For a decade, the uranium tailings pond near Tummalapalle and other villages in the YSR Kadapa district of Andhra Pradesh have led to protests by local communities affected due to the possible impacts of mining by the Uranium Corporation of India Limited (UCIL). Tailings refer to the waste material left over from ore extraction processes.
The mine is located in Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy’s constituency, Pulivendula. When it was commissioned in 2012, Tummalapalle was said to contain the world’s largest uranium reserves and intended to boost the country’s nuclear programmes. The uranium reserves in YSR Kadapa district were initially estimated at 15,000 tonnes, but in 2011, UCIL revised the estimate to 1.5 lakh tonnes, a 10-fold increase.
While commissioning the Rs. 1,106-crore uranium ore processing plant and mine at Tummalapalle in 2012, the Atomic Energy Commission chairperson at that time, the late Srikant Banerjee, had allayed fears of environmental contamination, adding that all necessary precautions were in place. In addition, jobs were promised to the people living near the plant, apart from a Department of Atomic Energy (DAE) school and a multispeciality hospital, which are yet to be built.
Tailings Pond Affects Agriculture, Say Farmers
The villages near the mine include Mabbuchintalapalle (MC Palle), Rachakuntapalle, Kota and Bhumaiahgaripalle. The villages of KK Kottala, Kanampalle, Tummalapalle and MC Palle are the ones reported to be affected by the tailings pond. For a few years, farmers with land in and around the tailings pond are witnessing changes in their agriculture and health. They attribute it to the tailings pond. Srinath Reddy, former sarpanch of MC Palle panchayat, says the waste from the tailings pond leaches into the groundwater, causing widespread pollution. “The company was negligent and not transparent in its operations,” he told Mongabay India.
UCIL had advised the villages not to use water from them, as their tests found contamination, though the reason for contamination was not specified.
“UCIL had to set up reverse osmosis (RO) plants in the six villages starting from 2013 owing to water contamination in existing borewells,” said Reddy. However, the RO water comes at a price and there is a scarcity of drinking water. Drinking water tankers make the rounds daily to supply water, but the supply is inadequate and communities rely on the contaminated water for washing and bathing, which is a health risk.
In 2016, farmers noticed that the water from the borewell turned white and tasted salty. Farmers complained of white dust on their crops, mainly banana plantations, which are now stunted, and groundwater pollution, causing skin problems and diseases. It was not only water and air pollution but impacts on health, too, that were of grave concern.
Poor Reproductive Health
While the cause is not medically determined, the people believe the regular cases of reproductive issues among women in the region is a possible impact of the mining. Many women in the area complain of spontaneous abortions, bleeding and a number of hysterectomies. These cases were reported particularly from the villages near the tailings pond, namely Tummalapalle, Kottala, and MC Palle, according to ethnographic research conducted by Misria Shaik Ali, in September and October 2022, as part of a thesis submitted to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Her interviews and focus group discussions with the women of Tummalapalle and Kottala uncovered a host of problems with reproductive health.
A local resident, on condition of anonymity, confirmed this information with Mongabay-India and also spoke of low-birth-weight babies and a number of problems, including foetal deformity, tumours and heart issues. As a result, abortions were conducted as late as the fourth or even fifth month of pregnancy. From 2014, there were 11 or 12 abortions a year in Tummalapalle alone and at times, this number rose to 16. Women suffered bleeding, developed tumours and underwent hysterectomies at an early age. Over the years, at least 20 such operations were recorded in Tummalapalle. Men, too, had problems, possibly a reduction in sperm count, especially those working in the mine, where many of them were on contract.
However, this would need a medical investigation to establish the actual situation and if it is linked to the mining-related contamination. A local gynaecologist, interviewed by Shaik Ali, acknowledges the increased incidence of abortion in the area though she says it cannot be associated with radiation contamination without a proper scientific study.
In the research done as part of her Ph.D. thesis, Shaik Ali said that women had access to regular sonographies which detected foetal abnormalities. In such cases, they were often advised medically-assisted abortion. Women faced severe menstrual, gynaecological and pregnancy issues. In a door-to-door survey between January 2021 and June 2021, she found there were seven abortions and 15 pregnancies. Barring one case (at 6th month of pregnancy), all others were spontaneous abortions within 20 weeks of pregnancy. Almost 44% of the pregnancies during this period ended in abortion.
According to national standards, 30% or one-third of abortions can be expected to end in miscarriages, but in MC Palle, 44% of pregnancies ended in abortions, she said. Almost 90% of the women in MC Palle experience abnormally long periods from 10-60 days or experience no periods at all for three months. Importantly, 90% of the women who have moved into MC Palle after marriage reported that their menstrual issues began 3-5 months after they moved. People also report that outsiders do not show interest in marrying into families in MC Palle and Kottala, pointing to a serious socio-cultural problem, Shaik Ali said.
High Levels Of Uranium Found In Groundwater Samples
In 2018, the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) collected groundwater samples from the borewells and in August 2019, it issued a show-cause notice to UCIL. The samples showed alarming levels of uranium: 690 to 4000 parts per billion, while the permissible drinking water limit, according to the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB), was 60 parts per billion. In addition, the concentration of alkalinity, heavy metals, and magnesium exceeded permissible limits. According to the Consent For Establishment granted by the Andhra Pradesh Pollution Control Board (APPCB) in 2007, the thickened tailings disposal pond should be lined with bentonite with a minimum 500 millimetres (mm) layer with 250 microns of polyethylene layer and an adequate protective layer of clay or sand of 250 mm. However, that was not done and in March 2016, the APPCB issued a show cause notice charging UCIL with not lining the tailings pond with polyethylene as an extra precaution. In its reply to the show-cause notice, UCIL sought refuge in the guidelines of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which recommended that the tailings pond be lined with appropriate clay material with desired thickness and not bentonite as suggested by the APPCB. UCIL also said that the high values of salt content reported in the soil of some agricultural fields may be due to the continuous withdrawal of groundwater.
The Environmental Clearance (EC) dated February 21, 2007, by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, mentions that the mine would generate 9,20,650 tonnes per annum (TPA) of solid waste, which would be dumped externally in a tailing pond with an impervious lining. The EC also emphasised the need to prevent groundwater contamination and to collect, treat and recycle the overflow in the processing plant and mine for industrial use. The underground mine project has a total leased area of 813.61 hectares, and the state government has permitted the withdrawal of 6000m3/day of water from the Chitravati River.
Reports Give UCIL A Clean Chit But No Redressal Of Community’s Complaints
Reddy observed that after several complaints and investigations, a new plastic sheet, possibly polyethylene, covered the tailings pond in 2021. However, sodium sulphate, a waste product, was also dumped into the pond instead of being separately stored in a specified building and disposed, as specified in the UCIL detailed project report. The report projected that 29,000 tonnes per annum of sodium sulphate would be generated. Reddy, however, estimated that over the years, nearly two lakh tonnes of sodium sulphate could be dumped into the tailings pond. It was only recently that the sodium sulphate was sold off after this issue was taken up with UCIL.
In high wind, the white powder spread all over the area from the pond and farmers complained about how their crops and pipes had this powdery substance. The water table was as high as 50 to 60 feet before the UCIL mine started, but it had plummeted to 800 feet. In Bhumaiahgaripalle, parallel to the mine, the levels crashed to 2,000 feet. However, UCIL said the higher uranium concentration reported around the area was a reflection of the erratic pattern of distribution of uranium in groundwater which may be due to varied concentrations of in-situ uranium content in rock.
A fact-finding report by activist groups National Alliance of People’s Movements (NAPM), Human Rights Forum (HRF) and the Rythu Swarajya Vedika (RSV) in 2018, to the Tummalapalle mine, concluded “gross violation” of the Environmental Clearance of 2007 and other conditions which jeopardised the constitutional right to people’s life, primarily due to non-lining of the radioactive tailings pond, among other things.
While repeated investigations (by IIT Kharagpur and MECON, among others) have given UCIL a clean chit, a despondency has set in with the lack of redressal of the community’s problems. A more recent report of 2021 (which was not made public till 2023) by the Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai, too, did not find anything amiss and said that UCIL could not be blamed for the groundwater contamination and more specific tests were needed. The YSR Kadapa Collector, in the past, had convened meetings to address the situation, but little was resolved. The present collector Vijay Rama Raju is yet to respond to questions that Mongabay India has sent him.
Retired scientist K. Babu Rao said, “These are public sector companies which are denying science and not functioning honestly and are hurting people.” The APPCB issued a show cause notice and did nothing after that, he said. “The basic issue is that the tailings pond was not lined properly, and therefore, the groundwater is polluted. We are not against UCIL, but they have to function responsibly,” he added.
Mongabay-India has sent queries to Sanjay Sharma, general manager of UCIL and did not receive a response at the time of publishing.
(Published under Creative Commons from Mongabay-India. Read the original article here)