There’s nuclear gold in this sand. And it’s being sent out with impunity

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 7, Issue 41, Dated October 16, 2010

BY KUNAL MAJUMDER

Eroded lives Beach sand mining has brought dwellings perilously close to the sea

Eroded lives Beach sand mining has brought dwellings perilously close to the sea

PHOTOS: KILDOS

VV MINERAL, a two-decade-old company, has been mining beach sand that includes radioactive minerals on the Kanyakumari coast. The company says it doesn’t have the technology to separate thorium from monazite, a rare earth ore found in the area — a claim verified by the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB). It admits it extracts and exports garnet and ilmenite to 20 countries, including Australia and the US. The question is: what happens to the four percent monazite known to be present in the sand? Since uranium is scarce in India, nuclear scientists have been working on an indigenous technology to utilise thorium, widely available on the southern sea coast, in nuclear power plants.

Though VV Mineral claims it doesn’t process monazite, it would be automatically generated during the mineral separation process in the form of tailings. AERB recommends that when the quantity of tailings generated is large and the monazite content in the tailings is relatively low (less than 5 percent), the tailings have to be disposed of by mixing with silicarich sand and backfilled at the mined out site. If the monazite content in the tailings is high (more than 5 percent) and the quantity of tailings generated is comparatively less, then it has to be stored in trenches and topped with silica-rich sand to bring it to the background level.

It is precisely this that worries Dr RS Lal Mohan, former principal scientist at Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, Kochi. “Indian Rare Earth Ltd (IREL), Manavalakurichi, uses the sand from the same area and produces thorium, so what happens to the monazite in the VV mines? Does the company follow the procedure recommended by the AERB?” he asks.

The incidence of cancer has gone up since illegal sand mining started, says a priest

A REPORT by a committee of top district officials constituted by the District Collector of Kanyakumari, Rajendra Ratnoo, has in fact concluded that VV Mineral has been mining without proper regulatory clearance and has been involved in mineral separation, a process that emits high radiation, without fulfilling AERB norms. “Based on the report, we stopped issuing permits to the company. However, they have challenged the matter in the High Court,” says Ratnoo. The committee, which included the assistant director of mines, tehsildars of Vilavancode and Kalkulam and Revenue Division Officer (RDO) Padmanabhapuram, found out that the company has no plan for the safe and scientific disposal of waste from the mineral separation facilities.

MINING FOR TROUBLE

Hazards galore IREL also produces thorium from the sand mined in Kanyakumari district

Hazards galore IREL also produces thorium from the sand mined in Kanyakumari district

VV Mineral, however, rubbished all these grouses as a ‘set-up’ by officials of IREL’s local unit in connivance with the district collector. “We have established a mineral separation plant and approached the AERB for a licence, which is awaited,” says S Vaikundarajan, Chairman and Managing Director of VV Mineral. He even claims that IREL has illegally mined in VV Mineral’s land and has indulged in other questionable practices. “No authority is ready to take action based on our complaint. Hence we approached the High Court,” he adds. In an email to TEHELKA, the regulatory body gave a clean chit to the company in this respect.

The effect of sand mining on the environment and people has been a major issue along the coastline of southern Tamil Nadu and Kerala for the past few decades. VV Mineral has been active in five seaside villages — Kurumpanai, Keezhmidalam, Midalam, Melmidalam and Helen Nagar — in the Vilavancode taluk of the Kanyakumari district.

“From 2004, it started buying and leasing hundreds of acres in these areas. The villagers initially had no clue that their seashore land was productive. Much later, they realised their land was worth crores,” says a church official.

The company is storing sand mined from the shores of Keezhmidalam in its separation facility in Midalam. “We do get jobs due to mining,” concedes Thankappan, former president of the panchayat, “but there are health issues involving radiation from the minerals.” Church records show an average of 10-15 cases of cancer in every village. “It’s absolutely not true that this area already had high levels of cancer. It has increased in the past few years since the increase in illegal sand mining,” says a church official. Cases of Down’s Syndrome and impotence have also been reported.

But money power is making a dent on the villagers’ ability to put up a united fight. Some of them told TEHELKA that mining companies have divided the villagers by hiring the powerful elite of the villages as sub-contractors. “We never had cases of violence before,” says Subha (name changed), “But nowadays, whoever disagrees with the company faces violent attacks.”

The traditional livelihood of the sea coast has also been hit. “There is no place for spreading our fishing nets or equipment. We can’t even dry our fish. The sea has eroded our village as sand is being removed from the shore,” says Meiyance (name changed).

Meanwhile, VV Mineral has filed two writ petitions on the matter, which are pending in the Madras High Court. Locals fear this could become another ‘green case’ caught in a vicious cycle of allegation and counter-allegation.

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