Since early 2017, the mayor of Villavieja de Yeltes municipality in Salamanca, north-west Spain, has been instrumental in calling Australian-incorporated Berkeley Energia (formerly Berkeley Resources) to account and in calling local residents and people from neighbouring towns to monthly rallies against the company's proposed Retortillo uranium project.1
Retortillo is planned as an open-cast uranium mine, heap leaching and processing or 'milling' plant, said to be ready to begin production in late 2018 but lacking necessary permits and facing four public interest litigation suits from the municipality and from national non-governmental organisations.
The project has sparked a wave of opposition arising from concerns about potential impacts on the environment and local people. These risks include its location very near a school area, possible impacts on a protected ecological zone, and its permit to discharge waste-water five kilometres upstream of established drinking water extraction sites for Villavieja de Yeltes. The water discharge permit contradicts a European Commission-funded regional five-river biodiversity project because it has transboundary significance.2,3 Close to 40 municipalities are opposed to the company's plan to develop the Retortillo project, which has potential impacts on the existing economy including spa tourism facilities.
Berkeley has renamed itself, changed some of its personnel, reduced its website information, changed its AIM nominated adviser (the AIM is a sub-market of the London Stock Exchange), and negotiated a potential 'take-off' contract with a commodity trader, which has 'phoenixed' itself; that is, one small company was liquidated and replaced by another (InterAlloys to Curzon Resources) run by the same individual. This has allowed Berkeley to raise capital, because it has obtained the support of Euratom to develop the European Union's only open-cast uranium mine.
European Commission involvement will not help provide sufficient environmental information in a timely manner to assist public participation in decision-making.4 With the need for more transparency, the continued involvement of former Spanish state officials Cañete and Lamela creates at best unfavourable impressions.5 While the Commission in its 2012 report on former uranium mining sites in Spain, some of which are under reclamation, had been informative about applicable costs, methods and requirements for treating toxic waste, it did however raise questions about the relationships between Berkeley and state uranium mining agency ENUSA.6
Potential radiation impacts are being identified by the growing social movement, who argue that the EIA process omitted consideration of ore processing. It is clear that a number of human rights are being abused or put at risk including the right to information7, the right to health8, the right to livelihood and an adequate standard of living9, and the right to a safe and healthy natural environment.10
What the company says11
Berkeley Energia claims on its website to have developed 'a good neighbour and business partner relationship with the local community' and to have local and regional support and major community investment and environmental rehabilitation plans for the project area. The website makes no mention of community opposition, health risks from uranium or other potentially negative social or environmental impacts, apart from initial felling of trees.
Berkeley's 2017 Annual Report cites 'highly supportive' local municipalities and sizeable community investments to date, and commits Berkeley to improve the ecological and agricultural value of the area through a reforestation programme. There is no mention of environmental risks from, or public concerns about, uranium. The Annual Report notes in passing that 'various appeals' against the necessary licences have been unsuccessful. It is quoted on Mining.com as emphasizing the mine's job creation potential, adherence to 'the highest EU environmental and safety standards' and 'overwhelming support' from local and regional communities.
Berkeley is reported in the press as signing an agreement that 'will provide construction capital' with the Oman Sovereign Wealth Fund, an institution that has been evaluated as having a transparency rating of 4 out of 10.12
In 2016, Berkeley published a 'definitive feasibility study' on its website. As the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has stated, however, the best approach advised by the UN is to evaluate the full, clearly disaggregated costs of 'economic and social viability'.13 Berkeley has not done this.
Listing on the London Stock Exchange
Berkeley Energia announced on May 2 its intention to delist from AIM and instead list on the full London Stock Exchange14 and that it intends to seek investment only from institutions. It also said it plans to list on the Spanish Stock Exchange or bolsa.
In the UK, NGO London Mining Network wrote to the London Stock Exchange, a private company and regulator the Financial Conduct Authority, arguing that the listing should be frozen because of Berkeley's wrongful claims of strong community support and that challenges to its regional permits have failed.15 In Spain, the Stop Uranio campaign protested to the bolsa and financial regulator, which avoided decision-making in deference to the London Stock Exchange.
The UK agencies declined to respond, and decided to accord full listing to Berkeley. In Spain a corruption crisis has engulfed the ruling Partida Popular16 and the expected political upheaval is taking place with a new left coalition coming to power. The upheaval has contributed to the bolsa delaying Berkeley's listing17, ostensibly on the basis of the incompleteness of its prospectus.
Existing parliamentary moves18 to freeze the Retortillo project by congress committee members in Unido-Podemos, now the main coalition partner in the new PSOE government led by President Pedro Sanchez, may well have changed the mine's prospects. Also, the Ombudsman has declared that Berkeley failed to give information about its water discharge permit19, and again coalition partner Unido-Podemos is seeking to block the permit, demanding transparency. June in Spain will be a busy month!
Berkeley hopes to attract German and Polish institutional investors, and the UK exchange's lack of insistence on rigorous risk assessments may mean that the project's risks are hidden. The UK has inadequately implemented the post financial crash 2013 Directive 34/EU on company reporting, so most mining companies like Berkeley avoid necessary non-financial reporting. The prospects for the project depend on political20 and legal developments in Spain.
This article was originally written for London Mining Network's forthcoming report "AIM-traded mining companies and human rights", lead author Miles Litvinoff.
1. For background information on the proposed mine see: EJOLT, Uranium mining: Unveiling the impacts of the nuclear industry, report no. 15, 2014, www.ejolt.org/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/11/141115_U-mining.pdf; European Parliament parliamentary questions, 'Commissioner Cañete's approval of a proposed uranium mine', Dec. 2015, https://goo.gl/o9sYkK, and 'Retortillo uranium mine – breach of Community law', Apr. 2017, www.europarl.europa.eu/sides/getDoc.do?pubRef=-//EP//TEXT+WQ+E-2017-0030... Mining.com, 'Spaniards to protest against Berkeley's Retortillo-Santidad uranium mine', Oct. 2016, www.mining.com/spaniards-to-protest-against-berkeleys-retortillo-santida..., and 'Mayor organizes massive protest against Berkeley's uranium mine in Spain', Nov. 2017, www.mining.com/mayor-organizes-massive-protest-berkeleys-uranium-mine-sp... WWF, 'WWF denounces to the European Commission the largest uranium mine in Europe in the heart of a protected area', Feb. 2017, www.wwf.es/?42760/WWF-denuncia-ante-la-Comisin-Europea-la-mayor-mina-de-... World Nuclear News, 'European approval for Salamanca offtake agreement', Mar. 2017, www.world-nuclear-news.org/UF-European-approval-for-Salamanca-offtake-ag... Ecologistas en acción, 'Crece el apoyo internacional contra la minería de uranio en Salamanca' ('International support against uranium mining in Salamanca grows'), Sept. 2017, www.ecologistasenaccion.org/article35005.html
2. Proyecto cipríber, Diagnóstico de la Situacion Inicial, Mar. 2015, https://cipriber.eu/documentos/A1.pdf
4. The relationship between the Parliament, Commission and Euratom is constitutionally uncertain.
5. Green light for a controversial uranium mine, https://corporateeurope.org/power-lobbies/2016/03/disputed-commissioner-...
6. European Commission DG Energy, Southern and western Spain – former uranium installations and national monitoring, technical report, https://ec.europa.eu/energy/sites/ener/files/documents/tech_report_spain..., 18.104.22.168, 22.214.171.124, 4.4.3 et al.
7. UN General Assembly, 'Calling of an International Conference on Freedom of Information', Resolution 59, 1946, https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/RESOLUTION/GEN/NR0/033/10/IMG/NR0033... International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 1966, www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx, Art. 19; UN Economic Commission for Europe, Convention on Access to Information, Public Participation in Decision-making and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters (Aarhus Convention), 1998, www.unece.org/fileadmin/DAM/env/pp/documents/cep43e.pdf
8. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/, Art. 25; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx, Art. 12.
9. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, www.un.org/en/universal-declaration-human-rights/, Art. 25; International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/CESCR.aspx, Art. 11.
10. An emerging human right: UN Environment, 'Human rights and the environment', n.d. (2015), http://web.unep.org/divisions/delc/human-rights-and-environment; D. Shelton, Professor of Law, Notre Dame University, 'Human rights, health and environmental protection: Linkages in law and practice', background paper for the World Health Organization, n.d., www.who.int/hhr/information/Human_Rights_Health_and_Environmental_Protec...
11. Berkeley Energia, company website, including www.berkeleyenergia.com/salamanca-project-overview, and 2017 Annual Report, www.berkeleyenergia.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Berkeley-Annual-Repor... Mining.com, 'Spaniards to protest against Berkeley's Retortillo-Santidad uranium mine', Oct. 2016, www.mining.com/spaniards-to-protest-against-berkeleys-retortillo-santida...
12. Telegraph, 'Uranium miner Berkeley Energia wins £93m backing from Oman', Aug. 2017, www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2017/08/30/uranium-miner-berkeley-energia-w... Linaburg-Maduell Transparency Index, www.swfinstitute.org/statistics-research/linaburg-maduell-transparency-i...
13. IAEA, In Situ Leach Uranium Mining: An Overview of Operations, 2016, www-pub.iaea.org/MTCD/Publications/PDF/P1741_web.pdf; United Nations Economic Commission for Europe, United Nations Framework Classification for Fossil Energy and Mineral Reserves and Resources, 2009, www.unece.org/energy/se/unfc_2009.html. IAEA stipulates stating separately and internalised: direct costs of mining, transporting and processing the uranium ore; costs of associated environmental and waste management during and after mining; costs of maintaining non-operating production units; in the case of ongoing projects, non-amortized capital costs; capital cost of providing new production units, including the cost of financing; indirect management costs , taxes and royalties; future exploration and development costs wherever required for further ore delineation to the stage where it is ready to be mined.