Oct 08 2007

Behind the Shining: Aluminum’s Dark Side

Spent pot lining

Every 6 or 7 years, carbon linings are replaced in pots used in aluminum

smelters. This lining (or cathode) is made of refractory bricks and carbon.

It also contains material from the electrolytic bath: heavy metals and

cyanide. (International Aluminium Institute, “Cathode waste,” on its

website world-aluminium.org)

Around the world, most spent potlining is landfilled. Some is stored above

ground in a dry chamber. In the United States, the Environmental Protection

Agency first listed spent potliners as a hazardous waste (code K088). It

prohibits the landfilling of spent potlining unless it has been treated to

reduce the amount of hazardous constituents: 25 in all, including cyanide,

fluoride, toxic metals (including lead and mercury), and PAHs. (U.S.

Environmental Protection Agency, “Land Disposal Restrictions; Treatment

Standards for Spent Potliners From Primary Aluminum Reduction (K088) and

Regulatory Classification of K088 Vitrification Units,” Federal Register,

July 12, 2000 (Vol 65, No. 134), pp. 42937-42959)

According to a June 20, 1998, report in the main newspaper of Surinam, De

Ware Tijd, Alcoa’s subsidiary might bury toxic waste not only from its

Suralco smelter but also waste from abroad. “Suralco is planning to bury

its chemical waste, the so-called ‘spent pot lining’ (SPL), just as it did

in 1993. It will not only bury waste from the aluminum smelter at Paranam,

but also chemical waste from the parent company Alcoa in Pittsburgh,” the

Forest Peoples Project quoted the newspaper as reporting. (“Maroon

Community Petitions Suriname Government about the Operations of a US-owned

Bauxite Mining Company,” Forest Peoples Programme, September 17, 1998)

Illegal wastewater discharges

In March 2000, Alcoa agreed to pay $8.8 million to settle environmental

claims filed by the federal Justice Department and the Environmental

Protection Agency. The agencies charged Alcoa with violating the Clean

Water and Clean Air Acts at its Warrick, Indiana, sheet production plant.

The payout included a $2.4 million fine; the balance will be spent to

reduce hazardous waste generation and study air pollution reduction


The Justice Department alleged that Alcoa “illegally discharged

inadequately-treated wastewater to the Ohio River from 1994 until 1999,

while company-sponsored tests showed that the mixture of pollutants in the

wastewater was deadly toxic to fish and invertebrates.” (U.S. Department of

Justice, “Alcoa to pay $8.8 million to settle environmental claims,” press

release March 13, 2000)

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