MAC: Mines and Communities

A university's links with an aluminium producer

Published by MAC on 2005-12-07

A university's links with an aluminium producer

7th December 2005

The School of Natural Resources and Environment of environment at the University of Michigan is in cahoots with ALCOA, the world's most powerful bauxite-alumininum company. Involved too in sponsoring the university is Dow Chemical, which bought out Union Carbide, culprit of the worst industrial disaster ever - at Bhopal India - and which has refused to take on the liabilities inherited from that company. Below you will find the UM statement welcoming the Alcoa link as well as a recent critique of Alcoa's plan to construct an alumininum smelter in Trinidad, that details a number of the company's malfeasances.

Alcoa and you

Mark Meredith

Trinidad and Tabago Express

20th November 2005

Alcoa's 341,000 tonne Cap-de-Ville aluminium smelter will consume four to six per cent of Trinidad's total natural gas reserves, which Alcoa believes to be between 26-32 trillion cubic feet, over the 30 years or more it expects the plant to operate.

The power needed for smelting, 570 megawatts, will be almost half of the current national grid, and it will be "sponsoring" a plant to deliver that power, with Government agreeing "in principle" to building and paying for a port. It knows "what it will not do with hazardous waste", like spent pot linings, but not exactly what it will do with it.

The twin pot rooms of the smelter will be a kilometre in length and produce waste "eight years from today". It expects "to break ground" on the project in 12 months, with construction taking two years.

The smelter site will occupy 1,500 acres of forested land, the rest will form the "park" in which the smelter sits. "Science" informs Alcoa that the smelter will pose no threat to human and environmental health. It doesn't "expect" it to have any "negative direct impact on the ability to fish in the Gulf of Paria", and it has a "goal of having no negative impact on groundwater or rivers".

Alcoa "hopes to talk to as many people in Chatham/Cap-de-Ville/Cedros as possible", once those people "are willing to listen and talk to us".

The information is not from a public consultation (that will come during the EIA process), as Alcoa has told me it is not ready to put its plans "in the papers" until it has reached "directly all the people who have expressed an interest in meeting us".Some weeks ago, Alcoa made a presentation to the Council of Presidents of the Environment (COPE), an umbrella organisation representing 14 of this country's environmental NGOs. I was invited to attend by one NGO member, and then uninvited a few hours later. This week Alcoa held another presentation.

The advertisement that arrived among the Tuesday morning e-mails was marked "For Urgent Attention" of T&T Chamber of Commerce members and was headlined: " 'WHY TRINIDAD?' ALCOA & YOU, The Smelter in the Park Concept & the Cap-de-Ville site,


Why indeed? I invited myself along to the presentation that night by Alcoa's president, Primary Metals Development, Randy Overbey, in Westmoorings. Overbey delivered a flawlessly smooth, feel-good presentation on Alcoa's plans for Trinidad. Alcoa's "first attraction (to Trinidad), quite honestly, is energy. Natural gas," said Overbey. "I admire the direction Government is taking. Let's take a slice of this gas and conduct it back into the development of an industry like this." consume 4-6 per cent of our. Having been told Alcoa would total natural gas reserves, I asked him something I expected the business community to have asked: what will Alcoa pay for our gas? Overbey was "unable to share" that information. Everybody laughed, but I missed the joke.

Logistically, the smelter works well for Alcoa too, said Overbey, explaining our proximity to its operations in Brazil, Suriname, Jamaica, and being near the United States. It would be an "exciting economic driver for the region".

He said Alcoa knew what "they would not do" with toxic spent pot linings (SPL), and that to put them in a landfill-a solution ALUTRINT have indicated is their most "viable option" for the Union Estate smelter. Overbey alluded to this: "We heard a description, something along the lines, which is not what we have in mind, that you could somehow put the SPL into a cement block and then put that cement block into a landfill. This is not what we have in mind, so don't confuse the two," he repeated.

Alcoa's likely option is recycling it: crushing the SPL and adding it to cement kiln fuel (it has a high carbon content). The high temperature "destroys" the cyanides and "the fluorides are tied-up and you never see them again. That's what the science says". Then, "we can put in about one to one and a half per cent of the total of Portland cement mix. It can go in at that rate". It makes good cement, said Overbey.

It would like to recycle it here, as shipping the waste might require permits and produce problems. It has been talking with a local cement company.

"I've read that trees will die. That's not the case," said Overbey of the forest not being cleared for the smelter. "We've read a lot about public health concerns regarding the smelter, like impacts will be rampant, miscarriages will be rampant, extremely outdated concerns about cancer.

"I'd first appeal to your basic logic and say that if any of these were true we wouldn't be allowed to operate a single smelter anywhere in the world."

He said that Dr Oyebode Taiwo, of Yale University Medical School-"who advises Alcoa on health impacts"-would be here shortly to "interface" with our medical community and concerned citizens. "I've read that he's hired to say what Alcoa want him to say, and he would be offended by that. It would call into question the integrity of Yale Medical School. . . the claims are inflammatory, not based on science or fact. He'll show you the medical evidence behind what we say."

They were "excited" about Chatham's "smelter in a park", and showed us examples of other smelters in the park in Australia, and in Brazil where they hope to take Cedros citizens on a fact finding tour. The smelter in a Chatham park will have two-thirds of its 1,500 acres set aside for conservation, education and agricultural initiatives, said Overbey. "Even the possibility of hunting. We understand hunting is important to some of our future neighbours."

He emphasised the 1,500 jobs the smelter would require for its construction; the 750-850 permanent jobs required to run it; that they "would like nothing better than a very high percentage of employees coming from the local community...three years from today we need 800 people trained and ready to work in the facility...our positions will be open to everybody based on their skills, training and education".

Alcoa, as you would expect from a US company with an income of over US$21.5 billion in 2003, are rather good at presentation, selling the product; it's slick and polished like aluminium; non-stick, too.

There were a number of Alcoa brochures on the table in the foyer. Two caught my eye. "It all starts with dirt" was a fold-out poster which explains how Alcoa makes aluminium and the versatility of the product. The cover cartoon depicts the process in four steps: a pile of dirt (bauxite) becoming a pile of alumina becoming a shiny ingot becoming a finished, soaring jetliner.

Unfold the poster and you'll find the sunny, happy land of Planet Alcoa. Here, "Alcoans" toil cheerfully, mining, refining, smelting, fabricating, producing the magical metal for computer parts, cars, cans, planes, poles, greenhouses-a myriad useful things, all produced, it appears, painlessly for the environment or communities where these processes take place.

A look at aluminium's other side reveals displaced indigenous peoples, evicted from ancestral forest lands flooded for dams for smelter power, or cleared for the strip mining of tropical forests for bauxite.

Back in 1964, Alcoa's Suriname Aluminium Company (SURALCO) built the Afobakka Dam, creating a 650 square mile reservoir that drowned seven Maroon villages, displacing about 6,000 people. The Maroons were reportedly paid US$3 in compensation each.

It also inspired a wildlife rescue effort by International Society for the Protection of Animals: "Operation Gwamba: the Story of Rescuing 10,000 Animals from certain death in a South American Rain Forest".

Two hours from Paramaribo, says a recent issue of Conde Naste Traveller, "acres of rusting metal-the hulk of an aluminum plant that Alcoa had abandoned in 1998-squatted in the forest like a lost city...To house refugees (from the flooding), the government erected a shantytown called Brownsweg at the foot of the Afobakka dam. At midday we rode a cloud of dust into Brownsweg, an unpaved slum of cramped huts..."

At Alcoa's presentation, not a word was spoken of the relocation issues facing, what is said to be, 100 Cedros families, or what will happen to the area when the gas fizzles out. Previously, Overbey has told me relocation was the government's responsibility.

In 2003, Alcoa and BHP Billiton signed an agreement with the Suriname government to expand their bauxite and exploitation rights for the country. The area of Bakhuys is believed to hold between 200 and 700 million tonnes of bauxite, and mining will affect up to four indigenous peoples, say advocacy.

groups. A July 2005 report by Amazon Conservation Team said the two extraction giants also want to build a hydroelectric dam that, critics say, will flood the lands of the Wanapan, Section, Washabo and Apura peoples. It will force the Trior from their homes.

The Amazon Alliance reports that "Suriname does not recognise collective land rights nor does it accept traditional or tribal institutions as legal persons, therefore making it impossible for them to hold land rights".

In Brazil, at the smelter in the park at Sao Luis Island that Alcoa wish to take Chatham residents to as an example of progressive industrialisation, the Earth Island Institute says that 20,000 people were evicted to make way for the expansion of aluminium facilities there. To power the smelter, a dam was built that flooded 938 square miles, "including six towns and two Indian reserves", reports the 1996 book Greenwash.

The other document at Alcoa's presentation was also expensive, and very nicely produced: Alcoa's "Sustainability Initiative" for its Karahnjukar smelting/power project in Iceland. Alcoa's Iceland project was featured in the Express of March 27th & 28th It's significance to us is that our smelter and theirs are the only new ones Alcoa are to build in 20 years, and both will utilise the same "state of the art" technology.

There were only a couple of copies of the 97-page document. The cover features a computer-generated graphic of the 57 sq km Halslon reservoir that has inundated the fragile Icelandic highlands of Karahnjukar. A study of the document revealed 34 indicators of sustainability of the project, including the impacts of the dam, diverted rivers, power lines and the smelter, as well as the economic and social impacts.

The majority of impacts are environmental, such as: "Emissions from the smelter will have a direct effect on the air quality of East Iceland...Fluoride emitted from the Fjardaal smelter could accumulate in vegetation in the immediate vicinity of the smelter.

Aluminium smelting operations require wastewater discharges into Icelandic waterways that could indirectly affect aquatic fauna through changes in water chemistry (which) could be economically damaging to the region...The presence of industrial facilities creates the potential for direct contamination of local groundwater...", and biodiversity threats, erosion, and so on.

There were too many impacts listed to dwell on here, and therein lies the paradox of Alcoa's tasteful presentation of its clear admission of the dangers. The Karahnjukar document grabbed my attention because only that morning I had received an e-mail from an Icelandic friend.

It pointed me to a new World Wildlife Fund (WWF) report on the destructive effects of dams, which said, "bad dams and bad economics are alive and kicking", noting the Karahnjukar dam was rejected by Iceland's planning agency, only to be overruled by the environment ministry.

Alcoa's Karanjukar is singled out as one of the world's six most destructive dam projects, highlighted for the "excessive" environmental damage caused. And just for one smelter.

U-M sole North American recipient of Alcoa Foundation grant

7th December 2005

ANN ARBOR, Mich.The University of Michigan has been selected by Alcoa Foundation as the sole North American academic partner in its six-year Conservation and Sustainability Fellowship Program, U-M and Alcoa announced today.

The Alcoa Foundation award will provide U-M with $844,000 to support six, two-year post-doctoral fellows doing research on sustainable energy technology at U-M. The University is one of five academic partners in the Alcoa Foundation $8.6 million global research program, which supports the study of global conservation and sustainability issues. U-M will work with four other prominent academic partners: Tsinghua University, Beijing, China; Curtin University of Technology, Perth, Australia; University of Sao Paulo, Sao Paulo, Brazil; and London School of Economics and Political Science, London, UK.

Through 2009, the program will support the research activities of approximately 30 academics and 60 sustainability practitioners from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) around the world. The research initiatives and findings plus the knowledge and information gained from the Alcoa Foundation Conservation and Sustainability Fellowship Program will be made freely available and shared with any interested party worldwide.

The program is being launched today an event at U-M that brings together key participants from Alcoa, Alcoa Foundation, the Institute of International Education, and U-M faculty, students and administrators. Tim Myers, vice president and general manager, Alcoa Wheel Products, will present Alcoa and Sustainability: Looking to the Future, Taking Action Today. The event, which is open to the public, is set for 5-7 p.m. in Room 1040 of the Dana Building on Central Campus.

Alcoa CEO Alain Belda lauded the goals of the program.

"Sustainability has long been at the core of our business model and has tremendous influence on the way we operate, products we make, and our overall thinking, Belda said. "Our focus and success will continue to be on the triple bottom line of environmental impact, social responsibility and economic futures and this Alcoa Foundation investment in the fellowship program further highlights our commitment to these ideals."

"Alcoa Foundation is making a unique, visionary program available not only to the University of Michigan, but to the world," said U-M President Mary Sue Coleman. "The program provides us with an opportunity to expand knowledge in the critically important areas of conservation and sustainability. We are honored that Alcoa Foundation has recognized the University of Michigan as a leader in this endeavor. Coleman noted that Alcoa and Alcoa Foundation have been strong and valued partners with the University of Michigan.

The U-M-Alcoa Foundation fellowship underscores U-Ms commitment to maintaining leadership in developing and using sustainable technologies. The grant involves a multi-disciplinary group of faculty co-led by Gregory Keoleian, co-director of the Center for Sustainable Systems (CSS) and Thomas Lyon, co-director of the Frederick A. and Barbara M. Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise, and The Dow Chemical Company Chair of Sustainable Science, Technology and Commerce.

Piecemeal approaches to the development of sustainable energy solutions, absent consideration of their timing, feasibility, societal acceptance, economic impact, market penetration and political salience, have not moved the world toward a secure energy future, said Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment (SNRE), which houses the CSS. Alcoa's support enables an interdisciplinary research initiative that addresses all the components of this complex issue, and positions Michigan at the forefront of research into sustainable energy.

The Alcoa grant will be a major boost as we build the Erb Institute's research program," Lyon said. "It allows us to build across-the-board research strength in sustainable energy systems, complementing our existing faculty research and our growing body of doctoral students. It will also complement the new U-M energy initiative.

Kathleen Buechel, Alcoa Foundation president and treasurer, described the Alcoa Foundations program as, A great step toward reaching the goal of advancing the field of conservation on a global scale. Conservation andsustainability is one of the key areas of excellence for the Alcoa Foundation investments. We think it is vital that we promote sound public policy, research and linkages between business and the environment.

U-M was selected to participate in the academic fellowship program because of its outstanding reputation in the area of environmental research and long standing commitment to the study of conservation and sustainability.

The Alcoa link on the home page of the University of Michigan:

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