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Ilmenite Mining in Sri Lanka – Destructive of the Environment?

N. Lohathayalan

Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd.

With a view to advancing the economy  government owned Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd. has begun rapid removal of Ilmenite from the coastal regions of Mullaitivu District’s Kokkulai, Kokkuthoduvai, Nayaru, Muhathuvaram, and Chemmalai. Ilmenite is of great importance in making solar cells, marble for flooring and paints. This natural resource, not having been used to establish factories of significance in Sri Lanka, is exported to Australia and China at great environmental cost.

New Plant: Devastation as Development

Trincomalee’s Ilmenite Factory

The factory Lanka Mineral Sands Corporation has been operating from the village of Pulmodai in Trincomalee District in the Eastern Province since 1972. There are signs that the factory will soon run short of the required sands, and for 18 years (from 2004) has been looking for other places as alternative mining sites and discovered the potential of the seashores of Mullaitivu District’s Kokkulai, Kokkuthoduvai, Nayaru , Muhaththuvaram and Chemmalai. In truth it has been noted by D.W. Herath in his 1980 book that there are 12 locations in Sri Lanka with Ilmenite. Of these only three are in the North-East. The remaining 9 sites are in the South.
However, it was in Mullaitivu District that the Mineral Sands Corporation began its mining activities in 2006. A total of 10 km long coastline – 6 km from Kokkulai to Kokkuthoduvai, and 4 km from Karunaatukerni to Nayaru – was identified for exploitation. A 25 m wide stretch from the shore is to be mined.

The people of  the locality are wild with anger that when Sri Lanka has 12 potential sites for mining, it is the Tamil areas of the Northeast that are to be mined causing extensive devastation of the environment as pointed out by environmentalists. As a result of the restrictions on sand exploitation placed by the district administration, the quantum of sand removed was initially limited.  As the district’s fisherfolk organizations and landowners made known their objections,  in the years 2016 and 2017 sand removal was only at a slow pace. Moreover, as the exploited shoreline was government-owned, the District Secretary’s feasibility report which was called for, imposed some conditions. The most important of these was that the environment should not be affected.

District Secretary’s Proposals

The Mullaitivu District’s District Secretary’s proposal of 2017 had seven important elements. These  emphasized that no damage be done to the natural resources and surrounding environment. In addition, when thousands of tons of  sand are removed creating huge holes in the ground, these must be covered first before new holes are dug to remove sand. This is because fishermen pull-in nets of fish from the shoreline and the mining would adversely affect their livelihood.  When this proposal was tabled, the corporation announced within six or seven months that sandmining would avoid seasons when such fishing activities are ongoing.

Craters Covered Up

District Secretary’s Conditions

Be that as it may, no one seemed to have answers to how the destruction of the environment as a result of sandmining might be avoided or at least  ameliorated as the removal of sand stops the development of the shore area. When queried, Jaffna University’s former VC and Emeritus Professor P. Balasundarampillai responded, “When sand is washed ashore, the coastal belt grows. It is nature’s means of naturally preserving the environment.  But when sand is removed in the name of developing natural resources, that growth is stunted. The nature of agricultural lands changes, and neighboring lands turn salty. Not only do succulent plants die but their regrowth is halted for a long time. As a result, people cannot settle down close to the mined beaches nor engage in agriculture.”

We note that as a result of 50 years of sandmining in Pulmoddai, 2000 acres of coastal land are seen defoliated.

At the same time, it is not just the 25 m width of land from the shore that is said to be limited to mining but a lot more – like 100 m with the excuse of water barrages and pathways for transport. When asked about this, Northern Province Engineer for Shoreline Protection, Mr. Thulasitharan stated, “In this District a 100 m wide land has been allocated for the protection of the coast in 2022. This has to be renewed annually because when plants and trees are destroyed, they need immediately to be annually replanted, and it was on this condition that permission is renewed annually considering the environmental drawbacks in the area, gathering the opinion of the people and the Environmental Department.

45 Acres: Acquired and Fenced Off

Right now, in Kokkilai East along the Kokkilai-Mullaitivu Main Road 45 acres of private land called Kambitharai have been nationalized for putting up a Mineral Sands factory. Without the permission or consent of the 18 owners of the land, the nationalization has been gazetted and a fence erected around the land. Of these 18 aggrieved owners, Jeyasankar Suhanthini, the proud owner of 6 acres stated, “No social impact assessment was done. We have relied on this land for our livelihood since the year 2012 when we were resettled after the war. Up to the 2019 Kaalapoham we planted on this field. But now my husband and I are forced into abject coolie work. Without a word from us, our land has been expropriated and our environment damaged. What was our paddy land until 2019 sustaining variegated kinds of animals, has been so badly exploited that even earthworms cannot live on it.  This ilmenite mining and the factory for separating ilmenite from the sand has denuded the land and spoilt the water.”

When queried, Marine University Professor  Soosaithasan averred, “When sand is mined it is necessary first to ensure that the place occupied by the vacated sand is not filled by water. When this is not done, the holes dug out naturally are filled with water. In addition, before the digging the environmental advantages in the region have to be destroyed irreversibly. That region experiences a rise in temperature and fishes normally migrating there go elsewhere. This vitiates the sea’s tendency to sustain diverse life forms. When barrages are erected, rainwater cannot run to the sea, and flood damage and agricultural destruction go hand in hand. In this environment this plan was begun without considering the dangers. Had we done so, we would see alternatives put forward. It is said that sand was dug out only to a depth of 4 feet in Pulmoddai. However, when inspected directly the holes were 6-7 feet in depth. These holes have not been filled for many years. After separating the ilmenite, the remnant sand could have been put back. That not having been done exposes the dangers of this profit-based corruption. Further processing steps could enhance this environmental impact.

According to Prof. Dushyanthi Hoole, lately of Michigan State University, in its 1979 Mineral Survey Report the Geological Survey Department proposed that the sands in Nayaru, Koduvakaattumalai, Thavilkaadu, Verugal, Vaakarai and Thirukoil and possibly Kalpiddy and Mannar too may be of suitable grade. She adds, “Some foreign company estimates say that about 475,000 – 700,000 of the titanium containing mineral rutile, 350000-500000 tons of zircon mineral and 2-4 trillion tons of ilmenite sands could be exploited there. In the south, Dondra, Dikwella, Gotavaya, Kirinda and Ambalantota also have ilmenite sands. The ilmenite sands are wet-magnetic separated with little environmental impact but use of much ground water. However, it was also proposed that to separate the iron and the titanium metals, electric smelting would be used. This leaves a titanium slag or tailing as remains. Titanium has high demand. In electro-smelting processes, a carbon source is used which would contain sulfur and phosphorous leading to acidic gases in the air, and besides leaving basic ash. High levels of the poisonous carbon monoxide are generated which is often burnt to the air as carbon dioxide, but some factories reroute it into the fuel gas. Carbon dioxide contributes to global warming. Therefore, strict international environmental regulations would apply. Radioactive material and heavy minerals present will be more concentrated in the waste and impact the air, water and land. The impacted vegetation, animal population, land quality can never be reproduced after the exploitation and the area would be made muddy in refilling. The promised restoration did not happen at Pulmoddai. A participatory approach was not used to avoid this.”

When we discuss the mining of sand, we neglect to consider in depth the factory processes by which ilmenite is separated from the sand. The cause of this may be our status as a growing Third World country and our tendency to establish these factories in the most backward regions of Sri Lanka.
The development of the country does require the establishment of factories and the sale of some of our resources. However, are we doing these in a fit and properly established scientific way?  I believe that for politico-economic reasons the people’s livelihood is being exploited and even destroyed.  The sustenance of the natural diversity of life is thrown to the winds. Why? There are no clearcut answers. Are we prepared to meet this problems head-on, especially as in demarcated parts of Mullaitivu sandmining has been permitted from February 2022?

Addressing these natural fears, Mr. Gnaneswaran, the Acting General Manager of the Pumoddai Ilmenite Factory  who has been in service there for 30 years had this to say: “At present we obtain 40,000 tons of Ilmenite each year. This fetches Rs. $240 per ton on the international market. At present approximately 40,000 tons ilmenite, 25000 tons rutile and 1200 tons zircon are produced. In the international market they fetch $240, $1700 and $ 1900 per ton respectively.

We now have 565 workers in our factory. To keep them occupied we need 240,000 metric tons of sand to get these minerals. Even after meeting this output, we need to fill the holes with sand which we get from Pulmoddai to Kumburupitti.
Mullaitivu is set to get a private factory for sandmining soon. For that 300 youth from that area will be employed. Besides these, it is promised that people from here will be employed for loading and unloading and for operating the machinery for digging.

The owners have advanced Rs. 20 lakhs for the land they are buying for the new factory. The full sum will be handed over once the District Secretariate formalizes its commitments. These include not to mine sand beyond a certain depth, confining the mining to 6 to 12 inches. To this end, it is planned that only human labour, not machinery, will be deployed for the mining. Only seashore that is 4 feet wide is permitted.
Despite these commitments, those who have seen the work in action say that these commitments are confined to letters and do not reflect reality.
Research for this paper was supported by a generous grant from The Earth Journalism Network.

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