Manning, Alcoa must come clean

By Raffique Shah
November 12, 2006

I think Alcoa spokesman Wade Hughes is “damn farse and outa place” (let him go learn our dialect) to suggest that Trinidad is “ideally positioned to become the aluminium hub of the Caribbean”. But Hughes got his license to make such insulting pronouncements from none other than Prime Minister Patrick Manning. When the PM referred to his fellow citizens, distinguished and ordinary, as being “dotish”, what could we expect from a “preferred” alien? Hughes and Alcoa, thanks to the “dotish” stance adopted by Manning and company on constructing aluminium smelters here, have been given “rank” over all of us natives. It was always this way as governments genuflected to multinational corporations, making them overlords of our nature-given resources.

To get to the meat of the matter, the concerns we have about establishing smelters here demand clear and honest answers. Firstly do we need such plants for additional revenue?

I addressed this in my previous column, suggesting that we do not, except that when both government and citizens want to wallow in wasteful consumerism, there can never be enough money. Greed drives us to seek not what we need, but what we want. Second by, what is the impact the Alcoa plant will have on the surrounding environment, more so on the aquifer that lies underground the site chosen? Manning said water in that area is not fit for human consumption. I suggest that several independent tests be conducted to determine the truth of this matter.

I emphasise proper determination of the quality of water held in this aquifer in light of the UN Human Development Report, due to have been released yesterday.

This report focuses heavily on the importance of water to the world, and the grave dangers that lie ahead as nations go to war over fresh water.

It will indicate (according to The Guardian, UK) that one billion people live without clean water and 2.6 billion lack access to sanitation. If, therefore, the Cap-de-Ville aquifer has water that can help alleviate our own water woes, then no way should we consider putting any industry there. This country needs to trap, conserve and utilise the abundance of fresh water we are blessed with.

The third, maybe most important concern that must be addressed, is pollution. There is an overabundance of evidence that these pollutants are detrimental to the health of human beings and animals in many ways. In Quebec, where there are aluminium plants, there are more human deaths from malignant tumours according to a study.

Dr Michael Weiner, a New York oncology specialist, points to “aluminium overload associated with a wide range of diseases, from anaemia to liver and cardio-toxicity and bladder cancer.” But I need to focus a bit on spent pot lining (SPL) that seems to be almost as dangerous as nuclear waste (which takes 1,000 years to become sterile!).

Mr Manning said, in his address at La Brea, that “waste matter would be sent to Arkansas”. Really, Mr Manning? There is every indicator that over the past two decades, smelters have shifted from the North to the global South. The main reason for that is the North is finally waking up to the ill-effects of such plants. So why would they now accept the most dangerous of aluminium wastes, SPL? Is Arkansas the Ivory Coast?

It gets fishier than that, though. Since 1992, an Australian research team funded by several aluminium companies, Alcoa included, claimed to have developed technology to “turn this intractable problem into economically useful products.”

With some 500,000 tonnes of SPL being stored across the globe, scientists behind the project claimed that it could extract toxic fluoride from the smelter and save it for re-use, thus saving much money and solving an environmental problem. They claimed, too, that the remaining SPL could be reduced to “synthetic sand” and be used for road-making and concrete production. The core “SIROSMELT” technology, according to its creators, “extracts fluoride and destroys cyanide”.

Why has Alcoa not adopted this mode of dealing with SPL? Why, if Manning is to be believed, are they shipping this “toxic bomb” to Arkansas, of all places? Something does not quite register right here. Clearly, both Mr Manning and Alcoa need to come clean-in more ways than one-with the people of this country. We are not fools, sirs. And I am not against industrialisation per se.

What I am against is multinational corporations or local industrialists playing “farse and loose” with the health of the population and the environment of this country, to the detriment of the current and future generations.

Part I

4 Responses to “Manning, Alcoa must come clean”

  • Govt will stand firm on smelters

    By Curtis Williams

    The Government is unlikely to change its decision to pursue the construction of aluminium smelters in Trinidad and Tobago, even if there were compelling arguments against the proposed Alcoa smelter, well-placed Cabinet sources have disclosed.

    The Sunday Guardian has learnt there may be a possibility of the Government yielding to pressure against the Alcoa smelter, in favour of a smaller smelter being proposed by a well-known Japanese firm.

    In addition, for the first time the Manufacturers Association has said it would support the smelter if the environmental concerns can be addressed and if the country can be assured there will be continued monitoring of the operations.

    Cabinet sources told the Sunday Guardian that the PNM government and its adviser, Prof Ken Julien, are so convinced that building a manufacturing sector based on metals is the way forward, that Manning has been willing to risk the political fallout from the proposed smelters in this, an election year.

    What is driving the Government on the smelters?

    If this smelter comes to fruition, it would mean that Patrick Manning would have achieved a dream that eluded former Prime Minister Dr Eric Williams.

    But as Energy Minister Dr Lenny Saith explained, aluminium is a crucial part of the Government’s plan to achieve vision 20/20.

    He said: “We have got to have the building blocks of a modern industrial country. Steel is one, the other is aluminium and plastics, and thirdly there is the need to have a chemical base.”

    Saith reminded how the Government had gone after the various industries and that on the issue of steel, the Indian companies Mittal steel and Essar were crucial to the plans.

    “The idea is to ensure you have steel for construction, the oil industry and so on,” he said.

    Essar has already announced it will build a US$1.2 billion plant in T&T and the company is now awaiting a gas contract from the National Gas Company.

    By the second quarter of next year, a firm decision is expected on the construction of an ethylene complex, which is expected to provide the resins for a plastics and packaging industry.

    Saith reminded that there was already a plastic and packaging industry in T&T but that it produces essentially for the local market because of the cost of importing resins from Taiwan.

    On the question of a chemical base, the Government has announced several projects going further downstream of methanol and ammonia such as acetic acid and melamine.

    However, it is the issue of aluminium and in particular Alcoa that has so far posed the greatest challenge to Government’s blueprint for industrial development.

    Cabinet sources said they had been disappointed that the Government has had to place political capital on the smelters and yet the potential beneficiaries have not come out and openly supported the move.

    Trade and Industry Minister Ken Valley told the Sunday Guardian that the Government had been having informal talks with the manufacturers telling them of the need to start looking at possible joint venture partners to take advantage of the opportunities should the projects get the green light.

    “We have spoken with the manufacturers about the opportunities that are available and encouraged them to go out there and look for joint venture partners because that is the way forward,” he said.

    He said the Government had been taking along manufacturers whenever it embarked on trade missions because it recognised there was a need for local manufacturers to take their business to a global level.

    “The Caribbean market is now saturated and there is a need to expand into the international market. We are hoping they will have the insight to take advantage of the possibilities,” he said.

    Reports were that eTecK had been mandated to come up with a business plan for the industry, which included what were the best products local companies should get involved in downstream of aluminium.

    John Soo Ping Chow of eTecK’s business development unit said the company had a “good understanding of the products that could be manufactured downstream of aluminium, including cans, bottle caps, ladders and car parts.” (See box)

    Soo Ping Chow told the Sunday Guardian there was no way of saying how much aluminium would be enough for a country this size since that would depend of how the manufacturing sector “runs with projects.”

    He said already there had been inquiries from foreign downstream manufacturers into the possibilities of setting up plants in T&T but nothing has been formalised.

    Soo Ping Chow said eTecK wanted to ensure that it had a good grasp of what would be the best products and what this country could have a competitive advantage in.

    He explained: “With the emergence of a smelter the country will have access to fairly cheap raw materials including rods that can be used along the value chain to bring a whole new industry to this country.”

    He pointed to the example of China, which has become a world powerhouse in the use of aluminium to buttress its manufacturing sector.

    But Soo Ping Chow admitted that at the end of the day it would require leadership from local manufacturers for this plan to work.

    President of the Manufacturers Association, Paul Quesnel has said his members were in support of the establishment of a downstream metal manufacturing industry, but under certain conditions.

    He said: “The Trinidad and Tobago Manufacturers’ Association wishes to make it clear that it supports development, and the creation of downstream industries that can provide sustainable employment to the people of this country.”

    Quesnel said there was the possibility that “if you have raw material you can make all kinds of things from bottle caps to soft drink cans to motor car rims—even aluminium foil.”

    He questioned, however, how many manufacturers would be willing to take the risk.

    He said: “The plant and equipment required would be very expensive. I don’t know how many manufacturers would have the ability to take that kind of risk.”

    Quesnel said the entry level of investment would be important in determining who invested.

    He made it clear, however, that the TTMA support was conditioned on all the factors being taken into consideration before the project was undertaken.

    “The companies looking to establish the smelters in T&T, Alcoa and Alutrint have gone to great lengths to assure the citizens of this country, and in particular the residents of the south west peninsula, that the smelters are safe.

    “However, how these smelter plants will affect our quality of life, our long-term health, as well as the impact on the environment must be carefully examined,” Quesnel said.

    He noted that Alcoa claimed its proposed smelter was designed to capture and recycle more than 98 per cent of all fluoride emissions, and that it would ensure that there was an adequate buffer zone between the smelter and the community.

    “Excessive exposure to fluoride, one of the emissions of a smelter plant, is well known to cause a bone disease called skeletal fluorosis.

    “It is therefore imperative that should the aluminium smelter become a reality, that Alcoa and Alutrint are properly policed to ensure that they are fulfilling their promises,” he warned.

    ©2005-2006 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

  • Foreign experts for aluminium symposium
    A symposium on the aluminium industry is to be held in Trinidad next month with a number of experts from the United States and several other countries scheduled to take part.

  • The opinion of a Uwi student

    Re:The Govt will stand firm
    The last time i checked Trinidad & Tobago was a democratic society but if Mr Manning,go’s ahead to build this smelter i will know that trinidad has definetly become a Dictatorship.He cannot JUST throw his weight around just because he is Prime Minister,WE put him there and he is supposed to listen to us.WE ARE SIMPLY SAYING THAT WE DON’T WANT IT WHY SHOULD IF BE FORCED UPON US!
    Maybe he wants us to start mass protest through the streets OF PORT OF SPAIN, maybe he wan’ts us to fill the jails…because we are voiceing our opinions ,we are saying we don’t want it and we know why we not stupid !


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