The Guardian 2024-04-04 10:01:25


Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial: Channel Seven offered Taylor Auerbach promotion after rebuking him for charging Thai massages to corporate card, court told

On his first day of evidence former Spotlight producer claims Lehrmann had cocaine and Googled sex workers on night out

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Taylor Auerbach was offered a pay rise and a promotion from Channel Seven after the TV producer admitted to putting $10,000 on a corporate credit card to pay for Thai massages for Bruce Lehrmann, the federal court has heard.

The former Spotlight producer said he was mortified when he woke up the next day and realised he had charged the company for the services at his Elizabeth Bay apartment and he sent his resignation by email in November 2022.

The sensational evidence came on the first day of the re-opening of the defamation trial after Network Ten won the right to present fresh evidence.

The fresh evidence, in the form of affidavits from Auerbach alleging Lehrmann gave Seven confidential documents from his criminal trial, has delayed the judgment Justice Michael Lee was scheduled to hand down on Thursday.

If proven, the evidence could go both to Lehrmann’s credibility and raise questions as to whether he abused the court process, which may affect the quantum of any damages he is awarded should his claim be successful.

Lee, possibly as early as next week, will rule on whether Lehrmann, a former Liberal staffer, was defamed by Lisa Wilkinson and Ten when The Project broadcast an interview with Brittany Higgins in 2021 in which she alleged she had been raped in Parliament House.

On Thursday afternoon the court heard Auerbach did not end up resigning but stayed with the program where he was offered more money and a promotion.

He agreed that in the resignation letter he apologised for spending the money on the corporate credit card which had “nothing to do with work” but he now insists that the evening was to do with work.

Auerbach told the court that on a different occasion Lehrmann issued invoices to Seven to reimburse him for money he spent on illegal drugs and sex workers.

Under cross-examination Auerbach said that Lehrmann had a bag of cocaine and sex workers at the Meriton hotel in the city but the two men devised a plan to issue an invoice for “per diems” or “reasonable expenses while on work trips” which Auerbach claimed Seven agreed to pay.

“I recall seeing the invoice,” Auerbach said.

Lehrmann’s barrister, Matthew Richardson SC, suggested that there were “no per diems paid” and “it didn’t happen”.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

“It did,” Auerbach said.

Auerbach said his former boss, executive producer Mark Llewellyn, “gave verbal approval” for the invoices to be paid.

“Mr Lehrmann had, over dinner, purchased a bag of cocaine while we were dining at Franca, and when we got upstairs to the room, he pulled that out and started to put it on a plate and then started talking to me about a prospective Spotlight story and his desire to order prostitutes to the Meriton that night and began Googling of series of websites to try and make that happen,” Auerbach said.

The incidents are alleged to have happened when Auerbach was assigned as a “babysitter” or “minder” for Lehrmann who the network was trying to get across the line for an exclusive interview.

On one of the nights of heavy drinking Auerbach told the court that Lehrmann agreed to do an interview but insisted he would not discuss the night of the alleged rape.

“I was taken aback,” Auerbach said. “It jumped out at me as quite concerning.”

Auerbach denied a suggestion by Richardson that he had a drinking problem at the time he was courting Lehrmann for the interview.

Richardson put it to him that he had been consuming “140 standard drinks a week or 30 standard drinks a day at the time”.

“I want to suggest to you Mr Auerbach that your recollection of anything that happened in November or December 2022 is suspect.”

Auerbach: “I disagree.”

Auerbach did agree he had been “in part” backgrounding journalists about his time at Seven and that he “hated” his former colleague Steve Jackson. Jackson’s appointment as a media adviser to the NSW Police was cancelled after the stories appeared last month.

Richardson: “I want to suggest you are willing to say anything, no matter how false, to damage people that are employed by Channel Seven or connected with Channel Seven?”

Auerbach denied this.

“For instance, you particularly hate Steve Jackson, your colleague from Seven who worked on the Lehrmann story, don’t you?”

Auerbach: “Yes.”

He confirmed he was upset that his name was not on Spotlight’s Walkley award entry for the Lehrmann story and that he had complained to Seven and to the Walkleys about being left out.

However, Auerbach insisted he was not proud of the Lehrmann story.

He was also cross-examined about sending naked photographs of a woman to journalists in recent weeks.

He admitted to sending the photos, disagreed that the woman was “vulnerable”, and said he did not know it was a criminal act to send photographs of that nature without her consent.

Lehrmann’s legal team played the court a video Auerbach had posted on social media in which he destroyed Jackson’s golf clubs.

Lee interjected: “The shorter the iron, the more difficult it is.”

Auerbach said the video was satire.

Auerbach’s solicitor Rebecca Giles told the court her client had left Seven after sustaining a psychiatric injury at the hands of Llewellyn and Jackson.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australian media
  • Defamation law (Australia)
  • Channel Seven
  • Channel Ten
  • Television industry
  • Law (Australia)
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Explainer

Claims of sex, drugs and credit cards: five key takeaways from Taylor Auerbach’s evidence at the Bruce Lehrmann defamation trial

High-profile defamation case reopened on Thursday with former Spotlight producer for Channel Seven giving evidence

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

The Bruce Lehrmann defamation case reopened on Thursday, with television producer Taylor Auerbach giving evidence.

Here are the key takeaways from his blockbuster afternoon in the witness box .

Explore more on these topics

  • Australia news
  • Defamation law (Australia)
  • Channel Seven
  • Channel Ten
  • Australian media
  • Television industry
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Israeli military likely knew identities of aid workers killed in charity convoy, humanitarian groups say

Australian Council for International Development head says ‘intense coordination and negotiation’ would have occurred prior to passage of workers

The Israeli military likely had advance notice of the names and nationalities of each of the aid workers killed by Israeli airstrikes while travelling in a three-car charity convoy in Gaza this week, according to humanitarian organisations.

As Anthony Albanese toughened his language over the killing of the Australian citizen Lalzawmi “Zomi” Frankcom, saying “this is against humanitarian law”, the aid sector stated the seven workers were there “with the full awareness” of the Israeli military.

The three vehicles, marked clearly as belonging to the charity World Central Kitchen (WCK), were struck by Israeli drones on Monday when they travelled along a route south of Deir al-Balah pre-approved and coordinated with the Israel Defense Forces.

The IDF chief of the general staff, Lt Gen Herzi Halevi, has apologised for what he labelled “a grave mistake” that “followed a misidentification at night, during a war, in very complex conditions”.

He has yet to provide a detailed explanation about how this misidentification could have happened.

The chief executive of the Australian Council for International Development, Marc Purcell, told Guardian Australia it would be “extraordinary if the IDF” hadn’t known the “identities” of the workers “because they were there with the full awareness of the IDF”.

Purcell said “intense coordination and negotiation” routinely occurred with the IDF about “the movement of aid and who would be travelling”.

The communications director for the United Nations aid agency Unrwa, Juliette Touma, also shed light on the “intense” coordination that routinely occurred with Israeli authorities prior to aid deliveries. The process is known as “deconfliction”.

“Only when they give us the approval do we move – and before we move we provide the Israeli authorities with quite a lot of detail,” Touma told ABC Radio National.

“We include the names and nationalities of the team that is travelling on the convoy, the content of the convoy, the number of vehicles that we are sending on that convoy, the route of that convoy including GPS coordinates with the Israeli authorities.”

Guardian Australia on Wednesday asked WCK, the Israeli embassy in Canberra and the Australian government whether the names and nationalities of the convoy were notified to the IDF in advance of the attack. They have yet to respond.

WCK’s founder, the chef José Andrés, told Reuters the vehicles were travelling “in an area controlled by the IDF”, which had known that the team was “moving on that route with three cars”.

Andrés said he believed the charity was “targeted, deliberately, non-stop, until everybody was dead in this convoy”.

After the first car was attacked, people “were able to move in the second one” but that was then hit, too, Andrés told Reuters. Then people moved into the third vehicle.

“Then they hit the third one and we saw the consequences of that continuous targeting attack – seven people dead, but they are seven on top of a list of more than another 190 humanitarian workers that [have] been killed over the last six months,” he said, referring to figures compiled by the UN humanitarian office.

An Israeli government spokesperson, Avi Hyman, disputed those figures. He said the charity workers from WCK “were actually the good guys” and that made the fatal incident “all the more painful”.

“I mean, obviously, we know that this isn’t something that the IDF would do or the Israeli air force would do on purpose,” Hyman said.

Hyman was pressed by the ABC’s Sally Sara to explain why the IDF had struck the vehicles “when you had clear and direct information about the vehicles, their path and who was inside those vehicles, that these were aid workers”.

“It appears have been a grave, regrettable mistake, and we will do our utmost to look into it, to find out exactly what happened, and make sure that nothing like this happens again,” Hyman replied.

Hyman said war was “hell” and “foggy” and Hamas had previously used ambulances and aid work “as a cover for their activities”.

Albanese said on Thursday he “certainly” agreed with the Spanish prime minister, Pedro Sánchez, that Israel’s explanations were insufficient and unacceptable.

The Australian prime minister hit back at the assertion by the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that “this happens in wartime”.

“What isn’t good enough is the statements that have been made, including that this is ‘just a product of war’. This is against humanitarian law,” Albanese said.

The opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Simon Birmingham, said it was a “tragic reality … that mistakes do happen in war”.

“I’m not going to leap to prejudge what should be a full and thorough investigation,” Birmingham told Sky News.

The deputy leader of the Greens, Mehreen Faruqi, said an independent body – such as the international criminal court – should investigate and the Australian government “must respond with actions, not words”.

“Israel’s targeting of a clearly identified convoy of aid workers is just one example of their attacks and undermining of aid agencies and workers,” she said.

Explore more on these topics

  • Israel-Gaza war
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Explainer

What now for Gaza after World Central Kitchen suspended aid operations?

WCK provides a lifeline to Palestinians facing famine but has halted operations after an Israeli strike killed workers

  • Middle East crisis – live updates

A cargo ship carrying 240 tonnes of food destined for Gaza has returned to Cyprus, after aid workers from World Central Kitchen (WCK) were killed in an Israeli strike on Monday evening.

After the attack, WCK paused operations in the territory and turned its flotilla of ships back to Cyprus.

The undelivered aid was part of a consignment of about 340 tonnes sent to Gaza from Cyprus – the aid workers killed in Gaza had just finished unloading 100 tonnes when they were killed.

WCK’s suspension of operations – with pauses from other aid organisations including Anera and Project Hope – have renewed fears that the humanitarian situation in Gaza could decay further.

How important is external aid to the people of Gaza?

Since 2007, Gaza has been subject to a strict land and sea blockade by Israel that prevents civilians and goods such as food and medicine from moving easily across the border. Israel says the blockade is necessary to limit Hamas’s access to weapons.

Even before the conflict began, 63% of Gaza’s population was dependent on international aid, according to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, Unrwa.

After Hamas’s 7 October attack, the blockade on Gaza was tightened even further, with fewer deliveries of aid allowed in. On average, 161 aid trucks passed into Gaza every day last month, Unrwa data shows. That number is far below the target of 500 trucks a day.

Why is it so difficult to get aid to those who need it?

Aid is able to enter Gaza from just two crossings, according to the UN office for the coordination of humanitarian affairs (OCHA). Both of them – at Rafah and Kerem Shalom – are in the far south of the territory, and all others, including the three that service the north, are either temporarily or permanently closed.

Deliveries entering Gaza undergo a series of Israeli checks, with aid organisations saying that they must go through a vast amount of red tape. At one crossing from Israel into Gaza, goods are twice offloaded from trucks and then reloaded on to other trucks that then carry the aid to warehouses in Gaza.

In the past, the UN has accused Israel of hindering aid distribution with bureaucratic obstacles, but Israeli officials reject these accusations and say they have increased aid access to Gaza.

The Israeli military says it approves almost 99% of the Gaza-bound trucks it inspects and that once the goods are inside the territory, it is the responsibility of the international aid organisations to distribute it. There are, however, reports of a vast backlog of aid waiting to enter.

Last week, the charity Action Aid said “Israeli authorities continue to block thousands of tonnes of aid crossing the Rafah border”, while an Egyptian Red Crescent official told Reuters that about 2,400 aid trucks were sitting idle in the Egyptian city of Al Arish, 30 miles (50km) from Gaza’s border.

Aid that does make it into Gaza can be ransacked by desperate civilians, fall prey to armed gangs, or get held up by Israeli army checkpoints.

Travelling throughout the territory can be challenging as well: the Salah al-Deen road through the centre of Gaza is the optimal route for aid trucks to move quickly and securely, but remains prohibited by the Israeli authorities, according to OCHA.

On Tuesday, Joe Biden, the US president, said one of the main reasons that the distribution of aid in Gaza had been so difficult was that Israel had not done enough to protect aid workers.

More than 200 aid workers have been killed in Gaza since the war between Israel and Hamas began, according to Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s top official for the coordination of humanitarian aid in Gaza.

Where is aid needed?

The suspension of WCK operations in Gaza is likely to be felt acutely; since October, the charity estimates that it has provided more than 35m hot meals across the territory and established more than 60 community kitchens.

The pause in the work of WCK and other aid groups comes as experts warn that the prospect of famine is increasing rapidly.

Famine is imminent in the north of Gaza and projected to occur before May, according to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC). The IPC says 70% – about 210,000 people – of the remaining population in the north will be affected.

More than 50,000 children are estimated to be acutely malnourished in the north already, according to OCHA. Cases of children dying as a result of malnutrition are increasing in the north, with report that mothers are resorting to eating animal feed.

According to OCHA, since 1 March, Israel authorities has denied access to northern Gaza to 30% of aid missions, while Unrwa has been shut out of the north. Israel has said it will cease working with the Unrwa, accusing the organisation of “perpetuating the conflict”.

The US and its allies have used airdrops – approved by Israel – to deliver aid to parts of Gaza. The cost of such deliveries is high, and and each aircraft can carry between one and three truckloads of aid.

What’s next?

Last month, a ship took 200 tonnes of aid to Gaza from Cyprus after the successful pilot of a new sea corridor. The mission was organised by WCK but the suspension of their work threatens to upend the entire operation.

The US has plans to construct a temporary pier off the coast of Gaza, to supply maritime aid to the territory. The US defence department says 2m meals a day could enter Gaza via the pier, but concerns are numerous: aid experts say its construction will take too long for Palestinians facing starvation – and it remains unclear who will distribute the aid once it arrives.

Last week, the UN secretary general, António Guterres, said much more needed to be done to increase the flow of aid into Gaza.

He said although all alternative routes into the territory – such as the sea corridor – were welcome, the only efficient and effective way to move heavy goods was by road.

Outlining the steps needed, Guterres called for Israel to remove the “remaining obstacles and chokepoints to relief … It requires more crossings and access points … It requires an exponential increase in commercial goods and, I repeat, it requires an immediate humanitarian ceasefire.”

Reuters contributed to this report

Explore more on these topics

  • Gaza
  • Israel-Gaza war
  • Aid
  • Palestinian territories
  • Middle East and north Africa
  • Humanitarian response
  • explainers
Share

Reuse this content

Anthony Albanese says it ‘isn’t good enough’ to call the deaths of several aid workers in Gaza, including Australia Zomi Frankcom, ‘a product of war’. His comments come days after Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, said the ‘unintended strike’ was tragic but something that ‘happens in war time’

Subscribe to Guardian Australia on YouTube

Topics

Former JP Morgan analyst awarded $35m after glass door shatters on her

Meghan Brown, 36, received the payout after a 7.5ft-tall lobby door exploded on her head, causing permanent brain damage

A former analyst with banking giant JP Morgan has been awarded $35m after a glass door shattered on her head in New York City, causing her permanent brain damage.

A jury awarded 36-year-old Meghan Brown the payout after a 7.5ft-tall lobby door in midtown Manhattan exploded over her head as she was leaving a physical therapy appointment in 2015, the New York Post first reported on Monday.

Describing the incident in the Manhattan supreme court, Brown said: “I do remember seeing glass … everywhere in the lobby near me,” the Post reported, adding that Brown said she recalls “being inside and I was on the floor” as people came forward to help.

Following the incident at 271 Madison Avenue, Brown took time off for a year before returning to her job at JP Morgan, but her career gradually declined and she lost her job in 2021.

Brown’s attorney, Tom Moore, told the Post: “Eventually she was let go permanently and has not worked in that type of investment banking since … She keeps trying but just can’t perform.” Brown went on to work for a cryptocurrency company but was also fired, and now runs a gourmet ice cream business in Florida.

As a result of the door incident, Brown said she has suffered from a slew of problems including losing her sense of smell and taste, and forgetting Spanish, which she told the jury she once spoke fluently, the New York Post reports.

Other problems Brown said she experiences include PTSD, decline in memory, focus and vocabulary, sensitivity to light, permanent headaches, neck pain, distorted depth perception, vertigo and balance issues.

In addition to seeking various specialists to address her issues, Brown said she got a service dog to help prevent her from falling over.

Brown also said her brain injury affected her engagement to a man who told her he was unable to have a “normal life” with her, the New York Post reports.

In response to Brown, an attorney for the building’s owners said that the glass, which shattered into tiny pieces instead of falling as a single pane, broke the way it was supposed to and the only injury Brown had was a cut on her hand.

Nevertheless, a six-person jury unanimously ruled in favor of Brown and said that the building owner’s negligence was “a substantial factor in causing” her injuries, the New York Post reports, citing a jury verdict sheet.

Brown was awarded $35,184,208 in damages.

Benjamin Zipursky, a Fordham University law professor and tort law expert, said: “A typical component of an injured person’s damages award is what is their lost income … And when people have brain damage, the medical care for that can be very large because medical costs are so high.”

“The suffering that people can experience when their life has dramatically turned around and they have traumatic injury is also something for … the jury [to] decide what the fair compensation would be, so all of that plays into this,” he added.

Explore more on these topics

  • New York
  • JP Morgan
  • Law (US)
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Former JP Morgan analyst awarded $35m after glass door shatters on her

Meghan Brown, 36, received the payout after a 7.5ft-tall lobby door exploded on her head, causing permanent brain damage

A former analyst with banking giant JP Morgan has been awarded $35m after a glass door shattered on her head in New York City, causing her permanent brain damage.

A jury awarded 36-year-old Meghan Brown the payout after a 7.5ft-tall lobby door in midtown Manhattan exploded over her head as she was leaving a physical therapy appointment in 2015, the New York Post first reported on Monday.

Describing the incident in the Manhattan supreme court, Brown said: “I do remember seeing glass … everywhere in the lobby near me,” the Post reported, adding that Brown said she recalls “being inside and I was on the floor” as people came forward to help.

Following the incident at 271 Madison Avenue, Brown took time off for a year before returning to her job at JP Morgan, but her career gradually declined and she lost her job in 2021.

Brown’s attorney, Tom Moore, told the Post: “Eventually she was let go permanently and has not worked in that type of investment banking since … She keeps trying but just can’t perform.” Brown went on to work for a cryptocurrency company but was also fired, and now runs a gourmet ice cream business in Florida.

As a result of the door incident, Brown said she has suffered from a slew of problems including losing her sense of smell and taste, and forgetting Spanish, which she told the jury she once spoke fluently, the New York Post reports.

Other problems Brown said she experiences include PTSD, decline in memory, focus and vocabulary, sensitivity to light, permanent headaches, neck pain, distorted depth perception, vertigo and balance issues.

In addition to seeking various specialists to address her issues, Brown said she got a service dog to help prevent her from falling over.

Brown also said her brain injury affected her engagement to a man who told her he was unable to have a “normal life” with her, the New York Post reports.

In response to Brown, an attorney for the building’s owners said that the glass, which shattered into tiny pieces instead of falling as a single pane, broke the way it was supposed to and the only injury Brown had was a cut on her hand.

Nevertheless, a six-person jury unanimously ruled in favor of Brown and said that the building owner’s negligence was “a substantial factor in causing” her injuries, the New York Post reports, citing a jury verdict sheet.

Brown was awarded $35,184,208 in damages.

Benjamin Zipursky, a Fordham University law professor and tort law expert, said: “A typical component of an injured person’s damages award is what is their lost income … And when people have brain damage, the medical care for that can be very large because medical costs are so high.”

“The suffering that people can experience when their life has dramatically turned around and they have traumatic injury is also something for … the jury [to] decide what the fair compensation would be, so all of that plays into this,” he added.

Explore more on these topics

  • New York
  • JP Morgan
  • Law (US)
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Daniel Duggan loses bid to delay US extradition case as judge questions his legal spending

Australian accused of accepting money to illegally train Chinese military pilots sought more time to pursue Legal Aid application

  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

An Australian pilot fighting extradition to the US has had his last-minute attempt to postpone the proceedings rebuffed by a magistrate who said the former top gun had been “a bit irresponsible” with his money.

Daniel Duggan will face a hearing on 24 May to determine if he is eligible for extradition to the US, where he is wanted on four charges relating to allegations he accepted payments to illegally train Chinese military pilots between 2010 and 2012.

Duggan was seeking a delay by arguing he needed more time to have Legal Aid consider an application to fund his defence, which he says he can no longer afford after the US blocked the sale of his family’s New South Wales south coast property.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

In the NSW local court on Thursday, Duggan’s barrister, Bernard Collaery, said the property was the family’s sole asset and only means of paying his future legal costs and an existing $800,000 bill with the Sydney criminal law firm Nyman Gibson Miralis.

Duggan has retained top barrister Bret Walker SC to represent him at his extradition hearing. If he is successful in his application for Legal Aid, the NSW taxpayer would pay for his defence.

Magistrate Daniel Reiss on Thursday said Duggan had already spent “a very large amount of money” since his arrest in October 2022, including, he said, $50,000 on media and communications consultants.

“[It’s] certainly not a very cautious approach to reserving money,” Reiss said. “Everyone’s entitled to have as high a level of representation as they want and can afford. But to use all your money up and then turn to Legal Aid – and that becomes the basis for further delays – seems a bit irresponsible.”

Reiss said he was satisfied Duggan had had “reasonable opportunity” to prepare, noting that the extradition hearing had already been pushed back from November. He dismissed his application to have his trial delayed.

A former US marine who became an Australian citizen in 2012, Duggan has consistently denied the allegations against him and labelled them politically motivated.

He has been held in custody in a maximum security prison since he was arrested in regional NSW in October 2022. If convicted, the 55-year-old faces up to 60 years in a US prison.

Collaery told the court that two of the four charges for which Duggan is wanted in the US should be void because they could only apply to a US citizen or resident and he couldn’t have been considered one at the time of the alleged offences.

The lawyer acting for the US, Tom Glover, argued Duggan was able to be charged because he hadn’t formally renounced his US citizenship until 2016.

Reiss asked Collaery to refrain from “hyperbole” after he said his client was in his “520th day of solitary confinement” in Lithgow prison.

Duggan watched the proceedings via audio-video link, dressed in a green prison-issued jumper.

Reiss said Duggan would be returned “to his country of birth” if he were extradited and that the US was an “advanced democracy” rather than a “third world country”.

“It’s not as dire as might usually be the case,” Reiss said.

Reiss said there were “gaps” in the material he had been provided about Duggan’s bid for Legal Aid. He took issue with the fact his wife, now the sole caregiver for their six children, had signed documentation on his behalf.

“Sometimes husbands keep things secret from their wives. So she might not know everything [about his finances] he might know,” Reiss said.

The court was told the Duggans had also raised $98,000 from a GoFundMe fundraiser.

Speaking to journalists outside court, Duggan’s solicitor, Jolan Draaisma, said they were disappointed by the outcome.

She said she and Collaery would consider acting for Duggan pro bono if his request for Legal Aid funding was knocked back.

Explore more on these topics

  • Australia news
  • New South Wales
  • Sydney
Share

Reuse this content

Dmytro Kuleba, the Ukrainian foreign minister, wished “happy birthday” to Nato. Speaking alongside Jens Stoltenberg, Kuleba said he has arrived in Brussels against the backdrop of “continued unprecedented missile and drone attacks.”

“I don’t want to spoil the party … the birthday party, but my main message today will be Patriots,” he said.

Kuleba added:

Saving Ukrainian lives, saving Ukrainian economy, saving Ukrainian cities depends on the availability of Patriots and other air defence systems in Ukraine.

He also emphasised that “providing Patriots depends on allies, they have plenty of them.”

Rio Tinto’s Madagascar mine may face lawsuit over pollution claims

Mining company hit with accusation it contaminated waterways with harmful levels of uranium and lead

Rio Tinto is facing a likely lawsuit in an English court brought by the UK-based law firm Leigh Day on behalf of people living in villages near a mine in Madagascar.

In a letter of claim, a document that is an early step in a lawsuit, the villagers accuse Rio Tinto of contaminating the waterways and lakes that they use for domestic purposes with elevated and harmful levels of uranium and lead, which pose a serious risk to human health.

The mine, operated by Rio Tinto subsidiary QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), extracts ilmenite, a major source of titanium dioxide, which is mainly used as a white pigment in products such as paints, plastics and paper. It also produces monazite, a mineral that contains highly-sought-after rare-earth elements used to produce the magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Leigh Day commissioned testing of people’s blood lead levels in the area around the mine as part of its research. According to the claim, which was sent on Tuesday, the testing shows that 58 people living around the mine have elevated levels of lead, and the majority of cases exceed the threshold at which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends clinical and environmental interventions, 5 micrograms per decilitre. The claim alleges that the most likely cause of the elevated levels is a result of QMM’s mine processes.

“Whilst Rio Tinto extracts large profits from its mining operations in Madagascar, our clients’ case is that they and other local families are being forced to consume water which is contaminated with harmful heavy metals. In bringing this case, our clients are seeking accountability and justice for the damage that has been caused to their local environment and their health,” Paul Dowling, Leigh Day’s lead partner on the case, said.

While a relatively small sample, Leigh Day’s blood lead level testing results are a significant development that may for the first time quantify the detrimental health impact their clients allege are posed by QMM. Both the pollution of surface water and lead poisoning are global problems, and the case will be watched closely not just by Rio Tinto shareholders but by global environmental justice advocates in other nations where villagers also accuse industrial giants of polluting their waterways.

“We have received the letter from Leigh Day,” said the Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined to comment further on the allegations. The spokesperson pointed to a published report that states that the company’s recent water analysis had not detected metals, including uranium and lead, that had previously been identified as potential concerns.

Madagascar’s environmental regulator, the National Office for the Environment, or ONE, says it has periodically monitored QMM’s activities over the past decade and has tested the water after previous complaints about contamination. “In the face of these accusations, ONE requested several expert analyses … the results of which indicated no contamination of surface waters nor mining sites,” Hery Rajaomanana, ONE’s director of environmental integration and sustainable development, said in March.

Rio Tinto, which had net earnings of $12.4bn in 2022, has a troubled track record in Madagascar. Locals, civil society groups and media have accused the company of damaging the endangered forest, threatening rare endemic species, forcing villagers off their land without proper compensation, destroying fishers’ livelihoods and failing to honour its promises to employ local people. Communities have been protesting against the mine almost since its inception.

“QMM operates in a highly sensitive area from a water and broader environmental perspective,” wrote a Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined to attach a name to the statements from the company. “We are committed to working to address any specific issues that community members raise, and to engaging in constructive dialogue on how we can mitigate impacts of our operations while generating tangible and sustainable benefits for our host communities.”

The 150-year-old metals and mining company has been embroiled in scandal for years. In 2020, Rio Tinto blew up two ancient Australian aboriginal sites to expand its iron ore mining in the region. In 2022, a review found that bullying, sexism and racism were rampant across the company. In March 2023, Rio Tinto agreed to pay a $15m penalty to the US Securities and Exchange Commission after accusations surfaced that in 2011 it paid $10.5m to a friend of the Guinean president to retain iron ore mining rights. The company is facing pressure from investors over water quality concerns at several of its mining sites, including in Madagascar and Mongolia.

“People were eating so well”

QMM started exploring for heavy mineral sands in Anôsy, Madagascar, along the south-eastern coast in 1986. The region is home to about 800,000 people, with more than 90% of rural residents living on less than $1.90 (£1.50) a day.

The area where the minerals were discovered is a unique ecosystem, a littoral forest occurring in the sandy substrates close to the Indian Ocean. Madagascar once had a continuous 1,600km band of littoral forest along its eastern coastline. Today, it is estimated that only a fraction of that forest remains intact. New species are being discovered there all the time, but many of them are already endangered by habitat destruction. Yet the region, with its famous lemurs and a concentrated diversity of plant species, remains one of the most important and fragile ecosystems in the world.

When Rio Tinto began exploring the area, the possible risks associated with a large-scale mineral sands project, including the potential for radioactive materials to be released into the surrounding environment, were not well known.

“People didn’t yet understand the ecological impact of the mine,” said Tahiry Ratsiambahotra, the founder of LuSud, an activist organisation that has become a thorn in the sides of the government and Rio Tinto. “So, parliament adopted the agreement.”

Before building the QMM mine, the company conducted a series of assessments to determine the potential social, environmental and economic impacts of the mine on the surrounding area. Baseline water testing from 2001 revealed that the surface water from lakes and rivers surrounding the mine was free from high levels of metals including lead and uranium.

To support its mining operations, QMM planned to construct a weir, or barrier, where Lake Ambavarano meets the mouth of the estuary that connects to the Indian Ocean to control water flows and water level heights. But the company was warned that the weir had the potential to permanently change the occasionally brackish lagoon system into freshwater, which would affect fish and fishers in the region. With support from the World Bank, it also built a port in Fort Dauphin to export raw materials to Rio Tinto’s processing plant in Canada.

Despite concerns by LuSud, the World Bank, and other bodies involved in early impact assessments of the mine, QMM received a legal licence to begin operations in 2005. The licence covered three mine sites to be mined sequentially under a 100-year lease from the Malagasy government.

The mine became operational in 2008. The barrier ended up entirely blocking inundations of salt water into Lake Ambavarano. Soon, nearly all the species of fish that thrived in the brackish conditions were gone. The extractive industry watchdog Publish What You Pay found in a March 2022 community survey that at least 27 fish species appear to have disappeared from the lakes since the start of the Rio Tinto mining operation.

“Before the weir, people were eating so well. They were happy. They were fishing,” said Olivier Randimbisoa, one of the lake fishers affected by the weir.

Randimbisoa has been fishing since he was 10 years old. Before the weir was built, he could choose whether he wanted to catch crab, shrimp, ocean fish or lake fish. He could make 100,000 ariary (about $22.40) each day from fishing. Now, he says he’s barely making a fraction of that.

Heavy sands

The QMM mine extracts ilmenite from mineral-rich sands by creating shallow, unlined, water-filled basins between five and 15 metres deep. By churning up the sands and passing them through a floating dredge, the mining process filters out the heavier sands, which contain ilmenite. The ilmenite is then extracted using electrostatic processing and shipped to Rio Tinto’s plant in Canada. Despite its small size, Madagascar was the fourth largest exporter of ilmenite in the world in 2022.

The mineral sands also contain radioactive elements, including uranium and thorium. The process of churning the sand allows these radioactive elements to dissolve in the mining water, which is then discharged as wastewater.

The Malagasy regulator requires an 80 metre buffer zone between a mining operation and any ecologically sensitive area to avoid contamination. In 2015, the government regulator approved QMM’s request to reduce this buffer zone from 80 metres to 50. But in 2017, Yvonne Orengo, the director of ALT-UK, a charity that works on issues in Madagascar, accused Rio Tinto of breaching the buffer zone based on a series of satellite images she captured using Google Earth.

Rio Tinto initially denied the breach in correspondence with ALT-UK. The company agreed to conduct an independent study and identified a private company called Ozius to carry it out. To ensure an independent review, Orengo enlisted the help of Dr Steven Emerman, a groundwater and mining expert, to conduct his own study. Using Ozius’s data as well as Google Earth images, Emerman calculated that, in addition to breaching the buffer zone, the company had encroached on to the lake bed by 117 metress, bringing the total breach to 167 metres, he said.

In early 2019, QMM announced that it would revise its plans and revert back to the 80-metre buffer zone. It later acknowledged that it had breached the original buffer zone.

The QMM mine relies on a “natural” system, usually referred to as passive water treatment, to treat its mining basin water. It releases the contaminated water into a series of “settling paddocks” to reduce the levels of floating particles, one indicator of water quality. When the water in the paddocks gets too high, the mine offloads the water into naturally occurring wetlands that connect to a nearby river. The idea is that the process of moving through the settling paddocks and wetlands would rid the mining basin water of its more harmful elements and allow safe water to flow into the surrounding environment.

One issue with passive water treatment systems is that they can remove contaminants, like lead and uranium, from process water and store them in the wetland sediment. A later change in wetland water chemistry, such as an increase in acidity, could remobilise those heavy metals back into dissolved form in the water column. “This is why passive water treatment systems are sometimes referred to as ‘chemical timebombs’,” said Emerman.

Rio Tinto refers to its tailings dam as a berm, or an artificial embankment, and its tailings as process water. There have been reports of berm failures at QMM since mining began, resulting in large releases of harmful mine waste. The first two were made in 2010 and 2018, and dead fish appeared in the lakes after the 2018 overflow.

In August 2020, QMM stopped regularly discharging its process water into the surrounding wetlands. The following year, Rio Tinto released a report that concluded its “natural” filtration system was not working as expected and excess levels of aluminium and cadmium were being released into the water around the mine.

Two additional berm failures occurred in early 2022, after a series of cyclones and other severe weather events battered the region. Dead fish had started appearing in the lakes again, which is what Randimbisoa, the fisher, witnessed. In response, the authorities banned fishing, which led to widespread protests from communities living around the mine.

Following the 2022 dead fish incident, QMM and the Malagasy environmental regulator analysed a series of water samples. The company says the analysis revealed no significant change to water quality in the surrounding water bodies and no link between the mine’s activities and the dead fish, but despite requests from civil society actors and the Intercept, the report has not been made available to the public.

In April 2022, ALT-UK commissioned Dr Stella Swanson, a Canada-based aquatic ecologist and radioactivity specialist, to analyse the potential causes of the fish deaths. She concluded that “the combination of acidic water and elevated aluminium in the water released from the QMM site is the most probable connection between the water releases and the fish kills observed after those releases.”

Rio Tinto and QMM dispute Swanson’s assessment, but Earl Hatley, the co-founder of the non-profit Lead Agency Inc, backs it up. A similar combination of metals and low pH in water have caused fish deaths near many other mining sites, Hatley said, including at the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma, where former lead and zinc mines caused environmental devastation, and poisoned fish and people living around the mining sites.

Blood and water

Clean water has long been a problem around the QMM mine, and in recent years, it has become the main one. About 15,000 people draw their drinking water from the lakes and waterways around the mine.

After Orengo discovered the buffer zone breach in 2017, ALT-UK asked Swanson to conduct a radioactivity study to determine the presence of radioactive material in the surrounding waterways. The study found that uranium – in concentrations up to 50 times the WHO drinking water quality guidelines for chemical toxicity – was detectable in samples from all QMM’s river water monitoring stations.

In a response, QMM denied having any impact on the high levels of uranium in the water and claimed that the elevated levels were a naturally occurring result of local geological conditions. “This is not a QMM-related impact and is an aspect of the water used by local communities before the commencement of construction or operations at QMM,” the company argued.

Emerman, the mining expert who studied the breach, conducted his own analysis using data from Rio Tinto and samples collected by local residents. He reported that the maximum downstream lead and uranium concentrations were 40 and 52 times higher, respectively, than the WHO recommended standards for drinking water. Emerman also found that lead levels were 4.9 times higher downstream of the mine and uranium levels were 24 times higher downstream. According to Emerman, these results, and their contrast with the 2001 baseline study, point to QMM as the source of contamination.

Late last year, Rio Tinto released its QMM water report 2021–2023, which included new water sampling data as well as additional information about the company’s developing water management practices. The report showed that all parameters were below the analytical limits of detection upstream and downstream of the mine’s release point during the reporting period. Emerman independently assessed the report and concluded that the new data confirmed “the detrimental impact of the QMM mine on regional water quality”, and that it failed to alter his earlier conclusions.

There were no blood lead levels testing results publicly available for the population living around the QMM mine until now. In its new claim, Leigh Day states that blood lead level testing on 58 people living around the mine, among them children, shows elevated levels of lead. Scientific studies have found that children with blood lead levels above the WHO’s threshold of 5 micrograms per decilitre are likely to suffer at least some amount of mental impairment as a result.

An expert clinical toxicologist working with Leigh Day has recommended periodic blood lead testing for all 58 of the clients who were tested. For at-risk groups such as children, women of child-bearing age, and those with a blood lead level above the WHO reference level, the expert has recommended additional interventions including clinical monitoring, more frequent blood lead testing, nutritional supplements and additional antenatal care, where appropriate. One client with particularly high blood lead levels has been advised to undergo chelation therapy, which helps remove pollutants from the bloodstream.

“Rio Tinto continues to make bold public commitments about safeguarding vital water sources and respecting the rights of those affected by its operations wherever in the world they may be,” said Dowling, of Leigh Day. “We trust the company will now stand behind those commitments and engage constructively with our clients’ claims at an early stage to ensure the communities no longer have to rely on polluted water and get the medical attention they need.”

Georges Marolahy Razafidrafara, a Mandramondramotra resident, used to work for the mine. Today, he worries about the water quality, especially because he has a daughter who is still just a toddler. “QMM always says: ‘Yeah, we take the water samples to analyse in the lab’ but we never get the results,” he said. “They always come back and say it’s drinkable, but they truck water into the mine [for their employees].”

The way Razafidrafara sees it, the local population were promised prosperity. Instead, they got poison.

  • This story was published in partnership with The Intercept. The reporting for this investigation was supported by a grant from Journalists for Transparency, an initiative of Transparency International.

Explore more on these topics

  • Mining
  • Rio Tinto
  • Pollution
  • Africa
  • Madagascar
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Rio Tinto’s Madagascar mine may face lawsuit over pollution claims

Mining company hit with accusation it contaminated waterways with harmful levels of uranium and lead

Rio Tinto is facing a likely lawsuit in an English court brought by the UK-based law firm Leigh Day on behalf of people living in villages near a mine in Madagascar.

In a letter of claim, a document that is an early step in a lawsuit, the villagers accuse Rio Tinto of contaminating the waterways and lakes that they use for domestic purposes with elevated and harmful levels of uranium and lead, which pose a serious risk to human health.

The mine, operated by Rio Tinto subsidiary QIT Madagascar Minerals (QMM), extracts ilmenite, a major source of titanium dioxide, which is mainly used as a white pigment in products such as paints, plastics and paper. It also produces monazite, a mineral that contains highly-sought-after rare-earth elements used to produce the magnets in electric vehicles and wind turbines.

Leigh Day commissioned testing of people’s blood lead levels in the area around the mine as part of its research. According to the claim, which was sent on Tuesday, the testing shows that 58 people living around the mine have elevated levels of lead, and the majority of cases exceed the threshold at which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends clinical and environmental interventions, 5 micrograms per decilitre. The claim alleges that the most likely cause of the elevated levels is a result of QMM’s mine processes.

“Whilst Rio Tinto extracts large profits from its mining operations in Madagascar, our clients’ case is that they and other local families are being forced to consume water which is contaminated with harmful heavy metals. In bringing this case, our clients are seeking accountability and justice for the damage that has been caused to their local environment and their health,” Paul Dowling, Leigh Day’s lead partner on the case, said.

While a relatively small sample, Leigh Day’s blood lead level testing results are a significant development that may for the first time quantify the detrimental health impact their clients allege are posed by QMM. Both the pollution of surface water and lead poisoning are global problems, and the case will be watched closely not just by Rio Tinto shareholders but by global environmental justice advocates in other nations where villagers also accuse industrial giants of polluting their waterways.

“We have received the letter from Leigh Day,” said the Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined to comment further on the allegations. The spokesperson pointed to a published report that states that the company’s recent water analysis had not detected metals, including uranium and lead, that had previously been identified as potential concerns.

Madagascar’s environmental regulator, the National Office for the Environment, or ONE, says it has periodically monitored QMM’s activities over the past decade and has tested the water after previous complaints about contamination. “In the face of these accusations, ONE requested several expert analyses … the results of which indicated no contamination of surface waters nor mining sites,” Hery Rajaomanana, ONE’s director of environmental integration and sustainable development, said in March.

Rio Tinto, which had net earnings of $12.4bn in 2022, has a troubled track record in Madagascar. Locals, civil society groups and media have accused the company of damaging the endangered forest, threatening rare endemic species, forcing villagers off their land without proper compensation, destroying fishers’ livelihoods and failing to honour its promises to employ local people. Communities have been protesting against the mine almost since its inception.

“QMM operates in a highly sensitive area from a water and broader environmental perspective,” wrote a Rio Tinto spokesperson, who declined to attach a name to the statements from the company. “We are committed to working to address any specific issues that community members raise, and to engaging in constructive dialogue on how we can mitigate impacts of our operations while generating tangible and sustainable benefits for our host communities.”

The 150-year-old metals and mining company has been embroiled in scandal for years. In 2020, Rio Tinto blew up two ancient Australian aboriginal sites to expand its iron ore mining in the region. In 2022, a review found that bullying, sexism and racism were rampant across the company. In March 2023, Rio Tinto agreed to pay a $15m penalty to the US Securities and Exchange Commission after accusations surfaced that in 2011 it paid $10.5m to a friend of the Guinean president to retain iron ore mining rights. The company is facing pressure from investors over water quality concerns at several of its mining sites, including in Madagascar and Mongolia.

“People were eating so well”

QMM started exploring for heavy mineral sands in Anôsy, Madagascar, along the south-eastern coast in 1986. The region is home to about 800,000 people, with more than 90% of rural residents living on less than $1.90 (£1.50) a day.

The area where the minerals were discovered is a unique ecosystem, a littoral forest occurring in the sandy substrates close to the Indian Ocean. Madagascar once had a continuous 1,600km band of littoral forest along its eastern coastline. Today, it is estimated that only a fraction of that forest remains intact. New species are being discovered there all the time, but many of them are already endangered by habitat destruction. Yet the region, with its famous lemurs and a concentrated diversity of plant species, remains one of the most important and fragile ecosystems in the world.

When Rio Tinto began exploring the area, the possible risks associated with a large-scale mineral sands project, including the potential for radioactive materials to be released into the surrounding environment, were not well known.

“People didn’t yet understand the ecological impact of the mine,” said Tahiry Ratsiambahotra, the founder of LuSud, an activist organisation that has become a thorn in the sides of the government and Rio Tinto. “So, parliament adopted the agreement.”

Before building the QMM mine, the company conducted a series of assessments to determine the potential social, environmental and economic impacts of the mine on the surrounding area. Baseline water testing from 2001 revealed that the surface water from lakes and rivers surrounding the mine was free from high levels of metals including lead and uranium.

To support its mining operations, QMM planned to construct a weir, or barrier, where Lake Ambavarano meets the mouth of the estuary that connects to the Indian Ocean to control water flows and water level heights. But the company was warned that the weir had the potential to permanently change the occasionally brackish lagoon system into freshwater, which would affect fish and fishers in the region. With support from the World Bank, it also built a port in Fort Dauphin to export raw materials to Rio Tinto’s processing plant in Canada.

Despite concerns by LuSud, the World Bank, and other bodies involved in early impact assessments of the mine, QMM received a legal licence to begin operations in 2005. The licence covered three mine sites to be mined sequentially under a 100-year lease from the Malagasy government.

The mine became operational in 2008. The barrier ended up entirely blocking inundations of salt water into Lake Ambavarano. Soon, nearly all the species of fish that thrived in the brackish conditions were gone. The extractive industry watchdog Publish What You Pay found in a March 2022 community survey that at least 27 fish species appear to have disappeared from the lakes since the start of the Rio Tinto mining operation.

“Before the weir, people were eating so well. They were happy. They were fishing,” said Olivier Randimbisoa, one of the lake fishers affected by the weir.

Randimbisoa has been fishing since he was 10 years old. Before the weir was built, he could choose whether he wanted to catch crab, shrimp, ocean fish or lake fish. He could make 100,000 ariary (about $22.40) each day from fishing. Now, he says he’s barely making a fraction of that.

Heavy sands

The QMM mine extracts ilmenite from mineral-rich sands by creating shallow, unlined, water-filled basins between five and 15 metres deep. By churning up the sands and passing them through a floating dredge, the mining process filters out the heavier sands, which contain ilmenite. The ilmenite is then extracted using electrostatic processing and shipped to Rio Tinto’s plant in Canada. Despite its small size, Madagascar was the fourth largest exporter of ilmenite in the world in 2022.

The mineral sands also contain radioactive elements, including uranium and thorium. The process of churning the sand allows these radioactive elements to dissolve in the mining water, which is then discharged as wastewater.

The Malagasy regulator requires an 80 metre buffer zone between a mining operation and any ecologically sensitive area to avoid contamination. In 2015, the government regulator approved QMM’s request to reduce this buffer zone from 80 metres to 50. But in 2017, Yvonne Orengo, the director of ALT-UK, a charity that works on issues in Madagascar, accused Rio Tinto of breaching the buffer zone based on a series of satellite images she captured using Google Earth.

Rio Tinto initially denied the breach in correspondence with ALT-UK. The company agreed to conduct an independent study and identified a private company called Ozius to carry it out. To ensure an independent review, Orengo enlisted the help of Dr Steven Emerman, a groundwater and mining expert, to conduct his own study. Using Ozius’s data as well as Google Earth images, Emerman calculated that, in addition to breaching the buffer zone, the company had encroached on to the lake bed by 117 metress, bringing the total breach to 167 metres, he said.

In early 2019, QMM announced that it would revise its plans and revert back to the 80-metre buffer zone. It later acknowledged that it had breached the original buffer zone.

The QMM mine relies on a “natural” system, usually referred to as passive water treatment, to treat its mining basin water. It releases the contaminated water into a series of “settling paddocks” to reduce the levels of floating particles, one indicator of water quality. When the water in the paddocks gets too high, the mine offloads the water into naturally occurring wetlands that connect to a nearby river. The idea is that the process of moving through the settling paddocks and wetlands would rid the mining basin water of its more harmful elements and allow safe water to flow into the surrounding environment.

One issue with passive water treatment systems is that they can remove contaminants, like lead and uranium, from process water and store them in the wetland sediment. A later change in wetland water chemistry, such as an increase in acidity, could remobilise those heavy metals back into dissolved form in the water column. “This is why passive water treatment systems are sometimes referred to as ‘chemical timebombs’,” said Emerman.

Rio Tinto refers to its tailings dam as a berm, or an artificial embankment, and its tailings as process water. There have been reports of berm failures at QMM since mining began, resulting in large releases of harmful mine waste. The first two were made in 2010 and 2018, and dead fish appeared in the lakes after the 2018 overflow.

In August 2020, QMM stopped regularly discharging its process water into the surrounding wetlands. The following year, Rio Tinto released a report that concluded its “natural” filtration system was not working as expected and excess levels of aluminium and cadmium were being released into the water around the mine.

Two additional berm failures occurred in early 2022, after a series of cyclones and other severe weather events battered the region. Dead fish had started appearing in the lakes again, which is what Randimbisoa, the fisher, witnessed. In response, the authorities banned fishing, which led to widespread protests from communities living around the mine.

Following the 2022 dead fish incident, QMM and the Malagasy environmental regulator analysed a series of water samples. The company says the analysis revealed no significant change to water quality in the surrounding water bodies and no link between the mine’s activities and the dead fish, but despite requests from civil society actors and the Intercept, the report has not been made available to the public.

In April 2022, ALT-UK commissioned Dr Stella Swanson, a Canada-based aquatic ecologist and radioactivity specialist, to analyse the potential causes of the fish deaths. She concluded that “the combination of acidic water and elevated aluminium in the water released from the QMM site is the most probable connection between the water releases and the fish kills observed after those releases.”

Rio Tinto and QMM dispute Swanson’s assessment, but Earl Hatley, the co-founder of the non-profit Lead Agency Inc, backs it up. A similar combination of metals and low pH in water have caused fish deaths near many other mining sites, Hatley said, including at the Tar Creek Superfund site in Oklahoma, where former lead and zinc mines caused environmental devastation, and poisoned fish and people living around the mining sites.

Blood and water

Clean water has long been a problem around the QMM mine, and in recent years, it has become the main one. About 15,000 people draw their drinking water from the lakes and waterways around the mine.

After Orengo discovered the buffer zone breach in 2017, ALT-UK asked Swanson to conduct a radioactivity study to determine the presence of radioactive material in the surrounding waterways. The study found that uranium – in concentrations up to 50 times the WHO drinking water quality guidelines for chemical toxicity – was detectable in samples from all QMM’s river water monitoring stations.

In a response, QMM denied having any impact on the high levels of uranium in the water and claimed that the elevated levels were a naturally occurring result of local geological conditions. “This is not a QMM-related impact and is an aspect of the water used by local communities before the commencement of construction or operations at QMM,” the company argued.

Emerman, the mining expert who studied the breach, conducted his own analysis using data from Rio Tinto and samples collected by local residents. He reported that the maximum downstream lead and uranium concentrations were 40 and 52 times higher, respectively, than the WHO recommended standards for drinking water. Emerman also found that lead levels were 4.9 times higher downstream of the mine and uranium levels were 24 times higher downstream. According to Emerman, these results, and their contrast with the 2001 baseline study, point to QMM as the source of contamination.

Late last year, Rio Tinto released its QMM water report 2021–2023, which included new water sampling data as well as additional information about the company’s developing water management practices. The report showed that all parameters were below the analytical limits of detection upstream and downstream of the mine’s release point during the reporting period. Emerman independently assessed the report and concluded that the new data confirmed “the detrimental impact of the QMM mine on regional water quality”, and that it failed to alter his earlier conclusions.

There were no blood lead levels testing results publicly available for the population living around the QMM mine until now. In its new claim, Leigh Day states that blood lead level testing on 58 people living around the mine, among them children, shows elevated levels of lead. Scientific studies have found that children with blood lead levels above the WHO’s threshold of 5 micrograms per decilitre are likely to suffer at least some amount of mental impairment as a result.

An expert clinical toxicologist working with Leigh Day has recommended periodic blood lead testing for all 58 of the clients who were tested. For at-risk groups such as children, women of child-bearing age, and those with a blood lead level above the WHO reference level, the expert has recommended additional interventions including clinical monitoring, more frequent blood lead testing, nutritional supplements and additional antenatal care, where appropriate. One client with particularly high blood lead levels has been advised to undergo chelation therapy, which helps remove pollutants from the bloodstream.

“Rio Tinto continues to make bold public commitments about safeguarding vital water sources and respecting the rights of those affected by its operations wherever in the world they may be,” said Dowling, of Leigh Day. “We trust the company will now stand behind those commitments and engage constructively with our clients’ claims at an early stage to ensure the communities no longer have to rely on polluted water and get the medical attention they need.”

Georges Marolahy Razafidrafara, a Mandramondramotra resident, used to work for the mine. Today, he worries about the water quality, especially because he has a daughter who is still just a toddler. “QMM always says: ‘Yeah, we take the water samples to analyse in the lab’ but we never get the results,” he said. “They always come back and say it’s drinkable, but they truck water into the mine [for their employees].”

The way Razafidrafara sees it, the local population were promised prosperity. Instead, they got poison.

  • This story was published in partnership with The Intercept. The reporting for this investigation was supported by a grant from Journalists for Transparency, an initiative of Transparency International.

Explore more on these topics

  • Mining
  • Rio Tinto
  • Pollution
  • Africa
  • Madagascar
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Amazon increased US plastic packaging despite global phase-out, report says

The same year, 2022, company replaced plastic sleeves in EU with paper and cardboard, and cut plastic packaging globally by 11.6%

The amount of plastic packaging waste created by Amazon has increased in the US even as the online retail giant sought to phase out plastics elsewhere in the world, a report claims, amid growing pressure for a global treaty to end plastic pollution.

Amazon created 208m pounds (94m kg) of plastic packaging in the US in 2022, equal to the weight of nearly 14,000 large African elephants, which is a 9.8% increase on the amount of packaging it produced in 2021, according to Oceana, an American marine conservation group that used industry data and Amazon’s market announcements to form its analysis.

The increase in 2022 occurred even as Amazon made headway in reducing its plastic use elsewhere in the world, cutting its plastic packaging globally by 11.6% compared to a year previously. In Europe, the company has replaced its plastic delivery sleeves with paper and cardboard, amid new rules from the European Union aimed at stamping out single-use plastics.

Oceana said that the persistent reliance on plastics in the US is “troubling”, pointing to evidence that much of this waste will end up ingested by marine animals or strewn along coastal areas. According to the group, up to 22m pounds (9.9m kg) of Amazon’s global plastic packaging from 2022 will have ended up in the world’s waterways and seas. Oceana’s analysis cites a 2020 scientific study published in Science that found 11% of plastic waste globally ended up in aquatic ecosystems in 2016.

“This sort of plastic film is a big problem for the oceans and a lot of it can’t be recycled,” said Matt Littlejohn, senior vice-president of strategic initiatives at Oceana.

“Amazon is one of the most innovative companies on the planet. It has eliminated plastic packaging in Europe and they can clearly do so across the US, too, even without regulatory pressure. This is a completely solvable problem. They have just got to get on with solving it. They know what to do.”

Amazon has disputed Oceana’s analysis, calling it “misleading” and highlighting its global reduction in plastic use, although the company did not disclose US-specific figures on plastic packaging that counter the report’s findings.

The company has pointed to its efforts to reduce per-shipment packaging weight which, since 2015, have avoided more than 2m tons of packaging, as well as the unveiling last year of its first automated US fulfillment centre, located in Ohio, that replaces plastic packaging and air pillow fillers with paper alternatives.

“Amazon is committed to reducing or eliminating packaging altogether, including the use of single-use plastic, and we’ve shown this by sharing consistent and transparent updates on our progress,” said Pat Lindner, vice-president of mechatronics and sustainable packaging at Amazon.

“We’ve also started a multiyear effort to eliminate plastic delivery packaging from our US automated fulfillment centers, with the first already in operation and delivering to customers without any plastic packaging. We’ll continue to invest, invent and scale our packaging reduction work for the good of customers and the planet.”

The report comes amid mounting evidence showing the prevalence of plastics in the environment, from litter in cities, beaches and oceans to invasions of more fundamental elements of life, with long-lasting plastics breaking down into microscopic pieces that are found in our bloodstreams, placentas and even the air we breathe.

“We are swimming in and breathing in this plastic, and this stuff lasts for an eternity,” said Littlejohn. “I don’t think the general public has caught onto how scary this all is.”

Two years ago in Kenya, governments agreed at a United Nations summit to forge a legally binding international treaty by the end of 2024 to stem plastic pollution, which Espen Barth Eide, president of the UN gathering, warned “has grown into an epidemic”.

The next round of negotiations over this treaty will be held later this month in Canada and activists have called for a strong agreement that curbs single-use plastics and meaningfully reforms an opaque and often illusory recycling system.

One group, Agenda Antárctica, has even undertaken a redesign of Antarctica’s unofficial flag to one that shows the vast frozen continent riddled with microplastics, following studies that have shown that plastic has been found in the remote polar region’s snow.

“To see somewhere so pristine and untouched by mankind and discover it has been polluted by plastics so small you can’t see them was just awful to me,” said Graham Bartram, a vexillologist who designed an unofficial flag that has been used informally to depict the continent since the 1990s – no single country owns the frozen continent – and who has now redesigned the flag to depict the plastic pollution.

“I don’t think plastics are inherently evil, they can be very useful, but we can use them sensibly,” said Bartram. “I hope the flag makes people think a little about what we are doing to the planet. Let’s face it: we only have one planet, it’s not like we have a back-up plan of moving to another one next door.”

Explore more on these topics

  • Amazon
  • Plastics
  • Pollution
  • Plastic bags
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Thousands to be offered blood tests for dementia in UK trial

More than 50 clinics will offer tests to about 5,000 people who are worried about their memory in five-year trial

Thousands of people across the UK who are worried about their memory will receive blood tests for dementia in two trials that doctors hope will help to revolutionise the low diagnosis rate.

Teams from the University of Oxford and University College London will lead the trials to research the use of cheap and simple tests to detect proteins for people with early stages of dementia or problems with cognition, with the hope of speeding up diagnosis and reaching more people.

Currently, getting a formal diagnosis in the UK relies on mental ability tests, brain scans or invasive and painful lumbar punctures, where a sample of cerebrospinal fluid is drawn from the lower back.

About 1 million people are living with the condition in Britain, and this is expected to rise to about 1.7 million by 2040 – with potentially grim consequences. In 2022, dementia took the lives of 66,000 people in England and Wales, and it is now the leading cause of death in Britain, with Alzheimer’s accounting for two-thirds of cases.

Patients and their families have been reported to wait for up to four years to get an appointment and the results, according to charities. More than one in three people living with dementia in England are yet to receive a formal diagnosis.

The tests are highly effective in research settings, so if they prove as useful in real life, they could make the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s more accessible.

They could provide results to patients much sooner and accelerate the introduction of new Alzheimer’s drugs that rely on early diagnosis. The trial will help determine if they can be rolled out routinely on the NHS.

Fiona Carragher, the director of research and influencing at the Alzheimer’s Society, said the reliance on specialised tests had led to “unnecessary delays, worry and uncertainty” that meant people often could not access the care they needed early on.

“Dementia is the UK’s biggest killer, yet a third of people living with dementia don’t have a diagnosis, which means they’re not able to access care and support. At the moment, only 2% of people with dementia can access the specialised tests needed to demonstrate eligibility for new treatments, leading to unnecessary delays, worry and uncertainty,” she said.

The research teams are sponsored by Alzheimer’s Research UK and the Alzheimer’s Society, with £5m of funding from the People’s Postcode Lottery.

Dr Sheona Scales, the director of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “We’ve seen the enormous potential that blood tests are showing for improving the diagnostic process for people and their loved ones in other disease areas. Now we need to see this same step change in dementia, which is the greatest health challenge facing the UK.

“It’s fantastic that through collaborating with the leading experts in the dementia community, we can look to bring cutting-edge blood tests for diagnosing dementia within the NHS. And this will be key to widening access to groundbreaking new treatments that are on the horizon.”

More than 50 memory clinics across the UK will be offering blood tests to about 5,000 volunteers as part of the five-year trial.

Jonathan Schott, the chief medical officer at Alzheimer’s Research UK, will lead a trial on the most promising blood biomarker in tests on 1,100 people across the UK.

The second trial will test for multiple forms of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia and dementia with Lewy bodies on about 4,000 people.

Explore more on these topics

  • Dementia
  • Alzheimer’s
  • Medical research
  • Mental health
  • Health
  • Neuroscience
  • news
Share

Reuse this content

Sydney’s urban sprawl grew along rail lines similar to way cancer spreads, researchers say

New academic paper finds rail system drives urban changes ‘similar to the process by which malignant tumours form’

  • Follow our Australia news live blog for latest updates
  • Get our morning and afternoon news emails, free app or daily news podcast

Sydney is renowned for its sprawl. Its geographical size is on par with Mexico City (population 20 million), Paris (10.4 million) and Bangkok (14.6 million), but Sydney’s population of 5.3 million pales in comparison.

Now researchers have developed a model of how it spread out, likening the city’s sprawl to how cancer spreads through a human body.

Researchers used mathematical modelling to reconstruct urban growth in Sydney from 1851-2011. Along with finding that Sydney’s population size and spread has evolved in a manner similar to a tumour, they also concluded the rail system has “coevolved” with the urban population: that is, transport investment is not only demand driven – it also causes urban change.

Sydney’s development began with an initial phase of “limited growth around the city centre”. The expansion of the train network – which took off in Sydney in the 1890s – led people to move to the suburbs, expanding both the population’s size and spread.

“The more train lines you have, the more territory that can be covered,” David Levinson, a co-author of the study and a professor of civil engineering at the University of Sydney, said.

“That territory has developed more and more intensely … similar to the process by which malignant tumours form.”

However, Andrew Butt, a professor in sustainability and urban planning at RMIT who was not involved in the study, said solely attributing urban growth to transport links failed to take personal preferences about where people want to live into account.

  • Sign up for Guardian Australia’s free morning and afternoon email newsletters for your daily news roundup

“While it’s a great analogy, the city is not simply an accretion. It’s actually a formation of lots of little places that exist,” he said.

He said the modelling didn’t “adequately account for the very local experience of place that people have”.

The researchers did note a few disparities between their model of cancer-like growth they developed and what has actually happened in Sydney’s urban sprawl. For instance, highly sought-after coastal locations, such as the Northern Beaches, are not near any rail network.

These discrepancies “show us the city doesn’t do the things we expect it to do…because people genuinely have preferences and want to make choices”, Butt said.

Lessons from growth

Levinson said the study illustrated an important point – that Sydney’s infrastructure could be better used.

“Sydney has a disproportionate number of jobs in the eastern side of the city, and a disproportionate number of residents in the western part of the city,” he said.

This leaves transport underutilised compared to other cities around the world, where housing and jobs are more evenly spread out.

Butt said it was “inherently unsustainable to have everything focused in so few places”.

“Having local work and local possibilities should be the ultimate aim of cit[ies].”

Explore more on these topics

  • Urban planning
  • news
Share

Reuse this content