Vulcan Materials Company and Gales Point – an editorial from Belize

The following editorial by Ed Boles is from The Belize Ag Report, a monthly agricultural report. We are grateful to The Belize Ag Report and to Dr Ed Boles for their permission to reproduce the article in The Violence of Development website.

The Belize Ag Report, #45 Spring 2022

Spring 2022, Issue 45

Guest Editorial By Ed Boles, PhD Aquatic Ecologist

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 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 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 US where limestone deposits are now less available.

The material is to be transported over land and into the inner channel off the coast just south of Gales Point by a massive conveyer bridge suspended above the land and water. The conveyer bridge will be transporting crushed and sorted aggregates to Panamax self-loading ships waiting at anchor in the deeper waters of the inner channel. Dredging will be required to accommodate the 228 meters (748 ft., or longer) vessels with 13.5 to 14 m (44 to 46 ft.) draft, and the area will need to be large and deep enough to turn these vessels.

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 and residents have been envisioning and striving toward for three decades. The VMC mission is “to provide quality products and services which consistently meet our customers’ expectations; to be responsible stewards with respect to the safety and environmental impact of our operations and products; and to earn superior returns for our shareholders.”

The first guiding principle listed on the VMC website is integrity, stating “We will work constantly to earn the respect and trust of all parties we interact with by acting fairly and honorably. We will observe high ethical standards and obey all laws and regulations.” Areas within the Gulf Coast and Eastern Seaboard states have few locally available aggregate resources remaining. These areas are supplied from quarries in the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico just south of Playa del Carmen, shipped to US ports by the VMC fleet of Panamax-class, self-unloading ships, and moved by barge and rail to market locations.

Public protests against the mine continue, as do protests and court cases in many areas of the US where VMC operates. 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 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 stormwater runoff and erosion of the disturbed landscape and heavy sediment loads entering streams and the river. Karst water supplies are vulnerable to unwise land use activities that change the vegetation and geology of an area and can impact water users located at large distances from the water source. Deforestation and soil removal reduces the infiltration of rainwater into the ground that ultimately recharges aquifers. Unfiltered water from mining sites that enters groundwater resources from the mining pit or sink holes 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. Given the larger caverns and conduits within karst aquifers, groundwater moves much faster than occurs in other rock types, and any pollutants and pathogens in contaminated water are transported long distances compared to other aquifer forming rocks. Disruption of a groundwater conduit by mining activities can change the flow path of a large volume of groundwater, causing water to be redirected to discharge outlets in other locations, drying up damaged streams. Mine pit dewatering, the water being pumped out so mining can continue, can change local groundwater hydrology by lowering the water table, creating a cone of depression, similar to the effects of a large well on surrounding groundwater. Water bodies, springs, and wells within the cone of depression created by a mine pit penetrating the saturated zone can reduce inflow and may go dry due to the changed flow of groundwater. Many sinkholes often occur within the cone of depression caused by a limestone pit mine.

The continual blasting and drilling and the continual movement of materials over the conveyer bridge will create patterns of vibrations that may affect manatee, sea turtles, and other wildlife in the area. Besides the impact on wildlife, these sounds will 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 will be on the wildlife within the surrounding land and waters…until it starts to happen. The United States does not produce enough limestone to satisfy its consumption rate, importing mainly from Canada, Mexico, and China. This explains the strong interest in setting up the first of what could become several mines in Belize. Many limestone sites in the US are off limits to mining, having been developed into housing complexes, parks, protected areas, important aquifers, and other uses. It is also now harder to establish mines in new places within the United States because people do not want quarries near their residences.

VMC has been in litigation with many communities affected by their mining activities spread around the United States because of the impacts given above and more. Because of this increasing resistance to mining in the US, those impacts, including damage to groundwater resources, air quality reduction from dusts, noise pollution from blasting and heavy equipment, habitat loss, disruption of scenic vistas, and the overall degradation of the landscape are being exported to other countries, out of sight and out of mind to the many people who will be traveling over road beds made from the pulverized karst hills of Belize.

Editor’s Note: Dr. Boles, adjunct faculty member of Galen University, is known all over Belize for his expertise in conservation. He has spent over 30 years conducting rapid ecological assessments of watersheds and wetlands; promoting protection and restoration of steep slope, riparian, and wetland forests as critical components of watershed management; helping standardize water and watershed assessment methodologies and protocols; encouraging environmental research projects that inform conservation initiatives; and involving Belizean and international youth in these activities.