From: Reuters
Published November 7, 2007 08:32 AM

Radioactive Minerals Dumped in Congo: Authorities

KINSHASA  - Authorities in the Democratic Republic of Congo have launched an inquiry into the suspected dumping of 18 tonnes of highly radioactive minerals into a river in southeast Katanga province, officials said on Wednesday.

The minerals, including 17 tonnes of copper ore with a level of radioactivity 50 times the tolerable limit, were seized last month in the southern Katanga mining town of Likasi en route for export.

Authorities ordered the material to be disposed of in an abandoned uranium mine last week but workers are believed to have dumped them from a bridge just 10 km (6 miles) from Likasi, which has a population of more than 300,000 people.

Mineral residue tested on the bridge and on the banks of the Mura river found levels of radioactivity as high as 10 milliroentgen per hour, some 33 times Congo's tolerable limit.

"If this information is really true, there are serious risks for the local population," Democratic Republic of Congo's Environment Minister Didace Pembe told Reuters. "That would require serious punishment. There are grave consequences."

He said he was expecting a report from Katanga's government by Wednesday afternoon.

According to an initial report by the Likasi mayor's office, the 17 tonnes of ore belonged to Chinese firm Magma-Lubumbashi. Another 1.4 tonnes of copper and cobalt earmarked for disposal belonged to Chemaf, a Congolese mining company, and Louis Kiyombo, a Lubumbashi-based mineral broker.

Katanga's provincial environment minister last week ordered the minerals to be dumped at the closed Shinkolobwe uranium mine. Congo has been banned from mining and exporting uranium.

However, the truck never arrived at the mine, provincial Mines Minister Bartelemy Mumba Gama said.

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"The road was blocked. And since they couldn't access (Shinkolobwe), they decided amongst themselves to dump it into the river," he said. "I think they did it by ignorance."

Katanga, home to one of the world's richest belts of copper and cobalt, is densely populated by tens of thousands of artisanal miners.

Ore mined in the region habitually has trace amounts of uranium and some foreign companies are believed to be particularly interested in these uranium-rich ores.

Congolese officials said the dumped materials are believed to come from the nearby Kolwezi area, home to projects by several foreign mining groups such as Katanga Mining, Nikanor, and Freeport McMoran.

(Editing by Daniel Flynn and Mary Gabriel)

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