October 2013


Sri Lanka’s Black Gold: The Mineral Sands of Pulmuddai
October 2013




The sun becomes overbearing as the piles of sand await their fate

On the beaches of the North-Eastern part of the Island, there lies a hidden treasure. It was hidden for a significant period of our history and holds the potential to revolutionise the country's mineral industry. This is the beach of Pulmuddai.


Words and Photography Shyam Ranasinghe


Located approximately 50 km northwards from Trincomalee along the Trinco-Pulmuddai road (B 424), the beaches of Pulmuddai takes an unusually black hue. To the non-intrusive observer it may appear as the residue from an oil spill, but upon close inspection a different perspective is revealed. The metallic sheen that the black sand gives out reflecting the cool morning sunlight was simply breathtaking as it was a "never-seen-before".


The mineral sand deposits are found on an approximately five-mile stretch from Arisimalai to Pulmuddai, spanning a width of 400 yards. A richer deposit lies further northwards spanning a stretch of 45 miles from Nilaveli to Mullaitivu. It is said that this deposit is the richest of its kind in the world.

It is said that this deposit is the richest of its kind in the world
The blackish deposit, which gives a muddy cum oily-slick appearance as the mild ocean wave recedes, holds rich secrets that are yet to be uncovered. A mineral plant established in the 1950's is the only such entity that has set about exploiting the immense wealth locked in this natural treasure trove. Amongst the minerals found in the sand are Ilmenite, Rutile, Zircon, Hi Ti Ilmenite, Monazite, and Garnet mixed in with ordinary sea sand, which is nothing other than Quartz. These minerals have profound use in many industries ranging from paint pigments, paper, plastics, porcelain ware manufacturing, aerospace, and many others.


The scientific belief is that rich minerals originate from volcanic activity and is carried downstream by rivers where they progressively break up into smaller particles. Washed out into the sea, the fragmentation continues until the peculiar behaviour of the ocean currents push them back towards the land. It is simply the country's fortune that Mother Nature chose the north-eastern coast of Sri Lanka as her dumping ground, which gave birth to the mineral sands of Pulmuddai. Fresh water needed for the processing of the sand is brought in from the Yan Oya where it is channelled via an underground duct to the facility.

These minerals have profound use in many industries ranging from paint pigments, paper, plastics, porcelain ware manufacturing, aerospace, and many others
Strolling along the beach with a light and gentle breeze blowing across, the sight was truly unique. As the waves recede muddling up a blackish brown puddle instead of the usual yellow brown hue seen everywhere else, serves as an invitation to unlock the hidden treasures on these pristine beaches. It was simply too irresistible and I was compelled to have a firsthand feel of this wonder of nature. I forked out a chunk of sand, which sat atop my palm as a wet and cohesive blob. The yellow quartz sand that laced the surface more than willingly broke away in the face of the relentless battering of the gentle sea waves to unravel its black counterpart, which was irregularly decorated with natural beach litter such as small rocks and sea shells. The rising sun over the eastern horizon shone gently over this prestigious natural resource and the miniaturised sand dunes created by the gentle sea breeze, which silhouetted against each other.

Sand mining also offers an alternative source of livelihood to the people of the area...
The deposit beach itself lies just a short walk away from the main junction. A small community who have chosen to take the Pulmiddai junction as their residential hub appear to wander about, caught up in day-to-day activities, quite oblivious to the potential wealth that lies just a stones-throw away from them. Fishing appeared to be the popular choice of livelihood with a seemingly endless row of fibre glass fishing boats drawn ashore and lined up on the beach. A casual conversation with some of the local residents revealed that they are indeed aware of the substances present, but whether they are aware of its actual worth is doubtful.


Sand mining also offers an alternative source of livelihood to the people of the area. This laborious process involves hauling piles of sand from the beach and transporting it to the plant for further processing. Nevertheless, this relationship has forged a close bond between the residents of the area together with the plant, which is quite the opposite in many other infamous instances. It was heartening to see that the ecological impact in this large scale sand mining is kept to a minimum if not completely eliminated by two factors. One is Mother Nature herself who keeps on relentlessly replenishing the beach with more and more mineral sand and the other is the plant which deposits refused loads of quartz back on to the beach in order to maintain the balance. Indeed, the presence of the mineral sands as well as the sand processing plant has resulted in a strong relationship between the residents of the area, Pulmuddai beach and the processing plant.


The necessity of advanced technological infrastructure has so far negated Sri Lanka in harvesting the true and fullest potential of the mineral rich sands of Pulmuddai. It is nevertheless a noteworthy achievement that sand mining and processing continued even during the times of security instability that gripped the area until very recently. A ray of hope flickers on the future however, with prospective improvements and new investment opportunities that would unlock the true worth of Sri Lanka's very 
own black gold - the Mineral Sands of Pulmuddai.

 

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    A gentle breeze builds up miniature dunes to silhouette when the sun rises

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    A morning sun rise greets Sri Lanka's black gold at Pulmuddai

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    The cover of the ordinary quartz beach sand is broken to expose the black minerals

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    A front end loader shoves the sand off the beach

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    Waste Quartz being taken away

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    Raw Sand

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    Garnet

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    Quartz

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    Zircon

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    Monazite

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    Rutile

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    Ilmenite

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    A handful of hope – a heap of Ilmenite up close

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    Piled up sand is loaded for onward processing

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    Processed Ilmenite in the warehouse

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    Spiral gravity concentrators in the plant that segregate the beach sand for processing

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    Mild waves kiss the black beach – surely there is much more to be unlocked

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