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Belize: Vulcan Mining Plan Extracts Protests, Foresight

FeaturesBelize: Vulcan Mining Plan Extracts Protests, Foresight

by Cynthia Adina Kirkwood

Along with the vociferous opposition of local residents and several government ministers to Vulcan Materials Company’s proposal to quarry limestone near Gales Point Manatee, the mining company’s campaign has moved Belize’s Minister of Sustainable Development to consider creating a long-term “national development plan”. 

Hon. Orlando Habet, Minister of Sustainable Development, Climate Change and Disaster Risk Management told Love News FM (September 1): 

“Definitely, the government will have to decide … on what kind of development it really wants going forward. Possibly one of the faults we have, along with other governments, we have plans for maybe five years. We have to start looking at 40-, 50-year development plans. Not only with the party but, maybe, bring in the opposition parties, the churches, civil society and everybody else so that we can see where we want to be in 50 years. So, whether another party gets in to form the government, they might be able to change how you get there, but they can’t change that’s where we want to go, because that’s something that was a national development plan.”

Minister Habet, who has a Master of Science degree in Animal Breeding and Genetics as well as a Bachelor of Science degree in Dairy Production, has shown his proclivity for longer-term plans in the past. Breaking Belize News (March 22) reported that the Ministry’s “target is to strengthen the implementation of the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and create a medium-term development strategy along with the Ministry of Economic Development that … puts Belize into thoughtful, rational action …” 

In addition, “Habet announced plans to phase out short-term forest licenses and strengthen long-term forest management programs by importing some limited species.” 

The fruition of Minister Habet’s idea of creating a 50-year national plan would render the Vulcan campaign a catalyst for a stronger Belize. A plan, which lays bare the nation’s ecological and developmental outlook, would make it clear to companies that the jewel (a popular term of endearment for Belize) is not interested in selling its natural beauty and ecological balance for, as Deputy Prime Minister Cordel Hyde put it, “a few jobs here and a few nickels there”. With such a plan, Belizeans could channel their time, energy and creativity away from survival missions and into constructive projects. 

Who is Vulcan Materials Company 

Vulcan Materials Company was founded in 1909 as the Birmingham Slag Company. The Birmingham, Alabama, firm is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2019, its revenue was $4.929 billion.  

Vulcan is mainly engaged in the production, distribution and sale of construction materials, such as gravel, crushed stone and sand. It employs 8,373 workers at about 300 facilities, according to Fortune (January 28, 2019). The firm serves about 20 states, the District of Columbia and, until recently, Mexico. In May, Belize’s neighbor shut down Vulcan’s operations due to methods that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said amounted to “ecological catastrophe”, reported Reuters (May 25). 

In March 2007, Vulcan Materials announced that it had been named to Fortune magazine’s list of Most Admired Companies for the sixth time. The company was ranked first in its industry sector, “Building Material, Glass”. Overall, Vulcan ranked among the top 10 companies in the Fortune 1000 for both long-term investment and social responsibility. 

Yet, according to The Atlantic: ”Bayou Corne (Sinkhole) (in 2012) is the biggest industrial disaster in the United States you haven’t heard of.”  

In January 2018, Vulcan Materials was found to be partly responsible for the Bayou Corne Sinkhole in Louisiana along with Occidental Petroleum and Texas Brine Company, according to The Advocate, January 12, 2018. Occidental was found to be 50 percent responsible; Texas Brine 35 percent, and Vulcan 15 percent in a 2018 ruling of the 23rd Judicial District of Louisiana, reported BRProud News (August 5, 2018). 

The Bayou Corne Sinkhole was created from a collapsed underground salt dome cavern. When the sinkhole first appeared in 2012, it spanned 2.5 acres. In 2018, it had grown to 34 acres, reported The Advocate (Baton Rouge) (October 12, 2018).  

On its discovery, 350 residents were advised to evacuate the area as crude oil and methane gas came up, reported WVUE (December 4, 2014). Four years later, residents were allowed to return to their homes; only 12 out of 350 did so. 

In an August 5 email to Dr. Ed Boles, an aquatic ecologist, who is an adjunct lecturer at Galen University in Cayo, Belize, Janet F. Kavinoky, Vice President, External Affairs & Corporate Communications for Vulcan Materials Company, responded to his concerns:

“Over a 14-year period, the Mexican government repeatedly awarded our operation with its ‘Clean Industry Certificate’ – the highest official environmental award given by the government of Mexico to businesses operating in Mexico.” 

For 36 years from 1986, Vulcan has been limestone quarrying for road fill in the bordering Mexican state of Quintana Roo. In May, the Mexican government stopped operations near Playa del Carmen on the Caribbean coast. The Environment Department said that parts of the quarry had been excavated below the water table and that mining threatened water quality and subsoil conditions. Meanwhile, the company has a trade dispute with the government, reported Business & Human Rights Resource Centre (May 6). 

Vulcan Looking at Belize 

Now, Vulcan Materials is eyeing Belize.  

“Vulcan Materials Company is exploring the feasibility of creating The White Ridge Project, an environmentally and socially sustainable limestone quarry, on the White Ridge Farm property near Gales Point, Belize,” according to the project website. The project would create more than 250 jobs, preserve a conservation buffer zone, and support community services, including improving access to clean drinking water.” 

The White Ridge Project website is sparse on details. However, Dr. Ed Boles offered a wealth of information. The aquatic ecologist has spent more than 30 years protecting and restoring watersheds. He warned about Vulcan’s proposal in a guest editorial in the spring issue of The Ag Report, an independent, semi-annual agricultural newsletter:  

“Representatives of Vulcan Materials Company (VMC) headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, visited Belize on a fact-finding mission in December 2019, and alerted many people of the Stann Creek District coastal area that the company intended to purchase the 6,000-hectare (15,000-acre) White Ridge Farm. They sent down a company team to conduct test borings of the karst (limestone region) and granite rock in early 2020.  

“Their goal is to establish a foothold in Belize with a working aggregate mine and ship the mined materials from the karst hills of White Ridge Farm to the southeastern United States. Their intention is to strip away the forest and soil, continually blast the limestone hills, breaking them apart, crushing rocks into graded sizes of aggregates required for roadbeds, fill, concrete and asphalt mixes, and other construction uses in the U.S., where limestone deposits are now less available.  

“The material would be transported over land and into the inner channel off the coast just south of Gales Point by a massive conveyor bridge suspended above the land and water. The conveyor bridge would be transporting crushed and sorted aggregates to Panamax (the size requirements for ships traveling through the Panama Canal) self-loading ships waiting at anchor in the deeper waters of the inner channel.  

“Dredging would be required to accommodate 228 meters (748 ft., or longer) vessels with 13.5 to 14 meters (44 to 46 ft.) draft, and the area would need to be large and deep enough to turn these vessels.  

“The scale of the project and the removal of karst features/aquifers are not compatible with the sustainable use of this area that conservation NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and residents have been envisioning and striving toward for three decades.

“Now this multi-billion-dollar company has set sights on the limestone deposits in Belize right next to the largest hawksbill sea turtle nesting beach and the largest congregation of manatees in the western Caribbean. 

“Scraping away the forest and soil from a karst deposit imposes many impacts, including increasing the rate of storm-water runoff and erosion of the disturbed landscape and heavy sediment loads entering streams and the river. Unfiltered water from mining sites that enters groundwater resources from the mining pit or sinkholes can greatly reduce groundwater quality. . 

“Ground vibrations created by rock blasting and heavy equipment can loosen small particles within fractured rock and conduits, increasing turbidity within groundwater, which can show up in people’s wells. 

“The continual blasting and drilling and the continual movement of materials over the conveyor bridge (would) create patterns of vibrations that may affect manatee, sea turtles, and other wildlife in the area. Besides the impact on wildlife, these sounds (would) become a continual set of noises within the landscape, particularly those areas within a few miles of the mine.

“Ultimately, we are not sure just what the impact (would) be on the wildlife within the surrounding land and waters … until it starts to happen.” 

In the United States, there has been opposition to Vulcan’s plans for limestone quarries because of damage to groundwater resources, worsening of air quality due to dust, noise pollution from blasting and heavy equipment, habitat loss, disruption of scenic vistas and the overall degradation of the landscape, said Boles. There have been protests in Franklin County, Georgia (WLHR, December 30, 2021) and in Comal County in Texas (Spectrum News 1, June 20, 2019).  

Vulcan itself recognized that quarry areas were shrinking in the United States while demand was still high. In the legal claim administered by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, Vulcan, the claimant, against United Mexican States, respondent (May 18, 2020), said: 

“In the 1980s, encouraged by Mexico’s policies to attract foreign investment in nonoil sectors, Legacy Vulcan started investing in Mexico. It developed a one-of-a-kind project to quarry limestone and produce high-quality aggregates in the State of Quintana Roo for export to the United States. Legacy Vulcan’s investment in Mexico is a vertically integrated operation designed to produce millions of tons of aggregates over many decades for sale in markets along the Gulf Coast and Atlantic seaboard of the United States. Because there are few or no indigenous limestone deposits in those markets, high-quality aggregates command a premium price there.” 

Full article can be found at: https://www.cynthiaadinakirkwood.com/post/belize-vulcan-mining-plan-extracts-protests-foresight

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