Apr 12 2011

People Can’t be Made to Bathe in Red Mud

Felix Padel/ Samarendra Das

First Published : 20 Oct 2010 on Expressbuzz.com

When news spread that the red mud pond in a Hungarian alumina refinery had broken open on October 3 [2010], spilling toxic sludge over a huge area, killing people and livestock, this confirmed our worst fears regarding new refineries going up in Orissa [India] and neighbouring states. For Hungarians a nightmare scenario has begun, as their country faces to its worst-ever environmental disaster. Apart from villagers killed or maimed by the toxic sludge, many farmers face economic ruin, as their fields are contaminated beyond repair. How much worse would a similar disaster be in India, where the population density of farmers is much higher?

For a start, among Vedanta’s less reported sins is its pollution of the Bansadara River right at source. When the Central Empowered Committee (advisory body on forests to the Supreme Court) advised against mining Niyamgiri, it also recommended cancelling permission for the Lanjigarh refinery. Among other reasons was the sitting of the refinery right next to the Bansadara, where it forms out of perennial streams coming down from Niyamgiri. Within weeks of start-up, from the end of 2007, heavy contamination of the river by red mud and other wastes has been repeatedly reported by the Pollution Control Board as well as villagers who have lost livestock and developed horrendous skin rashes.

But how could things be otherwise? When villagers depend on a river for washing and drinking over centuries, and it suddenly becomes contaminated, what do they do? Toxic red mud, a by-product of refining bauxite into alumina, has never been disposed of safely. Despite claims to the contrary, it has always contaminated water sources. If Vedanta’s refinery remains at a one million tonne per year capacity, it will produce approximately a million tonnes of red mud a year.

These red mud lakes constantly contaminate ground and river water, as well as posing an ever-growing threat of disastrous spills. At Balco/Vedanta’s Korba refinery in Chhattisgarh we have seen and photographed children flying kites on a red mud lake, while the red mud spills down onto fields where cattle graze towards running streams.

But could this toxic waste have any positive uses? In 2008, Vedanta joined an international Red Mud Project (www.redmud.org). Interestingly, Jamaica and Australia, two of the world’s largest bauxite-alumina producers, both banned early attempts to make bricks out of red mud, since red mud is toxic not just from dangerously corrosive caustic soda. It is also radioactive. “Dead on the ball there!” as a member of London’s International Aluminium Institute exclaimed when we mentioned this.

Bauxite is formed in alternating seasons of rain and sun over millions of years, that leaches out some minerals and keeps others, including at least 22 radioactive elements. Strange this has not been highlighted in news of the Hungarian disaster! Strange, too, that the red mud website, consulted in November 2008, revealed not only that Australia and Jamaica had banned building uses, but also that 2.5 million tonnes of red mud was used in 1998-9 alone for cement in India, while China was using even more to make bricks.

Red mud is only one aspect of the prohibitive costs of an aluminium industry. Another is the high water consumption. The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy in Germany calculates that one tonne of steel requires 44 tonnes of water.  For aluminium, producing one tonne would consume an estimated 1,000 tonnes of water. Already ‘water wars’ have erupted near the Hirakud dam between farmers and new aluminium smelters and steel plants, who have signed deals for priority treatment and are guzzling H2O.

The role of mountains as storehouses of water also needs taking into account. If Orissa is among India’s most fertile states, this comes from a wealth in water that depends on intact minerals in the mountains. Mine the mountains, and the water runs off in the monsoon. The drying up of streams is already well-documented in north Orissa. It is also attested by tribal villagers living around Orissa’s biggest bauxite mine on Panchapt Mali, who observe that streams which were perennial have now dried up.

Orissa has witnessed 25 years of resistance to bauxite mining. The recent, historic decision of the Union ministry of environment and forests not to allow Niyamgiri to be mined echoes a similar decision in 1987 for Gandhamardan — probably the best forested of all the bauxite capped mountains after Niyamgiri. Gandhamardan’s numerous waterfalls stand as a testament to the success of the Balco movement.

One resonance is the claim by industry reports that ‘mining will not harm the water regime — it will actually improve the run-off’. This argument was given on behalf of Vedanta in a report from the Central Mining Planning & Design Institute in Ranchi, submitted to the Supreme Court in August 2006, which stated that during mining ‘micro-cracks will develop in the side of the mountain’ that will ‘facilitate run-off’ and thus ‘recharge groundwater’. This involves a ludicrous distortion of science. If monsoon water runs rapidly off a mined mountain, this makes it clear why perennial streams run dry. Mining devastates mountains as storehouses of water — a fact observable from too many devastated ecosystems.

Toxic red mud is one of many dangers if the aluminium industry is not kept within careful limits. The USA decided as far back as 1951 to start outsourcing most of its aluminium production to other countries, so that the bill for heavy subsidies and environmental hazards would fall elsewhere. As an American expert declared, the industry “is no great maker of employment, uses little skilled labour, and adds little to the independent development of an area” (Dewey Anderson’s Aluminum for Defence and Prosperity). Or in the words of Bhagaban Majhi, a tribal leader in the Kashipur movement against Hindalco/Utkal’s bauxite-alumina project, how can it be development to destroy a mountain that has existed for millions of years?

“Can you call displacing people development? The people for whom development is meant, should reap its benefits. After them, succeeding generations should reap benefits. That is development. It should not be merely to cater to the greed of a few officials.”

(Felix Padel and Samarendra Das have analysed the industry in a recently published book Out of this earth: East India’s Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel)