Vancouver – Along with many other uranium explorers or producers these days, Mali-focused explorer Rockgate Capital (RGT-T) remains valued at roughly half the level it traded at before the March 11 earthquake in Japan and the resulting crisis surrounding the Fukishima nuclear plant.
A few weeks after the tragic disaster, however, an unrelated event sent Rockgate’s stock tumbling for a second time. A France-based political environmental group called Europe Ecologie-Les Verts alleged the president of Mali had promised to stop Rockgate from drilling on or further operating its Falea uranium-silver-copper project in the southwestern corner of the country, citing environmental concerns.
Europe-Ecologie, a coalition of French members of the European Parliament including Green Party members and some ecologists, sent two of its female MPs to visit the rural town of Falea in late March to speak with its mayor, representatives from surrounding villages, women’s associations and other groups that it considers stakeholders. The French association also paid for an earlier “scientific mission of the independent laboratory CRIIRAD” (Independent Research and Information Commission on Radioactivity), which took samples of local soil, mud and food so as to “analyze and evaluate the environmental impact of the exploration activities of the mining company Rockgate.”
Though it did not publicly release any of the sampling results or provide any scientific evidence of contamination, Europe-Ecologie alleged (somewhat flamboyantly) that Rockgate has: carried out drilling “without any prior precise idea regarding the groundwater level in the different areas;” failed to carry out any sampling or analysis of water or mud resulting from core drilling; “completely ignores” local hydrography and hydrology; “acts as it will, more often than not without any respect for the inhabitants and their vital resources;” and “has never ceased to show an arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards local people, wholly uncaring as regards their existence, activities and ways of life.”
After their meeting with the Falean townsfolk, the MPs moved on to Bamako, Mali’s capital, where they met with “the civil society in Mali, [including] the highest authorities.” They proceeded to inform Mali’s Minister of Mines, Abou-Bakar Traoré, and Mali’s President, Amadou Toumani Touré, about the potential dangers of uranium exploration drilling.
According to Europe-Ecologie, after hearing their arguments President Touré “declared that he had not been informed about the real situation on the ground in Falea and promised to stop drilling and coring operations. Furthermore, he stated that if the population in Falea rejects this mining project, Rockgate will not be granted any permit and that he will give preference to the development of the farming sector within the rural community of Falea.”
A day after the Green MPs made their allegations public, however, an AFP article quoted a presidential adviser as saying, “No, there has been no decision to immediately stop the drilling. For the moment, there is an exploratory phase in this [project]. This exploration is underway and it continues.”
The adviser added, “I want to stress nevertheless that the head of state is quite sensitive to the consequences of the exploitation of uranium, and everything will be implemented to safeguard the health of populations… We can not make a decision like this lightly.”
As Africa’s third largest gold producing country, the Malian government is well accustomed to mineral exploration, though it has seen relatively little in the way of uranium exploration. Despite this, Europe-Ecologie says Mali’s National Direction of Geology and Mines told them there is no possibility of “any risk for the environment [or] people’s health linked to uranium exploration activities.”
The nearest uranium operation to Falea is the Saraya uranium deposit in Senegal approximately 80 km to the northwest, being developed by French nuclear giant Areva. Areva has also had considerable success mining uranium in Niger, Mali’s neighbour to the east.
Rockgate has been exploring the Falea project (which surrounds the village of Falea) since 2007 and is currently drilling with two diamond drill rigs, having already completed more than 265 holes for a total of 66,625 metres. It is also completing a scoping study and an environmental impact assessment report for the property, after paying Golder Associates to complete a preliminary environmental study and early baseline study last year.
That study “outlined some potential physical, ecological, human health and ecological risk assessment and social issues,” according to Rockgate’s most recent technical report for Falea, which did not elaborate as to what those risks might entail. The report did mention Rockgate has begun to take water level measurements of the drill holes and that “further environmental and social studies are taking place on an ongoing basis.”
The Falea Property lies within a sedimentary basin known as the Taoudeni basin, which hosts alternating units of sandstones, mudstones and argillites, and is similar in age and style to Saskatchewan’s Athabasca basin. Environmental problems which might arise during drilling for uranium mainly involve contamination of local water sources, as rock units such as sandstone tend to be very porous and can potentially allow water hosted above the deposit to flow into a uranium mineralized area and become contaminated.
This danger can be compounded in agricultural areas such as Falea, which is dependent on its local water supply. Though Canada is the world’s largest exporter of uranium, even it is divided when it comes to uranium exploration: British Columbia banned it outright in 2008 and other provinces have declared certain areas off-limits for uranium exploration and mining.
Europe-Ecologie and a group calling itself the Association of Citizens and Friends of the Municipality of Falea say the town has “clearly and frankly expressed their refusal to adhere to future exploitation of uranium in Falea, as the consequences would undoubtedly be disastrous and uncontrollable.”
Rockgate did not immediately respond to multiple requests for comments. At presstime on April 14, shares of the company were down six cents to $1.69, off from a year high of $3.47 reached in early March.