KINSHASA – The Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC's) government began an audit into how radioactive cobalt produced by a Glencore unit left the country before an alarm was raised.
The probe places a further strain on relations between the commodity trader and Congo’s government frayed earlier this year by the introduction of a new law that raised costs for miners. It follows criticism by state officials of Katanga Mining’s “ unilateral” decision last month to suspend sales from its Kamoto Copper Company mine, or KCC, after the company detected excessive levels of uranium in processed cobalt.
Katanga, majority owned by Glencore, said Nov. 6 that low levels of radioactivity, which were above those permitted to ship from African ports, were detected in 1,472 metric tons of processed metal that arrived in South Africa. An investigation into Katanga’s supply chain began on Monday, Valery Mukasa, chief of staff to Mines Minister Martin Kabwelulu, said by text message from the capital, Kinshasa.
“It is unacceptable that mining products crossed the Democratic Republic of Congo’s borders containing radioactive products” at levels that exceed limits tolerated by national and international regulations, Kabwelulu said in a Nov. 22 letter to officials at companies including Katanga, KCC and State-owned miner Gecamines, which owns 25 percent of the Kamoto mine.
A spokesperson for Glencore declined to comment.
Kabwelulu dispatched an investigative team to the town of Kolwezi, where KCC is located, to carry out the audit of the mine’s “whole chain,” he said by email. The experts come from Kabwelulu’s ministry, the external commerce ministry and the Kinshasa-based General Commissariat for Atomic Energy, and their work will last until Dec. 6, according to a mission order signed by the minister.
“It is absurd and inconceivable” that batches of cobalt exported by KCC can contain impermissible levels of radioactivity without the company and Congolese authorities detecting it, according to Kabwelulu’s letter. “If the situation happens to be proven, it will be important to establish responsibilities over the whole chain,” from KCC and a private laboratory that works for the company, to the relevant state services.
KCC must “take all necessary measures to repatriate” all cobalt impacted by Katanga’s decision “since it has put unfit mining products into circulation,” Kabwelulu said in the letter.
KCC resumed production last December after a two-year hiatus during which it invested in new processing facilities. The company is set to produce as much as 300 000 metric tons of copper and 34 000 tons of cobalt in 2019, which would make it Congo’s biggest copper mine and the world’s largest producer of cobalt.
Katanga has said it’s installing an ion-exchange system to remove uranium from cobalt processed at Kamoto and will restart sales before the end of next year. In the meantime, KCC is stockpiling cobalt while its production and export of copper continue as normal.
Katanga resolved a previous spat with the Congolese state in June, when it wrote off $5.6 billion of debt held by KCC to end a legal dispute with Gecamines. The deal involved a one-time payment of $150-million to the government-owned miner.