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/UPDATE*/: Bypass Under Way At Mozambique Smelter

Nastasya Tay

JOHANNESBURG, Nov 24 2010 (IPS) - Aluminium giant BHP Billiton’s Mozal smelter has begun bypassing its fume treatment centres, emitting potentially dangerous fumes into the air without treating them first – despite a pending court case on the matter.

The company says it needs six months to upgrade fume treatment centres, during which time emissions will be released directly into the air. Credit:  Joel Chiziane/IPS

The company says it needs six months to upgrade fume treatment centres, during which time emissions will be released directly into the air. Credit: Joel Chiziane/IPS

The bypass was initially scheduled to begin on Nov. 1, but was postponed. On Nov. 16, Mozal released a communiqué stating that “after revisiting all data in light of stakeholder concerns Mozal remains confident that the by-pass will not harm the environment or human health.”

For 137 days, the smelter, located in the town of Matola – 17 kilometres from the capital – will bypass two Fume Treatment Centres (FTCs) at its carbon plant, which re-processes and produces anodes for use in producing aluminium.

BHP Billiton operates a similar aluminium smelter across the border in South Africa at Richards Bay. The Richards Bay Clean Air Association’s Sandy Camminga says that they would strongly object to such an event at the Hillside Aluminium Plant in Richards Bay.

“To the best of our knowledge the longest bypass undertaken at Hillside Aluminium Smelter lasted 72 hours, and took place amid objections and serious environmental and health concerns,” Camminga says.

But authorisation for the bypass, which Mozal says is required to rebuild and upgrade the FTCs, was granted for a period of six months by the government in May.


Opposition

There has been strong opposition from civil society and community groups. A coalition established to fight the bypass, led by local groups Livaningo and Justica Ambiental (Environmental Justice), says that the community has still not been presented with adequate evidence that the bypass will not be harmful to their health.

Civil society groups in Maputo and Matola filed a court action in September to reverse the government’s decision, which they say is based on insufficient information about the potential impact to human health and the environment around the smelter. The matter was still pending in the country’s Administrative Tribunal when the bypass began.

The coalition collected over 14,000 signatures on a petition to be submitted to the government, outlining their concerns and asking that more information be made available before a decision is taken on the matter. A parliamentary session was called to debate the matter, during which the Prime Minister emphasised the contribution Mozal had made to the country’s economy.

Antonio Reina, spokesman for the coalition, says there has been no transparency.

“In the end, I’d just like to see a real independent environmental audit at Mozal, that deals with effluents, air emissions and the day-to-day running of the smelter,” Reina says. “I used to think that because of their footprint and international image, they wouldn’t do wrong things. Unfortunately, I was wrong.”

An independent company, SGS, has been engaged by Mozal to monitor emissions for the duration of the bypass.

The presence of fluoride in the anode production process means that compounds which pose both short and long-term threats to health are part of the cocktail of fumes during reprocessing. The purpose of the FTCs is to filter the carbon plant’s emissions of potentially harmful pollutants.

Bypassing the FTCs means that compounds including hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide – which in sufficient quantities can cause hypocalcemia, cardiac and respiratory arrest, and death – will be released into the atmosphere in greater concentrations.

Many of Matola’s nearly one million residents are concerned that their proximity to the untreated emissions will cost them dearly.

Arlindo Mandlate lives five kilometres from the smelter. He believes that the operation of the smelter has already damaged agricultural production in the area, to the detriment of local livelihoods. And he says the bypass will only make it worse.

“Mozal held meetings with the community but we aren’t happy with the explanations. We are really worried. They say that they are meeting international standards without the filters but this doesn’t make sense to us. Why would you spend $10 million replacing filters if you don’t need the filters? It’s a contradiction,” Mandlate says.

Mozal says it has actively sought stakeholder engagement, but the community disagrees. After announcing the bypass operation at the end of a regular community meeting in April 2010, a public outcry encouraged Mozal to convene three meetings – for civil society, the media, and the community respectively – to explain what was happening.

These meetings have been described by local civil society leaders as extremely basic information sessions which should not be characterised as public consultations. A series of debates televised on several local stations took place without a Mozal representative.

Company points to safety findings

Mozal says it has commissioned an independent report on the safety of its proposal, including an appropriate air dispersion model to simulate the distribution of harmful pollutants during the bypass. According to a Mozal statement, the report, co-authored by two independent consultants, concludes that “the outcome of the predicted values showed a non-significant cumulative impact on health, environment and community.”

The report since been made available to interested parties, but civil society groups have question the validity of the findings.

The Mozambican Ministry for the Coordination of Environmental Affairs (MICOA) had also commissioned a study to assist the government in making the decision on whether to grant the bypass authorisation.

This report concludes that the bypass poses no significant risk, but disturbingly alludes to the impossibility of holding Mozal responsible for damages that may occur in areas affected by the emissions, because the government has no record of environmental quality in those areas.

The Mozal smelter is funded in part by World Bank financing, through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), requiring it to adhere to specific performance standards – which have been adopted as global industry standards – throughout the life of the project to maintain its loan.

Desmond Dodd, IFC Africa’s head of Communications, says “IFC is aware of the issues surrounding Mozal and its emissions during plant maintenance. IFC requires its clients adhere to high environmental and social standards, and so we are in consultation with the company to ensure that any emissions are consistent with those standards.”

(*Adds information that bypass has begun. Story first moved Sep. 20, 2010)

 
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