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Smelter Struggle: Trinidad Fishing Community Fights Aluminum Project

by Sujatha FernandesSpecial to CorpWatch
September 6th, 2006

Cartoon by Khalil Bendib

"What you got.....we don't want,
what you're selling.....we ain't buying!
So no matter, how hard you're trying,
we want no industrial wasteland in our yard"

-Anti-Smelter Warriors Anthem, chorus  


The roads that wander through the southwestern peninsula of Trinidad pass small fishing villages, mangrove swamps, and coconut plantations; they skirt herds of buffalypso and reveal sheltered beach coves. This February, Alcoa signed an agreement in principle with the Trinidad and Tobago Government that threatens to fundamentally alter this gentle landscape. Plans by the Pittsburgh-based manufacturing company to build a large aluminum smelter have sparked criticism from local residents and environmentalists.

The $US1.5 billion project slated for the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville area envisions a 341,000 metric-tons-per-year aluminum smelter, an anode plant, and a cast house. Alcoa, the world's leading producer of aluminum, is promoting the project as a boon to local employment and other community benefits.

For an update on Alcoa, see:

Residents, police clash in Chatham

Prime Minister sounds Alcoa warning

Alumina, a material from which aluminum is derived, will come from Alcoa refineries in Jamaica, Surinam, and Northern Brazil. Alcoa's Director of Public Strategy Wade Hughes, said that the government of Trinidad and Tobago had invited Alcoa to build a smelter, citing the islands' advantages: competitive energy prices, local economic needs, and “strategic positioning for manufacturing in close proximity to the large markets of North and South America and Europe.”

Cedros Peninsula United, a local organization opposing Alcoa's proposed smelter, charges that the project will hurt villages along the peninsular: It will displace 100 families, release emissions harmful to health and the environment, pose occupational safety hazards, and diminish bio-diversity. The group has also raised fears that the smelters will create electromagnetic fields (EMF). EMF have proven controversial at China's state-run aluminum smelters in Nanshan and Shandong, and at a facility that Alcoa operates in Sao Luis, Brazil.

"There is very little evidence for health risks related to chronic direct current [DC] EMF exposures at the levels currently found in aluminum potrooms," said Hughes.

But Cedros Peninsula United is concerned about the effects of EMF on plants and people. They cite a 1994 legal action in which a sick worker at Kaiser Aluminum, another U.S. company operating smelters, blamed EMF for the cancer that killed eight of 90 aluminum potroom workers. The Washington State Department of Labor and Industries ruled in his favor, but failed to find a direct link to EMF. Instead it determined that the response of Kaiser's medical claims processors to the illnesses was inadequate, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Whether on not EMF from DC current causes cancer, other harmful emissions from aluminum smelters are clearly dangerous. Studies in Australia found that hydrogen fluoride, inspirable dust, and sulphur dioxide from aluminum smelters caused respiratory problems such as asthma, wheezing, and chest tightness in workers. A 30-year study by the University of Calgari found in 2004 that aluminum smelter workers in Sardinia, Italy, exposed to polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons were between 2.4 and 5 times more likely to die of pancreatic cancer. In Norway, the Department of Horticulture and Crop Sciences studied  three aluminum smelters and concluded that even low emissions of fluoride caused serious damage to nearby vegetation.

Another Alcoa smelter under production in east Iceland has led to similar protests over the health and environmental effects.

Despite these concerns, Alcoa is moving ahead. In March, it applied to the Environmental Management Agency (EMA) for a Certificate of Environmental Clearance (CEC). Permission was granted in July for Alcoa to undergo an Environmental Impact Assessment. 

Communities of the Southwest Peninsula

The city of San Fernando lies at the mouth of the large cove where Trinidad's Cedros Peninsula begins its reach into the turquoise Caribbean. Its 62,000 Indo and Afro-Trini residents reflect the mixed roots of indentureship and slavery through which Trinidad came into being. The city's main promenade features statues of the icons of resistance in the African and Indian diaspora: Pan-African nationalist leader Marcus Garvey and the Indian nationalist leader and architect of non-violence Mahatma Gandhi.

Following the independence of Trinidad and Tobago from the British in 1962, middle class political parties such as the black-led People's National Movement (PNM) and the Indo-Trinidadian United National Congress (UNC) have attempted to mobilize and divide the population along ethnic lines for political gain.

The prospect of the smelter, however is proving a unifying force as the ethnically diverse but tight-knit communities of the peninsula organize to protect their environment and their way of life. The mostly poor, rural, black and brown communities of the peninsula have formed alliances and organizations such as the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group, Cedros Peninsula United, and the Rights Action Group.

Religious groups wield particular influence on the island, which is largely Catholic and Hindu. The national organization Catholic Commission for Social Justice (CCSJ) has joined the battle to defeat the proposed plant. On a local level, Hindu, Muslim, and Presbyterian communities have also offered support.
 
On August 10, the Trinidad and Tobago Civil Rights Association began an eight-day march from the peninsula to the capital, Port-of Spain, some 90 kilometers away. The proposed smelter was a key concern. The president of the association and former attorney general, Ramesh Lawrence Maharaj, called on Prime Minister Patrick Manning to make public his plan for dealing with waste from the smelter.

In addition to protests and marches, the Civil Rights Association together with the  Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group are pursuing legal channels to stop the construction. Maharaj, the lawyer on the case, is preparing to file public interest litigation to prevent the government from taking any further steps until it puts in place proper regulations.

Maharaj charges that the government signed the agreement with Alcoa without first obtaining the approval of the relevant regulatory bodies, in this case, the Environmental Management Agency. Moreover, in 1984 the parliament had designated the entire Cedros Peninsula, including the proposed smelter site, as agricultural and forest land. The government, therefore, must seek parliamentary approval before allowing industrial use. Also, according to Maharaj, the smelter will violate draft pollution rules that are before the parliament. Maharaj told Corpwatch that, “Alcoa has admitted in their application that the smelter would discharge hazardous substances and dangerous vapors, and they have not demonstrated how these substances will be disposed off.”

If the local courts side with the government and Alcoa, activists may appeal the ruling in the Privy Council in London. Although nominally independent, the constitution of Trinidad and Tobago still retains the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London as the highest court of appeal.

“The government is resolved to accommodate Alcoa in its desire to build its smelter plant at Chatham/Cap-de-Ville," said local environmental activist Ishmael Samad. "And the judiciary, which is supposed to be independent, could well be influenced to render a judgement in favour of the government. Therefore the Privy Council in England, our final court of appeal, is our only hope.”

Alcoa's Strategy in Trinidad


Faced with mounting opposition, Alcoa has spearheaded a public relations campaign to win over the populace with pledges of good jobs and a clean environment. The company, which earned $26.2 billion in 2005, according to its website, is buying full page ads in local newspapers. A March ad promised "750 to 800 long-term jobs to Trinidad" and touted the smelter as part of Alcoa's "community partnerships." An April ad in the Trinidad Express read, "Alcoa's smelter in the Park. Progress--in harmony with Community and Culture" and another claimed, "Alcoa--investing in communities. Our social investment policies are followed by social action." In a May ad in a weekend edition of the Trinidad Express, Alcoa described itself and the project environmentally friendly: "Alcoa--Longtime steward of the environment."

Fitzroy Beache, president of the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group, was not convinced. “Alcoa does this everywhere there go; they are doing this in Iceland to stop the protest and buy out everybody. Now they try to come to the community saying they’ll build parks and football fields. But we don’t want that, we don’t even want Alcoa in our community right now.”

The Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group demanded to meet with company representatives, and after all-night vigils outside the prime minister's office, protest marches, and rallies, Alcoa agreed. On July 5 and 14, Adesh Surajnath, a technical engineer hired by Alcoa to do preliminary drilling, attended public meetings at the Chatham Community Center and answered questions. Chatham is the site of the industrial estate where Alcoa proposes to build the smelter.

Community leaders and residents alike expressed anger and distrust. One of the more than 300 attendees demanded to know how much compensation he would receive for the loss of the farming land that supports his family. Others in the small, crowded hall raised health and environmental issues.

When Surajnath said he was unable to answer the questions, furious residents demanded an audience with ministers who could--including Minister of Energy and Petroleum Lenny Saith. According to Beache, the government should make its plans clear and initiate meaningful fora where the public can voice its concerns.

Alcoa's Wade Hughes told Corpwatch that the company will work with the government to ensure relocation of families living on the industrial estate, and will give “fair and prompt compensation” to displaced farmers.

The company's reassurances--vague and not legally binding--are not appeasing residents who fear losing land that is both home and livelihood. On its website, Cedros Peninsula United points out that although Alcoa's environmental application is supposed to list the names and addresses of adjoining property owners, it omits the hundred families that the smelter will displace.

Despite Alcoa's reassurances that it will be a good citizen and an environmental steward, the company has a history of environmental violations. The US Department of Commerce released a statement that Alcoa had violated more than 100 regulations on the export of potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride between 1991 and 1995. According to the New York Times, Alcoa's New York state Massena aluminum smelter was fined $7.5 million in 1991, the largest criminal penalty at the time for hazardous waste violations. The US Justice Department and Environmental Protection Agency released a statement in March 2000, reporting that Alcoa paid out an $8.8 million settlement after complaints that the company illegally expelled waste into the Ohio River from its Warrick County, Indiana plant; that the waste was highly toxic to fish; and that the smoke, dust, and ash expelled from furnaces exceeded Clean Air Act limits.

The problems of toxic waste and pollution are also foremost for Trinidad's activists. Alcoa’s CEC application estimates that the proposed smelter would have an annual output of 600 metric tons of domestic solid waste as well as 50 cubic meters of waste water per day.

The most voluminous solid waste is spent potlining (SPL), the corroded material removed from the steel shells or "pots" that hold molten aluminum. According to the Alcoa website, SPL has been classified as hazardous waste because of its toxicity and explosive nature. Asked what Alcoa plans to do with Trinidad's SPL, Hughes replied that it “will be shipped to our processing facility in Gum Springs, Arkansas." Yet shipping potlining is a violation of the Basel Convention, an international agreement administered by the United Nations.

***
A recent flow of Pentagon contracts to the Pittsburgh-based corporation is fueling Alcoa's search for increased capacity and, like many US corporations, it is outsourcing manufacturing to countries with relatively lax environmental laws.

In 2004 Alcoa won an initial $1.2 million contract from the US Army. The next year the US Army Tank-Automotive and Armaments Command signed a $12.5 million deal with Alcoa for ground combat and tactical vehicles. That same December 2005, Alcoa also signed a five-year, $30 million contract with Klune Industries to manufacture aluminum structural castings for the US Navy’s Tactical Tomahawk Missile Program.

On July 22, Alcoa chose Bechtel as its primary partner in conducting feasibility studies for the proposed smelter. Bechtel, a private company with close ties to the Bush administration and the Republican party, was awarded a $680 million contract in Iraq through a process of secretive biddings in April 2003, with the possibility of contracts worth billions of dollars.

One of the leaders of the campaign against the smelter is a small, young Indo-Trinidadian mother of two.

"The issue is preserving ourselves," she said, sitting on the verandah of her two-storey house in Chatham. "We are aware of the health problems, the cancer, the asthma. We've seen the destruction of our coastlines with the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) Plants. People don't catch fish here now, you know? People don't get chip-chip or catch-e-come anymore." Over the last six years, the government of Trinidad and Tobago has worked with Bechtel to construct four LNG plants in Point Fortin to liquefy natural gas for export. Since the arrival of the plants, local fishermen have noted that fish such as chip-chip and catch-e-come, also known as sea tattoo, are becoming scarcer.

"They want to convert the entire southwest peninsula into an industrial belt. If we don't move as a result of Alcoa, it will happen with some other industry," she said. "I have two little daughters. What is their future? The air they are breathing will be polluted. As a mother and as a parent, how am I supposed to deal with this? Alcoa will break all the rules to see that this proposed smelter goes ahead, but what do we have to benefit? Some temporary employment at minimum wage, but who gains all the profit? The people have nothing to gain from this."