Oct 08 2007

Behind the Shining: Aluminum’s Dark Side

VII. Environmental Health

“I don’t see environmental issues as a negative for aluminum or Alcoa, they

are our friend. As long as legislatures and governing bodies don’t do

stupid things, we’ll be fine,” – Paul H. O’Neill, then-chairman of Alcoa

(now U.S. Secretary of the Treasury), as quoted in Aluminium Today, 1999.

(“O’Neill’s Alcoa: Big group with a big appetite,” Aluminium Today, Jan. 1,


Bauxite mining

According to the International Aluminium Institute, “of the land disturbed

each year by bauxite mining, 76% is forested, 19% agricultural and pasture

and 2% shrubland.” The IAI said that of the 1,591 hectares mined in 1998,

80% was wildlife habitat; 175 hectares was tropical rainforest.”

(International Aluminium Institute, “Bauxite mine rehabilitation,” on its

website, world-aluminium.org, 2000)

* Adjoemakondre, Surinam (Alcoa)

In a 1998 petition to the Surinam government, people of the village of

Adjoemakondre detailed the impacts of Alcoa’s bauxite mining operations

that began in 1991. “Our agricultural plots and houses have been destroyed,

without any compensation,” they wrote. “Our river has been polluted so

badly that we can no longer use it – wastes from the mining operation run

down hill through the village into the river, turning it an orange-brown

color; health problems have occurred from villagers using the river water;

use of dynamite by the company causes noise pollution and has contributed

to the loss of game animals we use for food; (and) destruction of the

forest and pollution of the river has also substantially limited our

ability to hunt and fish on our lands.” (Wilma Prika, Captain,

Adjoemakondre, Petition to the Suriname Government Concerning the Situation

in Adjoemakondre, 1998)

* Guinea

The Friguia mining/refining operation in Guinea, according to NorWatch, has

generated “an enormous red mud deposit, which covers an entire valley. In

this valley there were previously several villages, which are now drowned

in industrial waste. Hydro admits that this deposit is not ‘state of the

art’, for example it is not secured with a protective membrane to prevent

leakage of caustic soda and other effluents into the subsoil water. The

subsoil water has not been tested.” (Tarjei Leer-Salvesen and Morten

Rønning, “Profits on arms, forced relocation, and environmental scandals,”

NorWatch newsletter, June 1998).

Alumina refineries

The Bayer Process of refining bauxite into alumina generates red mud, also

known as bauxite residue. Depending on the grade of bauxite used, from 0.3

to 2.5 tons of red mud are generated per ton of alumina produced.

(International Aluminium Institute, “Bauxite residue,” on


Red mud contains iron oxides, silica, titanium, zinc, phosphorous, nickel,

vanadium, and compound formed by the adding of lime into the refining

process. It is usually dumped on land near the refinery.

Liquor burning plants at refineries are a source of air pollution.

* Yirrkata, Queensland

Red mud residue and caustic soda from the alumina refinery in Yirrkata,

Queensland was found poisonous to fish. (See Aluminum and Our Environment,

International Development Action, 1976, pp. 93-96)

* Port Allen, Louisiana (Alcoa)

Federal agents executed two search warrants at Alcoa’s Port Allen,

Louisiana, alumina plant in March 1999. Alcoa’s subsidiary, Discovery

Aluminas, also supplied a federal grand jury with wastewater discharge and

toxic waste management records.

The refinery produces specialty alumina powders and other products consumed

in the petrochemical industry.

A month later, the grand jury indicted the Port Allen plant manager on a

charge of violating the Clean Water Act. Discovery reached a plea agreement

in October 2000, in which the company and four employees agreed to plea

guilty a felony count of violating the federal Clean Water Act and the

state enforcing regulations, pay a $700,000 fine to the U.S. government,

pay $50,000 in community restitution, and $50,000 in community restitution.

(Alcoa, Form 10-Q, submitted to U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission,

Oct. 20, 2000)

Alcoa agreed that it had poured ammonia-laden slurry into a stream that

drains into the Intracoastal Waterway, south of Port Allen, in violation of

the Clean Water Act. The discharges turned the ground white. The employees

— two supervisors, the environmental compliance officer, and director of

management — face possible sentences of up to one year in prison, and

fines of up to $100,000. (Mike Dunne, “Discovery Aluminas pleads guilty to

polluting Port Allen waterway,” The Advocate (La.), Dec. 12, 2000)

* Western Australia (Alcoa)

The installation of a liquor burning plant at Alcoa’s Wagurup refinery in

1996 brought over 300 complaints from the plant’s workers and residents of

the southwestern towns of Yarloop and Waroona. Alcoa’s other liquor burning

plant in Western Australia, at the Kwinana refinery south of Perth, has

generated similar concern.

The equipment burns off carbon from bauxite. Dust emitted from liquor

burning plants irritates eyes and the respiratory system. Highly

carcinogenic benzene and more than 200 other chemicals are emitted from

liquor burning plants.

According to a report commissioned jointly by The Wagerup Community Health

Awareness Group and the Australian Manufacturers Workers Union asserted in

a report that symptoms range from irritation to the eyes and respiratory

tract, to insomnia and diarrhea, to constant flue-like symptoms.

According to Ian Grant, a maintenance contractor at the Wagurup plant, Ian

Grant, said that “we were never given proper breathing apparatus. When we

complained about the conditions we were told to keep our mouths shut as the

contractor (Asea Brown Boveri).”

Grant said that he started feeling sick in Sept. 1997. His illness

continued and worsened through December. “I developed a mouthful of ulcers.

I was getting sicker every day,” he said. Early the next year, “I collapsed

in a big heap and that was the end of me. My kidneys gave up. I went to a

doctor twice early in January 1998 after my lungs started bleeding again.”

He said he was diagnosed with Goodpastures disease, which attacks the

body’s auto immune system.

Another worker, Bill Van Der Pal, said he and many others got sick. “Only

after the workforce threatened to close down the plant did Alcoa spend $5

million to deal with the emissions from the liquor burner,” he said. “They

installed a catalytic thermal oxidizer (CTO).”

(Joe Lopez, “Workers and residents in Western Australia suffer health

problems from Alcoa’s alumina plant,” World Socialist Website, Nov. 11,


* Bintulu, Sarawak, Malaysia and Gladstone, Queensland, Australia (Comalco)

On April 3, 2000, Comalco decided to shift the location of a proposed

alumina refinery from Bintulu, Sarawak, to Gladstone in the Austrialian

state of Queensland. Rather than draw power from a new dam in Sarawak,

Comalco will draw from Chevron new gas pipeline from Papua New Guinea (PNG)

to Queensland.

People in Sarawak had vigorously protested the planned alumina plant. More

than 100 million tons of red mud would have been dumped there. A national

park is three kilometers from the planned alumina site.

The 1,020-hectare Bintulu alumina project was projected to import generate

more than 3.3 million tons of waste each year from processing Weipa,

Australia, bauxite. New Straits Times reported in 1999 that “there have

been accusations that the company is only using Malaysia for the ‘dirty

process.'” (Esther Tan, “Alumina refinery will be a really big waste

producer,” New Straits Times, Oct. 9, 1999)

Prior to Comalco’s decision, a Sarawak environmentalist accused the company

of a “Pollution Haven Here, Conservation Elsewhere” mentality. “The choice

of Similajau (Sarawak) 2,000 nautical miles further than Gladstone, would

only prove the Pollution Haven hypothesis. The hypothesis suggests cheaper

labour and looser environmental measures in developing country,” wrote Wong

Meng Chuo.

Villagers from the nearby towns of Kg. Kuala Nyalau, Kg. Nyalau Tengah and

Kg. Ulu Nyalau wrote a letter of protect to the Chief Minister of Sarawak.

They worried that the alumina refinery would involve the acquisition of

much of their agricultural land, on which they depend. (Letter of protest

from villagers to the Chief Minister of Sarawak, April 4, 1999, as

summarized by Rengah Sarawak)

“The end product, alumina, is not an item of consumption to be enjoyed by

the majority of local people. Sarawak’s environment and natural access

should be traded off with short term economic benefit for some people,”

noted Mr. Wong. (Wong Meng Chuo, “A Review of the Detailed Environmental

Impact Assessment (DEIA) of the Proposed Alumina Refinery in Similajau,

Bintulu, Sarawak,” IDEAL, Sibu, Sarawak, Oct. 4, 1999)

After Comalco decided to build in Queensland, a Sarawak group warned about

“equal concerns of similar and other negative impacts at Gladstone and

PNG… The impacts of the gas pipeline connecting the two countries over

land and sea coral reef areas are of great concern. Equally of concern is

also the environmental impact of the proposed plant would inevitably bring

upon should the project go ahead eventually. The social-economic effects on

the affected communities should be attended to too. The fate of human

beings is globally linked, and shifting the problems is not a solution at

all.” (MC Wong, “Bintulu Alumina Project Scrapped: A Matter of Shifting the

Problems?,” Rengah Sarawak, April 7, 2000)

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