Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Aluminum Smelting - Speaking in Tongues

by Julian Kenny
Trinidad Express
December 26, 2006

"With that in mind, if the currently proposed smelter goes ahead at Cap de Ville, it would be Alcoa's preference for the site to be designed so that room could remain available for expansion of the smelter and to enable consideration of an alumina refinery at some stage in the future".

Mr Randy Overbey, President, Primary Metals Development Letter to Express January 23rd 2005.

Presumably few readers will actually recall the substance of a long letter by Mr Overbey of Alcoa almost two years ago. The letter appeared in response to my January 18th column entitled "Bhopalising Trinidad". I had invoked the name of Bhopal, a city in India, in which Union Carbide, an American multinational, had established a pesticide manufacturing industry, in which there was a release of a highly toxic gas cloud that killed over 3,000 citizens and permanently injured an even larger number.

The column was responded to that very day through a phone call to me from someone who identified himself as president of primary metals of Alcoa. I did not actually record the conversation but I did make a record of the salient points raised by the caller, including the question as to whether I happened to be a lawyer.

The thing that struck me with Bhopal, and continues to strike me, is that the compensation arrangement following the tragedy was between Union Carbide and the Government of India. The victims had no say in the matter, as they would have had, had they been in the United States. An Indian life had been calculated to be worth no more than US$24,000! It is not that I expected an aluminium smelter to produce a toxic gas cloud. Indeed, if heaven forbid, we do have an industrial accident or "event", I would expect it within the energy industry. They happen, in spite of the best technology, even in the developed world.

The coining of the word "bhopalisation" was meant to focus attention on the risks of foreign direct investment in heavy industrialisation. Suppose a citizen at one of the foreign-owned industries is killed or injured, may the family take legal action in the country of the foreign direct investor? I doubt it.

But rummaging through archives I happened upon Mr Overbey's letter to the Express in response to my earlier column. The letter was written long before the smelter issue developed into what it is today. And I reflect also on Alcoa's "Smelter in a Park" proposal and integrating the smelter into the "ecosystem".

Now, the letter is obviously rather longer than the quotation above and I suppose that I may be charged with quoting material out of context. Nevertheless, I defy anyone to challenge the meaning of the extract, coming as it was near the end of the letter. Room for expansion of the smelter and the possibility of an alumina refinery! Read the quotation again! This is why it is of paramount importance that there be full disclosure of both the May 25th 2004 Memorandum of Understanding, and, the February 2006 Memorandum of Agreement referred to by Mr Alain Belda, President/CEO of Alcoa Inc.

But the story does not end there. And we must thank the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) and the accessibility of its Administrative Record. The Draft Air Pollution Rules 2005 were laid out for public comment with a closing date of November 11th 2005. Alcoa wrote to the EMA on November 18th after the closing date, the letter being received on November 22nd in which the Environmental Manager, one Mr Steven H Myers, stated inter alia - "Alcoa believes that the "Short Term Maximum Level" proposed for hydrogen fluoride 24 hour averaging is unnecessarily stringent and cannot be achieved using best available technology for an aluminium smelter", and "From and economic standpoint, the proposed limit would unnecessarily impose a cost of around US$200 million on the project for installation of either fresh or salt water scrubbers on the roof of the aluminium smelting potrooms". Just read the extracts again. The standard supposedly cannot be achieved using the best available technology, yet it goes on to say that it would cost US$200 million to achieve what is unachievable.

The symposium on smelters was also supposed to provide information on the proposed aluminium industry. And it did succeed in some ways, but raised more questions that remain unanswered. The invited expert, Colin Pratt, did not mention it in his presentation but a question from the floor elicited a response that had you alternative use for natural gas you would not use it for an aluminium smelter.

A question from the floor also elicited a response from the representative of the EMA that rather than lay standards in Parliament, the EMA preferred to retain flexibility and settle standards with applicants for CECs for industrial proposals. Will deviation from their published standard to accommodate Alcoa not destroy their credibility?


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