MAC: Mines and Communities

Overburdened: the hidden realities of India's holiday state

Published by MAC on 2009-09-14
Source: Meghga Bahree,

One of the world's leading business websites,, has turned its attention to the unacceptable activities of companies that are mining iron ore in the Indian "holiday" state of Goa.

The key culprit identified is Dempo - a company controlled by UK-based Vedanta Resources plc, which has itself now become India's second biggest iron exploiter and exporter.

Trouble in Paradise

by Meghga Bahree,

10 September 2009

An hour's drive from Goa's luxury resorts, Indian mining companies are wrecking the land and breaking laws.

Ramesh Gauns, an English and geography school teacher, gets into an argument with a security guard. The site is a long barbed wire fence that slopes uphill just outside an iron ore site operated by the Dempo Mining Co. in his native Goa, on the western coast of India.

"You can't take pictures, this is private property," the guard says to Gauns and a reporter.

Gauns is used to confrontation with the mining companies. "I know what you're doing here," he shouts. "It's illegal! You can't scare us!" By this time, the reporter has already snapped a handful of shots of the lake below -- which is dyed the color of dried blood from the mine's runoff.

Gauns, 58, is a perennial protestor in Goa. He has demonstrated against the caste system, religious rituals and, most recently, what he believes to be environmental crimes. His latest fight started three years ago, when he went to a public hearing on a proposed iron ore mine on the banks of the river in his home town, Bicholim.

He mobilized the community, filed a complaint with the state environmental agency, then took his cause to the Delhi High Court, which put the project on hold.

He hopes he will be as successful with his latest target, the Dempo mine. It is there that the residents of Sirigaon filed a petition to the Bombay High Court in June 2008, complaining that their wells were drying up and that their fields were ruined because of silt from the mines. The court directed the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, an autonomous government body, to investigate.

That report, out since March, validates the villagers' complaints, and says the companies should replenish the aquifer, restore the damaged rice fields and stabilize the mine waste -- measures that might take 18 months at a total cost of $1.4 million. The court has not yet decided how to proceed -- prompting activists like Gauns to collect more data against the mines.

Most Indians know nothing of the standoff. Nor do the hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists who flock to Goa for its sparkling beaches, luscious greenery, rave parties and Cancun laxity. But the state is also rich in iron ore, and 90% of its length (65 miles) is in various stages of open-pit mining.

Most resorts are an hour's drive away from the mines, but the mining industry isn't quite out of sight. From the sandy shores of the beach resorts, sunbathers can see barge after barge, fully-loaded with mine slag, every morning on the Arabian Sea.

"Goa is a tiny place, and any mining activity in the interiors, will affect the coastal areas as well," says Gauns, whom the Ministry of Environment & Forests has designated as a go-to guy for schools and teachers.

Whatever the High Court decides, this is a tough battle. Last year India exported 100 million tons of iron ore -- 45% of it from Goa -- most of which ended up in China, says industry research firm Steel Guru in Mumbai. Behind that output are powerful players.

Since June, Dempo has belonged to Indian mining tycoon Anil Agarwal (net worth more than $4 billion), after his subsidiary Sesa Goa acquired it for $360 million and became the largest operator in the area. Along with Rajaram Bandekar (Sirigaon) Mines Pvt. Ltd., and Chowgule & Co. Pvt. Ltd., Dempo has been mining the Sirigoan area, 35 kms from Goa's capital Panjim, for six decades.

Up until the mid-1990s, the companies relied on men with shovels. Then, as the surface ore was depleted, they switched to mechanized, open-pit mining, relying on giant excavators that can dig holes as deep as 40 meters below sea level. The overburden -- the mud, soil and rocks left over from the ore slag -- gets tossed on the sides of the pit in huge piles.

This is where the problems start. The deeper the companies dig, the more water they drain from the surrounding water tables. The higher the mountains of overburden, the more apt they are to be washed away in the rains, polluting water supplies and rendering fields unusable for planting.

For each ton of ore produced, miners dig out three tons of waste -- about average for such sites. However, some mines are in clear violation of certain conditions laid down by the Ministry of Environment and Forests. The ministry stipulates that overburden be piled no higher than 30 meters and at a gradient of no more than 28 degrees. But Gauns maintains that mounds at several Dempo mines in Goa have had gradients as high as 45 degrees and have been piled far higher than the limits allow.

Such conditions can create perilous instability, says Kadri Dagdelen, head of the department of mining engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo. "I don't think you can keep the broken material at 45 degrees because with rain it will wash away," he says. Or the winds can carry it miles from the site. Even as the monsoons had barely begun, the surrounding roads and villages were dusted in rust-colored soil.

High court petition

It was after their wells had been drying up over four or five years, in an area that typically gets 2,000 mm to 2,500 mm of annual rainfall, that the residents of Sirigaon filed their petition to the high court.

The mining area controlled by the three companies is a plateau 100 meters above sea level that captures rainwater as it percolates through the several layers of soil and acts as a so-called recharge zone for the ground water system. But, says the court-ordered report, the recharge area has been destroyed as the miners have dug into the plateau to reach the ore.

As the companies have dug deeper, they have reached levels lower than the water table. As a result, the water from the village area is sliding into the mine pits, further depleting the water supply. In some cases, water from the pits can seep into the groundwater, contaminating it.

"If the aquifers are draining into the mines, the miners can pump it out but this water can be acid water," says Tuncel Yegulalp, a professor of mining engineering at Columbia University. "If this were in the U.S., the government would never have given the company permission to mine in such close proximity to residential areas."

But even pumping can pose hazards. A Dempo mine in the region has dug down to 30 meters below sea level and has to pump out 3,000 cubic meters to 10,000 cubic meters of water per day from its pits. This, says the court-ordered report, is directly discharged into the nearby Asnoda river.

But the effluent is extremely brackish -- containing high concentrations of chloride (510 mg to 642 mg per liter) -- and can't be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning or irrigation. Usually a mining company creates an artificial pond into which it pumps water from the pits, treats it to remove harmful ingredients, and then discharges it. But Dempo doesn't bother with any of that, says the report.

The mining waste also washes into fields, ruining the rice crops. An analysis by the reporting group found soil samples that contained as much as 86% silt; unaffected fields had up to 67% silt. Such a high density of silt means that soil can't hold or percolate water, rendering it useless for planting much of anything. The soil has also become acidic, and has low supplies of the microorganisms that sustain oxygen, nitrogen and other nutrients to make soil fertile.

It wouldn't take much in the way of remediation. In addition to collecting rooftop rain water, the report suggests the companies create artificial recharge pits, controlling mine water seepage by sealing it in with grout along the edge of the mines and adding treated mine water to a back fill area for an aquifer storage recovery system. Two of the companies, Bandekar and Chowgule, have set up recharge pits.

Not Dempo. P.K. Mukherjee, managing director of Agarwal's Sesa Goa subsidiary, says the company read the report while it was gearing up to buy Dempo. "There are people who are not doing mining the way it should be done," he shrugs. "Dempo is not operating in the Sesa way, but it has not been the worst [either]."

The state government has dragged its feet, too. In 2000 it declared two areas in western Goa -- Mhadei and Netravali, which cover 420 square kilometers -- wildlife sanctuaries. But it didn't cancel pre-existing mining leases within that region. The Supreme Court had to step in with a cease-and-desist order. Though mining has halted, the areas remain devastated.

Even today, Goa officials don't seem inclined to move against mine operators. Asked when the state might act on the court-ordered report, Goa Chief Minister Digambar Kamat says he hasn't seen it. How is that possible? "I don't have time for this," he barks, before slamming down the phone.

Gauns and his colleague Sebastian Rodriguez, 36, seem to enjoy the fight, and are well known among Goa's protest community. Rodriguez is an activist on behalf of tribal peoples and a blogger -- which has gotten him into trouble. Fomento Group, a mining company with the greatest number of leases in Goa, has filed a defamation suit against him, seeking $100 million in damages. Rodriguez claims that Fomento is just using scare tactics.

His only hope is that the law will be applied fairly. In Goa, that's not a given.

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