Concerns over moves to carry out limonite sand mining in Mannar

The Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies has raised concerns over moves to permit an Australian based mining company to carry out extensive limonite sand mining in the Gulf of Mannar.

The Centre said the project by the Perth-based mining company, Titanium Sands Ltd (TSL) will cause extensive damage to the Mannar island, its Marine National Park, and its rich biodiversity.

The Mannar Island, which is 26km long and 8km wide, has rich deposits of the mineral limonite in its sand. This is the main source of titanium dioxide, titanium (IV) oxide or titanium (TiO).

Titanium dioxide has a wide range of applications, including paint, sunscreen, and food coloring. In 2018 it was estimated titanium dioxide was used in two-thirds of all pigments. The business which is profitable for multinational companies, is seen as the reason for the Australian titanium Sands Companies to focus on the Mannar titanium mining project.

The Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies said the company is looking to mine an area in the island spanning 8km in length and 2 km in width.

Companies acquired by Titanium Sands had reportedly commenced preliminary assessment with small-scale drilling on the island in 2015. Throughout the totality of their study, which included a scoping study completed this year, the company had drilled more than 4000 exploratory holes, with the deepest going down to 12 meters, without the permission of the private land owners.

The Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies believes this mining project will cause damage to the ground water table in the Mannar Island, resulting in the risk of salt water contaminating drinking water. This could eventually result in the disruption of the lives of tens of thousands of residents who depend on fishing and other primary industries for their livelihoods.

Pointing out that Mannar is a low-lying coastal area prone to natural hazards such as flash floods, cyclones and sea level rise, it said TRSL is aggressively seeking investors for their sand mining operation, claiming that the operation is a simple, and a low impact mining process. It further said the company has not obtained environmental approvals and mining licenses for the project.

The project has been deemed as causing massive social, ecological and economic consequences, such as destruction of traditional fishing grounds and livelihoods, increasing salinity of wells and ground water, destruction of old-growth palmyra forests, habitat damage of Mannar’s significant migratory bird population, devastation of the tourist industry, and the adverse bearing on historical sites.

The Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies said exploration licences for the Mannar Island were issued by the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau to six local companies, which are wholly-owned subsidiaries of TSL.

The Sri Lankan Geological Surveys and Mines Bureau is the Government body responsible for issuing mining and exploration licences in Sri Lanka. They are not entitled to issue the license without proper environment impact assessment according to the National Environment Act of Sri Lanka. However, in this case, it has been found that the National Environment Act has been violated by the companies, the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies said.

Stating that mining companies have caused great damages to the Manner island thus far, the Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies said both, the Sri Lankan and Indian Governments are responsible to look after and protect this Biosphere Reserve according to the international Environment Law. The protected area of the Biosphere Reserve extends over 10,500 km within this area, while there are 21 islands.

The Centre further pointed out that in the event the Government permits Titanium mining companies to work in Mannar, it will cause Ttitanium dust and sand to be deposited along the coral and marine habitat in the sea area around the Gulf of Mannar.

The National Centre for Coastal Research, an institute under the Ministry of Earth Sciences, in India, has a field research station in the Gulf of Mannar region. The station has identified different habitats, including coral reefs, mangroves and seagrasses. Visiting the 21 islands are 168 kinds of migratory birds, 5 kinds of marine turtles, 450 kinds of fish, 79 kinds of shellfish, 100 different kinds of sponges, 260 kinds of molluscs’, and 100 kinds of echinoderms.

The Centre for Environmental and Nature Studies emphasized that permitting the Australian based company to conduct limonite mining in Mannar could destroy these various habitats. (Colombo Gazette)