Along with many other uranium explorers and 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 at the Fukushima nuclear plant.
A few weeks after the earthquake, 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 that Mali’s president 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 members of Parliament (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” (Commission for independent research and information on radioactivity), which took samples of local soil, mud and food to analyze and evaluate the environmental impact of Rockgate’s exploration activities.
Though it did not publicly release any of the sampling results or provide any scientific evidence of contamination, Europe Ecologie alleged 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 shown “an arrogant and contemptuous attitude towards local people, wholly uncaring as regards to 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 informed 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 its 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, Agence France-Presse 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.”
Ruling Africa’s third-largest gold-producing country, the Malian government is accustomed to mineral exploration, though it has seen little in the way of uranium exploration. Despite this, Europe Ecologie says Mali’s National Direction of Geology and Mines told it 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 East uranium deposit in Senegal about 80 km to the northwest, being developed by French nuclear giant Areva. Areva has also had considerable success mining uranium in Niger, Mali’s eastern neighbour.
Rockgate has been exploring the Falea project (which surrounds the Falea village) since 2007 and is currently drilling with two diamond drill rigs, having already completed more than 66,625 metres in 265 holes. It is also wrapping up a scoping study and an environmental impact assessment report for the property, after paying Golder Associates to conduct preliminary environmental and baseline studies last year.
The studies “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 named Taoudeni, which hosts alternating units of sandstones, mudstones and argillites, and is similar in age and style to Saskatchewan’s Athabasca basin. Apart from radioactive dust issues, 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 mix with water in 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 a large exporter of uranium, even its citizens are divided on uranium exploration: The British Columbia government banned it outright in 2008 and other provincial governments have declared certain areas off-limits for uranium exploration and mining.
Europe Ecologie and the group, Association of Citizens and Friends of the Municipality of Falea, say the town has “clearly and frankly expressed (its) refusal to adhere to future exploitation of uranium in Falea, as the consequences would undoubtedly be disastrous and uncontrollable.”
Rockgate did not respond to requests for comments.
On April 26, its shares closed at $1.57, down from a year high of $3.47 reached in early March.