Sandy treasures of Pulmoddai

Titanium - strategic metal of high value
Ilmenite is used to make titanium metal, a strategic metal valued for its high strength and light-weight. Titanium is as strong as steel, can withstand very high temperatures and is non-corrosive. Its high strength-to-weight ratios make titanium ideal for high-performance military aircraft and rockets, space capsule skins, armour plate, aircraft firewalls, jet engine components, landing gears, submarines, and engine parts (as an alloy).

At one point during the height of the Cold War in the mid-1980s, Moscow stopped exports of titanium when large quantities of the metal were required to build Alfa class attack submarine hulls.

Titanium is used to make paint, paper and plastic. Its properties ensure that exposure to sunlight does not alter its very white colour. It is also used in desalination plants.

"Titanium is regarded as the metal of the future," said Nandadeva. "The industrial world cannot do without it and there is no substitute for it."

Rutile is mainly used in the titanium metal industry and in welding rods while zircon is in demand in the ceramic industry for high quality glazing, foundries, and electrical items.

Rich deposit
The Pulmoddai deposit is four and a half miles long and 600 metres wide. Mining starts around February from the Arisimalai end of the deposit on the southern side and ends in October at the northern end towards Kokilai. The processing plants and godowns along with the beach deposit covers 108 acres.

The beach deposit is mined using an excavator dragline. Raw sand is washed and screened to remove trash and shell fragments and put through a series of concentrators to separate the heavy minerals.

The usual concentration of heavy minerals is 40 percent, said Nandadeva. But if the deposit is left untouched for long periods it gets upgraded or enriched to as much as 80 percent by fresh sand brought ashore by the sea.

Mining must be systematically done with a gradient left for fresh sand to be deposited.

Raw sand is first upgraded in a process known as gravity separation. The ilmenite that is produced is processed further using a magnetic separator and then put through a high tension separator - where a current of 22,000 volts is sent through the sand - to remove rutile. What remains is called crude zircon

The minerals are taken from the godowns on a conveyor belt fixed onto the 800-foot jetty and then discharged into barges. The loaded barges are towed by tugs to bulk carriers anchored offshore, the draught at the jetty not being deep enough for the vessels to come alongside. It takes several days to fill a bulk carrier at the rate of about 2,000 tonnes every 24 hours. Repairs to the conveyor belt and jetty are almost complete and the plant is getting ready to resume bulk shipments before the monsoon breaks.

The company has three tugs and 10 barges, which it plans to repair as they have been being laid up at Cod Bay, Trincomalee for several years.

Kanijapura, Pulmoddai - The godowns are full at the Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd processing plant in this remote corner of north-eastern Sri Lanka. The black sand that covers the beach - rich with heavy minerals - has not been mined for almost five years - ever since Sea Tigers sank a bulk carrier loaded with a cargo of ilmeniteabout a mile offshore.

The Pulmoddai beach deposit, where one can virtually walk on money, has two characteristics that make it unique - the mineral sands get replenished with every monsoon and the sand has a heavy mineral content that far exceed that of deposits elsewhere in the world.

"Now that the godowns are full we want to sell the accumulated stocks and resume bulk shipments," S. A. Nandadeva, general manager of the company told a team of Sunday Times Business journalists during a recent visit.

A huge mound of black ilmenite sand sits silently in one of the plant's cavernous godowns, disturbed only by bats that have made it their home. Another mound of white-coloured crude zircon lies in the open outside, being dried with the use of a front-end loader.

Stocks consist of 60,000 tonnes of ilmenite and 150,000 tonnes of crude zircon. Another product - rutile - is being exported in 40-kg bags through the Colombo port. About 5,000 tonnes have been shipped in this manner and another 2,000 tonnes remain in stock.

North-east monsoon
Pulmoddai does not have a sheltered anchorage and no shipments are possible during the north-east monsoon, which usually blows from October to March, when the seas can get very rough. No mining is done either. It is during this period that sand washed ashore by heavy waves renews the beach deposit.

"The conditions here are right for the sand to be washed ashore," said Nandadeva. "There is no erosion."

A little headland separates the beach deposit from Arisimalai, which is also an interesting little beach with white sand that looks like grains of rice. Nandadeva's studies indicate that the tides and currents of the area and the way they are shaped by the headland create the peculiar conditions under which the sand that is mined is replenished in an annual cycle.

"The sand containing heavy minerals gets concentrated owing to wave action," explained Nandadeva. "The light sand gets washed away leaving the heavy minerals."
Beach deposits in Australia, a big producer of minerals, have concentrations of only around five percent. The Pulmoddai site is rated as one of the best in the world with a heavy mineral content of 60-70 percent, making Lanka Mineral Sands one of the world's low cost mineral sand producers. This means that up to 70 tonnes of heavy minerals can be recovered from 100 tonnes of raw sand. "This mine is supposed to be the richest in the world," said Nandadeva.

The main deposit consists of around 60 percent ilmenite, eight percent rutile and 8-10 percent zircon.

Surveys commissioned by the company indicate that the heavy minerals actually come from the island's interior, being washed down from the central massif by rivers such as the Mahaweli, as well as the Yan Oya. Heavy minerals are released when igneous (volcanic) rock gets eroded by rain and wind - a process that takes millions of years. Recent studies have given rise to a belief that the volumes of heavy minerals that get washed down from the central hills have diminished with the damming of the Mahaweli.

The company has mined only a limited area in Pulmoddai - the first deposit that was surveyed in 1971 with the help of the Geological Survey Department. This revealed a heavy mineral content of 3.7 million tonnes with a cut off grade of 30 percent. At the present rate of mining, these reserves are estimated to last for about 25-30 years. Other deposits found in subsequent surveys between Mullaithivu and Nilaveli have remained untouched. These are Kokilai and Nayaru, north of Pulmoddai, and Paduvaikaddu and Thavikallu, south of the plant. Surveys, both onshore and offshore, have estimated that there are more than 12 million tonnes of heavy minerals in Pulmoddai, Kokilai, Nayaru and Mullaithivu.

The plant has a capacity of 150,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 10,000 tonnes of rutile and 6,000 tonnes of zircon. Annual production is 80,000 tonnes of ilmenite, 7,000 tonnes of rutile, and 7,000 tonnes of zircon. Production of zircon was stopped after the LTTE blasted the fresh water plant at Yan Oya that supplied water to wash the minerals.

The company pays royalty to the government for the mining rights and was the most profitable among the companies under the Industries Ministry at the time.
The main markets for the heavy minerals are in Japan and Europe. The company usually sells to traders and is not aware of the ultimate end-user of its minerals. Ilmenite is sold for around $70 a tonne FOB, rutile for $400 a tonne FOB and zircon $500 a tonne FOB.

"There's a lot of interest among foreign buyers and investors," Nandadeva said. "We wanted to have a joint venture to make titanium dioxide pigment or synthetic rutile (convert ilmenite to rutile grade which fetches a higher price) and convert zircon to ceramic grade."

Five firms showed interest but said they would come in only when there's a durable peace. The joint venture plant was to have been between Pulmoddai and Trincomalee from where shipments were to take place throughout the year.

Workers at the plant went through very tough and dangerous times during the war, being virtually surrounded by LTTE-held territory. They could not venture out of the premises at night, and even during the day finding transport was difficult, said Wasantha Anurakumara, the plant's administration officer. Power supplies were disrupted for long periods, as were telephone services. An army unit was always stationed at the site and came under repeated attack. The army dominated the area during the day and the Tigers prowled at night.

The workforce of 340 on the site is made up of all three communities and they enjoy free housing and basic amenities. Another 80 workers are in Cod Bay, Trincomalee where the floating craft are stationed.

LTTE agents
It is an open secret that there are LTTE agents or sympathisers among the staff on the site. The rebels, however, never made any attempt to destroy the plant. They only disrupted production by blasting the Yan Oya fresh water supply plant and put an end to bulk shipments by attacks on merchant shipping.

The LTTE had previously warned merchant shipping to stay away on the grounds that it considered the mineral wealth on the shores of Pulmoddai to be part of the natural resources of their "homeland" and an important source of foreign exchange for their projected separate state.

Conditions at the Pulmoddai plant have improved since the cease-fire came into effect. The nearby town - hardly more than a sleepy village - bustles when dozens of lorries come from Colombo and Negombo to collect fish.

Fishermen can go out to sea now that the ban on fishing has been relaxed under the terms of the Memorandum of Understanding between the government and the LTTE. At night, a string of lights from fishing craft can be seen on the horizon. Sea Tiger craft have been seen speeding past, hugging the coast.

Bulk shipments of ilmenite ceased in September 1997 when Sea Tigers sank the bulk carrier, M.V. Cordiality. By then the company's godowns were full and it had stopped producing heavy minerals, there being no place to store the product. The ship was supposed to carry 30,000 tonnes of ilmenite to Europe. "We had filled the holds with 29,000 tonnes of ilmenite worth Rs. 90 million and were expecting to finish loading within another 10 hours when the ship was attacked," recalled Nandadeva.

Midnight strike
Sea Tigers struck shortly after midnight. Nandadeva was woken up by a telephone call from the jetty and was told that firing could be heard from the ship which was anchored about a mile offshore. Navy boats had been patrolling the waters near the vessel and sailors dropping grenades into the water to deter LTTE scuba divers.

"From my bungalow I could see the ship. There were no lights except for one on the mast. Usually the ship is lit up like a small town."

Five minutes later he saw a flash - a huge fireball - and then heard the blast. Later he found that the Tigers had boarded the vessel, entered the captain's cabin and told him to evacuate the ship's crew as well as the stevedores - there had been 60 casual labourers on board - saying that they had planted explosives in the vessel. The chief engineer and four crew members who were down in the engine room, were killed along with eight employees of the company and six soldiers guarding the vessel. The vessel continued to burn into the next day. The wreck can still be seen, its cranes sticking out of the water. The company wants to clear the wreck to make way for shipments to resume.

The company was originally called Ceylon Mineral Sands Corporation and was set up under an act of parliament in 1957. The first shipment of ilmenite went to Ishihara Sangyo Kaisha Ltd of Japan in 1962. There is even a road at the site named Ishihara, which makes titanium pigment and helped set up the plant. In 1976 an integrated ilmenite/rutile/zircon plant was built at Pulmoddai to process all products.

A lifetime spent with Lanka Mineral Sands
Muhammad Nassar, chairman of Lanka Mineral Sands, refers to the company's general manager S.A. Nandadeva as the father of the mineral sands plant.

Nandadeva joined as a graduate trainee in 1969 and stayed on site even during the worst of times, when many others left. He studied mining and minerals processing engineering in England and went to Australia for practical training. "At the time it was a very small plant - processing only ilmenite - with a capacity of 40,000 tonnes," Nandadeva recalled. He rose through the ranks, becoming mining engineer, assistant plant manager, project engineer, plant manager and finally general manager in 1986.

One of the memorable incidents he recalled during his time at the site was when the Yan Oya water supply plant was attacked by the LTTE in 1986. None of the 30 employees at the site was harmed. Nandadeva and several others went on bicycles to the site and found staff hiding in the jungle. Later, an elderly villager told him that the LTTE had noted him. On another visit to Yan Oya he was stopped and questioned by the LTTE.

Nandadeva said resident staff has always lived in hope that things would get better. Before the outbreak of the Eelam war, and even during the war years, workers enjoyed good pay and bonuses as mineral shipments invariably generated healthy profits. But many qualified and skilled people left the plant as the war dragged on, conditions deteriorated and finally production ceased.

Nandadeva said he stuck it out at Pulmoddai because of the commitment he had towards his work, fellow workers and the company. "I was fortunate to receive a lot of training and was given many responsibilities," he said. "I would not otherwise have got such opportunities."

He turned down offers of two jobs and stayed on at the plant despite the objections of his wife because of what he felt were his obligations to the company.

Having spent a lifetime at Pulmoddai - more than 30 years - Nandadeva looks forward to the day when the company makes value-added products instead of just shipping minerals sand in bulk. "My dream is to make synthetic rutile - an upgraded feedstock that is much in demand," he said, adding that the company wants to get into a joint venture with a technology provider.

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