Bureaucracy, Lack of Resources Let Sand Miners Off

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 23 2021
Focus Bureaucracy, Lack of Resources Let Sand Miners Off

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan

Chairman of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) of the Ministry of Environment and Wildlife Resources, Anura Walpola, who is also an entrepreneur with a background in civil construction and Director Mineral Titling - Hema Liyanarachchi, spoke to Ceylon Today on the issues related to the issuance of licences for sand mining and mineral sand exploration in the country. They also lamented that they need more staff to monitor the field activities, which is one of the main causes for the increasing number of illegal sand mining activities in the country.  

They admitted to major lapses in the area of monitoring the licence holders and said none of the GSMB officials knew about the recent exposure of an Australian company named Titanium Sands’ engagement in the Gulf of Mannar where they have attempted to export mineral sands without permission.

Walpola, who is the National Organiser of the Podujana Engineers’ Front, a political entity that works closely with the ruling party, aims to develop the country using its natural resources and are in the process of streamlining licence issuances and have also tabled several amendments to the country’s law to curb illegal sand exploration and mining.  

Based on Ceylon Today’s exposure on illegal sand mining published on 29 November, 2020, Sunday edition, under the title “Rampant Sand Mining In East Causing Distress to People,” the Chairman said that the GSMB’s Law Enforcement Unit had raided the place mentioned and had filed seven cases against persons found illegally mining sand. 

He told Ceylon Today that the officials filed seven cases against illegal sand miners in the Batticaloa District in the Chandanamadu Aaru area in Eravur, where hundreds of tippers had been transporting sand that had been dug from the river banks, destroying the natural environment with no action or proper monitoring by the GSMB, a fact that was exposed by Ceylon Today. According to the GSMB Chairman, the transportation of sand using tipper trucks and lorries has been halted after legal cases were filed against several individuals. 

GSMB issued 6,638 licences in 2019 

According to 2019 statistics the GSMB issued 6,638 licences in 2019 for mining activities. The GSMB issued river sand licences to 3,686 individuals or companies with the Trincomalee District being issued with 810 licences. The second highest number of licences was issued to persons in Kalutara District with 407 while in the case of the Moneragala District it was 323.

The mining of graphite saw the GSMB issuing 1, 812 licences with Kurunegala receiving 325 licences followed by Gampaha with 176 and Anuradhapura 153.

For Dolomite mining 56 licences had been issued. For limestone 43, gavel soil 576 and quartz 25 licences had been issued.

Additionally, the GSMB had raided and filed 189 cases against persons and establishments engaged in illegal sand mining in 2019 and in 2020, they filed 223 cases against illegal sand mining.  But the official added that while the suspects are facing a legal battle for the offense of illegal sand mining, they get back to the original places for which the licences were issued and continue the business which means they go ‘unpunished’.

The GSMB chairman said the organisation had no idea about their duties related to development using local resources.

Walpola further said that they have only six units in the country with some 57 officials are insufficient to monitor what is going on in the field. “I brought the Special Enforcement Unit which functioned separately under the GMSB last year and this Unit needs upgrading.”  

Sri Lanka rich in minerals

Some of the amazing features are that Sri Lanka has some of the most expensive mineral sands in the world with titanium fetching the highest value followed by zircons and garnets.

Also, Sri Lanka has the 99.9% purest form of graphite that can be found only in a few places in the world and Quartz is found in a huge quarry in Kotigambokka in Wellawaya. 

 Sri Lanka has a 99.9% pure form of silicon which was discovered 10 years back but still, the mining process has not been expedited.  

The GSMB is apparently going to start another company partnering with the GSMB’s Technical Service Company, Lanka Phosphate Ltd., and the Gem and Jewellery Authority to mine silicon sands.  “Silicon sand can be obtained for more than 1mn MT close to the Alikotara Reservoir in Wellawaya.  

According to the GSMB, many have removed silicon illegally in this particular area. As the area belongs to the Forest Department, the GSMB has claimed the area and said that they would add value to the silicon and export it in accordance to the programme put forward by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.  

“These natural resources are not for export but for the development of the country.  We will remove it, grind it and use it for industrial purposes,” said Walpola. 

At the same time, there is an enormous amount of graphite in Kahatagaha, Karasnagala and Ramboda areas.  

Issuance of licences for sand mining and exploration depends on the demand for natural resources. Three months ago a presidential task force for development was initiated and under this framework, the GSMB was ordered to assess all the natural resources such as sand, soil, gravel, metal (black rock)  and clay. The GSMB is ready with the report of the survey which began in 2017.   Several Geologists and experts had conducted the survey using Google maps and visited all 25 districts to collect information to compile the report.   

GSMB has requested resources to build highways and constructions for the next 10 years.  

 We are taking adequate measures with regard to the findings and use other technicalities such as using chemicals used for blasting rocks which can only go down to a depth of five metres. If a resettlement process begins as persons sometimes need to be relocated due to mining activities, the GSMB has the capacity to step in.   

Law needs to be amended

Using the licences issued by them for sand mining and exploration activities for other purposes is now taking place, the GSMB claimed and they are attempting to amend the laws that were amended twice. 

“We have issues where people settle in the vicinity of the quarry and begin protesting. In some places, quarrying activities are carried out where people reside. The Urban Development Authority has now made it mandatory that a quarry should be 200 metres away from human habitation and not 100 metres away.  

Additionally, the use of chemical blasts without using explosives to control environmental hazards has also introduced.  There is also some powder that is used by the Australians that loosens the mineral and rocks. The GSMB is looking at such new technology for the future. 

Sand exploration

Laws related to sand exploration have become cumbersome. An applicant now can apply for 100 square km and the GSMB has decided to reduce it to half.  A price of Rs 3000 per 100 sq km was drafted by the World Bank consulted by the Canadian system as it is only for exploration.  If there is no mineral found while mining he will have to give up further mining.  

Some local companies partner with foreigners to do mineral exploration, so that even the landowner is powerless to stop them from continuing with their exploration for minerals. The landowner’s consent is not necessary for exploration. This practice has to be stopped, the GSMB officials said.

The GSMB intends to issue sand exploration licences for only two years and will not renew it.  Currently, companies extend the licence four-times, for ten years and thereafter register under a different name and continue to renew the licence. They block the area for decades with no effort shown to make use of the land area. 

But the licencee for exploration can be changed to sand mining once the person proves that the sand exploration has value and change the licence to sand mining.  When he requests for sand mining he has to get permission from the landowner.  

However, some of them exploit using the exploration licences by renewing it till a ‘suitable’ government comes to their rescue to obtain licences for sand mining.   All these need to end immediately, said the two officials at the GSMB.

Holcim Lanka, rebranded as Insee Cement, is operating in Puttalam, however the landowner is the Cement Corporation, which is rented out to Insee.  The Puttalam Quarry is a large one, predominantly mining for sulphate ilmenite deposits, and an international mineral sands company, Iluka, headquartered in Perth, Western Australia, has rented the land that belongs to the Cement Corporation, around 90 grids, for mineral exploration but they were asked to quit by the Corporation.  

“After ten years they have now come back with a new company named Puttalam Ilmenite Ltd (PIL) subsidiary of Iluka and renewed for another two years and we wanted to issue only two years for exploration and not beyond that. If they don’t quicken up we will cancel their licence after two years.   

Walpola said that the Environment Ministry Secretary Dr Anil Jasinghe is highly concerned about this matter.  Currently eight exploration licences have been cancelled by the GSMB as they did not show progress. 

Under Section 29 of the Act, a locally registered company can apply and partner with an overseas company but later on, financial regulations and the agreement on 60% shares for Sri Lanka and 40% to the foreign company has to be registered.

Gulf of Mannar sand exploration issue

As Ceylon Today highlighted before, five local companies were issued 9 licences based on their financial and technical capabilities. The GSMB informed them if their shares are changing they should inform them, however, they did not know how the controversial Titanium Sands, a company based in Perth Australia, came into this equation. 

Investigations are in progress and the five companies were asked for an explanation on 22 January. The five companies had informed the GSMB that Titanium Sands is their ‘’mother company,’’ a fact that was not known to the GSMB. In 2018, Titanium Sands advised the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) that it had entered into an agreement with Srinel Holdings Ltd (Sri Lanka) to explore the extent of the island’s ilmenite reserves.

In the meantime, Minister of Environment Mahinda Amaraweera, last week announced that the licence for exploration should be revoked and not to issue any more licences until further notice.  The five companies that have obtained sand exploration licences and are continuing to renew it every two years are:

Supreme Solution (Pvt) Ltd. which obtained two licences, EL 180/R/3 and EL/182/R/3, for Mineral sand in 45 sqr km and 26 sqr km in Talaimannar. The licence obtained was for 2019 to 2021. Orion Mineral Pvt Ltd also obtained two licences for the same period and the licence numbers are EL/327/R/1 and EL/328/R/1. They had obtained five square km and 8 square km for exploration. 

The third company that obtained the sand exploration licence was Sanur Minerals Pvt Ltd. licence numbers EL/351/R/1 and EL/352/R/1 and they obtained 15 square km and 10 square km for exploration in Talaimannar.

Also, Kilsythe Exploration Pvt Ltd obtained one licence EL/370 to explore 40 square km in Talaimannar and Hammersmith Ceylon Pvt Ltd had obtained two licences for sand exploration numbers EL/371 and EL/372. They have obtained four square km and 49 square km areas for exploration in Talaimannar.

Out of the five companies, two have requested to renew their exploration licences but the GSMB has decided not to do so until this issue is resolved. 

 The general conditions are followed as in licence No EL/385 but it seems many of the rules are being flouted, the GSMB said. 

Despite Minister Amaraweea ordering authorities to revoke all exploration licences with immediate effect the GSMB officials noted that they have not received an official note on it.

Liyanarachchi said they will discuss with the Ministry of Environment whether or not to revoke all their exploration licences. 

The GSMB has been instructed not to allow exploration for minerals unless value addition takes place before export.

We need the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) certificate and will approve the licence only if that is available. We have not issued any licences to an Australian company. 

Lack of resources

GSMB’s regional offices are understaffed and there are no proper monitoring teams in place. 

A monthly report is poorly maintained because proper investigations are not conducted. Having only 57 field assistants, this area is grey, the GSMB officials pointed out. They said at least another 100 staff were needed to carry out proper investigations. 

“Sometimes when we go for court cases we questioned about how the licence was issued and what the GSMB has done about it. We are behind when it comes to our inspection reports, they are not perfect,” Liyanarachchi acknowledged.

Another accusation is some politically connected persons are given sand mining permits and are exploiting the environment. The mining of sand is taking place elsewhere when the permit is for another place. 

A sand licence holder Hemachandra Associates is accused of obtaining sand for beyond the limits and transporting it to Colombo by a goods train.

In Eravur, this company obtains only 500 cubes of sand, however, he is being offered 3,000 cubes of sand.  In Punani, the licence holder has only 100 cubes of sand but 500 cubes of sand is sold to him, many other sand miners were up in arms as a result.

Ceylon Today learns that the train service transporting sand brought down by this person has been on hold due to some conflict that had arisen between the railway department and Hemachandra Associates. 

It is also said that it was not feasible for him to transport sand as the cost is high but we asked the GSMB why no action was taken against this company, they said that it’s the duty of the Police and that person is not illegally mining sand but some illegal miners are selling sand that was illegally mined to him.

GSMB has received more than 300 complaints about the individual but in this case, he was not questioned. But the GSMB official said that after Ceylon Today’s exposure on illegal sand mining raids took place in Mathurankerni, Palamadu, Vantharumullai and in Kathirawelu areas in the Eastern Province.  

The GSMB knows that there is illegal sand mining taking place in Ampara, Trincomalee, Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa but because of the lack of personnel we are unable to investigate all these cases and put a full stop to this practice, the Duo said in conclusion. 

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By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan | Published: 2:00 AM Jan 23 2021

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