Uranium in groundwater 'not serious': Roessing

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Friday, June 24, 2005 - Web posted at 8:03:29 GMT

Uranium in groundwater 'not serious': Roessing

* MAGGI BARNARD

THE Roessing mine has confirmed that unusual uranium levels have been detected in the Swakop River groundwater about 25 km from the mine, but says it poses no health risks.

Rumours started spreading and people became concerned as news of the uranium, found in groundwater at a vegetable farming project about seven kilometres upstream from Goanikontes East, started circulating.

"People said they knew there was something wrong, but did not really know why," said Rainer Schneeweiss, Superintendent Sustainable Development at Roessing, at a media information trip to the area yesterday.

"We decided to state the facts as they are before the rumour became too serious and negatively affected the livelihood of about 250 people in the river valley."

In recent years the Swakop River valley has become renowned for its fresh produce.

Delicacies such as asparagus, olives, dates, herbs, vegetables, honey and goat cheese produced there are available at most shops and restaurants.

Up to 20 tons of tomatoes, 16 tons of asparagus and five tons of olives are produced in the river valley every year.

Schneeweiss said a specialist radiologist had confirmed that it was safe for people to eat crops irrigated with the groundwater.

"The Swakop River products are of a high quality, and do not pose any health risks to consumers," he said.

The specialist was contracted to do a study after the uranium was detected in the groundwater.

Although there are no observable health effects and no intervention is required, Schneeweiss said the principle of keeping radiation as low as possible should be applied.

While it meant enormous costs, he said it had to be sorted out to the satisfaction of all concerned.

A drilling programme of N$100 000 was started last week to confirm the extent of the anomaly and to determine whether it was stationary.

"If the anomaly moves with normal groundwater flow, it will take six to seven years to reach the first farming area at Goanikontes," said Schneeweiss.

Groundwater moves at a speed of one kilometre a year.

A helicopter survey was also carried out to determine whether there were natural uranium deposits in the rock formations in the area.

"We need these baseline values, should the proposed Langer Heinrich uranium mine start operating, to be able to compare results after a few years of production," said George Ellis, one of the river valley farmers and member of a working group formed to oversee further studies of the groundwater.

The groundwater survey was initiated by farmers in the Swakop River when they raised concerns about the mine's future impact on groundwater quality and quantity as part of an environmental impact assessment on Roessing's mine life extension plan.

More than 100 boreholes and wells were identified and surveyed, water levels measured and groundwater samples taken.

Schneeweiss said the Swakop River had not been surveyed before, as samples in the Khan River never showed any anomalies and it was not deemed necessary to sample the Swakop.

The mine is situated about 25 km upstream of the confluence of the Khan and Swakop rivers.

Apart from the uranium anomaly found, very high salt levels were also noted in the water.

This aspect is of greater concern for the farmers at the moment, as salt can kill crops.

"I was frightened when I saw the salt in my groundwater," said Ellis, a major producer of vegetables.

He said the salt content in his water had doubled over a period of nine years.

This is mainly attributed to a reduction in recharge of groundwater because of the two big dams built in the Swakop River.

The average groundwater level has dropped by 30 cm.

The farmers said the only option for their long-term survival would be to focus on products more tolerant of saline water, such as asparagus and olives, or to stop farming.

The fear is that the water would become so salty that nothing would grow there any more.

Ellis and other farmers on the working group said they had not experienced any resistance or negativity from clients regarding their products so far.

"There are jokes about my glowing vegetables, but nobody has refused to eat them," said Ellis.

The groundwater is only used for irrigation, and is not deemed fit for human consumption.

Drinking water for Swakopmund is supplied from the Kuiseb and Omaruru rivers, and not the Khan and Swakop rivers.

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