Md. Mahmoodul Haque argues that open-pit mining is not a closed issue
The views expressed by A.K.M. Shamsuddin in The Daily Star's op-ed page on May 23 titled "Pitfalls of open-pit mining" need serious reconsideration in the greater interest of the nation.
As power shortage reaches crisis proportions thwarting industrial production, the need of the country now is informative decisions and immediate actions. To declare that open-pit mining of our coal would not be favourable for Bangladesh would be hasty since we do not have any open-pit mining experience in this country and our experience with the only underground venture has been a near disaster.
Bangladesh is not a mining nation, yet we have the best coal in the region and in sufficient quantity under our soil. Mining this coal demands extensive study, proper assessment of the coalfields, and understanding the extracting methods that will give the maximum quantity per dollar spent and minimum damage to our people and land.
We will also need experienced manpower, huge investment, large installations, and facilities. The project will need systematic exploration of the coalfields, multi-disciplinary approaches, heavy equipment, and huge capital to extract the maximum coal for our use.
All this requires months, if not years, before the actual extraction can take place. We will need an investment friendly policy that will encourage efficient investors, discourage low quality investment like that in Barapukuria, and encourage a homegrown company in which private companies may participate, but not hold, the ownership of the resources.
Underground mining is far more eco-friendly than open-pit mining. It is more convenient if the overburden is sufficiently deep and hard and the coal seam is 3 to 5 metres thick. Tunnels can be cut along the coal seam and strong pillars placed to support the roof from caving in.
Although thousands of people are killed every year (over 37,000 alone in China between 2003 and 2008) due to these pillars collapsing at regular intervals, poisonous gas, flooding of tunnels, etc, coal can be successfully extracted and brought to the surface.
Cave-ins lead to the creation of underground vacuums resulting in land subsidence of large areas and sinking villages along its path. We have already experienced this in the Barapukuria region. Large scale underground extraction will also expose our north-western region to the threat of land subsidence, land sliding, and make it all the more vulnerable to earthquake.
The composite thickness of our coal varies from 50 metres to 72 metres and the average thickness is 59 metres compared to 3 to 5 metres elsewhere. It will be unrealistic to have 50 metres or 72 metres tall pillars in our underground shafts.
However, 3-4 metre high tunnels can be dug in the 72 metre thick coal seam leaving a sufficiently thick coal layer as roof-rock to make another 3-4 metre tunnel under it. The coal roof is then allowed "controlled settling" on the floor below. The new coal face is then brought under extraction.
This has been tried with success where the overburden is deep and the overlie is hard. In our case, the overburden is not too deep, loose, and alluvial. Furthermore, as Bangladesh is largely a delta formed by the sediments of two gigantic rivers, our coal zones are packed with unconsolidated rocks that overlie our coal beds, which are not considered good roof rocks.
Whether a mine should be open-cut or underground depends on the unique geological feature of the coal zone. If coal deposit is located 100 metres underground, we cannot go for underground mining because the land will cave in. If the deposit is below 450 metres, you cannot go for open-pit, as it would create an enormous cavity.
The deepest coal deposits known to occur in our basins are from 306 metres to 454 metres below the surface and, in consideration of the depth, the coal resources lie within the depth of open-pit mining.
Mining by this method would be difficult here but certainly not impossible. Applying the newest technology, 90% to 95% coal can be extracted by open-pit here compared to only 30% to 40% by modern underground method of mining.
Barapukuria has a proven coal reserve of around 389 million tons. Because of corruption, mismanagement, and incorrect project plans, as is expected under Bangladesh conditions, we will now be extracting only 6% of the reserve in the next 30 years.
This means Bangladesh will get only 23.34 million tons of coal from Barapukuria and the balance 365.66 million tons will be left underground as waste, thanks to the underground mining method we opted for. Fortunately, elaborate plans are in hand to convert the Barapukuria coal mine to open-pit mining.
Unfortunately, this will be difficult. Following the Phulbari incident, talking in favour of open-pit mining or coal exports has almost become a taboo for officials and experts in Bangladesh.
Lack of transparency, corruption at all levels, and the non-compliance of existing laws are common practice in Bangladesh, and Barapukuria coal project is a good indicator of what could happen if we opt for underground method of mining our coal.
Surely, our coal deposits are not so bountiful that we can squander millions of tons of coal by opting for a mining method that cannot avoid such enormous losses under the circumstances prevailing in this country.
It would be incorrect to term the geological and hydro-geological environment of our coal basins to be unfavourable for open-pit mining. The groundwater resource of this region is the main aquifer of Bangladesh, which is about 80-120 metres thick in the Dupitila formation and situated at about 10-12 metres below the surface.
Open-pit mining requires the mine area to be completely dewatered so that the hollow of the mine does not get immersed in water. Large pumps work round-the-clock during the entire mining period to remove the underground water surrounding the mine.
Open-pit mining operations therefore cause lowering of the groundwater level, which ultimately generate acid mine drainage (AMD). This is no longer a critical concern as it was in the past. Extensive research and innovative in-situ technology is used nowadays to reduce the AMD and improve groundwater quality to acceptable levels.
The usual concern of open-pit mining is its agricultural impacts, as it harms the environment. However, there are set practices described below that compensate for the damages.
The plea of environmental damages is so intense in this country that many of us cannot keep our minds open to the fact that all except Bangladesh are utilising coal to become rich. Experts say Bangladesh's untapped coal potentials in north Bengal can meet the country's power demands for 60 to 90 years at the present rate of power consumption and drastically transform our economy.
We need this coal to turn Bangladesh into a rich nation. The meagre quantity of coal extracted by our underground mining method will keep us dependent on energy imports. Currently the Power Development Board is importing Indian coal to run the Barapukuria power plant at $70 to $80 per ton.
Our requirement is about 136 million metric tons of coal. If GDP growth goes up to 8%, we will need 450 million metric tons of coal to generate the necessary power. Bangladesh is importing over three million tons of low quality coal (7-14% sulphur compared to only 0.04% in ours, and damaging our machineries) from India worth more than a thousand crore taka each year. Mining our own coal will save money and make our industries sustainable.
On the open-pit front, we can easily learn from the best and worst practices around the world. Other countries have paid the price for environmental follies. We can simply avoid those follies and establish a regime of best practices. For instance, Germany has been addressing the water issues for three decades. It scientifically pumps out water where new mines are developed, and pumps the water back into the place where mining has been completed.
Of course, they make sure that the water is not toxic when it is pumped out. The end result is a visibly healthy agriculture and forest landscape. In addition, the pumped out water is distributed among the towns, villages, cities, sensitive water bodies, and, finally, the river. The German mining region also produces sugar and has sugar mills adjacent to the mines. An external group strictly monitors the mining companies' activities to make sure that the mining is not affecting the water and environment in a way that cannot be addressed.
Germany will close down all its underground coal mines by 2018, while maintaining 100 million tons of lignite coal mining from open-pit mines. Germany's open-pit lignite coal mine is so cost effective that the 1,000-megawatt power plant generates power at less than 1 Euro cent per kilowatt hour. This is cheaper than our Meghnaghat power plant.
Open-pit mines produce far greater volume of coal at a given time and at a much lower cost than underground mining. While there are negligible instances of fatalities in open-pit mines, underground mining has taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers due to faulty planning, neglected safety measures, carelessness of workers, unexpected natural causes such as poisonous gas, lack of oxygen, flooding of tunnels, regular cave-ins and so many unseen and sometimes unexpected disasters.
In Bangladesh the calamities of underground mining could be many fold greater than in China due our mentality to find shortcuts to everything just to gain a little more money or political capital.
Our think tanks know very well that Bangladesh, unlike Germany, is not one of the most developed and industrialised nations of the world. It would be incorrect to compare all the favourable elements of open-pit mining in that country with all that are not so favourable in Bangladesh.
Here our options are minimal and the need to harvest our coal overwhelmingly urgent. We have to sacrifice some to gain some. We have to endure temporary difficulties by a few of our people for the greater benefit of the country.
The Kaptai lake is an excellent example where the local inhabitants permanently sacrificed their ancestral homes and vast cultivatable lands for the Kaptai hydro-electric station in the interest of the nation. Our brothers in the north-west of our country may have to temporarily do the same for our coal mines.
The energy ministry has initiated a move to carry out a study on social and environmental impact of open-pit coal mining. This has been put to motion, as there are instances of severe environmental damage caused by open-pit mines if not handled properly. The least of such hazards is the one most visible: damage to the landscape.
However, with the advent of modern agricultural technologies, and extensive research conducted by renowned mining companies around the globe, open-pit mines can now be reverted to the previous landscape sooner than before.
Even the final void extending several square kilometres, equivalent to the volume of the coal extracted, is nowadays made useful for agricultural, fisheries and environmental benefits.
Bangladesh has 7 coal mines with estimated reserve of 2.5 billion metric tons, including the deep and large Jamalpur deposit. This gift of the Creator will not only give us thousands of megawatts of power, but will also bring much relief to our struggling economy.
Therefore selecting the right type of mining our coal is crucial, as we do not want to produce coal that will cost us $90 per ton or more. Our coal deposit is worth more than $100 billion in the current global market. Therefore, it's up to us to select a mining method that would haul out the maximum quantity of our coal, leaving little or nothing under our soil as waste.
In open-pit mining, the overburden (layers of soil over the coal seam) is removed and the coal surface exposed for extraction. The average thickness of our coal's layer is around 59 metres. In order to reach the layer of the coal, overburden between 150 and 250 metres needs to be removed, leaving a 330-metre deep hollow. The top fertile soil is placed on one side and the lower layer of infertile soil placed on another. Once the coal is extracted from a block the large crater is filled up with the overburden left aside earlier.
Obviously, the top fertile soil will be exposed to at least 3-4 monsoons before it is used to top-up the mining block. The possibility of the topsoil being washed away during the monsoons is nowadays no longer a factor of concern. With various scientific agricultural practices available, including nitrogen fixing cover crops, it is not only possible to preserve the original top-soil for a long time, but also enrich it with legumes crops that make it much more fertile than before.
The "back-filling" with overburden is a continuous process of digging new areas for coal and filling old dugout areas with the overburden after coal has been extracted. The "back-filling" starts around the fourth year after all the coal on that portion of the coal seam has been extracted.
In the case of Bangladesh, the extraction may take 50 years or so depending on the deposit and the quantity of extraction per year. At the end of, say, 50 years, we would be left with a large crater many kilometres away from where the extraction first stared.
The size of this crater would be the size of the total volume of coal extracted minus the "overburden," which was progressively replaced as "back-fill" along the length and breadth of the mining path.
In the old open-pit mines I recently visited in Australia, Germany and South Africa, an outsized lake is created which is generally used for boating and fishery. The large water body replenishes the underground water, which in turn creates a happy state for both shallow as well as deep tube wells of the surrounding area.
In our case, this will be particularly favourable on the already dry Barind Tract where some of our coal deposits are located. Water level drops low in Barind Tract during dry season and makes it difficult for the tube-wells to draw water. The large water body will provide the right replenishment here. All this is more or less standard in all the countries where open-pit mining is carried out.
However, unlike most countries, we are lucky to have an option in Bangladesh to deal with this massive crater expected at the end of the mining project. Since large-scale dredging of our rivers will be taken up shortly, and some of these rivers are close to the coal deposits, the remaining hollow can be filled up completely or gradually to the size of a water body required for that area. The filling with dredged soil from the river can start as soon as the back-filling starts, ensuring that the large hollow that is expected to be created at the end of the mining life is continuously made smaller during its life-span.
The other unique aspect of open-pit mining in Bangladesh is that in addition to the coal reserves, our overburden itself is full of industrial resources. There are layers of large quantity of white clay, silica sand, gravels, brick clay, ordinary sand deposits, and sandstones, which are resources of significant value. Separate small and even large industries can develop here simultaneously targeting these natural resources for the benefit of our people.
Because of our high population, most of our coal areas are more inhabited than in other countries and therefore figures should not be criteria of comparison. However, like in other countries the human resettlement issue in Bangladesh is basically political, because compensation takes care of the monetary issue, future lifestyle, and livelihood.
This is where government and local communities gets involved. In Germany the government, municipalities, and affected people work with coal mining companies, under certain legal framework, on resettlement. Best practices demonstrate that mining can be done with minimum environmental damages and minimum public grievances, while keeping the energy supply growth high. We do not have research this fresh, but can achieve the same by simply adopting these universal practices.
Standard environment and resettlement rules govern open-pit mining companies worldwide and we can adopt them to suit our needs. The criteria for resettlement is based on the principle that those displaced by the open-pit mining must be re-settled and compensations provided with facilities better than that enjoyed by them earlier. For example:
Say a farmer has 100 units of land. As the mining company is displacing him, he is paid, not the ADC land's rate, but the current market price of the land plus 50% more. Therefore, he gets 1½ times the current market value of his land.
It may be mentioned here that this land would be returned to the owners or their heirs free of cost at the end of the mining period, which could be between 40 to 60 years if not earlier.
As he grows 3 crops per year on his land, he is paid 1½ times the price of the crop he would grow for the next 6 years. However if his land is at the start of the mining path it may be returned to him in 7-8 years time after proper "back-filling" is done and the rejuvenated top soil replaced so that he can once again grow the crops he had been growing for ages.
Companies are by law required to improve the land returned to its owner with cover crops, fertilizer, mechanical tilling, and other scientific agricultural practices to improve the soil for better crop.
As he is displaced from his homestead, he is provided with a house better than the one he was living in before the eviction. If he had a thatched hut he is provided with a proper tin shed house, if he had a tin shed house with a brick wall house, and so on.
If he has no electricity, he is provided with power, grid or solar. If he has a shallow tube-well, he will be provided with running water safe for drinking. If he did not have proper toilets, he would be provided one for the use of his family.
In most of the mining world, companies allot an area within the compound where a well-planned settlement is established, similar to our "ghuccho gram." Sometimes the mining company purchases extra land at a convenient place outside the compound for the purpose. Here a proper settlement plan is established with lines of neatly constructed houses with all the basic amenities required by a community.
Electricity, running water, drainage, and proper sanitation are provided for the health and welfare of these temporary displaced families. Dispensaries are set up for the community's urgent medical needs and primary schools and play grounds for the children, vocational training centres for young men, women and mothers, eye camps, etc for the new settlers.
At least one member of the displaced family is given a job in the mining fields, as workers, guards, drivers, clerks, and officers. Candidates from the same family, if found suitable for a particular job, are given preference over others.
Compliance groups of international repute are engaged to monitor strictly the implementation of every clause under local conditions before the mining company can start any work. In the overall context of foreign exchange, such compensations for resettlement would be lucrative and attractive to our people. Once they are assured that the requisition of their property is not permanent but for a period only, most villagers will volunteer to extend a helping hand for the greater interest of the nation.
The Almighty has been very kind to give us one of the best coals in terms of density and quality and in sufficient quantity. It is there to be extracted without further delays. We do not have to reinvent the wheel to formulate a coal policy for Bangladesh. There are scores of countries around the world that have a coal policy that suits them and is in the best interest of their populations.
Unless the forces working against Bangladesh in having its own coal for its domestic use as well as for export are stronger than the crisis that faces this country, it is no rocket-science to formulate a simple coal policy for this country. Instead of starting from scratch, as we are somehow bent upon, we need to pick a coal policy and add clauses that would best suit our local needs.
Bangladesh has no option but to choose a method of mining that will ensure that no coal is left underground as waste -- and only open-pit mining can ensure that. We will need the sacrifice of some of our countrymen of the north-west in the greater interest of the nation, as did our brothers of the south for the Kaptai hydro-electric station.
Whilst our brothers of the south lost their ancestral homes and cultivatable lands permanently, our countrymen of the north-west will have to sacrifice theirs temporarily for 50 or 60 years, or perhaps even less. We have no time to waste on reinventing the wheel but have to take action right away from the plenty that is on offer beyond our shores.
Md. Mahmoodul Haque is former Executive Director, Delta Pacific Mining plc., former Director, Carbon Mining plc, and former Director, North Bengal Mining Ltd.