ponhea leu district, Kandal province – A dignified silence surrounds the pagodas sitting high atop two hills here.
The orange-robed monks who shuffle back and forth between the elaborately decorated temples are quiet. The clicking shutters of tourists’ cameras are the only sounds disrupting the calm reverence inspired by the temples.
A few years ago, however, a different noise resonated through the temples. From the bottom of Tray Treng hill, otherwise known as south Praseth hill, came a piercing hammering and pounding that emanated from the granite quarry, which was slowly edging its way up the hill.
A pit approximately 200 meters across was gouged into the land to the west of the temples, and each year, more and more granite was being mined.
Last year, at the urging of the Interior Ministry, all mining in the area was stopped. Local miners were told by provincial authorities that their small mining operations caused too much environmental damage.
The Thai company that was mining the area decided not to renew its licenses with the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy. And by April 2000, the government had effectively closed down all mining in the area.
But the mining could generate millions of dollars to this impoverished area, with the help of a valuable metal called molybdenum found within the granite. The price, however, would likely be the destruction of the temples.
Though the temples and the potential for environmental damage are concerns, the biggest problem is the high costs associated with mining for molybdenum, according to Sov Chivkun, general director of Mineral Resources at the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy.
In its pure state, molybdenum is “a lustrous gray metal, heavier than iron,” according to the Web site climaxmolybdenum.com. The mineral, extracted from rock through a chemical process, is used for many things, from the filament in electric heaters to gas turbine engines. Because it melts at an extremely high temperature, molybdenum is also used to strengthen steel. The biggest supply of the mineral is found in the US, with Chile second and Canada third. China also mines small deposits.
Pure molybdenum cost $5,000 for 1 ton, said Khun Panhasith, director of Mineral Resource Development at the Ministry of Industry. However, Atlanta Equipment Engineers, a US company based in the state of New Jersey, said on their Web site that “molybdenum powder” sells for $113.10 per 0.45 kg—or $251,111 per ton.
Khun Panhasith said the government has known about the molybdenum deposits since before 1970. But a detailed exploration of the area has not been performed because it is too expensive, not because of the temples, he said.
“The temples on the hills are a concern, but mostly we cannot do molybdenum mining exploration there because we do not have a budget for it,” Khun Panhasith said. “We don’t know the content, how much the tonnage is. But we know there is molybdenum in the area.”
Man Sovann, 55, a local miner, isn’t aware of the possible environmental degradation that molybdenum mining could cause. In fact, he’s never heard of molybdenum. But for the last 10 years he worked at the granite quarry near the Buddhist temples.
Originally a fertilizer worker from Banteay Meanchey province, he moved to Praseth village at the foot of Tray Treng hill in 1990, lured by granite mining in the area. He said he earned around $30 a month for his family by breaking granite stones with a hammer, but has been unemployed since last year.
“It was not a good job or a bad job,” Man Sovann said. “It’s just a living.”
He and other miners were told by local authorities last April that they had to cease all mining of granite because of environmental concerns.
Other miners in the area also fell on hard times when the granite mining ceased. Kim Samnang, 29, said he has been unemployed since the government closed down the granite mining.
The cheap granite stones mined by both Man Sovann and Kim Samnang contains the valuable molybdenum. But without the proper resources, the molybdenum—appearing as black specks in the rock—cannot be extracted from the granite.
Because of the restrictions placed on local miners due to environmental and religious concerns, the molybdenum remains unused.
“When people examine the rocks [around Tray Treng hill], they see the molybdenum,” said Sov Chivkun. “But we cannot allow anyone to mine it. We prohibit all mining or exploration of the area because of the temples.”
Because of the religious significance of the pagodas on Tray Treng hill, the Ministry of Industry declines to give mining licenses to any individual or company for mineral excavation in the area, Sov Chivkun said.
The mining prohibition stems from a 1994 Interior Ministry decision to preserve the temples on Tray Treng hill, said ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak.
The ban, however, didn’t stop granite mining in areas surrounding the hill, which continued until last year.
That’s because the government didn’t have to spend a lot of money to do research on granite mining, as it will have to do with molybdenum.
To estimate the cost of a detailed exploration, the Mineral Resource Department looked at the molybdenum mining exploration at the Sandong Tungstun Mine in South Korea, Khun Panhasith said. It cost $300,000 to perform a 100-meter deep drilling exploration project there.
The benefits, however, could outweigh the costs.
A report in the US newspaper High Country News examined molybdenum mining by the Molycorp company in the US state of New Mexico. During its peak, the Molycorp company was the largest employer in Taos County, in the US state of New Mexico, with some 600 people employed in the mining and processing of molybdenum.
The Molycorp mining project contributed more than $30 million a year to the local economy, High Country News reported. The average mining job paid between $40,000 and $50,000 a year while the average Taos job paid less than $10,000 a year.
But the environmental cost of molybdenum mining in the Taos region was staggering. The Red River, which ran through the Taos area, turned a cloudy blue, indicating that the river contained a high metal and acid content from the Molycorp mine. Fish died off at alarming rates, according to the report.
Dust storms generated by the molybdenum mining swept through Taos county. The dust contained high levels of lead, zinc, arsenic and mercury, according to High Country News. Molycorp, which mined molybdenum for 36 years in Taos, produced 328 million tons of waste rock, created a 450-meter deep open pit and littered the area with acid lakes from waste generated by machinery and milling buildings.
Roger Herrera used water pumped from the Red River for daily use. He told High Country News that his children’s hair eventually turned white and white stripes appeared on their fingernails, which is a clear symptom of metal contamination.
But for Man Sovann and Kim Samnang, the concerns about environmental damage do not cause them much worry. Though they are both Buddhist and want to protect the pagodas, they say their livelihoods should be considered, along with the environment.
“They [the local authority] said the granite mining destroyed the environment,” Kim Samnang said. “But I’m jobless. I have little education and no language skills, so it’s hard to get a job.”