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Tuesday, September 2, 2014
- Local activists have begun protests in Slovakia after a government ministry appeared to give its backing to a controversial uranium mining project despite reassurances to people living near the proposed site that no mining would be allowed to take place.
Studies carried out by the Canadian firm European Uranium Resources have shown massive uranium ore deposits in the Kuriskova-Jahodna area, near Kosice, Slovakia’s second largest city.
But fierce local opposition to the plans for a mine had previously led to regional authorities saying they would not let any mining go ahead.
Now, though, it has emerged that just before Christmas, the Slovak Economy Ministry signed a memorandum of understanding with European Uranium Resources – unknown to local authorities in Kosice, the public or the Slovak Environment Ministry.
Environmental groups fear the Economy Ministry is now acting as an unofficial PR agent for the company in a bid to paint the project in the best light possible.
Juraj Rizman, head of Greenpeace Slovakia, told IPS: “The whole memorandum is just part of a process to create positive PR for this exceptionally controversial project and the firm behind it.”
Opposition to the mining project has been strong since it was first announced in 2005 that preliminary surveys of the area were being undertaken.
Local activists and regional authorities across the country organised a petition calling for a ban on all future uranium mining in Slovakia. The petition was signed by more than 100,000 people and became the largest of its kind in Slovak history.
They claim that the mining would destroy the popular Jahodna tourist area just 15km from Kosice, which itself has a population of more than 250,000, as well as posing serious environmental risks to a much larger area.
Among these, they say, is the potential release of radioactive gases and dust, toxic waste and the pollution of important nearby groundwater sources.
The area where the mining would take place straddles three significant sources of water, including one which serves the city of Kosice itself.
The environmental impact of uranium mines, including groundwater pollution, in other parts of the world has been well documented. One of the world’s largest mines, the Ranger mine in Australia’s Kakadu National Park, has had repeated problems with environmental damage and groundwater pollution is reported to be spreading through the UNESCO heritage site.
Uranium mining’s toxic health legacy can also be seen in the neighbouring Czech Republic.
According to studies and official data on work-related illnesses, between 1991 and 2006, just under 76 percent of all malignant cancers recognised as being work-related were from work in the mining and processing of uranium ore.
In the same period, as uranium mines across the country were closed down following the fall of the communist regime, there was an 81 percent drop in the incidence of lung cancer caused by radioactive substances.
Representatives of Ludovika Energy, the Slovak daughter company of European Uranium Resources, refute environmental groups’ claims about the mine.
Maros Havran, spokesman for the company, told IPS that certain environmentalists in Kosice had waged a campaign based on “manipulated facts and open lies” about the mine project to sway public opinion against it.
He said that the company had no plans for industrial activity in the Jahodna area, adding that as it will be underground any changes above ground to the local area would be “minimal”.
He also said the mine would not pose any environmental or health risks, specifically with regard to local water sources. “If the project is prepared and run under Slovak and European legislation and regulations on environmental and health standards for uranium mining and processing, there is no risk. Excellent hydro-geological conditions will also keep water streams and resources in the area safe from any possible harm.”
Ludovika Energy has also been keen to point out the significant benefits of the mine, arguing that the deposits could secure “a safe source of energy for Slovakia for decades” and that the project will create more than 800 jobs and bring in 120 million euros to state coffers via taxes and other payments.
But the former claim is disputed by energy security experts as Slovakia has no facilities to process mined uranium for use in its nuclear power stations and would continue to have to rely on imports of processed uranium from Russia.
The Economy Ministry has defended its signing of the referendum. Ministry spokesman Stanislav Jurikovic told Slovak media that geological surveys had shown that the uranium deposits near Kosice were among some of the most significant in the world and that “it is therefore the responsibility of the ministry to exert the maximum possible effort to gain control over these strategic deposits of uranium ore.”
He added that current legislation did not give the state sufficient power to ensure that it gained the full benefits of any potential mining.
Legal experts have also cast doubt on this claim, saying that under existing legislation the government has more than enough means to check the project at every single stage of its progress.
Environmental groups in Kosice which have formed the “STOP Uranium-Kosice” protest movement say they will continue with protests and have called on local authorities in Kosice to stick to their previously declared intention to reject the project.
Under current legislation, local authorities have the right to veto any mining in the area if and when an application for a licence to mine – which would include a comprehensive and legally binding declaration of its mining methods and what technology it would use – is officially made.
But with this not expected to occur for at least another three years as further feasibility studies and an environmental impact assessment still need to be carried out, Greenpeace says European Uranium Resources has enough time to promote its project among politicians and the public.
Rizman told IPS: “At this stage the firm can say whatever it wants about its plans because they are not legally binding.
“Their statements about their project and their criticism of local environmental activists are part of a long-term, wide-ranging PR campaign designed to improve both the public’s and politicians’ view of their project with the possible aim of influencing, as much as they can, public opinion before the project is subjected to an Environmental Impact Assessment.”