Myanmar mining disaster caused by poor planning, satellite data detectives suggest

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Hundreds of people were buried in a landslide when the wall of the Wai Khar surface mine collapsed on July 2, 2020.Credit: Zaw Moe Htet / AFP via Getty

Detailed analysis of satellite and remote sensing data revealed poor conditions at the Wai Khar jade mine in northern Myanmar, where a landslide last July killed more than 170 people.

The international team of authors behind study1 – the first to rigorously document a mining accident in Myanmar – say the findings suggest that mismanagement and design contributed to the tragedy, and not just the monsoon rains, as was originally assumed.

In addition to shedding light on the causes of the disaster, which have yet to be fully addressed, the authors hope the findings will help document mine collapses and improve site planning, both in Myanmar and in other countries that experience frequent mining accidents.

Jade mining, mainly for jewelry and carvings destined for China, has exploded in Myanmar in recent years. About 400,000 miners salvage jade from the slopes of surface mines, often with little safety equipment. They power an industry that supplies 90% of the world’s jade and earned around US $ 8 billion in 2011, or 20% of the Southeast Asian state’s export revenue.

Hundreds of deaths

Myanmar’s jade industry is poorly regulated and mine collapses are common, causing several hundred deaths since 2004, according to the study’s authors. But a lack of transparency on the part of the Burmese authorities – as well as the political and ethnic conflict in northern Kachin state, where jade mining is concentrated – means that field investigations of the mining sites are ” almost impossible, ”say the authors.

In what would have been Myanmar’s worst mining disaster, in June last year, rain began to saturate the soil in the northern part of the Wai Khar open-pit jade mine in the Hpakant region. Finally, on July 2, an enormous volume of quarry slope material “collapsed in a flooded surface mine, burying and killing at least 172 jade miners,” the authors write.

Although Hpakant mining companies were ordered by authorities to suspend operations from July 1 for three months for the monsoon season, impoverished independent scavengers were still looking for unpicked jade exposed by the rain. Heavy rains were initially assumed to be the trigger for the collapse.

Myanmar’s National Human Rights Commission blamed the landslide on lack of due diligence and risk assessment by mining companies, at least 12 of which held licenses covering specific parts of the Wai mine. Khar at the time of the accident. But nongovernmental organizations say a lack of government regulatory oversight in the mining industry is also a major life-threatening issue for miners in Myanmar.

Jade figurines for sale at the Jade and Amber Market in Mandalay.

Myanmar’s poorly regulated mines provide up to 90% of the world’s jade.Credit: Mladen Antonov / AFP via Getty

A spokesperson for Myanmar Gems Enterprise – the government-owned mining regulatory and licensing body of Myanmar – said Nature that mining operations at the Wai Khar surface mine ended on June 29 before the accident, and that a government investigation concluded that rains had seeped into the ground via fractures in the rock, resulting in landslide. They added that the research results will be valuable in helping the future governance of the mining sector.

The mining companies could not be reached for comment on the study, or did not respond to Naturewonders about the causes of the disaster.

Given the lack of access to mine sites in Myanmar, a team of researchers from Taiwan, Singapore, Brazil and Thailand used remote sensing and satellite data to investigate the collapse. These are often used to monitor mine sites in countries that have strict mining regulations. “There are a lot of things we can do from space,” said Wang Yu, co-author of the study, a geologist at National Taiwan University in Taipei.

Aggressive mining cycles

To search for deformations in the landscape around the Wai Khar mine over time, Wang and his team combined online video footage of the accident from the ground with aerial and satellite data, as well as historical data from a NASA space shuttle mission in 2000.

The authors found two factors they believe triggered the collapse of the wall, in addition to the precipitation. First, the walls of the mine were dangerously steep given the fragile nature of the rock surrounding the pit. Google Earth images captured at intervals between 2013 and 2020 indicated that periodic landslides had occurred in the pit, even where special steps were carved into the wall to prevent collapse, Wang said.

“The mine site is subject to aggressive mining cycles which are exacerbated by frequent and uncontrolled landslides,” he and his co-authors write. This process allows the jade to be extracted faster, but creates dangerous conditions.

“The argument that the slope was too steep is most likely correct,” says Dave Petley, a geographer who studies landslides at the University of Sheffield, UK. He says he can’t be sure the landslide was associated with mining practices, but that operations should be designed to prevent warping. “The authors show that the walls of the mine were actively deforming before the rupture,” he adds.

Poor mine design

Second, the study’s authors claim that the mining waste piles acted as a sponge for precipitation or groundwater, and likely gradually released water that eroded the walls of the pit, causing it to collapse. . The piles of trash, detected in digital elevation data from NASA’s Space Shuttle in 2000 and Japan’s Advanced Earth Observation Satellite from 2006 to 2011, shouldn’t have been so close to the mine, say -they.

In an email to Nature, the authors said “there were issues of mismanagement and poor design in the pit,” but don’t blame anyone for the collapse. “Our analysis is only from a scientific point of view. This should be viewed as an autopsy report, not a criminal complaint, ”they said. “A thorough investigation will be necessary to determine the fair share of responsibility between the different parties. “

Kyi Htun, independent consultant in mining geology in Yangon, the capital of Myanmar, says that after reading the study, he believes that poor management of the site, such as not monitoring the evolution of the slope in the over time and not properly disposing of the accident waste. “No one did the mine design correctly,” at the Wai Khar mine, he says.

Help other nations

San Htoi, spokesperson for the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand advocacy group, which visited the mine after the landslide, also said the findings are consistent with her observations: “The slope is too steep. It is so dangerous.

The study’s authors hope the team’s work will encourage other scientists to perform similar analyzes in countries where mining is poorly regulated. Between 2004 and 2016, landmine accidents killed people in 32 countries, according to a report2.

As for the latest study, “it’s a very comprehensive analysis of the mining accident,” says Birendra Bajracharya, coordinator of SERVIR-Hindu Kush Himalaya in Kathmandu, an international initiative that uses geospatial technologies to inform responses to environmental challenges. . “The methodology will be useful to other researchers,” he adds.

Study co-author Yunung Nina Lin, a geologist at Academia Sinica in Taipei, says she hopes “the families of those who died may have a chance to learn what happened on mining site over the years, “and that” those in power can take the messages from this research and turn them into real action.

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