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Kokkilai East, Sri Lanka

Ilmenite Sand Mining in Sri Lanka: Renewable Energy Also Comes at a Cost to the Environment

With the intention of advancing the economy, government-owned Sri Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd. has begun the 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 paint. This natural resource, which is not processed in factories in Sri Lanka, is exported to Australia and China at great environmental cost.

cartoon of sand mining

The Lanka Mineral Sands Corporation’s factory 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 after looking for alternative mining sites for 18 years, (from 2004) the corporation discovered the potential of the seashores of Mullaitivu District’s Kokkulai, Kokkuthoduvai, Nayaru , Muhaththuvaram and Chemmalai In truth, it was 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 nine sites are in the south.
However, it was in the Mullaitivu District that the Mineral Sands Corporation began its mining activities in 2006. A 10 km-long coastline — six km from Kokkulai to Kokkuthoduvai, and 4 km from Karunaatukerni to Nayaru — was identified for exploitation. A 25-meter-wide stretch from the shore is to be mined.

The local people are wild with anger that out of Sri Lanka’s 12 potential mining sites, it is the Tamil areas of the Northeast that are to be mined, which would cause extensive environmental damage. 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 their objections known in 2016 and 2017, sand removal was carried out 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 2017 Mullaitivu District’s District Secretary’s proposal 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, they must be covered first before new holes are dug. 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 be suspended during fishing season.

An official letter instructing all craters be filled in / Credit: Lanka News Web.

District Secretary’s Conditions

Be that as it may, no one seemed to have answers on how to avoid, or at least ameliorate, the destruction of the environment as a result of sand mining, 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.”

It is important to note that as a result of 50 years of sand mining in Pulmoddai, 2000 acres of coastal land have been defoliated.

At the same time, it is not just the stipulated 25-meter width of land from the shore that is mined but a lot more — the actual land width spans about100 meters, which mining companies say is required for water barrages and pathways for transport. When asked about this, Northern Province Engineer for Shoreline Protection, Thulasitharan stated, “In this District, a 100 meter-wide piece of land has been allocated for the protection of the coast in 2022. This must be renewed annually because when plants and trees are destroyed, they need to be immediately replanted. It was on this condition that permission is renewed annually, considering the environmental drawbacks in the area, based on the opinions of the people and the Environmental Department.

Proposed sand mining areas / Credit: Lanka News Web. 

Right now, in Kokkilai East along the Kokkilai-Mullaitivu Main Road, 45 acres of private land called Kambitharai have been nationalized for the construction of a Mineral Sands factory. Without the permission or consent of the 18 owners of the land, the nationalization has been gazetted and a fence has been erected around the land. Of these 18 aggrieved owners, Jeyasankar Suhanthini, the proud owner of six acres, stated, “No social impact assessment was done. We have relied on this land for our livelihood since 2012 when we were resettled after the war. Up until 2019, we planted on this field. But now my husband and I are forced into abject coolie work," she said.

"Without a word from us, our land has been expropriated and our environment damaged. Our paddy land which once sustained various 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," she added.

paper with hindi writing on it

Marine University Professor Soosaithasan said, “When sand is mined, it is necessary first to ensure that the place occupied by the vacated sand is not filled by water. If this is not done, the holes dug out naturally are filled with water. In addition, the environmental advantages in the region are destroyed irreversibly. That region experiences a rise in temperature and fish that normally migrate 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. This plan commenced without considering these dangers. Had we done so, we would see alternatives put forward. It is said that sand was dug out only to a depth of four feet in Pulmoddai. However, when inspected directly, the holes were six to seven 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.”

empty field with fence posts

According to Professor Dushyanthi Hoole,  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 to 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 the use of 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 phosphorus leading to acidic gases in the air, and leaving basic ash. High levels of 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.”

photograph of road

When discussing the mining of sand, the factory processes by which ilmenite is separated from the sand are often neglected. The cause of this may be Sri Lanka’s status as a developing country and its tendency to establish these factories in the most backward regions.
The development of the country does require the establishment of factories and the exploitation of some of our resources. However, are we doing these in a fit and properly established scientific way?  This reporter believes that people’s livelihoods are being exploited and even destroyed for politico-economic reasons. The sustenance of the natural diversity of life is thrown to the winds. Why? There are no clear-cut answers. Are we prepared to meet these problems head-on, especially sand-mining has now been permitted from February 2022, in demarcated parts of Mullaitivu?

sandy field with fence running through it

“At present we obtain 40,000 tons of ilmenite each year. This fetches $240 per ton on the international market. At present approximately 40,000 tons ilmenite, 25000 tons rutile and 1200 tons zircon are produced,” said Mr. Gnaneswaran, the Acting General Manager of the Pulmoddai Ilmenite Factory, who has been in service there for 30 years. 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,” he added.
Mullaitivu is set to get a private factory for sandmining soon. As a result, 300 youth from that area will be employed. The corporation promises that locals will be employed for loading and unloading and for operating the machinery for digging.

sand with tire tracks in it

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 Secretariat 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 labor, not machinery, will be deployed for the mining. Only mining of the seashore that is four feet wide is permitted.
Despite these commitments, those who have seen the work in action say that these commitments are confined only to paper, and do not reflect reality.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published in Lanka News Web on January 13, 2022. It has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner Image: Critics say commitments to regulate sand mining are confined only to paper / Credit: Lanka News Web.