Beach Sand Mining – Misconceptions in India

Beach Sand Mining (BSM) is a process to extract rare earth minerals from open pits. There are misconceptions about BSM, that it affects environment and is a threat to biodiversity.  BSM normally consists of ilmenite, rutile, zircon, garnet, monazite, leucoxene and sillimanite. Ilmenite is the major rare earth element which is used large in the consumer products and high tech applications.

For instance; the companies who extract rare earth minerals from the field just scoop the top inch of the beach. If they go any deeper, they would end up mining silica. Silica is not a rare earth mineral and is of no use to the industry. These minerals are skimmed early in the morning, as by the evening the minerals are washed off by heavy waves. Hence, it is necessary to scoop these minerals in the morning, as the sea deposits fresh layers of rare earth minerals.

V. V. Mineral is one of the largest exporters of ilmenite and garnet in India. S Vaikundarajan is the founder of V. V. Mineral and was found by him in the late 1980s. Several allegations are made against these top notch Beach sand mining companies.

A special team led by IAS officer Gagan Deep Singh Bedi has submitted contents of a report concerning the illegal BSM in southern districts. A petition to make the content public was submitted by an advocate, it states that the public has the rights to know the details of the report.  The Madras High Court Bench has transferred the public interest petition to Principal Seat of High Court in Chennai, following the advocate’s petition.

After a number of allegations were made against these mining firms, a special investigation team was set up by the State Government to look into the matters. Before submitting the report a detailed probe was conducted by the investigating team. The government decided to extend the enquiry to other areas and has kept the report confidential. The MD and CEO of V. V. Mineral, S. Vaikundarajan said, “The investigation was completed and report submitted in November 2013. However, no evidence of illegal activity was found against VV Mineral.”




VVM uses environment friendly process for sand mining

A practice to extract sand through open pit is known as sand mining. Usually, the sand is mined from the dredged ocean beds, river beds, beaches and inland dunes. Sand mining is done to extract minerals such as rutile, ilmenite and zircon, which hold elements like titanium and zirconium, which are industrially useful. The sand mining industry is misunderstood, because it has caused concerns in the past.

Sand mining is practiced in India by various industries. The beaches of Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Kerala, yield these rare earth minerals through sand mining. They are abundant in seven elements i.e. garnet, ilmenite, leucoxene, monazite, rutile, sillimanite, and zircon. These elements or ores yield niobium, tantalum, titanium, thorium, and other elements, when processed. They are utilized by a wide range of industries i.e. such as electronics, energy, plastics, paints, construction, shipping, paper, and nuclear.

Based on their physical properties, these rare earth minerals are extracted using different techniques and methods. The raw material extracted is then sorted using magnetism, conductivity, and gravity to separate the six or seven minerals. High tension and magnetic separators pull out ilmenite, monazite, rutile, and garnet while zircon and sillimanite are separated by their specific gravity in spiral concentrators. Generally, chemicals are not used in the separation of these minerals.

India’s one of the largest sand mining firm is VV Mineral (VVM). VVM uses sun to dry the minerals rather than using diesel powered kilns. The water which is used during the separation process is recycled and treated. Few tailings that are generated are dumped into a small pond of recycled water where the sand bed acts as a natural filter. VV Mineral is India’s largest garnet and ilmenite exporter. They have won several awards and certifications for their environmentally friendly mining processes. Their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) involves employment of local youth, health coverage, education, and several other services to the area.