Background on Vulcan Materials Company and Expected Impacts should
White Ridge Farm Karst Hills Become an Aggregate Mine
Vulcan Materials Company, the largest aggregate mining company in the United States, a multi-billion-dollar corporation, has set its sights on purchasing White Ridge Farm in the Stann Creek District of Belize. Their intent is to blast, pulverize, and ship Sugar Hills, a limestone formation, to the southeastern US for use as road fill and other aggregate uses. Blasting can disrupt local hydrologic systems in the Southern Lagoon area and threaten the large concentration of Caribbean manatees, as well as Hawksbill Sea Turtles, Central American River Turtles, American Crocodiles, and other fauna. A conveyer bridge will carry the crushed material over an important Hawks Bill Sea Turtle nesting beach to waiting cargo ships in the dredged-out center of the Inner Channel behind the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef. Spokes persons for the current Belize Government has explicitly stated that no strip mining shall occur in this area, and Minister Cordel Hyde confirmed that decision on May 4, 2022.
This 30-page document gives details about Vulcan Materials Company, an overview of limestone as an important construction material, but also as karst aquifers and ecosystems. Details are provided on limestone mining and many geological, ecological, and social impacts caused by strip-mining, a conveyer bridge across land and water, and dredging for a harbor to accommodate and turn 228 m or longer vessels with 13.5 to 14 m draft. A remote image survey of the Calico mining site near Playa del Carmen, Mexico is included and compared to the verbally proposed mining project for White Ridge Farm.
The scale of the project and the removal of karst features/aquifers is not compatible with the sustainable use of this area that conservation NGOs, residents, and the tourism industry have been envisioning and striving toward for three decades. It would also be in violation of the Blue Bond Belize has signed, protecting coastal lands from inappropriate development. Concern about the collective human impact on karst systems is growing, especially considering the role of karst as water-bearing rock, aquifers that supply water to large numbers of people. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) World Commission on Protected Areas (WCPA) in 1997 officially established that karst landscapes around the world require protection (Watson et al. 1997). Karst limestone is worth more as an intact ecosystem, a water source, and a scenic view than a source of aggregates (Stanton, 1990).
Many environmental impacts are caused by strip mining in karst landscapes, affecting water bodies into which mine sites drain. Impacts include increasing erosion of land and siltation of streams and rivers (Rajwar, 1982), disrupting base flow that may result in streams, rivers, and wells drying up (Legard, 1973), diverting or disrupting spring water flow (Green et al., 2005), changing sediment transport and deposition patterns within streams and rivers (Miller, 1999), and reducing aquatic habitat quality and availability that can affect local biodiversity (Miller, 1999). Water quality can be impacted by increasing amount of calcium, bicarbonates, sodium, and chloride salts in water (Iwanoff, 2006), changing stream temperatures by discharged mine water (see Green et al., 2005), discharging contaminated mine pit water, and causing saltwater intrusion into aquifers near coastal areas (Iwanoff, 1998).
Soil removal eliminates forest cover, seed bank, and root stock, reducing organic matter and nutrients (Parrotta et al., 1997; Akala and Lal, 2001; Panwar, 1999, Ravichandran et al., 2009). Stripping away forest and soil destroys the filtration layer that removes pollutants form water before it becomes part of the aquifer (Gunn and Hobbs, 1999). Groundwater quality deteriorates when infiltrated with unfiltered mine water (Naja et al. 2010). Karst groundwater is more susceptible to pollution than surface waters (Kresic et al., 1992) and takes much longer to purge pollutants than streams and rivers.
Land is degraded by dumping of mine spoils and limestone wastes, with small streams near the mining site often being buried beneath rock debris (see Lamare and Singh, 2016). Rock removal can disrupt the paths of groundwater conduit flow, affecting the flow of surface waters (Green et al., 2005). Sinkholes can be created by large scale groundwater drawdown (see Langer, 2001). Vibrations from blasts and equipment can increase groundwater turbidity (Green et al., 2005) and collapse caves and active flowing and dry conduits within karst. Road access to mines spread impact throughout the larger area.
Blasting is a continual process and creates noise, air, land, and water pollution. High energy ground vibration from blasting has negative effects on buildings, groundwater deposits, and ecology of nearby area (Singh and Singh 2005; Ozer et al. 2008). The noise and air blast from explosives can disturb wildlife (Fletcher and Busnel, 1978; Vermeulen and Whitten, 1999), including aquatic wildlife. Poorly executed blast plans or poorly controlled blasts can create flyrock (Langer, 2001). Limestone dust from blast sites can cause leaf injury or death in plants (Darley, 1966; Lerman and Darley, 1975; Howard and Cameron, 1998). Deposition of dust on roofs contaminates collected rainwater (see Lamare and Singh, 2016).
Any activity that results in the removal of forest, soil and rock, and the breakdown of a karst aquifer network reduces baseflow into surface waters. This reduces water availability for terrestrial ecosystems and discharge into receiving water bodies. It reduces water available for irrigation, industry, and household use (Miller, 1999). This is particularly a critical issue given the prediction for drier conditions in store for Belize in the foreseeable future.
A large conveyer bridge across the landscape, with support towers and anchor footings, will scatter rock debris and dust along its track, send continual vibrations into the ground, and cross a Hawksbill Sea Turtle nesting beach. From there it shall stretch out to the deeper water within the Inner Channel, its supports being anchored into the seafloor. A large, dredged harbor capable of docking and turning large freighters loaded with crushed stone, requiring considerable dredging and spoil disposal for the harbor and approach, and continual maintenance dredging to accommodate deep draft vessels. Then there is the continual impact of prop wash, prop and hull groundings, bilge water discharge, fueling dock spills, heavy metals and unburnt hydrocarbons, and traffic of maintenance and tender boats.
This mining operation would also impose many cultural, social, and economic impacts to the White Ridge area and to the nation. The landscape would change from a heavily forested agricultural area harboring small communities to an industrial landscape at the loss of aesthetic scenery and tranquility, the erosion of the Creole culture rural lifestyles. The presence of a large, noisy, dusty strip mine significantly reduces the tourism quality of the landscape.
The Vulcan Calica mine just south of Playa del Carmen, Mexico provides an example of what a mining operation would look like. Although the Calica Mine and the proposed White Ridge Farm mine shall be very different, they still have the same elements of being within the terrestrial coastal zone, require continual blasting and on-site pulverizing and sorting of rock materials, use large conveyer bridges, and include port facilities for large freighters. The Calica mine offers an example of the many extensive impacts caused by limestone extraction, processing, and shipping. When shut down earlier this year by the Mexican Government when the impacts were not being addressed, Vulcan responded by filing a $1.5 billion dollar international lawsuit against Mexico, demonstrating its propensity for going to court.