Wednesday, April 18, 2007

No Water? Drink Smelta

Cathal Healy-Singh
Environmental Engineer
Anti-Smelter Alliance

The following contradictions accompany the recent decision by the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to award a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC) for the ALUTRINT Aluminium Smelter Complex proposed for Union Industrial Estate:

Our National Environmental Policy (NEP, revised in 2005) contains an important ‘Energy’ Clause which requires that a cost – benefit economic analysis of gas/oil energy allocations to major developments be part of any impact assessment. Provision for this assessment should have been made in the Terms of Reference (TOR) for the Environmental Impact Analysis (EIA) which is to inform the EMA’s decision making on ALUTRINT’s application for a CEC.

The Environmental Act (of 2000) binds the EMA to follow its Policy. Despite this, the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) failed to include this energy analysis in the TOR they approved to asses ALUTRINT’s smelter complex. This failure is significant as smelters require ‘vast’ amounts of natural gas. The Government’s 2020 smelting plans which include ALCOA, would more than double the 2005 national per capita electricity consumption rates, with no regard for future ‘energy security’ needs.

ALUTRINT failed to confirm any firm arrangement for the safe disposal of Spent Pot Liner (SPL), a deadly toxic by-product of smelting. When ALUTRINT first spoke of disposing SPL in November 2005, they proposed to bury it on-site and later truck it to an industrial landfill in Trinidad. But T&T does not have any physical infrastructure or regulation for safe disposal of hazardous wastes. After being challenged on this matter, ALUTRINT claimed that SPL would be shipped to a private treatment facility in Arkansas, USA. Yet their EIA failed to make mention of the necessary approvals required by USA State and Federal Authorities. They are also silent on the consent required from fellow CARICOM States for T&T to ship toxic waste through their territorial waters.

SPL is a cocktail of hazardous wastes requiring stringent handling, treatment and disposal every three-to-five years of smelting. Improper disposal would constitute ecological disaster. The EMA should therefore not have awarded the CEC until firm long-term legal agreements and assurances for safe disposal of SPL were secured by ALUTRINT.

There also remain significant outstanding questions relating to the impact of smelters on the health of ‘pot room’ workers. ALUTRINT spent considerable effort to convince the national community that advances in pollution control technologies had reduced to an acceptable level the cancer risk to workers in the massive smelting ‘pot-rooms’ - where aluminium oxide powder is electrolyzed at 1000 Degrees Celsius, using a gigantic electric current, into molten aluminium metal. However, research around the world on both old and new smelting technologies continues to find increases in specific forms of cancer and respiratory ailments in pot-room workers. This is unsurprising given the toxic nature of raw material inputs.

Furthermore, research on the impact of smelting on the health of surrounding communities is extremely limited, as reaffirmed by the Australian presenter at the UWI Engineering Department’s Smelter Symposium. We do not accept the methodology used in the much touted Human Health and Ecological Risk Assessment carried out for ALUTRINT by Canadian consultant ‘SENES’, to calculate actual conditions of pollution exposure that will be experienced by the some 10,000 surrounding La Brea residents. This is of great concern despite ALUTRINT’s claim that the methodology used is generally accepted in North America. It is important to note that because of a lack of resident technical expertise in the EMA to understand this Risk Assessment, they relied on another Canadian company called ‘JACQUE WHITFORD’ to advise them on the findings of SENES.

The truth is the impact of cancerous substances emitted from aluminium smelters on surrounding human and environmental health is not properly understood. Like most industries, reduction in impacts has accompanied technological advances. However, given that existing baseline health conditions in La Brea (and other industrialized areas like Point Lisas) are not presently properly understood, ‘caution’ should have been the EMA’s ‘natural response’ to the introduction of smelting into our small-island state.

The National Environmental Policy also refers extensively to the importance of the role of the EMA to ‘educate’ and ‘inform’ the Public on environmental issues and risks. Yet during ALUTRINT’s CEC process, the EMA made no effort at any time to educate anyone on the risks and/or issues associated with aluminium smelters. Hence, the community stakeholders were unable to develop an informed view on the industry.

Some front-line community residents surrounding the proposed footprint of the Union Industrial Estate were beguiled by large sums of cash money and job promises from ALUTRINT’s Public Relations campaign, which was passed off to the EMA as part of their ‘public consultation’ drive. But, had the EMA been interested in following their own Policy, they would have found it imperative to educate both the national and front-line communities and not rely solely on ALUTRINT to do so.

We believe that given all of the above, the EMA should have invoked the “Precautionary Principle”, provided for in the National Environmental Policy, which says essentially ‘when in doubt, don’t proceed’. The EMA should, on this principle, have denied the CEC to ALUTRINT.

But caution was not on the mind of the EMA’s Chief Executive Officer, McIntosh, when he announced the award of the Certificate of Environmental Clearance to ALUTIRINT. He insisted that there had been no political interference and expressed satisfaction that ALUTRINT could smelt away if they agreed to an intensive regime of pollution monitoring and reporting of potential cancerous substances expected to be released continuously from the plant over its projected 50 year life span.

McIntosh also insisted that the twenty-seven (27) new EMA staff members promised to them by Government would be promptly assigned to the new task ahead. ‘More staff’ was the likely concessionary ‘carrot’ extended to the EMA by the modern industrial state 2020 Visionaries in the PNM administration headed up by Prime Minister Manning.

Having completed his mission, McIntosh will no doubt be retired and replaced by another champion of corporate environmentalism. A curious Public wonders why notable EMA Board Members, John Agard, a UWI academic and David Abdullah, a trade unionist, were unruffled by the CEO’s announcement of the green light for ALUTRINT. The Public remains shocked by the EMA’s betrayal of its own core principle of valuing life and the right of citizens of our Republic to be informed when their right to a healthy life is being threatened.


Post a Comment

<< Home