They're not from round here: Indian uranium boss dismisses deformities of villagers

I bet they came from elsewhere, head of uranium firm in east says of neighbours with high rates of disability, which reports tie to mine waste

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 11:48pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 24 July, 2014, 11:48pm

Confronted with reports that villages near Uranium Corporation of India's mines have unusually high numbers of physically deformed people, chairman Diwakar Acharya was nonplussed.

"I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of those guys are imported from elsewhere, OK?" he said.

His response came after a report on July 9 highlighted the struggles of the locals with disease and early deaths - and the suspicion they shared with some environmental activists that the health conditions are linked to mining waste.

There’s no change in disease pattern around Jadugora. If at all, it is better ...

Acharya dismissed as biased any findings of a correlation between the mines and deformities. Activists and doctors come with an agenda to Jadugora, a town of about 19,500 people in eastern Jharkhand state that is home to the company's main operations, he said in a July 14 interview.

"See, what happens is, you say you are a specialist and you'll come and treat," Acharya said at Uranium Corp's headquarters. "But ... you are convinced UCIL is evil and you have come here only with the sole motive of finding reasons which would validate your preconceived notions."

Uranium Corp sends its security officers to monitor attempts by outsiders to examine villagers, Acharya said, explaining it was a necessary step for collecting information about alleged health problems.

He was sceptical when told reporters had met a dozen families stricken by deformities, and in particular reviewed the medical records of four children and interviewed their doctors. "Maybe," Acharya said. "Your word, my word."

Company-backed surveys show that compared with outlying areas, "there's no change in disease pattern around Jadugora," said Acharya, 57. "If at all, it is better because of the healthier environment here."

Photographs in an Indian newspaper of deformed children in the villages around Jadugora led the Jharkhand High Court in February to demand an explanation from Uranium Corp and government agencies.

The High Court wrote in its order "the health problems related to uranium mining are affecting the indigenous people disproportionately in and around the uranium mining operational area," with as many as 50,000 people at risk. Children living near the mines are "born with swollen heads, blood disorders and skeletal distortions", it said.

Ananda Sen, the lawyer appointed by the court to review the case, said he is considering asking a judicial panel led by the state's chief justice to order an independent inquiry.

Uranium Corp's tailing ponds - dump sites containing mildly radioactive waste pumped out of the mines - stretch across 78 hectares. The company says the waste is treated to remove contaminants.

Some water from the ponds empties into the River Gara, which flows past surrounding villages and is used daily by locals to fish and bathe.

A 2007 study carried out by a group called Indian Doctors for Peace and Development examined 4,022 households and reached a conclusion that was the opposite of Uranium Corp's: the closer a family lived to the mines, the more likely it was to report having someone suffer from congenital malformation.

Neither that study nor any other has established evidence of radiation poisoning in the area. However, a 2008 analysis of the area's water highlighted the possible presence of heavy metals.

Samples analysed then by the Centre for Science and Environment, a New Delhi-based environmental research and advocacy group, found drinking water with mercury levels 200 per cent above Indian government limits.

Well water in another spot contained lead that was more than 600 per cent over the limit, the centre found. Lead is a byproduct of uranium mining, mercury is not.

Water collected by a reporter in June from a stream leading out of the tailing pond area contained uranium levels 33 per cent higher than World Health Organisation drinking water guidelines. While local people don't consume water directly from the creek, the flow may make its way into local wells.

Health or environmental concerns aside, India plans to increase nuclear power generation capacity 13-fold by 2032.

"Energy security based on clean and reliable sources is essential for India's future," Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Twitter after meeting government nuclear scientists in Mumbai this week. "Nuclear energy has a key role in India's energy strategy."