Sunday, April 09, 2006

Calls for PM Manning to come clean on Alcoa deal

By Shaliza Hassanali
Sunday Guardian
April 9, 2006

Prime Minster Patrick Manning must come clean and tell the people of T&T what arrangements have been entered into with Alcoa for the building of smelter plants in the south-western peninsula. Cedros Peninsula United (CPU), a Chatham/Cap-de-Ville-based lobby group, headed by Dr Raphael Sebastien, called on Manning on Friday to provide answers, especially to the residents of Chatham and Union Village, La Brea, on plans for the construction of two proposed aluminium smelter

The CPU's call follows a press conference by Alcoa on Wednesday, at which the company's officials sought to allay fears over environmental and health concerns, as well as discuss other issues. Randall Overbey, president of Alcoa's primary metals development, insisted spent potliners that would be generated by the operations would not be buried or disposed off in T&T. He also said it was far too early for the company to consider entering into discussions with another country, be it Brazil or the USA, about the transfer of this waste material. Nor had the technology, which he said could turn the
potliners into cement, been as yet perfected, he added.

CPU has argued that spent potliners, which contain among other elements, cyanide, would cause contamination of the Cedros coastline and surrounding areas, and result in the eventual destruction of the
Granville Reef, a sanctuary for endangered sea turtles and various species of fish.

Overbey also promised that flouride emissions from the plant would be controlled to acceptable amounts, so as not to endanger the environment. On the issue of a sweetheart gas and electricity deal from Government for its smelter operations, Overbey said:

"Let me set the record straight. Alcoa will pay for every drop of gas that we will use. I can't say how much we will pay, but it certainly won't be free." Alcoa is expected to use 100,000 metric cubic feet of gas daily, and four to six per cent of T&T's gas reserves during its 30-year-stay in T&T. In response to Alcoa's pronouncements, Sebastien said that as far as he knew, Alcoa had no permission to build any smelter plant at Chatham.

"If this is so, this information has remained top secret to citizens. It must go out in the public domain. It's time we get answers from the Government to put our minds at rest. "The PNM government invited Alcoa here. Who will bulldoze our lands and relocate our families? It won't be Alcoa. The Government will do everything. They must shoulder
the blame for what is taking place," Sebastien added. In a bid to get answers, Sebastien said CPU would hold an April 21 candlelight prayer vigil outside White Hall, during which time citizens would be able to
express their feelings.

No consultation

On Thursday, at a post-Cabinet briefing at Whitehall, Environment Minister Pennelope Beckles, announced that the National Energy Corporation (NEC) had withdrawn its application for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC), to set up an aluminium plant in Chatham. The NEC was working with Alcoa to consult with the local community.

Beckles said the NEC was entitled to apply for a CEC at another location, but had not done so yet, and that the 1998 national
environmental policy did not cater for the new energy sector projects with which the Government was now becoming involved. Beckles said the law mandated the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to take
views of the public into consideration before any CEC was granted.

Alcoa applied for the CEC in January, 2005.

Before the CEC application, Sebastien said Alcoa and the T&T Government signed a secret memorandum of understanding (MOU) on May 24, 2004, which stated that Alcoa would own 60 per cent of the company and T&T 40 per cent. "We were never able to see the details contained therein," he said. He said to add insult to injury, no consultation was held with Chatham/Cap-de-Ville residents before the MOU was signed. Then shortly after, CPU discovered that the MOU was changed
to a memorandum of principle (MOP), which, also, was shrouded in mystery.

Sebastien said from information he was able to unearth about the MOP, this document gave Alcoa 100 per cent ownership in the smelter plant, with the Government being an active partner in the provision or facilitation of requisite infrastructure. Still, the terms and conditions of this agreement to build a smelter plant remained secret.
Saying Alcoa was a company that is well-placed with the US Government, the Pentagon and the White House, Sebastien charged:
"They are showing that they are even better placed with ourGovernment." He warned, however, that while certain politicians were boasting that the smelter plant would be built despite public protests, the CPU was prepared to take the Government, and Alcoa, if need be, all the way to the Privy Council "to keep our community untouched."

Cedros development plan

Last December, CPU sent a copy of its development plan for the south-western peninsula to Prime Minister Patrick Manning. They have had neither an acknowledgement that its plan was received, nor any kind of response to date. Raphael Sebastien, head of CPU, described Manning's lack of interest as an insult to the communities of the south-west peninsula. "(With) The same breath he (used to) invite Alcoa here, he could have commented on our development plan. We have repeatedly asked Manning for a face-to-face meeting so we can discuss the plan in detail. But he hasn't budged," said Sebastien.

On Monday, representatives of CPU, the Bee-Keepers Association of South Trinidad and Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental ProtectionCompany meet with a Joint Select Committee meeting in Parliament
chaired by Independent Senator Mary King. Sebastien said the meeting was to present and discuss concerns about the smelter plants and to outline development plans for the area. Tomorrow, the three groups
will meet with the Opposition UNC to hold further discussions.

Tough road for Alcoa
Overbey predicts a tough road ahead for Alcoa in its bid to set up an aluminium smelter plant in the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville area. In an interview last week, Overbey said he knew the CPU, with the help of its attorney Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, would be ready to declare war against the aluminium giant next year, when construction is planned to
begin. Alcoa wants 1,500 acres of Chatham/Cap-de-Ville lands, from
which Overbey says 500 acres will be used for the physical
infrastructure that will be the smelter plant.

Remarking that Alcoa has a lot of work ahead of them "to earn respect and win the hearts of the people," Overbey noted, however, that "legal action is not common for Alcoa." He cited as another instance of a community being against the construction of a smelter as that of Portland, Australia, but said the plant was eventually built there as
concerns were resolved through meaningful dialogue.

Overbey could not say what options were available to residents who did not support Alcoa's project and have vowed to remain on their lands in Chatham and Cap-de Ville. At Wednesday's media conference, he said relocation of the residents (he put the number at 72 families) was the responsibility of the T&T Government. At Thursday's interview he would only comment: "What I can tell you is what whoever is residing in the proposed site, we would deal with them in a dignified and respectful manner that takes into accounts their living environment."


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