An old photo (by Inácio Rosa of Lusa) depicting homeowners protesting back in 2017

Cancer-villages take State to court

Delays in decontamination of homes near former uranium mines “have gone on far too long”

The long-running battle to get the Portuguese State to do as it pledged and  ‘decontaminate’ all homes near the former uranium mines of Urgeirica has moved into tough new territory.

Former mining families living in the homes have formalised a criminal complaint against the State just as the European Union has presented its case against Portugal for failing to comply with a directive covering radon gas – the highly radioactive gas that has ‘no smell, colour or taste’, can be found in water, and is one of the leading causes of lung cancer.

Radon gas is undoubtedly affecting communities around the now disused uranium mines. It has been for years.

A slow decontamination process began 14 years ago, but it is simply not moving fast enough.

As many as 70 homes still show radiation levels ‘off the scale’; their inhabitants absolutely desperate for something to be done about it.

This issue is one that rarely makes it into the national media. It has barely received space even this week (when former mining families living in the village formalised their complaint against the State at Nelas Tribunal).

The last time the subject seems to have been addressed was pre-pandemic. 

Yet it dates back over 20 years, and has seen various communities hit by outbreaks of cancer, which the DGS health authority has sought to play down, saying it was “simply a reflection of the increase in oncological disease in the whole country and the western world”.

Citizens affected however are not buying this explanation. Radiation readings in and around their houses certainly bear them out.

António Minhoto, spokesman for the ATMU (the Associação dos Ex-Trabalhadores das Minas de Urânio/ association for former workers in the uranium mines) has described members’ utter despair of people left to live in hugely compromised environments.

“Fourteen years since the start of decontamination, there are still people living in contaminated homes”, he told Estação Diária radio station.

Back in 2015, the now ‘cancelled’ Sexta às 9 investigative programme (cancelled following a number of inconvenient scandals it seemed to keep finding) covered an aspect of this ongoing drama, explaining that 200 tonnes of radioactive material was sitting in an unguarded warehouse near Viseu.

None of this can be safe for local populations, which is why ATMU is said to be considering “intensifying its protests”, says Estação Diária, and is “considering a demonstration of indignation outside Palácio de Belém (the official residence of president of the Republic Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa)” to ask Marcelo personally to intervene.

Meantime, for anyone interested in the history of Portugal’s relationship with uranium, British filmmaker Ramsey Cameron won the Prémio Lusofonia Panorama Regional prize for his bi-lingual film on the subject, in 2016. The film can be seen here

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