Q&A with BC Pires
March 26, 2006
Environmental engineer Cathal Healy-Singh is a spokesman for the Rights Action Group, which is completely against the establishment of any aluminum smelter in Trinidad & Tobago.
Q: Who is the Rights Action Group?
A: We are a non-profit NGO [comprising] Trindadians from a cross-section of occupations: university students; people from the media; professionals; an interior designer; two farmers.
What is your connection to the Cap-de-Ville, Union village and Cedros community groups?
We help build awareness in those communities of the National Environmental Policy and Act [which requires] the government to provide information at community level to support the community's input into the process of industrialisation and development in general. We're trying to fill the gap the government is not filling.
Is it fair to say your support comes from the middle-classes, the white people, the bourge?
Absolutely not! I wouldn't describe any of us as being, financially, middle-class. Largely, the support is in the communities, either below or on the poverty line. We don't see that as being relevant.
Some might label you as middle-class people opposed to the government's plans to develop the economy?
I think the middle-classes and business people are actually quite keen to see [the aluminum smelter] developments because they see opportunities. What you saw at CCA7 on Tuesday was our attempt to sensitise the Port of Spain crowd. We intend to go into the wider community and depending on where we are, you will see a very different cross-section of Trinidadians there. People say the environment is a middle-class thing but people in communities, particularly people living below the poverty line who depend on those resources, like fishing, have a lot of respect for it.
What opportunities do business people see?
In the Alcoa project in Chatham, I don't see any spin-offs because they are producing for export. In the Alutrint case, there's the downstream industry. They intend to produce aluminum for production of cables, wheels, components.
Is the Alutrint plant's ability to generate added value not a good thing?
The cost of smelting in terms of public health and local and global environment outweighs the benefit of downstream opportunity. We don't think it's wise to use a diminishing resource [gas] for industries that require large amounts of energy. The extraction of hydrocarbons is in its twilight now as global climate has broken down. Greenhouse gases are warming the globe and weather patterns are changing definitely. The ozone layer is being depleted. The aluminum smelting industry is a large contributor to [these]. There are other enormous economic opportunities where there are less ecological and public health costs.
But we can't have the benefits of industrialisation without paying a price, can we?
About 35 per cent of aluminum produced in the world is recycled. The cost of recycling aluminum requires five per cent of the energy of smelting. If we want to have our cake and eat it, we should invest in the recycling industry.
You do see less harm in Alutrint than Alcoa, though?
Well, Alcoa, 100 per cent owned by an American company, is going to export their aluminum whereas Alutrint is 60 per cent owned by NEC and 40 per cent by Sural, a Venezuelan private company. But do the costs justify any smelter at all? Is it the kind of industry we want to invest our gas in at low market prices? And are the costs of production vis-Ã -vis public health, environment and the final disposal cost of the hazardous waste greater or less than the benefits of downstream aluminum in Trinidad? The jury is out on that and that type of question needs to be answered within the impact and feasibility studies. So far, they are not.
And your position is, there should be no smelter at all in Trinidad?
Yes. the RAG, the village council in Union, the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group, Cedros Peninsula United, Greenlight Network, these NGOs plus a host of faith-based organisations, particularly the Catholic faith, have actually taken a position opposed to this. The Council of Caricom Bishops produced an Episcopal letter [saying] the environment is important to Caribbean Catholics.
I believe, if people had the information about the consequences of the industry, they would oppose it.
What makes aluminum smelters so bad?
The nature of the industry. It is notoriously hazardous, by definition. The inputs are hazardous, the process is hazardous, the working environment is high-risk in terms of cancers-this is very well researched and documented, although Alcoa is investing a lot of money in seeking to convince us it's not Research links cancers to people who work in the pot-rooms, the anode production rooms where you have volatile organic polyaromatic hydrocarbons, a suite of different injurious chemicals. Even if you had a very sophisticated technology, it's inescapable that people are going to be exposed to much higher risks than they would be in another type of industry.
Surely people can choose whether they wish to work in such an environment?
That's right; but our position is, this is not necessary at all. The Cedros community groups have prepared an alternative development plan for the peninsula which hasn't been considered by the government at all.
There are smelter plants in the continental US?
That's correct. The one Alcoa proposes to build in Trinidad is equivalent to if not larger than any other smelting plant in the West. This is extraordinary, when you have a continent next door.
Why would Alcoa want to come here?
Cheap energy, weak environmental legislation, weak workers' rights. That's the attraction. And perhaps a pliable political class.
Why can't we support smelting?
The first reason is the most obvious one: the communities don't want it. They're emphatic about that. The public consultations held as part of the Certificate of Environmental Clearance process, certainly in the case of Union, [revealed] 95 per cent didn't want it. We don't have the regulatory capacity to do it or the infrastructure to contain the hazardous waste. In the US a hugely complex regulatory environment has evolved to cope with the smelting industry wastes.
That's taken more than 40 years. Our regulatory environment is wholly inadequate to cope with the level, quantity and severity of the waste.
The other reason is, we don't have the water resource capacity for industrialisation and to meet the needs of every individual in Trinidad. Industrialisation may have been an attractive model in the 60s and 70s but, in the developed world, these industries are being closed down. In Norway, they've created enormous problems, to fisheries on the coastline, to public health, to the cost of disposal of the hazardous waste.
How hazardous is this waste?
Hazardous wastes are unstable wastes toxic to life. Even the tiniest particle, one-billionth, is injurious to human health. There's cyanide in the spent pot-liners. In the US, cyanide bonds have to broken through a very high temperature process to make the waste inert before it can be transported anywhere.
Is there a Bhopal/Union Carbide type of risk?
I'm not sure anyone could say there is a risk of a large explosion and fire; but if there were spills or accidents and this material was somehow disbursed in the area, there would be an ecological meltdown.
You're putting aluminum oxide powder into a complex electrolytic solution with sodium fluoride. We have a little bit of fluoride in toothpaste so it sounds benign but the quantities and concentrations used in the industry. It reacts with the calcium in the bones and gives rise to brittle bones. You see that in uncontrolled smelting operations in India, where cattle in surrounding areas are know to collapse because they can't support their body weight.
Surely we'd have controls?
I can't say we will; Alcoa promises best available technology but we don't have a record in Trinidad of high efficiency, good performance pollution control technologies. You only have to take a step across to Pt Lisas to see what's happened to the Gulf of Paria, the Couva River and coastline to realise we have not begun to estimate what the implications and future cost of that estate are. Alcoa [proposes] a 345,000-tonne plant; Alutrint is 135,000 tonnes. We're talking about over half a million tones [annually]. If both were set up, it would mean the doubling of electricity consumption in Trinidad, only to smelt aluminum. We find that an extraordinarily narrow-sighted decision to make, given the finite nature of the resource.
Has any land been cleared in the peninsula?
In the Chatham area, no land has been cleared yet but there are rumours it is imminent. In the Union Estate, we know a thousand acres were clear-cut. It was started in the wee hours of the morning when everyone was asleep, without any notice given to the residents. It continued with a slaughter of the wildlife. There were some grotesque things that took place, in contravention to our policy and Act.
What steps can you take?
The Certificate of Environmental Clearance process offers a window of legal opportunity to challenge the proposed development through civil action suits. Our understanding is, the communities down there are prepared to take such action. It is not necessary to move extra-legally but it is important to send a message to the government that this type of industrialisation is not in the interest of Trinidad & Tobago and the people. If we are going to consider accepting the industry, there should be full public consultation so everybody is aware of the implications. If that were the case and the people of Trinidad still wanted it, it would have to go ahead. But because that did not and has not happened, the development should not happen because it contravenes the law.
Can the PM declare, as he has, that the smelter will be built?
He's either not aware of the legal procedures for awarding a Certificate of Environmental Clearance or he has no regard for them.