By Jørn Stave
NorWatch recently visited the company Alpart, which is owned 35% by Hydro Aluminium. The company mines bauxite and produces alumina in the vicinity of Mandeville on the Caribbean island Jamaica. The blockade was reported by The Gleaner and the protests turn up only a couple of weeks after NorWatch went to the affected communities.
This is not the first time the company has met criticism from its neighbours. According to Public Relations Manager Lance Neita, complaints from people who believe they are affected by the mining operations or refinery emissions are received on a regular basis. However, Alpart's other facilities, comprising a 15 km conveyor belt from the mining areas to the refinery and a railroad which transports alumina to Port Kaiser on the south coast, are also subjected to conflicts.
Ever since re-opening of the alumina refinery in 1989, following several years of depressions in the aluminium industry, which eventually caused the plant to close down in the mid-1980s, Hydro Aluminium has ensured its supply of raw materials through the part ownership of Alpart. The company today represents the single largest foreign investment in Jamaica and is considered a vital player in the country's economy through the provision of about J$ 975 million (US$ 58 million) in annual levies and royalties.
However, not everybody is enthusiastic about the company's operations. This is particularly true among the residents living close to the plant.
- We are badly affected by dust emissions from Alpart, but only some few persons have received compensation, says a frustrated Aretha Forbes in Downs community, about 5 km from the plant.
Lance Neita has heard similar stories before and says that he understands much of the frustration in the communities. But he emphasises that many claims are not legitimate and based on misconceptions.
- We nevertheless evaluate every complain and the company has developed handling procedures which involve a visit to the claimants within 24 hours in order to assess the validity of the claim, says Neita.
The railroad blockade took place in the small community Stephen's Run, only a couple of kilometres from the alumina refinery. This community is only one among 18 communities in the vicinity of the plant, but the residents are particularly affected due to the railway passing close by. In addition to transporting alumina, which is the raw material used in the aluminium smelting process, the trains carry caustic soda, which is a vital ingredient when refining bauxite into alumina.
- When the trains pass by, it sometimes smells terrible, especially if some of the caustics leaks from the carriages, tells Adessa Wright of Stephen's Run.
The main reason behind the protests was however inadequate water supply and crop damages. The residents claim the crops are affected by alumina emissions from the plant, leaving houses and fields covered by a layer of white dust. Public Relations Manager Lance Neita also confirms that episodic emissions of caustics, which affect both cops and properties, do occur. However, Mr. Neita claims that the use of valuators to assess the damage results in everybody receiving a fair ex gratia compensation.
By contrast, Raymond Barnes, representative of the residents, complain that the compensations are insufficient and that the water pipes have been dry for a long time. After meeting with the company representatives, he now expects the problems to be taken care of.
- If they keep their promises then there will not be any demonstrations but if this dialogue does not bring any results we will have to take further action.whatever it takes, says Mr. Barnes to The Gleaner.
According to Alpart, the inadequate water supply was caused by other residents illegally setting up connections to the pipe. The company pumps more than a million litres a day to 13 communities.
A frequent cause of complain in connection to the alumina refinery is corrosion of zink roofs. This has been a topic since the 1970s when people started to suspect plant emissions causing roofs to corrode more rapidly than before. Until Jamaica Bauxite Institute conducted a technical study in 1991, the company compensated a more or less random sample of residents with new aluminium roofs.
- The study recommended the demarcation of two compensation zones around the plant; the inner zone would qualify for 100% compensation, while the residents in the outer zone got 80% compensation. The baseline model was constructed from the predominant wind direction in the valley, explains Worrel Lyew-You of Jamaica Bauxite Institute.
According to Mr. Lyew-You, the cause of the zink corrosion was not identified. A possible explanation could be sulfur dioxide emissions from the refinery, but it could also be due to moist alumina dust or caustic soda emissions.
The compensation programme still exists and has contributed to great frustration among people living outside the compensation zones.
- They say the wind doesn't bring pollution to us but everybody here knows that the wind direction changes constantly. Nobody can claim that the roof corrosion isn't as bad here as in other places around the plant, says an angry resident of Lititz, Olive Smith.
- It's a shame that the company doesn't give us a decent compensation, she says.
Lance Neita of Alpart refers to a US consultancy report, which states that plant emissions are not the reason behind roof corrosion. According to the report, poor zink quality and improper storage of the roofs are more likely to be the reasons. However, corrosion rates are within the normal limits for such roofs, the report claims.
- Since we cannot exclude our own responsibility for the roof damages, we have continued to pay compensations, says Lance Neita, who admits that the use of compensation zones still contributes to conflicts between the company and some local communities.
Substantial changes have occurred in the bauxite and alumina industry in Jamaica during later years. A pioneer agreement between the government, the companies, and the unions was signed in 1998, in which all parties commit themselves to ensure stable industrial conditions.
- The next step should be to include the local communities in a joint agreement, says Lance Neita.
After numerous demonstrations in the mid-1990s, Alpart now funds several community projects in order to ensure good relations to their neighbours. Moreover, the company has forged a Manager-Community Alliance Programme, as well as established several community councils, which meet with company and government representatives once a month.
Dianne Gordon of Jamaica Bauxite Institute praises these initiatives but emphasises that the bauxite and alumina industry inevitably causes some level of conflict with the neighbouring communities. This is due to the basic environmental impacts of the industry and the fact that Jamaica is the world's only country where such operations occur in close proximity to thousands of people.
- Even though some conflicts are based on false claims, it is legitimate to say that the companies could do a lot more for the communities. It is frustrating for poor farmers to observe wealth being generated without benefiting themselves, says Dianne Gordon.
The most serious and lasting environmental impact at Alpart is the red mud residue. Every tonne of alumina produced leaves about one tonne of this alkaline slurry, which is discharged into a large mud lake next to the plant.
After Alpart introduced a new method of recycling the caustic soda and spreading the mud in thin layers, the company management now claims that seepage to groundwater is minimal.
- Among a total of eight monitoring wells around the plant, seven show a positive trend, which in my opinion is more important than absolute values, says General Manager Ray Gendron.
At the time of NorWatch's visit, Alpart was lining the edge of the mud lake to prevent any excess liquid to contaminate the aquifer.
However, not everybody is confident that the aquifers at Alpart are safe. Some months ago, technocrats affiliated with the opposition Jamaica Labour Party collected samples of water, crops, livestock, and children in the communities fringing the Alpart plant.
The results have been expected for a long time but they are not yet made public. The investigation is supposedly intended to come up with evidence to support a lawsuit against Alpart. The Jamaica Labour Party has repeatedly made critical comments about the country's bauxite and alumina industry, which to a large extent is controlled by foreign companies.
"If they keep their promises then there will not be any demonstrations but if this dialogue does not bring any results we will have to take further action.whatever it takes."
Raymond Barnes, representative of the residents in Stephen's Run, 23.05.2001
Facts: Hydro Aluminium in Jamaica
Alpart (Alumina Partner of Jamaica) is a partnership between Hydro Aluminium (35% ownership) and the US company Kaiser aluminium, which is the manager and controls the remaining shares. The company mines bauxite through the recently established AMV (Alpart Mining Venture) and produces alumina at a refinery outside the town of Mandeville. The bauxite is transported to the plant by a 15 km conveyor belt, whereas the alumina is carried by railroad to Port Kaiser, about 11 km south of the plant. Alpart was originally formed in 1966 and the refinery operations started in 1969. After close-down and subsequent re-opening, Hydro acquired its current ownership in 1989. Alpart is employing ca. 1200 workers and produced 1.5 million tonnes of alumina last year, of which a significant share is shipped to Norwegian aluminium smelters.
Norwatch Newsletter 6/01