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TRINIDAD: Last Chance for Stalled Smelter Plant

Peter Richards

PORT OF SPAIN, Mar 22 2010 (IPS) - The full-page newspaper advertisements touting the benefits of a controversial aluminium smelter plant appeared here just as the court of appeal is preparing to rule on whether such a facility is ever built in Trinidad and Tobago.

The advertisements feature prominent people and groups from the La Brea community in Trinidad’s south, where the Alutrint Smelter Plant would be located. In one, Arthur Forde, identified as a La Brea community elder, says the smelter plant would allow Trinidad and Tobago to build ships, planes and “every other thing that can be done here in Trinidad”.

But anti-smelter activist Dr. Wayne Kublalsingh believes the ads and other activities are designed to prejudice the court process.

“The ulterior motive is to try and convince people, the judiciary, the newspaper, the media and the people of Trinidad and Tobago that the smelter is safe. Ultimately, I think it’s focused on the judiciary. They want to get back their certificate,” said Kublalsingh, a lecturer at the University of the West Indies (UWI).

For years, many others in the affected communities staged roadblocks and rallies to protest the construction of the plant because of environmental and health concerns.

Last June, High Court Judge Mira Dean-Amorer halted construction, ruling that the decision of the Environmental Management Authority (EMA) to grant a Certificate of Environmental Clearance was illegal.

She said the EMA approval was made in an “outrageous, irrational and procedurally irregular manner”, and failed to disclose key information to the public, or to consider a crucial report on the cumulative impact of the smelter plant alongside a partly constructed power plant and planned port facility.

No date has yet been given for the decision by the Court of Appeal. However, the Patrick Manning government insists that it will not abandon the smelter, for which the first phase was due to have started in June last year and completed in 2011.

Last December, the government signed an agreement with the Brazilian industrial group, Votorantim Metais, making it an equity partner in the Alutrint plant.

The government agreed to provide 112 million dollars, representing the balance of a concessional loan from China for the construction of the plant. The agreement was the final part of the financing for the project, for which an estimated 300 million dollars had already been provided under a buyer’s credit memorandum.

Earlier this month, Alutrint’s acting chief executive officer, Phillip Julien, said the modern Chinese technology being used for the aluminium smelter here would significantly reduce its emissions.

He said that the aluminium industry has been evolving as a result of continuous research and that the information being circulated here was outdated.

“Due to the resurgence of health and safety concerns regarding the proximity of the industry to the communities, it is our care and responsibility to deal with these concerns,” Julien told reporters, noting that two Norwegian experts had been invited here to share their experience on Norway’s aluminum industry.

One of the experts, Jan Yttredal, conceded that pollution cannot be eliminated entirely. “You will never have an industry which is absolutely 100 percent clean, in the sense that it does not emit anything or where there’s no dust,” said Yttredal, who has 39 years of experience in the industry.

“We (Norway) have made a comprehensive study of all the effects of the aluminum industry in the 1990s. In Norway, there are set limits which state how much the industry is allowed to emit a year. These are very strict limits which are set internationally,” he added.

Dr. Bjorn Erik Dahlberg, former vice president of environment, health and safety at Hydro Aluminium in Norway, cited statistics showing a lower than average cancer rate among people living near Norway’s seven aluminum smelter plants.

Kublalsingh agrees that over the last six years, the international aluminum smelting industry has worked “very hard to improve its standards” but that the technology cannot mitigate the harmful health impacts, which include some kinds of cancer.

“It cannot deal for example with hydrogen chloride, it cannot deal with tars which are cancer-creating nor can it deal with the vexing question of spent pot lining,” he told IPS.

Spent Pot Lining (SPL) is the substance which lines the smelter pots after aluminum, bauxite, and other substances are smelted at 900 degrees centigrade. Over time, the brick lining in these pots begin to crumble and needs to be replaced.

SPL contains cyanide, fluoride, arsenic and other toxic substances. One part out of 200,000 of cyanide can be fatal. In 1993, the United States Environmental Protection Agency banned its disposal in landfills.

The lawyer for the anti-smelter groups, Fyard Hosein, told the appeals court that the EMA “failed to give a definitive method by which SPL would be dealt with by Alutrint.”

“What is particularly egregious is the absence of any technical analysis of the likely dangers arising from waste, and emission systems from the proposed crushing as well as the dust generated. It is unclear where SPL would be stored or crushed, or the kind of technology that would be employed to do so or to prevent hazardous emissions,” he said.

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