Mining of rare earth minerals poisons land and water

Sand mining and environmental pollution (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Sand mining and environmental pollution (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Mining and processing of heavy and rare earth minerals can produce a tremendously negative impact on the land and environment in the area, the magnitude and intensity of which depends on the kind of chemicals and processes used, the efforts taken in the management of waste as well as on environmental fragility of the location. It can also endanger the health of local residents as well as their livelihoods through water pollution and destruction of farmland thereby violating the rights of local communities.

Impact of mining on the soil and water in the coastal areas of Kollam

The paper titled 'Impact of Rare Earth Mining and Processing on Soil and Water Environment at Chavara, Kollam, Kerala: A case study' published in the journal Procedia Earth and Planetary Science, describes the case of the Chavara-Neendakara coastline of Kollam, Kerala known for the occurence of heavy mineral rich placer deposits which are being mined since 1922.

Although the introduction of a titanium dioxide (TiO2) pigment producing plant in 1984 has made the industry strategically important, the mining activities along with the processing of heavy minerals and the production of the TiO2 pigment have resulted in the release of a number of contaminants into the environment.

These contaminants combined with the accidental leakage of raw material for TiO2 from Kerala Minerals and Metals Ltd (KMML) has led to the environmental degradation of the surrounding areas. People living in these areas have been experiencing air, land and water pollution problems for the last 10 years. This has led to complete destruction of vegetation in the area and contamination of water from the wells so much so that people have been warned against using the water for drinking, bathing or even for their toilets.

In addition to the land and water pollution, the area has had frequent gas leaks that have had a negative impact on the health of residents who needed to be hospitalised frequently. The incidence of cancer is very high and those residing near the industrial area are also suffering from diseases such as bronchitis, asthma, cancer and skin ailments. The air and water quality assessments have revealed extreme pollution and the area has also been found to fall into a high background radiation zone.

The study

The paper presents the findings of a study that aimed at assessing the soil and water quality parameters in the area. Water samples were collected from five different sources during the monsoon season. Representative surface soil samples were collected from the contaminated and noncontaminated areas for the study.

The study found that:

  • discharge from the industry had resulted in the lowering of pH of water and soil, leading to loss of vegetation, and water and soil quality deterioration;
  • soil and water were heavily polluted with iron and chlorine;
  • there was an increased concentration of trace metals like coppor, nickel, zinc, lead, vanadium, chromium, strontium, selenium, cobalt, which also posed the threat of increasing the heavy metal loading in the surrounding subsoil and surface water sources;
  • the processes increased dust that included radioactive elements, which posed a health risk to those living nearby;
  • the calculated pollution indices and water quality indices confirmed the very high water and soil pollution in the area.

Lack of attention given to the environmental and human health risks

The paper argues that these potential threats of environmental deterioration continue to be ignored. This is partly due to the difficulty associated with regulating the industry that produces resources of high strategic importance. It is, however, important to pay attention to the ill-effects of mining in Kerala because of its high population density, and the threat that mining poses to human health as well as the serious negative impacts that it has been found to have on the environment, water and soil.

What needs to be done

The pollution has affected the life and livelihoods of the people in the surroundings areas of KMML. The paper ends by arguing that a multidisciplinary approach involving in-depth studies in geology, hydrology, soil chemistry and toxicology are required to understand issues related to contamination. Health risk assessments due to the contaminated soil and water from various exposure pathways should be undertaken on a priority basis to evaluate the health impacts of the mining industry on the population.

Please download a copy of the paper below.