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Mines Bureau to map radioactive minerals in Sri Lanka – A critical review

2018-08-08 10:03:22
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A news item under the above heading in Daily Mirror on July 27, 2018 has reported that the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB) is to launch a systematic field investigation under the “guidance” of the present chairman whom I believe is not a professional geologist. With due respects to this officer, I would like to categorically state that this effort of the GSMB is definitely an exercise of “reinventing the wheel”.


My sincere conviction is that the chairman has not been educated about the past attempts of the Geological Survey Department (GSD), the predecessor to the GSMB, in on-shore and off-shore surveys carried out since 1958 for detection of radioactive minerals containing uranium and thorium.


In this article, I hope to outline the pioneering work the GSD carried out since 1958 and hope the GSMB could ascertain follow up areas with the information in the library for detailed exploration including large-scale mapping, geophysical and geochemical surveys, which could be integrated to conclude whether it is economically feasible to exploit these non-renewable  resources. 


However, I hope the records of the earlier work carried out by the GSD are still there as it was reported that some of the files were removed by senior geologists, who were/are  consultants to private companies.


Past surveys for radio-active minerals (1903–1958)


The Mineral Survey of Sri Lanka (Ceylon) was initiated by Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy for the British Colonial Office in 1903 and was terminated in 1906 with a recommendation to set up a Mineralogy Department. 


Apart from industrial minerals such as mica, graphite, iron ore, moonstone, garnet and gemstones, etc. it must be stated that thorianite (a mineral containing thorium a radioactive mineral) was discovered. With the recent development of breeder reactors, especially by India, thorium can be utilized for generation of energy, especially for electricity.


The first air borne geophysical survey was carried out in 1958 by Hunting Survey Corporation under the Colombo Plan Canadian Technical Assistance Programme. Special airborne magnetometer and radiometric surveys were carried out in the north as well as special lines were flown in the south. 


These surveys indicated that radioactive minerals such as thorianite and uranium-bearing minerals are present. The outcome of this survey was the location of thick Miocene limestone rocks with potential for hydrocarbons in the north covering Jaffna and Mannar as well as iron ore deposit at Panirendawa and monazite (containing thorium) off shore at Kaikawela and a high-density rock mass running north west-south east covering the Sinharaja forest reserve, which was followed up by ground surveys.


Surveys for radio-active minerals (1958–1997)


A stream sampling programme for detection of uranium was carried out by the GSD covering the Precambrian basement, which is over two-thirds the surface area of the island with the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of the United Nations in Vienna. 


The IAEA provided an expert to plan out this stream sediment programme. The results of the initial survey were reviewed by another expert at the beginning of 1983 and nine target areas were identified for further follow-up work, which was to include a collection of samples on a closer grid, radon gas surveys collection of chip samples and diamond core drilling. 


The total area for the follow up work was 6780 square kilometres and this area was selected from the original area of 60 000 square kilometres, which covered the preliminary survey. It is regretted that no follow-up work has been carried out by the GSMB.


Although the GSD planned out to carry out the follow-up work within a period of five years, with the assistance of foreign geological surveys, it did not materialize with the change of institutions.


Offshore exploration for heavy minerals in SL–UNRFNRE contract SRL/88/NO 1-1


On July 1991 (27 years ago), the United Nations Revolving Fund for Natural Resources Exploration (UNRFNRE) signed a project agreement with the Sri Lanka government to explore the offshore area between Panadura and Bentota for economic concentrations of heavy minerals and this project was planned to be conducted in two phases, which included Minimum Work Programme (Phase1) with a commitment to expend not less than US $ 360000 to locate heavy sand minerals containing monazite, ilmenite, rutile and zircon. This phase was completed between March and April 1997. 


The head of the UNRFNRE consulted me when I was an Economic Affairs Officer at United Nations ESCAP in Bangkok on this survey, before launching the project.
The offshore survey was carried out by the Geological Survey of Canada (Atlantic) under contract with the UNRFNRE.


The minimum work programme used a high resolution seismic reflection, side scan sonar and eco sounder systems, which were towed from a tug boat. Eleven hundred line kilometres of high resolution data were collected over more than 450 square kilometres of the inner continental shelf between approximately 10 to 50-meter water depths. Sixty eight surface sediment samples were collected to assist the interpretation of the geophysical data.


“The above survey delineated about 400 million cubic meters of sediments that could be dredged for sediments containing 11 potential resource areas. These areas are  interconnected on shore to off shore distributary systems (Panadura, Kalu and Bentota consisting of submerged river channels in filled with sediment and interconnected inshore and offshore basins previously fed by sediments transported by the paleo – rivers.”)


The Minimum Work Programme concluded that “the identified basins and channels contain approximately 400 million cubic meters of sediment with potential for heavy mineral sands of monazite (containing radioactive thorium) ilmenite, rutile and zircon. It is also significant to note that “Since the higher concentrations of heavy minerals sands occur at the base of the sediment pile, the above estimate is considered to be very conservative.”


A follow up Phase 11 sampling programme was planned  to determine the heavy mineral content of the sediments that infill the 11 potential resource sites by vibro-coring to more than two meters depth by sampling below the seabed with full mineralogical and geochemical analyses.


Finally the economical exploitation of this offshore deposit by integrating Phase 1 and Phase 11 was recommended. Further, it is also recommended “that exploiting offshore sands for both heavy mineral content and aggregate for construction may improve the resource economics.” 


It was also recommended that a full environmental impact assessment should be carried out prior to any commercial extraction of the offshore heavy minerals.
However, 22 years have passed since the completion of Phase 1 and the GSMB did not even attempt to launch Phase 11.

 

I would like to stress that the president, who is in charge of the GSMB, should investigate whether spending “more than Rs.100 million” from the “GSMB budgetary allocation” is justified and as to why the earlier projects undertaken by the GSD were not taken into account with follow-up work without starting the work a fresh


Recommendations and conclusions 


In this short article, I have attempted to highlight the exploratory activities carried out by the GSD from the inception of the mineral survey of the island from 1903 to 1994 when this government institution was converted to a semi-government statutory body.


 It must be stressed the GSD operated on a allocation of only Rs.6 million as compared with the GSMB, which is collecting royalties and other fees exceeding over Rs.1000 million. The staff of the GSD was only 13 geologists and one inspector of mines and later increased to about three with trainees, who never returned to Sri Lanka after their training period in the UK. The total staff of the GSD in 1994 was only 75, including the support staff.


Today, the GSMB has about 14 regional offices spreading throughout the island with mining engineers as compared to only one inspector of mines, who controlled and regulated all mining activities in the country. I will leave it to the readers to judge the regularization and supervision of present mining including sand, rock and other materials with all the facilities and manpower of the present GSMB.


I wrote an article to Daily Mirror published on July 29,  2007, under the title ‘Critical Review of the Geological Survey and Mines Bureau (GSMB)’ and concluded, “The transformation of this department (GSD) to a semi-autonomous body has severely affected the regulatory functions of the state and also carrying out basic geological sciences in Sri Lanka.”


It is accepted that the GSMB has generated a significant revenue to the Treasury since 1994 but it should be questioned at what costs sacrificing environmental degradation due to illicit mining activities sometimes initiated by politicians and high government officials.


I also commented as follows. “Political patronage would only result in creating more chaos in this statutory body and will result in appointment of square pegs in round holes. Please leave the scientific community from political interference.”  


Again, it is up to the reader to judge the veracity of this statement.


With my experience of over 53 years as a professional earth scientist, I would recommend that the GSMB, without launching fresh surveys for detection of uranium and thorium, should focus in carrying out follow-up activities as reported in surveys already conducted by the GSD from 1958 to 1994.


A recent communication from a consultant in remote sensing from Malaysia has indicated from the interpretation of satellite data that there is a possibility of uranium mineralization in the lower levels of the Miocene limestone in Jaffna (Mesali) as well as the limestone stretch from the eastern end of the Jaffna peninsula to Trincomalee and these areas should also be investigated.


Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SINTEC) and Laughs Gas entered into a joint venture to produce titanium oxide and titanium without the acid route (sulphuric acid and hydrochloric acid that gives rise to environmentally harmful ferrous sulphate and chlorides when released to the sea). It is regretted that no progress has been reported to the public. 


I was recently reading a book titled ‘Seven Elements That Have Changed the World’ by John Browne published by The Orion Publishing Group London. These seven elements are iron, carbon, gold, silver, uranium, titanium and silicon.


It is ironical that Sri Lanka has significant quantities of minerals containing carbon (graphite) titanium (ilmenite and rutile) and silicon (silica quartz) and also irons (magnetite – Seruwila and Panirendawa and limonite (Dela Noragolla in the Ratnapura District) and uranium (IAEA Survey in 1983 - 9 target areas).


The minerals  graphite, ilmenite as well as silica quartz are today used in high-end technology such as in computers, grapheme, which have multiple uses,  carbon fibre optics, solar panels for electricity generation, coating in TVs, etc. I hope to write a follow-up article highlighting these applications at a later date.


It must be stressed that  young earth scientists are enthusiastic to carry out integrated surveys to quantify these economically minerals indicated above but some senior geologists sit on their laurels and invariably ignore the younger generation. It must also be stressed that a senior geophysicist should play an active role in the project to locate radioactive minerals.


Finally, I would like to stress that the president, who is in charge of the GSMB, should investigate whether spending “more than Rs.100 million” from the “GSMB budgetary allocation” is justified and as to why the earlier projects undertaken by the GSD were not taken into account with follow-up work without starting the work a fresh. A director of the present board of the GSMB, a former director general, was involved with the IAEA and should be able to effectively guide this survey with emphasis on the follow-up to the GSD surveys. 


 I would also like to question whether there were any indications of uranium mineralization in the surveys carried out in the Matale and Kandy Districts as I was the geologist who mapped these areas prior to my departure for postgraduate studies in the UK in 1972. 


(Dulip Jayawardena, Director of the Geological Survey Department from 1985 to 1987 and Economic Affairs Officer United Nations ESCAP from 1990 to 2003 with 53 years of professional experience since 1965 in Sri Lanka and Asia as an economic geologist as well as marine affairs, can be contacted at fasttrack@eol.lk) 


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