Fluoride Action Network

Aluminium smelting plant should not be used to justify Bakun

Source: Sahabat Alam Malaysia (Friends of the Earth-Malaysia) | President, Sahabat Alam Malaysia
Posted on August 24th, 2002
Industry type: Aluminum Industry

SAM is extremely troubled by the revelation of the Sarawak State Government early this week that it is seriously considering to allow a Dubai-based company to set up an aluminium smelting plant in Sarawak to take advantage of the cheap hydroelectric power from Bakun.

To use the development of such an energy-intensive, polluting industry to justify the construction of a multibillion dam certainly goes against the principles of sound development planning.

SAM’s opposition against Bakun has always been tied to the question of need. Way back since the 1980s and until to this day, Malaysia has never been a power-starved country. On the contrary, our country today is inundated by excess energy, a clear sign of poor planning. This energy surplus is likely to continue being generated well into the coming years. This situation applies to both the Peninsula and East Malaysia alike.

Based on the data supplied by the Eighth Malaysia Plan 2001-2005 on our energy needs and capacity for the period concerned, statistical analysis shows that if Bakun is commissioned in 2006, the energy reserve margin of East Malaysia can shoot up to anywhere between 137 and 175 percent. A comfortable reserve margin should be in the region of 30 percent or less.

SAM strongly believes that for any energy development plan to be sustainable, the decision-making process on energy resource development has to curb excessive consumption and reflect the current and future consumption realities to avoid wastage.

We have indeed warned the authorities that the only way Sarawak can fully utilise the excess power produced by Bakun is through a mindless form of industrial growth that will also give the industries the upperhand in determining the price of the energy sold. Allowing the aluminium smelting industry to feed on the excess energy will be a step forward in that wrong direction. In addition, in view of the huge amount of energy available we are also gravely concerned over the proposed capacity of this smelter.

The production of primary aluminium relies on an electrolytic process – which is why aluminium plants consume enormous quantities of energy and are almost always built near an existing or proposed energy source. A huge aluminium smelter is capable of becoming the largest single electricity user in the country where it is located. Aluminium transnational corporations have also been known to manipulate power purchase agreements with power producers so that they are able to purchase energy at subsidised costs, which could be way below the price paid by domestic consumers.

A major environmental and health problem associated with aluminium plants is the impact of fluoride emissions. At high levels, fluoride can cause several long-term health effects both to wildlife and humans, including severe skeletal flourosis, where fluoride causes irregular bone deposits to form, which can lead to severe pain in joints and eventual disability.

Fluoride also affects vegetation. In Norway, fluoride emissions from an aluminium smelter killed pine trees up to 13 km from the smelter in each direction up and down the river valley. All pine trees within 6km of the smelter were also killed.

Thus, is this the kind of development that we need to put up with as a result of excess energy output from a RM 9 billion hydroelectric dam, which displaces 10,000 indigenous peoples and will flood 69,000 ha of land, and in the future will end up causing irreversible ecological damage to the country’s longest river, affecting its economic, social, historical and spiritual components all the way to the coastal zones?

We have to bear in mind that Bakun has been shelved twice, and has also been turned down by foreign investors. In addition it has also cost the country close to RM1 billion when compensation had to be paid to affected parties when the project collapsed in 1997.

In all likelihood the raising of RM9 billion for the dam will have to be done domestically. This may cause a strain on our economic recovery process. Equally important, there is also no guarantee that Bakun will not be slapped with technical problems after its completion, which may result in the dam generating an amount of power below its projected capacity. Eleven of India’s largest reservoirs were filling with sediment 130 to 1,650 percent faster than expected. Erosion and siltation are very severe in the tropics.

In view of all the above, we call for the Malaysian Government to scrap the project for good so as not to put the country in the position of having to accept polluting industries in huge doses at the expense of our economy, environment and local communities.