GSMB on mission to fix abandoned, at-risk excavation sites

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By Thameenah Razeek

The Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) recently announced that approximately 950 excavation sites across the island have not been rehabilitated and have instead been abandoned by various parties after reaping their benefits.

The term ‘abandoned mines’ refers to mines where no one can be found to accept responsibility for their liabilities. In general, abandoned mines can be found all over the country, particularly in areas where expressways are being built.

Small- to medium-scale underground mining operations were used in all of these mines. Shallow open pits were used to mine a small portion of the ore body. Because a portion of the pit was linked with underground mine workings, the mine is distinguished by a massive, dangerous excavation filled with water.

One of the most visible excavation sites is a 100-foot-deep pit excavated to obtain sand for the Southern Expressway. This location is in Angunukolapelessa, Jandura area, which is the hometown of Environment Minister Mahinda Amaraweera.

Locals complained that the excavation began when the Southern Expressway was being built. The digging has now ceased, but the haphazard pit remains open. 

“The diggings have had an impact on vegetation growth in areas where sand mining occurs around abandoned mine sites. This is due to the fact that the sediment collection operation has resulted in the cutting and uprooting of trees that have grown in abandoned mine sites over the years,” he noted.

Residents, on the other hand, claim that the area is sinking and that hundreds of acres are being excavated nearby.

Meanwhile, a biodiversity-rich mountain range in Embilipitiya is allegedly being leased for mining to a private company and concerns have been expressed by local residents and environmentalists.

The Embilipitiya Sankapaala Galbokka mountain range is rich in biodiversity, with over a hundred species of fauna and flora, including medicinal plants, protected. Residents in the area have complained for several years that the national resource, which includes both external and internal water resources, has been neglected.

The ancient sanctuary is now on the verge of destruction. Certain groups have already excavated illegally in parts of the Galbokka Mountain Range.

Locals say the Government plans to give a private company a 200-acre plot of land in the mountain range to mine for minerals like calcite, dolomite, and silicate.

According to GSMB Director General Sajjana De Silva, it has been observed dangerous working conditions, so, the Bureau has already instructed on the removal of the massive rocks.

Another prominent excavation site is another private firm’s Mica mining in the Matale District, which has also posed a threat to residents and workers. Mining regulations, on the other hand, have been issued by the Bureau.

Rehabilitation

However, Environment Minister Amaraweera admitted that these excavation sites had been turned into lethal traps and they needed to be rehabilitated immediately.

According to the Minister, a bank guarantee is required when obtaining excavation permits until the restoration process is completed. So far, a bank guarantee has been used to reimburse 70 per cent of the land that has undergone rehabilitation work. 

“The mining process is fundamentally destructive; excavation irreversibly alters the nature and context of the site and the excavated data, and the resulting exposure of fabric and artefacts can hasten their deterioration and decay. By definition, most legal or illegal mining creates an inherent conflict between natural practices,” he said.

In addition, he said that miners should have an ethical responsibility to care for and rehabilitate the sites they endanger through mining. Minister Amaraweera stated that there is an urgent need for the development and implementation of abandoned mines rehabilitation strategies that will put an end to both physical and environmental hazards, despite the fact that awareness and acceptance of this obligation have been slow.

“This should be addressed alongside the socioeconomic issues caused by the unplanned closure of these mines. The strategies to be implemented in the rehabilitation of abandoned mines or mine features should be those that create new economic opportunities for the host communities,” he said.

However, he has directed that those who have not properly rehabilitated the sites following the completion of the excavations face legal action, and that such establishments and individuals are not granted licences in the future. 

“When rehabilitation work is completed, it is directed to re-examine whether the work was done correctly at the locations where the bank guarantees were withdrawn. I have heard that some officials have also engaged in illegal practices. Some excavation sites had not been properly rehabilitated, but bond money had been withdrawn by falsely claiming that they had been rehabilitated,” he explained.

The Minister, on the other hand, noted that his goal is to restore these excavations, so that the public can visit them without fear or suspicion.

According to the GSMB, the Bureau issues mining permits for the extraction of minerals such as soil, sand and clay, and the Bureau has not implemented an islandwide programme to rehabilitate excavated sites associated with those licences, as stated by the Minister of Environment in his letter numbered ENV/MIN/2022/04, dated 9 February under the heading ‘Excavation Rehabilitation Programme.’

There were a number of issues with the various methods used to rehabilitate the excavations, according to the report. However, it was stated that while the licensees obtained a bank bond with the intention of rehabilitating the excavation sites, the licensees were not interested in releasing the bonds because the bond did not represent the actual cost of rehabilitation.

As a result, the GSMB acknowledged in its report that there are many un-rehabilitated pits scattered across the country.

Furthermore, due to a lack of staff to carry out the regulatory activities that the Bureau was required to carry out, the Bureau was unable to carry out regulatory activities adequately. While excavation sites were properly rehabilitated, the Bureau made mistakes due to subsequent degradation as a result of unauthorised activities at the sites.

Islandwide programme 

Recognising these concerns, the Bureau, as the mining regulatory body, has prepared an islandwide programme to cover the entire island in accordance with the Minister’s directives.

A document outlining the steps to be taken in terms of location has been made public. The GSMB has already issued three circulars, the third of which states that bank bonds should be kept to indicate the cost of rehabilitation based on the excavation methodology.

De Silva stressed that all preparations have been made for its implementation in the near future, with the Board of Directors’ approval required. In this circular draft, the excavation methodology is used to assess the size of a bank bond.

Abandoned sand and other mineral mine sites are commonly associated with severe environmental issues and physical hazards. Historic and abandoned mines have become hotspots for smugglers due to socioeconomic issues affecting communities surrounding abandoned mine sites. Illegal mining can sometimes stymie rehabilitation efforts.