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by Gamini Seneviratne

‘Eppawala’ signifies many things. It is the location of the richest mineral resource we have. It is located on the borders of the Jaya Ganga and the Ruvanveliseya and all they mean to our people and to the rest of humankind.

In the 1980s the UNP engaged in preliminary discussions with Freeport McMoRan, the most notorious mining company in the world and its fronts: Rio Tinto Corporation of Australia and Tomen Corporation of Japan. Dr. N M Perera and Dr. Colvin R de Silva took President J R Jayewardene to Eppawala and showed him what a disaster such a project would be. J R dropped it.

In the late 1990s it surfaced again. President Chandrika Kumaratunga referred it to the statutory body empowered to advice the government on such matters, the National Science & Technology Council, which advised against it. She also referred it to a committee headed by the Attorney General, Sarath N Silva, which too gave a negative report. On representations made to it, the Supreme Court, in a judgment delivered by the late Justice A R B Amerasinghe, prohibited any such project virtually for ever.

In 2010 the ‘development’, a.k.a. sale of Eppawala was bruited once again by the present administration and its advisors whose mantaram for personal enrichment seems to be to sell our national assets. As everybody but President Mahinda Rajapaksa knows, they have crippled our economy. There were protests and nothing more was said about it at the time.

And now we see another go at Eppawala. The Chairman of Lanka Phosphate Limited (LPL), Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri, has said that LPL is planning to produce Triple Super Phosphate (TSP) fertilizer from Eppawala phosphate deposits with financial and technical inputs from a foreign company and had already called for international bids for the project and some companies in Australia and Japan had already forwarded their proposals.

One cannot guess what a sailor knows about land or whether Sandagiri has briefed himself on this history. What he has said suggests that he is in a state of presumably blissful ignorance on the matter.

He had said that the ‘selected’ (how selected?) ‘international’ company would invest in the project and produce TSP to meet the local demand and subsequently they would consider exporting phosphate fertilizer. He had said that the LPL did not have any idea of selling the Eppawala phosphate deposit but they would use it to save foreign exchange. According to the Chairman, the country would save around 16 to 17 billion rupees, which the government was now spending to import the triple super phosphate.

He had added that Cabinet approval had been granted for TSP production and LPL would also be expecting the approval for the Di Ammonium Phosphate (DAP) production in the future.

What follows is for the edification of the Admiral and whoever directs him.

Phosphate is a mineral containing the element phosphorus, a basic plant nutrient, which is essential to all forms of life.

Various estimates have been made of how rapidly it is being depleted world-wide. In 1992, the US Geological Survey and US Bureau of Mines assessed that the world’s known reserves will be depleted in 50 years, and that the known reserves plus the base reserves will be exhausted in 150 years. In 2007, at the current rate of consumption, the supply of phosphorus was estimated to run out in 345 years. However, some scientists now believe that a "peak phosphorus" will occur in 30 years and that at "current rates, reserves will be depleted in the next 50 to 100 years." Our scientists have estimated that the Eppawala deposit is adequate to meet our requirements for over 1,500 years.

As Freeport MacMoRan itself acknowledged, the Eppawala deposit is "an igneous deposit as opposed to the sedimentary deposits in the US, Morocco, Jordan, China, Peru, Saudi Arabia, Togo, Senegal, Guinea Bissau, Nauru, Christmas Island, Kazakhastan and Queensland. Sedimentary deposits tend to be one or more thin layers spread out over large land areas .. while igneous deposits tend to be in the shape of vertical pipes or plugs on the earth’s surface". It is no wonder that a ‘selected’ international company’ is anxious to grab it.

Lanka Phosphates itself could produce our total national requirements of Single Super Phosphate (SSP) through a low-cost beneficiation process.

We do not require Triple Super Phosphate. It has also been established, world-wide, that Di-Ammonium Phosphate (DAP) is a hazardous material with toxic properties that contaminate ground water when used in agriculture. Sri Lanka’s imports of DAP in the past have ranged from 17 to 160 tons.

As was also noted by the committee headed by the then Attorney General, the foreign exchange savings that the Admiral speaks of simply would not occur. The figures he has been given of our current expenditure on the import of TSP are, simply, false.

He should also acquaint himself with the fact that the adverse impacts of such a project on the people and their land would extend from Kalaweva to Mannar in the west and to Trincomalee in the east, with the ancient city of Anuradhapura at the epicenter of the cataclysm.

I propose for him a necessary task: the deposits of Rock Phosphate in and around Eppawala should be assessed as to quantity and quality by our scientists. They could do so easily enough using satellite data and further exploratory drilling that would cost about $250,000.

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