Greed for atomic minerals to leave Tamil Nadu in peril

With State coast rich in monazite, a source of thorium, activists fear Centre’s relaxation could lead to indiscriminate mining 

Published: 13th October 2017 02:29 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th October 2017 02:06 PM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: Tamil Nadu has been the biggest victim of illegal beach sand mining in the country. As per the report submitted recently by senior lawyer and rights activist V Suresh, appointed as amicus curiae by Madras High Court in the case relating to illegalities in mining of beach sand minerals in Thoothukudi, Tirunelveli and Kanniyakumari, out of 1.5 crore  tonnes of raw sand mined between 2000 and 2017, 57 per cent had been mined illegally.

Now, the latest “horrific” amendment, as activists call it, to Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) Notification, 2011 by Union Ministry of Environment, allowing mining of atomic minerals like uranium, thorium or titanium in ecologically sensitive CRZ areas, irrespective of whether they are available in non-CRZ areas or not, is only going to deliver a telling blow on the already under-stress Tamil Nadu coast.

As per the study titled “Coastal Mineral Mapping” done by researchers in Institute of Ocean Management (IOM) in Anna University, it is revealed that Tamil Nadu arguably has highest concentration of Monazite deposits in the country along its coastline that spans over 1,076 km. Monazite, an atomic mineral, contains 8-10 percent thorium, which is a nuclear fuel. This was India’s first exhaustive attempt to map and record all the natural minerals available, done is tandem with Atomic Mineral Directorate for Exploration and Research (AMD) of Department of Atomic Energy and funded by Environment Ministry. The beach sands of India — especially in Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh — are rich in several heavy minerals such as ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene, garnet, sillimanite, zircon and monazite.  

Supreme Court lawyer Ritwick Dutta, who is also the managing trustee of Legal Initiative for Forest and Environment, said the latest notification will compromise the integrity of the coast. “I can’t make sense of this notification. There is no consultation, there is no fixation on extraction of minerals. This will give a free run for miners to plunder India’s natural treasure. There is a pattern in what the Centre is doing. It is systematically weakening all the laws coming under Environment (Protection) Act, 1972. Firstly, construction projects were exempted from preparing EIA, later Central Wetlands Regulatory Authority was replaced with ‘toothless’ Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2016, where state authorities call the shots. Now, this mindless amendment to CRZ Notification, 2011.”

Earth scientist Sreedhar Ramamoorthy of Mines, Minerals and People (MMP), an NGO working with people affected due to mining, says this move by government would prove costly in the long run. “Though, the government justifies it saying atomic minerals are required for strategic and other requirements by the Department of Atomic Energy, it is the foreign companies who are going to benefit. Indian Rare Earths Limited (IREL) has limited capacity to process these minerals. Most of the precious minerals are going to land up in foreign soil in the form of export of raw sand. In future, if India wants to enter into manufacturing of aircraft, the country will need titanium. It takes thousands of years for the coast to  regenerate mineral deposits,” he said, and added that he was contemplating a challenge in the court.  

Environmental activist Nityanand Jayaraman says that Tamil Nadu has already been plundered violating CRZ norms. The intertidal, CRZ-1 areas were not spared even when there were laws. “Now, this is legitimising some of the wrongdoing done in the past and people have also lost their right to question the illegality.”

Environmental dangers

It’s not just the loss of precious minerals that should worry the States. Tampering of fragile coastline would also invite disasters like salt water intrusion,  qualitative and quantitative degradation of ground water.

N Chandrashekar,  Centre for GeoTechnology, Manonmaniam Sundaranar University, Tirunelveli, who conducted ‘Geospatial Analysis of Coastal Geomorphological Vulnerability along Southern Tamilnadu Coast’, during the period of 33  years (between 1968 and 2001), says the erosion process is more dominant than accretion. “The total area lost due to erosion is 1137.43 sq.metre, while the total area of accreted (accumulated) land was 863.74 sq.metre.  The maximum erosion occurred at Sippikulam, Kalaignanapuram and Periasamypuram zones. This may be due to mining of coastal resources,” the study said.

An unstable shoreline, with flattened dunes, lead to intrusion of saltwater into ground water. “These dunes which act as buffer and barrier to prevent sea water from entering have been hounded at over the years,” said activist and politician Fatima Babu from Thoothukudi. She added that salt water intrusion has led to rampant migration of coastal inhabitants. “When the sand is drained of resources and water is salty, it causes a social disruption, and brings about communal hostility in sharing limited resources.”

According to environmentalist Vareethiah Konstantine, a writer and environmentalist from Kanniyakumari, miners extract sand indiscriminately from a specific strata using float dredgers, leaving it weak and susceptible to not only salt water intrusion but also to faults.  “Until about a few years ago, houses kept collapsing in the area and people had to abandon their houses. Sand with minerals has a certain density and when that goes down, the strata becomes weak.”

Health effects

While social and environmental consequences seem inevitable, Konstantine claimed that atomic mining has brought serious health complications to residents around the mines. “Since 1965, mining for radioactive minerals has been prominent in Kanniyakumari, particularly in Manavalakruchi. Studies in the neighbouring mines in Kollam have revealed that the effect of radiation has had a far reaching effect, up to 85 km,” he rued.

He added that no comprehensive study has been brought to public forum about the health effects of these radiations. “The incidences of cancer has been rising over the decades and most victims from Manavalakuruchi and Midalam, approach the Regional Cancer Centre in Thiruvananthapuram or the International Cancer Centre , by CSI Medical Mission at Neyyoor. “These cases are however are not mapped back to radioactivity,” he said claiming that the incidence of the disease is relatively lower the farther one lives from atomic mining areas.

Next danger

The union government is also reportedly considering offshore mineral exploration and deep-seated and concealed mineral targets. As per the National Mineral Exploration Policy-2016, a document prepared by Ministry of Mines, it is said that preliminary mineral exploration surveys have shown great potentiality of mineral occurrence off the coast on either sides of Peninsular India. Also, the document talks of government identifying deep-seated (below 300m to 1000m) and concealed mineral targets.

Alarm bells ringing

  • Activists say the resources could end up in foreign soil owing to lack of state-run companies’ expertise in handling such rare-earth minerals
  • Mining for radioactive minerals can contribute to cancer among those in the vicinity of the project
  • Tampering of fragile coastline would also invite disasters like salt water intrusion, leading to degradation of ground water. They say there are many areas in the State already battling such issues due to unscientific construction
  • Activities like coral mining, beach sand mining and other dredging activities are highly harmful and contribute to sea erosion
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