Maputo — Civil society groups are challenging a six-month authorisation granted aluminium giant BHP Billiton to emit potentially dangerous fumes from its Mozal smelter into the air without treating them first.
In May, the government gave BHP Billiton’s Mozal smelter, located in the town of Matola, 17 kilometres from the capital, the go-ahead to bypass two Fume Treatment Centres (FTCs) at its carbon plant, which re-processes and produces anodes for use in producing aluminium.
Authorisation for the bypass, which Mozal says is required to rebuild and upgrade the FTCs, has been granted for a period of six months, and is due to begin in late October 2010.
Environmental groups opposed
Civil society groups in Maputo and Matola filed a court action Sep. 14 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 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, before it is released into the air.
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.
While Mozal claims that the quantities of harmful emissions will not endanger human health or the environment around the smelter, a civil society coalition established to fight the bypass, led by local groups Livaningo and Justica Ambiental (Environmental Justice), says that the community has not been presented with adequate evidence that the bypass will not be harmful to their health.
The coalition has 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.
Antonio Reina, spokesman for the coalition, says public health is his biggest concern. “It has been aggravated by the process by which they are dealing with it. It’s very sad that a company like Mozal goes around like this, operating with complete impunity,” Reina says.
Some of Matola’s nearly one million residents live within two kilometres of the 10-year-old smelter, and 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 damag ed agricultural production in the area, to the detriment of local livelihoods. And he says the bypass will only make it worse.
Public consultation deemed inadequate
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.
BHP Billiton operates another 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.
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.”
However, the report has not been released to the public, and its two authors have not been given permission to speak publicly about their findings.
The only report in the public domain – a single printed copy has been placed in the library of the Mozambican Ministry for the Coordination of Environmental Affairs (MICOA) in Maputo – is a study commissioned by the Mozambican government to assist it with 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.
Harold Annegarn, a professor at the University of Johannesburg with over 30 years experience in air quality management, has reviewed the findings and been in discussion with the industry players involved. Annegarn says the government’s anonymously-authored report uses an inappropriate scale for its dispersion study, “and as a result, it tells us nothing… From the study, it is impossible to tell whether emissions would be within the World Health Organisation recommendations for exposure.”
However, having consulted with the authors of Mozal’s commissioned report, Annegarn is confident that the other study was completed appropriately. And based on that study, he is satisfied that the predicted emissions levels would not constitute a risk to human health.
An independent company, SGS, has also been engaged to monitor emissions for the duration of the bypass.
But Arnegarn is concerned that neither the company’s report, nor information about ongoing monitoring, has been made available to the public.
I am concerned that the public has not had the relevant information made available to them,” Annegarn says, “And that’s the company’s responsibility to do that… There’s been a complete lack of transparency.”
Does move meet performance standards?
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.”
Mozambique’s Environmental Affairs Ministry declined to comment, saying discussions about the bypass issue were ongoing.
BHP Billiton also declined to comment beyond a statement issued in July 2010, as it was unable to contact the relevant personnel at Mozal.