Colombia Aims To Improve Its Embattled Mining Industry

Alabama-based Drummond Co. has been fined $3.6 million in Colombia for polluting beaches and dumping coal into the ocean. Drummond reflects the wider dilemma facing the Colombian government when it comes to mining. It is promoting foreign investment but environmental controls are lax, leading to contaminated rivers, mercury poisoning and deforestation.

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Colombia is a country famous for its exports. It's well known that those exports traditionally include flowers and also, unfortunately, cocaine. You may not realize Colombia is also the world's fourth-largest coal exporter, thanks in part to the Drummond Coal Co. The Alabama-based mining firm produces about 25 million tons of coal annually in the South American country.

Drummond is also under fire for polluting beaches and dumping coal in the ocean. Now, the Colombian government has ordered a complete halt to Drummond's port operation, as John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: The government order, which took effect Monday, prohibits Drummond from loading coal at its Caribbean port near the resort city of Santa Marta. Drummond exports 80,000 tons per day. But it is a dirty operation. Cranes load coal onto open-air barges for delivery to ships. This process kicks up coal dust that fouls the air, water and beaches. Julio Vera is a private energy consultant in Bogota, the Colombian capital.

JULIO VERA: The color of the beaches have changed. The sand in Santa Marta was very white. At this moment the beach in Santa Marta is not white. It is grey or black in some parts.

OTIS: Under a Colombian law that took effect January 1st, coal must now be loaded directly onto ships by way of enclosed conveyer belts, a much cleaner system. These renovations at Drummond's port are nearly finished. But of Colombia's four main coal exporters, Drummond is the only one that failed to meet the deadline.

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PRESIDENT JUAN MANUEL SANTOS: (Spanish spoken)

OTIS: Shortly before his government ordered the shutdown, President Juan Manuel Santos said: Drummond is flouting the law by maintaining a coal export system that is polluting the bay of Santa Marta. This isn't the first time Drummond has been accused of misdeeds in Colombia. The company has been involved in court battles over its alleged ties to Colombian death squads that killed labor activists.

Drummond has denied any wrongdoing. To prevent a barge from sinking in rough seas last January, Drummond dumped 1,900 tons of coal into ocean then said nothing until pictures of the incident were posted on the Internet. The company was fined $3.5 million and ordered to clean up nearby beaches. The Colombian government will lose about $6 million in taxes and royalties for every day Drummond's port is shut down.

SENATOR JORGE ROBLEDO: (Spanish spoken)

OTIS: Colombian Senator Jorge Robledo wants the government to sue Drummond for this lost income. He said the company knew at least seven years in advance that it would have to modernize its port. The Drummond scandal reflects the hurdles in President Santos's quest to scale-up mining. As security improves in a country plagued by drug traffickers and guerrillas, new areas have opened up for gold, silver, nickel, and coal extraction.

But it can leave a huge footprint. In some Colombian villages located near mining sites, people suffer from mercury poisoning and black lung disease. What's more, Colombia's record at enforcing environmental laws is spotty - which encourages mining companies to violate them, says Julio Fierro, a Colombian geologist at the National University in Bogota.

JULIO FIERRO: (speaks Spanish)

OTIS: That's the problem with mining in countries with weak government institutions, Fierro says. Mining always becomes a source of social and environmental conflict. Drummond did not respond to NPR's requests for comment. In a communiqué, the company said that its port renovations should be completed in March when it expects to resume exporting Colombian coal. For NPR News, I'm John Otis in Bogota, Colombia.

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