A court-appointed committee has found significant quantities of an atomic mineral called monazite in samples of Tamil Nadu beach sand minerals meant for export, according to the committee's report, called the Sahoo report, accessed by HuffPost India.
The findings could have implications for India's nuclear policy, and national security, which has long considered the possibility of using of monazite to extract nuclear-grade thorium oxide. Monazite is a mineral found naturally mixed into the beach sand of the southern coasts of the country, and can be processed to yield thorium, a nuclear fuel. It can be further enriched into uranium 233, used in nuclear weapons. The findings come at a time when the US and German governments have lobbied India to resume exports of beach minerals.
"Exporting and trading of all beach minerals need specific supervision especially at port levels from where they are exported," the Sahoo report notes, "Proper regulation of export of minerals containing monazite / monazite equivalents will be appropriate in view of the radioactive content of the minerals which in turn might have a bearing on the National Security, if the products fall into wrong hands."
Fifty three percent of the samples collected by the Special Team have been found to contain monazite higher than the prescribed limit. Many of these samples were processed minerals ready for export. This raises a serious question – how much of monazite has been exported out of Indian shores in the past two decades?
The Team has also found that miners have stored beach minerals and raw sand in excess of what their affidavits claim. The miners submitted these affidavits to the district collectors of Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari, stating exactly how much mineral they had stored in their godowns.
HuffPost India reached out to all the mining companies named in the report and will keep updating this story as and when they respond.
The Sahoo report
The Special Team, led by Tamil Nadu cadre IAS officer Satyabrata Sahoo, was constituted by the Madras High Court in January 2017, as part of a 2015 public interest litigation on the issue of illegal beach sand mining in the state.
The team included officials from various departments of the Centre and the State – Customs and Excise, Atomic Minerals Directorate, Indian Bureau of Mines, Atomic Energy Regulatory Board as well as the district administration of Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari in southern Tamil Nadu.
The Team's task was to assess the quantum of minerals and raw sand stored in the godowns, plants and mining sites of the miners, to analyse the components of the material stored and also to analyse the quantum of monazite stored by the miners as per the norms of the Department of Atomic Energy.
The issues being looked into by the court are two-fold: (a) allegations of large-scale illegal mining and exports of beach sand minerals over and above the permitted limits and (b) whether monazite, which is supposed to be separated and stored in designated areas, has been exported out of the country without permission.
Previous reports submitted to the court, which include the Amicus Curiae report of June 2017 and the Gagandeep Singh report of 2014, have pointed to large-scale illegal mining of beach sand. The Amicus Curiae report also spoke of how mining had continued well into 2017 despite the state government's ban on beach sand mining since September 2013.
Now the Sahoo report analyses the amount of sand and minerals are present in the sites of sand-mining companies, and what exactly are the companies were attempting to export.
How beach sand minerals are processed
Raw sand from the beach is first processed to remove silica and other waste. The resulting concentrated mixture of minerals is then processed separately, after dumping the waste sand back on the beach.
Minerals like garnet, ilmenite, rutile, sillimanite, leucoxene and zircon are then removed separately in successive stages. The residue that remains behind, is called monazite tailings - a mixture of pure monazite in higher concentrations, some minerals and other waste materials.
As per the rules of the Department of Atomic Energy, monazite tailings, which are radioactive, must be stored in designated sites and covered with sand. Miners need to provide accounts of the amount of monazite tailings stored and the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board (AERB) must conduct frequent checks to ensure radiation levels are within permissible limits.
The concentration of pure monazite in the tailings depends on where the raw sand was initially mined from.
The Sahoo report assessed both: the amount and composition of minerals stocked by miners and the concentration of monazite in the tailings stored by the miners in designated sites.
There are three key findings in the first part of the Sahoo report.
1. 53 percent of the samples of stored minerals contain monazite higher than the prescribed limit.
The Sahoo report states, "A number of finished mineral stocks contain Monazite/Monazite equivalent much above the notified reference value."
'Finished mineral stocks' means product ready for export; raising the possibility that monazite has been mixed in with other minerals and exported illegally.
2. About 70 lakh metric tonnes (MT) of beach minerals found in excess of what miners had stated in affidavits before District Collectors.
The second finding in the Sahoo report relates to the amount of beach minerals, other than monazite, stored in godowns, plants and mining sites.
The Gagandeep Singh Bedi report provided an estimate of illegal mining that had taken place until September 2013, soon after the Tamil Nadu government banned all sand-mining in the state. Bedi puts this figure at a little over one crore metric tonnes. The Amicus Curiae's report of June 2017 stated illegal mining and exports continued until 2017, well into the ban period.
Sahoo's finding, that mining companies were sitting on 70 lakh MT of beach minerals in excess of their declared stocks, adds heft to the hypothesis that significant amounts of sand was illegally mined despite the ban. It also points to the complicity of various officials of the State and Central government in allowing mining to continue and proliferate despite the ban.
3. Samples of finished products contain 10-25% of other minerals as well.
Beach sand contains a mixture of rare minerals such as garnet, ilmenite, rutile, leucoxene, zircon, sillimanite and monazite. Of these, monazite cannot be mined, processed or exported by any private player, since it is an atomic mineral and key to national security.
Each of the other minerals can be exported with requisite licences by private players upon paying royalties on an ad valorem basis – meaning a proportion of the market rate of the specific mineral.
Take garnet for instance. Internationally, the rates for garnet are cheaper than that of ilmenite or rutile. Which means that the miner has to pay more royalty for exporting ilmenite or rutile than he does for garnet exports. But if ilmenite or rutile are mixed into garnet and exported, with royalty being paid only for garnet, the miners get to avoid paying a good sum of royalties.
The Sahoo report found that export consignments cleared for one mineral, also contained other minerals, raising the possibility that mining companies avoided paying royalty revenues due to the state.
The Monazite Question
The second part of Sahoo's report deals with the monazite tailings stored in designated sites by the miners.
The Department of Atomic Energy gives specific directions on how monazite, obtained in the course of processes beach sand, must be stored.
In a utopian situation, wherein the miners have followed the law, the monazite concentrations in the tailings would be high and fully accounted for. But that is not the case.
At the Thiruvembalapuram storage site, 1.35 lakh MT of material with 23,608 MT of monazite at an average grade of 17.47% has been found.
The miner who stores monazite tailings in the Thiruvembalapuram site is VV Mineral, a key player in the industry. This is also the only miner to have submitted an affidavit in court, detailing the amount of monazite tailings stored by them. As per the affidavit, the company was holding 80,725.05 MT of monazite tailings, amounting to a total of 23,461.7 MT of monazite mineral, a fact recorded in the June 2017 report by the Amicus Curiae.
The Sahoo report has validated the amount of monazite mineral as claimed by the miner, i.e. 23,608 MT. There is a discrepancy, however, in terms of the stored material. While the mining company claims to have stored 80,000 MT, the Sahoo team has found 1.35 lakh MT in the company's godowns.
The Amicus Curiae, in his report, calculates the amount of raw sand needed to be mined to produce 80,725.05 MT of monazite tailings (at 29% concentration) as 4.69 crore to 4.93 crore MT.
The District Mining Department data shows only 1.51 crore MT of raw sand was transported between 2000-01 to 2013-14 by all miners put together, suggesting nearly 3 crore MT of raw sand is unaccounted for.
V.V. Minerals said they were yet to receive a copy of the Sahoo report.
"Our staff informed me that, Sahoo committee report was submitted to the Honorable High Court, and the Honourable High Court has directed the registry to deliver the copies to the parties. Accordingly our advocates will get the report and send it to me," said S. Vaikundarajan, Managing Director of V.V. Minerals.
Vaikundarajan accused this reporter of working with the company's rivals to harm V.V. Minerals, "Till today I did not receive the above said Sahoo Committee report copy. May be our competitors can able to get the same and hand over the same to you to create the story or you can able to get the same in some illegal way," he said.
"Without seeing the Sahoo Committee report, I cannot reply any of your questions. So if you send the Sahoo Committee report and annexures if any to me, I will go through the same and then only I can able to give you the comments," Vaikundarajan said.
HuffPost India will update the story once Vaikundarajan receives the report.
At the time of press, this reporter is fighting two defamation cases filed by V.V. Minerals for reporting on this case. A detailed explanation may be found here.
Very low monazite presence has been found in some storage sites like Kuttam and Arasoor.
Some other sites of storage of monazite tailings – used by companies such as Transworld Garnet India, Earth Mineral Company, Indian Ocean Garnet Sands Company, Miracle Sands and Chemicals, Miracle Sands and Metal, Industrial Mineral India, Industrial Mineral Company, Beach Mineral Company India, Balamurugan Company and DCW - have very low concentrations of monazite.
"The authorities at AERB need to be look into the fact as to why monazite equivalent of such low concentration (e.g. 0.72% at Kuttam and 0.39% at Arasoor) need to be kept in these specific sites," the Sahoo report states, "Has this concentration of the monazite equivalent changed over the years because of any pilferage? Were they being properly inspected in a timely manner? Is there possibility of its being transported out without the knowledge of AERB or the authorities concerned?"
Come June and the miners will have to respond to these questions in the next court hearing.
HuffPost India has written to all mining companies involved for responses on the Sahoo report. Only one company, Balamurugan Company, refused to divulge details of their email address or relevant contact person. This report will be updated once they respond.
Editor's Note: This copy has been updated to include V.V. Mineral's response to HuffPost India's questionnaire.