Plans for uranium in situ leach mining in Namibia’s largest transboundary aquifer

Environmental Commissioner’s choice between economic development and preserving groundwater quality

Does economic development and 500 jobs for a relatively small community outweigh the potential for widespread contamination of the only source of drinking water for the commercial and communal farming communities that live on a huge transboundary aquifer system underlying three countries? This is the question that the Namibian Environmental Commissioner in the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism will have to grapple with this week. In 2021, the Uranium One mining company, through its local subsidiary Headspring Investments, announced its intentions to extract uranium in the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System (STAS) at farm Tripoli, near the small town of Leonardville, through in situ leaching methods. This has divided both parliament and public opinion ever since, culminating in a public participation process that ended past Friday.

When thinking about Namibia, one may think of the incredible landscapes of Sossusvlei or the Namib Desert and their distinct orange colour palette. ‘Uranium’ would probably not be the first association that would come to mind. Nevertheless, with a production of 5,613 tons of uranium in 2022, it accounted for 11% of the world’s total production for that year alone. This ranked Namibia the third biggest producer, right behind, respectively, Canada (15%) and Kazakhstan (43%). Considering the current scale of Namibian uranium production is already among the highest, one may wonder why a new mining site near a town with only 432 inhabitants is suddenly catching so much attention. To fully grasp the importance of the decision that is on the table today, it is important to first look into the type of deposit, the proposed mining method and the potential risks involved for this particular case.  

Leonardville bird view [credit: H.P. Baumeler]
Leonardville bird view [credit: H.P. Baumeler]

The deposit near Leonardville is referred to as sandstone-hosted uranium. Such deposits form underground in porous sandstone aquifer layers that form part of thick accumulations of sediments in marine or lacustrine basins. Conventional mining is not possible due to the relatively low grade of the ore and the associated costs of conventional mining, which would make the deposit uneconomic to mine.

In situ leaching: chemicals in, uranium out

During in situ leaching, chemicals like sulfuric acid or ammonium carbonate and oxidants are injected into the aquifer through dedicated injection wells (e.g. boreholes). These chemicals, so-called ‘lixiviants’, dissolve the uranium. The resulting mine solution is pumped to the surface through ‘production wells’. Nowadays, in-situ leaching, also known as solution mining or in situ recovery, is employed extensively worldwide. Certain segments of the mining industry label it the most cost effective and environmentally acceptable method of mining. The method is used in Kazakhstan, USA, Australia, China, Uzbekistan and Russia, so in that sense the plans for Namibia are no novelty.

In-situ uranium recovery process [credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission]
In-situ uranium recovery process [credit: Nuclear Regulatory Commission]

“In Kazakhstan, USA and Australia, in situ leaching methods are indeed being used to extract uranium, but in none of those countries it concerns potable water”, says one of the driving forces behind the Namibian Stampriet Aquifer Uranium Mining Association (SAUMA) who, for security reasons would like to remain anonymous. SAUMA has, with assistance from geological, hydrogeological, environmental and legal experts, united farmers, game ranchers and lodge owners in opposing the mining project in Leonardville. “In Australia, no mining is allowed at all in sources of drinking water”, the SAUMA representative details. 

“And to be clear, we are NOT against mining development per se, but we need to protect our resource in this desert and semi-desert country, right?” [SAUMA representative]

Complete dependence on Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System

Nossob River near Kommissiekolk [credit: H.P. Baumeler]
Nossob River near Kommissiekolk [credit: H.P. Baumeler]

The resource that is being alluded to is the groundwater stored in the Stampriet Transboundary Aquifer System, also known as Stampriet Artesian Basin (SAB). And the importance of this aquifer cannot be understated. In the entire area of this ‘STAS area’, the two main rivers, the Auob and Nossob, flow only about once every ten years during exceptionally good rains, and then only briefly. There is no permanent surface water. It is the drinking water in the underground sandstone aquifers that is the lifeblood of the whole region, for the people, their animals, the economy and the ecology. Between 92 and 95% of this underground water is used for town supply and irrigation. Farm boreholes and some guest lodges account for the balance. Irrigation produces fruit and vegetables for the Namibian people and fodder for animals. Total annual abstraction from all aquifers was 20 million m3 in 2015 and has been increasing steadily since then.  

Risks extend beyond Namibia’s country borders

Transboundary basin [credit: IGRAC]
Transboundary basin [credit: IGRAC]

Although almost three quarters of the in total area of 86,647m2 that is covered by Stampriet aquifer is in Namibia, this can by no means be considered a national matter. This is primarily due to the topography of this area. With the Namibian side having a higher elevation than its two neighbouring countries, the groundwater flow is in the direction of Botswana and South Africa. There are about 7000 boreholes in the Namibian sector. The 2016 GGRETA report on the STAS, with IGRAC involvement, pointed to a very gradual fall in the water table level over time but an almost complete recovery approximately every ten years after the summers with exceptional rains. This suggests there is tremendous interconnectivity right across the basin. Some irrigation schemes pump up to 100 m3 per hour out of the aquifer. This induces a groundwater flow rate many times higher than the in situ leaching flow rate between injection and production wells over an area several kilometres in diameter. Irrigation, consequently, has the potential to draw polluting mine solution out of the mine area and into the rest of the aquifer. This mine solution has uranium concentrations thousands of times above the WHO standard for safe drinking water.

Potential risks for South African wildlife

Photo blue wildebeest [credit: Martin Heigan]
Blue wildebeest in Kgalagadi park [credit: Martin Heigan]

Beyond the impacts that this would have on household water supply and livelihoods throughout the whole region, a deterioration of the groundwater quality could have severe consequences for wildlife as well. Significant portions of the aquifer underly the Wildlife Management Areas of Botswana and the nature and wildlife preservation park of the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park that covers both Botswana and South Africa. These pristine environments with only few developments are at the end point of the Nossob River as well as the groundwater flow of the Stampriet aquifer. Considering these risks for South Africa, the Department for Water and Sanitation was asked a statement about the planned activity of its neighbour.

"The general groundwater flow direction is from north-west in Namibia to south-east into the Northern Cape Province of South Africa, making it a downstream country. Even though South Africa mainly uses the unconfined Kalahari aquifer, groundwater is presumed to seep upwards from the confined Auob and Nossob aquifers and discharges into the Kalahari formations, according to the study of 2016. This study did not cover potential impacts due to mining activities in the area since these activities did not exist; however, it did identify groundwater pollution and salinisation as problems in this transboundary aquifer, with groundwater quality generally decreasing towards Botswana and South Africa. The STAS-wide Strategic Action Plan which was endorsed by the Orange-Senqu River Commission (ORASECOM) for implementation identified four Strategic Objectives, one of which is to “Maintain current groundwater quality by limiting anthropogenic and geogenic concentrations”. Two of the Actions under this objective are:

  1. 'to safeguard groundwater from mining activities', and 
  2. 'to develop groundwater protection zoning measures'. 

For South Africa, this groundwater resource is not only crucial for tourism domestic purposes but also valuable for sustenance of groundwater-dependent ecosystems within the KTP and some agricultural economic activities in the vicinity. Hence, its protection and pollution prevention are of paramount importance." 

Financial foreign investments

With all this in mind, it makes one wonder why Namibia even considers this project. It can’t be driven by an increasing need for sources of energy, because despite 11% of the world’s uranium production originating from Namibia, this southern African country does not produce any nuclear energy itself. In fact, all extracted uranium ends up abroad. The main incentives for these mining operations are, therefore, economically driven. Besides any profits from the export of uranium itself, this proposed mining project offers job opportunities to the local community, about 500 jobs according to Headspring Investments. And this is where the dilemma becomes more complicated. How does one balance the short-term benefits of employment options with the long-term threats to groundwater looming over this project.

The local community living in close proximity to the mining site has already seen some of those short-term benefits. “Headspring Investments has already spent over $3.8 million Namibian Dollars (€183k) on social projects”, says Director of Mines Kirill Egorov-Kirillov in an interview with Namibia Daily News

“These [investments] include the purchase and repair of vehicles for police and medical services, improvement of the city park, which has become a favourite place for recreation and events for adults and children, supply of food to the city school, and the construction of a school kitchen”, says Director Kirill Egorov-Kirillov

Can uranium be mined safely?

When being asked how he reflects on the criticism to Headspring Investments’s plans, Egorov-Kirillov believes it’s mainly a matter of ignorance. “I am deeply convinced that all criticism comes from ignorance of the fact that people are not familiar with this method and are afraid of it, and this creates conditions for spreading unconfirmed or unreliable information, thus creating conditions for the substitution of concepts and various kinds of speculations.” But is it indeed just a matter of the critics being unaware and unknowing of the environmental friendliness of this procedure? “It is actually the other way around, it is because we understand the consequences of in situ leaching, that we can look beyond the short-term economic benefits”, says one of the experts associated to SAUMA. 

“SAUMA understands in situ leaching and its problems very well and Headspring Investments employees have attended more than one of our presentations on it, and even have a copy of it”, the expert stated. “They completely ignore it.”

To increase goodwill within Namibia, Headspring Investments organised field visits for Namibian public and media representatives (including SAUMA representatives) to the operating enterprises in Russia and Kazakhstan. “Here they can see for themselves how environmentally friendly the production is, how all the residents and employees drink the water of their region with pleasure, how many jobs the enterprise gives to local residents, and what good harvests their neighbours farmers gather in the nearby fields” Director Egorov-Kirillov says. However, these trips did not produce the (for Headspring Investments) desired effect on everyone. In his report for NBC Digital News, Journalist Emil Seibeb reported on the heavy restrictions posed on invited media during a trip to Kazakhstan. 

“Controlled by a heavy PR team, reporters were not allowed to make any form of recording, whether audio or visual”, Seibeb [NBC Digital News] states. “This left the media confined to visuals provided by the company’s PR team.” 

Three SAUMA representatives attended a different field visit, this time in Russia, but this could not take away their concerns either. “They actually had more questions when they had returned to Namibia, than they had before that time”, says another SAUMA member. While the company claimed that the water from the aquifer involved in the uranium mining was also used for drinking supply and irrigation, questions about these were not clearly answered. “It wasn’t a dry area, so there wasn’t really a need for irrigation, and they also didn’t see any irrigation projects there”, reported the SAUMA representative. Also, the questions about protocols in case of calamities were not satisfactorily answered. 

“For example, when asking what will be done if a pipe would break, the answer was simply ‘that’s not possible’.”  

Layers of decision-making

With the mining company intending to mine uranium and SAUMA trying to preserve the groundwater resources in the STAS area, it is interesting to look into the decision mechanisms and legal structures when it comes to mining activities in Namibia. And these are interesting, to say the least, with multiple ministries involved. A strong opponent of the planned mining activities is Calle Schlettwein, the Minister of Water, Agriculture and Land Reform. In 2022, the ministry suspended two multi-hole drilling permits that had been issued to Headspring Investments and refused another for more boreholes, primarily because the strict conditions of the drilling permits had not been adhered to but additionally over groundwater quality concerns. “The permits that we’d given had conditions to make sure that we can monitor the activities and that we can ensure ourselves continuously that no risk to the aquifer is happening," Minister Schlettwein said back then

"Now, unfortunately, the company did not conform to the conditions and we have now suspicion that the mining operation, which is called in situ leaching ... mining, in fact, I see there is risk to the aquifer by polluting it”, he [Minister Schlettwein] said after about the refusal to grant mining permits. 

Initially, Headspring Investments filed an appeal against the ministry at the High Court of Namibia. This appeal, however, was withdrawn towards the end of 2023 after the coming into force of the Water Resources Management Act. This act does not permit anything to be discharged or pumped into water that is not of the same quality of the receiving water resource. Notwithstanding the above developments, the company submitted at the end of December 2023 an application at a different ministry, namely to Environmental Commissioner in the Ministry of Environment, Forestry and Tourism. This application is for an Environmental Clearance Certificate to start in situ leach test mining on the farm Tripoli. An environmental impact assessment, an environmental management plan and a radiation management plan by Kazakhstan and Zimbabwe authors supported this application. The deadline for submission of public objections to the application and comments on these three documents was last Friday. Besides SAUMA, IGRAC has also submitted an official letter of objection. The application is currently under review by the Environmental Commissioner, who will take a decision within the forthcoming seven working days.

Environmental Commissioner holding the cards

If the Environmental Commissioner agrees with the expressed concerns and, like Minister Schlettwein did previously previously, declines the request, this would be a big blow for the mining company. However, the consequences of an approval of the request would be vastly more complex. With the previously mentioned Water Resources Management Act and the Constitution of Namibia on their side, SAUMA could appeal the decision in court, with even a fairly good chance of winning the case. Nonetheless, the mining company has no obligation to postpone its operations until after this court ruling. The in situ leaching can, therefore, start as soon as the commissioner gives his approval and it can continue until a judge brings a halt to it. This could mean weeks, months or even years during which potential contamination could take place And this is only considering a scenario in which it will even come to a court case. Legal costs involved in a case like this can easily amount to ten millions of Namibian Dollars or more, a fee an NGO like SAUMA will not be able to afford. Thus, it is safe to say that the commissioner is tasked with a decision that can shape the future of an entire region. ‘White smoke’ may be expected within the forthcoming two weeks.