Sun, 19 May 2024


Studies pave way to gazette abandoned Mamut mine
Published on: Sunday, September 03, 2023
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Huge pit lake ponded by very acidic water marked by Acid Mine Drainage dominates the abandonded Mamut copper mine landscape.
THE State Cabinet actually decided on July 13, 2022 to gazette the abandoned Mamut copper mine into a nature reserve under the Parks Enactment 1984. 

By Sept 19-30, 50 researchers from 13 universities mounted a Mamut Scientific Expedition under State orders, with a view to prepare a Management Plan under Sabah Parks.  

For two days Aug 28-Sept 9 at Promenade Hotel, the findings from the expedition were presented.       

Going back to history, in 1971, the Usno Government excised a huge chunk of 2,112ha of forests and removed it from Kinabalu Park in a gazette for private copper mining.  

Whoever takes over now inherit a problematic post mining legacy centred around its acid mining drainage (AMD) from a 500-metre deep pit lake that has since been ponded by 20.6 cubic metres of near maximum pH2 acidic water which is also heavy metal contaminated.      

Copper mine or gold mine?

A Japanese-Malaysian joint venture company called Overseas Mineral Resources Development Sabah Sdn Bhd started operation in 1975, with both the Federal and Sabah Governments being part of the agreement. 

For some reason, this was sold to Mega First Sdn Bhd in 1991 and renamed Mamut Copper Mine Sdn Bhd (MCM).

So it became widely known as Mamut Copper mine.  

Between 1975 and 1999 when it was closed, the mine churned out 2.1 million tonnes of ore concentrates, out of which it produced 520,000 tonnes of copper, 39 tonnes of gold and 255 tonnes of silver (Wikipedia) and generated export revenue which hit RM3.4 billion!

But the State Government’s share was only RM200 million.   

Based on current market price, one tonne of copper is US$8,243/ tonne, one tonne of gold is US$47,998, 333/ tonne and one tonne of silver at US$677,463.9/ tonne, so keen readers can figure out for themselves the current value. 

Of surprise is the relatively large gold tonnage, so Mamut copper mine could have easily doubled up as “gold mine”! 

The upside     

Because of regular bad press over its crisis mining impacts on downstream villagers and environment of Ranau, Mamut copper mine never enjoyed a good reputation.  

But copper per se is highly reputed in the world industries. 

Unlike iron and steel which rust, copper never rust and is an excellent conductor of electricity.

Even now, copper is widely used in many technological innovations such as electrical vehicles and is rated as indicator of overall health of the economy because of its crucial role in industry and technology.

As a mineral, the body uses copper to do many important functions – make energy, connective tissues, maintains the nervous system and the immune system.   

One notable up side was sleepy old Ranau woke up and boomed, a sleek bitumen Tamparuli-Ranau highway to transport ores to Kota Belud en route to Japan replaced the old terrible back-breaking colonial gravel road.    

The down sides 

During its 24-year operations, however, heap leaching to extract copper by use of sulfuric acid and use of cyanide to dissolve gold and silver from ground ore to separate the valuable metals from the useless wastes, generated toxic leachates and five dumps of overburdens and tailings including one of the biggest and most visible called the Lohan Tailings Dams near Poring, 1,000 metres below the mine.  

I remember Prof Dr Ghazali Ismail, then Vice Chancellor of Universiti  Kebangsaan  Malaysia, Sabah branch, spoke up for unsuspecting downstream villagers allegedly affected by drinking water from  polluted Mamut, Lohan and Bambangan rivers, turning them into biologically dead zones.  

Acid Mine Drainage explained – life long hazard    

When the mine was abandoned in 1999, water ponded the 500-metre deep open pit with 20.6m cubic metres of water, and created a massive problem with a very long hazard life of Acid Mine Drainage known to be very difficult to contain, if not impossible to contain. 

A googled comment regard Acid Mine Drainage (ADM) a global crisis second biggest only to climate change, caused when metal ores bound up with sulphur in land rock mines are exposed to rain, oxygen and metals dissolved by acid drainage result in very low pH which poison water, creating biological dead zones downstream!  

The State Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID) was long aware of the problem but what can they do?  

Retired Former DID Director, Yap Siew Wah, attributed the primary cause of acid mine drainage (AMD) to exposure of large areas of pyrite rocks in Mamut.

Trying to foster a basic public understanding on what happened, Yap said when Sulphide minerals found in Mamut’s pyrite rocks (FeS2) come into contact with water, they react to form sulphuric acid (H2SO4). This acid dissolves heavy metals and generate water that is high in sulphuric acid.    

pH2 hits near maximum acidity  

When UMS professors Marcus Jopony and Felix Tongkul did a study on overall Mamut including the 400ha Lohan Tailing Dam in 2009, they recorded acidity hit almost maximum pH 2, which was noted and cited by another researcher, Wu Chuan Li.    

Sabah Parks even erected a warning sign at the entrance to Poring Hotspring to warn visitors not to walk into the Mamut River! 

A string of high-power attempts failed 

Daily Express has seen many people tried to make defunct Mamut mine productive, except success. This is another round. 

In 2001, then Chief Minister, Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat, tried to attract interest of investors to develop the abandoned mine area to resort type tourism attraction, citing advantages like highland weather, interesting topography, scenic view of Mt Kinabalu, but nothing happened.    

A group of Japanese investors once offered to neutralise Mamut’s acid mine drainage (AMD)   

I was present when the group met then Tourism and Environment Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Masidi Manjun and proposed the use of Effective Microbes to treat the Acid Mine Drainage.

But at a potential cost of millions, nothing happened.  

In fact, Masidi told the State Legislative Assembly in 2013 the cost of rehabilitation of the abandoned mining land was about RM200 million – a sum equivalent to what Sabah had earned from the mining operation.

Pairin tried 

In 2016, then Deputy Chief Minister, Tan Sri Joseph Pairin Kitingan, mooted the possibility of treating the 20.6 million cubic metres of water for drought relief but geologists argued the measure is not only costly and even if the acidity could be neutralised, heavy metals like iron (Fe), aluminium (Al), copper (Cu), zinc (Zn) and manganese (Mn), remain and unfit for human consumption.   

Geoscience tried, Pang Nyuk Ming tried but…

In fact, Daily Express reported former former Tourism, Culture and Environment Assistant Minister, Datuk Pang Nyuk Ming claiming a study conducted by the Sabah Minerals and Geoscience Department had resulted in the development of an Acid Mine Drainage (AMD) Management and Rehabilitation Plan, the Edge writer RB Bhattacharjee reminded us.

Pang was further reported as saying his then Ministry would be requesting RM200 million allocation under the 11th Malaysia Plan to undertake the rehabilitation work, estimated to take a decade, Daily Express reported.     

But where is that acid mine drainage (AMD) Management Plan and implementation under the 11th Malaysia Plan? 

It would have been very interesting to hear a presentation of that purported plan from the Sabah Minerals and Geoscience Department speak at the 28-9 August Seminar but they were not there.   

Given its defeatish nature, small wonder the seminar devoted two paper around AMD – entitled ‘Geological Mapping and Hazard Potential of The Abandoned Mamut Copper Mine’ by Nur Ayu Sufiah binti Khairul and “Limnological Characteristics of Ex-copper Mine Pit Lake”, by Prof Madya Dr Ejria Binto Saleh.

Tourism optimism under Sabah Parks 

In this Special Report, we publish a range of expedition findings, based on the synopsis of the presenters, as the State Government plans to give the defunct mine another shot. 

Sectorially speaking, there is optimism tourism may work and begin to make headway under Sabah Parks once the Mamut Copper Mine is gazetted under its control, opined Wiilter Azwal bin Malandi, who presented findings on “Rapid Assessment of Ecotourism Potential Based on Visual, Physical and Ecological Measurement in Post-Copper Mining, Mamut, Sabah’.

“Past tourism plans failed because it was district matter Sabah Parks’ control, I think something will happen,” Wilter beamed with optimism. 

Proposed Mamut summit trail & geotourism may click 

Wilter is probably right when we look at product development ideas cited by former Tourism Minister Datuk Jaffrey Ariffin on the July 2022 State Cabinet decision.

One, identify new routes to be developed to the summit from the abandoned mine through the eastern ridge as a tourism product which will probably interest many climbers.

Two, geotourism centred around a copper mine museum to be built to commemorate the geological heritage, may resonate with enough curious visitors.

Three, develop a new research and education centre to carry out long term study on the rehabilitation and ex-situ conservation of endemic species to open up opportunities for Sabah to collaborate with experts from local and foreign research institutions.

Recognising the Acid Mine Drainage problem needs a long-term attention is realistic.

‘Remarkable land snails’ – Prof Liew 

Moving on, a positive note was returned by Prof Madya Dr. Liew Thor in his presentation ‘ Land and Freshwater Snails’ Diversity of Mamut, Ranau, Sabah

“ Our study documents the remarkable land snail and slug diversity found in the abandoned Mamut copper mine area within Kinabalu Park,” he said.

“Over just two days, a thorough survey identified 29 species from 17 genera and 11 families, which reflects a substantial richness despite a relatively small sample size,” Prof Liew said.

From Left: Dr Liew, Handry and Azwal

Land snails’ composition and diversity in disturbed area was comparable to undisturbed habitats in Liwagu and Mesilau areas,” he noted.

“This finding underscores the potential for rehabilitation and recolonization studies in such heavily disturbed environments,” Prof Liew said.

“The presence of a relatively high number of land snail species around abandoned mine areas suggest the possibility of recolonisation  by indigenous species, showcasing the resilience of  local ecosystems  even in challenging conditions,” he said.   

‘High conservation value forests’ – John Baptist

Forestry Senior Researcher John Baptist Sugau, who spoke on “Diversity and Conservation Status of Tree Species in Mamut, Ranau” highlighted diversity in taxa terms.  

“Our study recorded 594 taxa from Mamut area of which 158 taxa are endemics to Borneo, including 20 endemics to Sabah. Thus it indicates that the forests in Mamut have high conservation value tree species,” he said.

“For example, one high conservation value tree species, Agathis kinabaluensis is selected as part of the conservation targets for monitoring biodiversity integrity in Mamut.” 

“The most diverse tree families are Myrtaceae, Fagaceae and Lauraceae from the Oak-laurel forest and encaceous forest,” he noted.  

“Adequate of plant diversity in the area is vital for the formulation of Conservation Area Management Plan for Mamut, which must include high conservation tree species like Agathis kinabaluensis,” John Baptist advised.       

“Invasive alien tree species need to be properly managed in order to minimise invasion and threat to native species.

He cited exotic “pines” are a greater threat than alien acacia in terms of invasiveness. 

Ex-mine ‘rich in mosses’ – Prof Monica  

Moss expert Professor Dr Monica Suleiman of UMS was upbeat in her specialist field. 

“The abandoned mine is rich in mosses and further explorations in other parts of its surrounding areas will contribute to more new records for Sabah and Borneo,” said Prof Monica, who spoke on the “Inventory of Mosses of Mamut Copper Mine and it’s Adjacent Areas”.

“We collected a total of 101 species and three varieties, in 58 genera and 31 families of mosses from the former Mamut Copper Mine and its adjacent areas,” she said.

“This represents about 16pc and 13pc of mosses reported from Sabah and Borneo, respectively. 

“Of these, five species new to Borneo were identified,” Prof Monica said. 

Keep in mind that these studies are generally rapid assessments, by no means exhaustive studies.

‘Decent frog population’ – Prof Quah  

Sabahans joke a lot about frogs’ ability to jump, unfortunately this misses their real value as environmental indictors. 

As their skin absorbs water and air, frogs are very sensitive to water and air quality which makes them top dog indicators of water and air pollution.

Besides, they eat uncountable billions of insects each year thus important for agricultural well being, besides being themselves critical food sources for fish, birds, snakes and other wildlife.        

Prof Quah (left) and Prof Monica Suleiman.

So, the importance of amphibians and reptiles must be looked at from that perspective, as follows: 

“A brief herpetofauna (amphibian & reptile) survey over three nights at various locations around Mamut revealed a decent number of 18 frog species, five lizard species and two snake species,” said Prof Madya Dr. Evan Quah Seng.

“The amphibians composed of five families and 11 genera, whereas reptiles composed of five families and five genera while a number of species remain unconfirmed and their presence is only noted based on vocalisations,”  Prof Quah said.    

“Because the hazard life of the Mamut acid mine drainage (AMD) is expected to last very long, probably well beyond the life time of this generation, there was a proposal to just bury it altogether, possibly with lime stone rocks, just like farmers and planters treat overly acidic soil with lime.

Sounds great.

However, to bury such a massive open pit would require an equivalent of mining out all the famed limestone massifs of Balembangan Island, northwest of Kudat, according to economics lecturer, Professor of Universiti Malaysia Sabah!

Will Sabah be willing to pay for such a big sacrifice?

Or can other less cherished limestone massifs be found, to put to bed what sounds like an ‘eternal’ harm?

So it remains to be seen what solution for the Mamut AMD will be under Sabah Parks management.’

‘Pretty rhododendrons in all dump sites’ – Handry 

The Mamut copper mine has five waste dump sites composed of toxic tailings and overburdens.

And all dump sites studied found rhododendrons – cherished for their rose-like beauty.  

It is interesting there was a study to compare rhododendron diversity was done on four of these – West Dump, Mamut Dump, Lohan Dump and North Dump, involving 12 plots of 10mx10m.

Handry Mujih, Sabah Parks Research assistant, said the results showed the West Dump area had the highest number of rhododendrons (145 individuals from 9 species) , followed by  Mamut Valley Dump  (134 individuals, five species), Lohan Dump (39 individuals, six species) and species North Dump  (four individuals, four species).

“This study brings the checklist for rhondodendrons from the Mamut Copper Mine area to 15 species,” Handry noted. 

Reduce toxic with plants & microbes  

Solutions are sorely needed for a damaged and poisoned ex-Mamut mine environment. 

An interesting study involved the use of chicken manure to study compost-aided phytomediation, by using pot trials using soil sample collected from Mamut Valley Dump – one of the five toxic tailing waste dumps.

Phytomediation refers to use of plants and associated microbes to reduce concentration of toxic effects of contaminants in the environment. 

It is a widely accepted as cost-effective environmental restoration technology.

‘Significant decontamination from trials with microbes/plants’: Dr Julenah

Dr Julenah Hj. Ag. Nuddin said the objective of the study were to collect water flux from the pot trials every two weeks for 15 weeks, to determine the concentration of Cu (copper), Ca (calcium), Mg (Manganese) and K (potassium) from water flux collected from the pot trials, including its pH and plant biodiversity in the pot trials.

This involved two pot trials.

Dr Julenah (left) and Dr Ejria

One consisted treated soil (ultramafic top soil, non-compacted mine soil , and chicken manure).

The other consisted non-treated soil (ultramafic top soil and compacted mine soil).

The setup was left outside exposed to rainwater as the only water source and the water flux was collected every two weeks. 

The results? The pot with chicken manure as treatment gave significant results in immobilising copper in soil while increasing the macronutrients (Manganese and potassium) in soil and improving the pH of the soil.

The volume of water drainage increased with the application of chicken manure to the soil besides increase in plant biodiversity associated with pot amended with chicken manure. 

The information would be useful for extensive further study to explore additional variables for a comprehensive phytomediation strategies by using a nature based approach, Dr Julenah reckoned. 

‘Acidic oxygen-depleted water permeates lake water’: Prof Ejria  

But what is the water condition in ex mine pit like?

In a comprehensive investigation of the limnological characteristics at the pit lake to see what the prevailing environmental water parameters were within the lake, Prof Madya Dr Ejria Binti Saleh noted that  “the results indicated predominant anoxic (oxygen depleted) and acidic conditions through most of the pit lake.

“While there were minor variations in chemical water properties within the water column, concentrations of copper (Cu) and iron (Fe) exceeded the limits set by the National Water Quality Standard for Malaysia,” she noted.

“These findings offer valuable insights for the development of effective rehabilitation and management strategies for Mamut relevant to local authorities,” Prof Dr Ejria said. 


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