very technical issue that they are not educated enough and that they are not scientist. “Well you don’t have to be one to understand the implications of what is happening there. There are a lot of educated youths here,” Lyngdoh said.
He added, “You’ve got to speak up or be silenced for ever, this is your land and if you care about issues you’ve got to speak out and defend what you believe. You cannot just sit there like the famous Khasi saying goes ‘Ksan rympei rem dorbar’ you can’t just sit at home and complain.”
He suggested that the government should take this issue seriously since they are dealing with highly volatile ore that has the potential to be weaponised.