Satellite investigation of a Cobalt Mine

Over months, we investigated a mine in Morocco, linked to the royal family. The open-source analysis shows the company behind it implemented no real changes to protect waste material in its tailing ponds from being flooded by heavy rain. Locals complain about severe arsenic pollution and make the mine responsible, which supplies BMW with cobalt. A guide on how #OSINT was used in the mix.

8 min readNov 12, 2023
Satellite image art

Heavy allegation are being raised this weekend against a suppler of cobalt to the German car manufacturer BMW. The firm, the Moroccan mining giant Managem, is one of the continent's largest mining powerhouses and since at least 2020 under contract with BMW.

BMW is being supplied 20% of its cobalt needs for electric car batteries by Managem until 2025. The rest comes from Australia. BMW says it had good reason to leave the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 2019/2020 and move cobalt supplies away from the DRC. The company rebranded its supply chain. After Congo — where child labor is a pervasive issue in the cobalt mining sector — everything should be sustainable, ethical and transparent. But is this true?

How much did BMW’s move have to do with economics? A few months before BMW expressed interest in Managem as a cobalt supplier, media reports found out that the government in the DRC was planning to dramatically jack up the cobalt export tax.

With the step to exclude DRC from its supply chain list, BMW suddenly excluded more than half of the word’s location where cobalt is mined. Still, the deal with Managem made economic sense. Like other western car companies, BMW became cobalt hungry around 2020, 2021 when the first big batches of e-cars rolled off the line. It needed to be sure, suppliers can deliver. The German car firm was, and still is, set to build millions of new electric vehicles. And although the amount of cobalt in modern batteries is deemed now lower, the company still needs plenty of it.

The cobalt from Morocco comes with a direct contract with Mangem, a new supply chain model, that is relatively rare in the industry. Why should an end product producer, like BMW, partner with a mine, that sits all the way at the start of the supply chain? To ensure ethical accountability? Rather, to ensure supplies are delivered reliably. Diversification was surely a decisive driver behind the deal in Morocco. Otherwise, why did BMW not just organize 100% of its cobalt needs in Australia?

In this commercial from 2021, BMW sells its BMW IX saying “… sustainability even begins before it hits the road. Its drivetrain is free from any rare earth elements and the little cobalt needed is acquired under controlled and fair conditions…” Minute 2:45

Mangem’s subsidiary, CTT, is the firm that runs the only cobalt-arsenic mine in the world, according to an old USGS report. Now, new research by international journalists investigated how the arsenic in the mine could leak into the environment, causing problems in the region. The investigation around the mine in Morocco’s Ouarzazate province entailed a detailed open-source investigation — which I directed. This post is a chance to pay tribute to the nitty-gritty of the openly sourced results.

CTT, the Managem subsidiary, that runs the only cobalt-arsenic mine in the world

The start of the analysis makes the holding firm, Mangem, that closed a large contract with the Bavarian auto manufacturer in 2020. Some initial open-source digging reveals the ownership structure. As there were allegations around disputes concerning unions and labor rights, as well as criticism of environmental checks and balances, the firm’s connection to the powerful almighty royal family raises questions.

The link to the royal family is the conglomerate Al Mada a majority shareholder. Al Mada formerly known the Société Nationale d’Investissement, or SNI, has many business interests, including mining. A breakdown of how the Alawi Dynasty connects all the way to the Bavarian and French car companies — Renault will also receive cobalt from Managem — below.

Connections drawn with open-sourced information: Managem Group is majority owned by Al Mada, a pan-african private equity fund, a signature accompanies the name « Al Mada »

To understand the problem — in this case, why, over several years, again and again soil and water samples in a small town, at the mine, and the surrounding areas, show elevated levels of arsenic pollution — reporters visually mapped it out.

In Bou Azzer, the process of cobalt mining begins around 400 meters deep underground in the arid Draa Tafilalet region of Morocco. The Mine is located 35 km south of Ouarzazate, the city, which is also called the gateway to the desert. Here miners, in blue uniforms by the company CTT, Managem’s subsidiary, operate heavy-duty machinery and explosives in dark shafts to extract bowling-ball sized stones.

In the mine, official images.
Left: How the safety of the workers on the mine, It is valued. People digging, and a man sits on a shovel. Right: A fire extinguisher on the wall inside the mine. Machinery inside the mine appears old and rusty

Down in the mine, safety experts recommend heavy protective equipment, during work. One expert on mining safety says water needs to be sprinkled onto the underground workstations, as toxic elements could affect the lungs of the workers. References to the duty to wear helmets on site, on public imagery, we find on the internet (below). On the sign, there are no references to wearing masks. (Interesting in the light that during the pandemic, allegations spread that the mine became a hotspot for Covid infections). Open data can't judge whether measures to protect workers were enforced.

Stickers to remind workers at Bou Azzer to wear shoes, glasses, ear/noise protection, work attire… No references to a wearing masks
Incidentally, it is also where 2019 minors protested: A demonstration by the youth of Douar Ait Semgan continues to demand their right to work in the Bouzar mine.

The removal of the chunky rock underground, the work process in the mine referred to as “by cut-and-fill stoping”, is extremely labor-intensive. The operator needs plenty of people. 1300 work at Bou Azzer today.

Sources, who worked at the mine on safety and quality assurance five years ago, report that “accidents happened”. They also report that back then people in charge of environmental concerns, had “arguments” with the management. So did the quality and safety management. The management of CTT pressed workers hard for more output. There were issues. Expansion projects under the mine, to build new shafts, may have caused safety concerns, so the source.

After the rocks reach facilities above ground, they are being processes. Out of the mined rock, the mine needs to create the cobalt arsenic concentrate. Cobalt, together with arsenic, are the main mining products. Arsenic that is also often used as the choice of poison by murderers in movies, also harbors risks for workers in the cobalt mining sector. Once mined, the mineral may “breaks open”, reacts, and spreads into the environment. Arsenic can pollute tailings and then become a health issue. Arsenic can then theoretically spread in dust clouds across the mine and beyond. It may also reach water bodies, tailing ponds, that flow to areas where humans consume it or use it for agriculture.

An example of a dust clouds across a Managem mine (this is not Bou Azzer, however)

Satellite images show what's on-site.

Who may face a health risk? Experts say those who live without much protection in close proximity of such a mine. In the case of Bou Azzer, around a dozen families reside in dilapidated stone huts right next to the mine (in white).

The huts offer little protection against the rough desert climate. There is no real clinic for locals in Bou Azzer. Issues connected to the large amounts of water used by mines owned by manage nearby, were also raised. Locals in the small town of Tesla raised such allegations.

The OSINT analysis concentrated on the role of the tailing ponds. At least 12 of them were counted on site. The tailing ponds are partly dry — when the operators aim at recycling some of the minerals left in the tailings — and wet or moist, when little lakes built after the muddy water waste is pumped off the crushing mill.

Dry tailings are being recycled as the waste material from the mine, dried mud, still contains some cobalt. The problem is when these sites are filling with large quantities of water after heavy rain.

These lakes have become increasingly numerous in the past years, the analysis shows. On satellite images, they shimmer with their mixture of sand sludge and water in turquoise green or blue.

The pool in the main part of the mine was almost empty in 2018. In April 2020, it ran almost full, leaving a residue of white-muddy deposit

A timeline of satellite images shows how the little river leading off the mine southwest, shows slightly changes over time. Further analysis with remote sensing techniques shows the river to be filled at rare times.

That the mine is leading to arsenic pollution, is not confirmable. It is something, however, a number of sources in the little town of Zaouiet Sidi Blal allege again and again, over the years. Heavy rainfall, floods, are common in the arid region. They would bring the waste from the mine down to the people, they say. Open data suggests precipitation was especially high in 2014, 2016 and 2023.

We mapped out the journey of the river that connects the mine with the valley. Measured from the fence of the mine to the village, it's around 11km, dropping 200 meters in height (Google Earth measurement).

The journey from the river connection between Bou Azzer, the mining town, and Zaouiet Sidi Blal, the village

Both in the village Zaouiet Sidi Blal and samples taken at Bou Azzer indicated alarming levels of arsenic pollution.

That the mine could be a cause for the pollution, one academic raised already in the late 90s. El Houssaine Berdouzi described the problem in his doctoral thesis in 1999 for the national university of geology in Nany. The Bou Azzer Mine would be the main source of arsenic pollution in the region, he alleged. In the case of heavy rains, these waste basins would fill up and wash the mining water into the valley. In 2013, a team of Moroccan investigative journalists looked at Bou Azzer again. They took more samples, showing again high levels of arsenic pollution. Locals had also suffered health problems.

Whether there is a causal link between the mine and the pollution, open-source analysis can’t bring conclusive proof on it. The fact is, that the remote sensing review showed no considerable efforts that would indicate that the operator is preventing waste water from spilling into the river.

Mining experts at the Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources in Germany say that a mining companies, in such a position, — where the question of causality is raised for such a dramatic case— should normally start a transparent process of a monitoring review. That, neither Managem not its subsidiary CTT have started.

Read the whole investigation at SZ, NDR/WDR, Hawamich, Reporterre




Investigative journalist with a technical edge, interested in open source investigations, satellite imgs, R, python, AI, data journalism and injustice