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TRINIDAD: Trinidad's Smelter Switcheroo

by Peter RichardsInter Press Service
January 4th, 2007

For environmentalists here, it was almost the perfect New Year's gift.

After years of community protests, including a semi-permanent tent camp, the Trinidad and Tobago government abruptly announced that it was backing away from plans to construct aluminium smelter plants in the southwest peninsula villages of Cedros and Chatham.

In his end-of-year address, Prime Minister Patrick Manning informed the public that his administration had "decided to immediately discontinue all plans to establish an industrial estate in Cap-de-Ville".

The catch? "Instead," he continued, "we shall accelerate development of a new industrial estate offshore at Otaheite Bank from which aluminium production can now be pursued together with other industrial plants."

Last year, the Manning administration had insisted that the two aluminium smelter plants, including one planned by the U.S. firm Alcoa, would be built even though the "government understands the concerns raised by citizens regarding the construction of these smelters".

In February 2006, Alcoa signed an agreement in principle with the government to build a 341,000 metric-tonnes-per-year (mtpy) aluminum smelter and related facilities, including an anode plant and a cast house.

The 1.5-billion-dollar project plans called for the production of 240,000 mtpy of billet and forging stock, and possible downstream facilities that would be powered by a self-contained power plant fueled by natural gas.

Alcoa holds 100 percent interest in the smelter, with the government an active partner in the provision or facilitation of necessary infrastructure.

The other plant, Alutrint, is a partnership between the locally-based National Energy Corporation (NEC) and the Sural Group of Venezuela. It would be 60 percent owned by the government with the Venezuelan group controlling the remaining 40 percent. It would produce 125,000 metric tones of aluminium annually.

In his speech, Manning said that a symposium held in November "produced the very salient conclusion that the two proposed aluminium smelters present no unmanageable threat either to the environment or to the health of the population".

"The symposium therefore concluded that on health and environment grounds, there was no bar to the establishment of an aluminium industry in Trinidad and Tobago; and that such risks as may exist are quite manageable. The government is now able to arrive at conclusions based on the symposium," he said.

Manning added that the Environmental Management Agency of Trinidad and Tobago (EMA) has set standards for all industrial activity "to which we ensure strict adherence".

Alcoa says it will now meet with government officials to discuss the alternative venue for its billion-dollar project.

"The government has approached us about different locations and we will be meeting with them shortly to discuss and understand their thoughts better," said Alcoa's spokesman, Kevin Lowery.

But the government plans to relocate the smelter plants have not gone down well with environmental groups and others, including those in favour of the project.

The Point Fortin Chamber of Industry and Commerce said the decision not to go ahead with the Cedros and Chatham smelter plants was an opportunity lost for people in the area.

In a statement, the private sector group said it had always supported the government's efforts to establish an industrial complex in that part of the country, which, despite its significant contribution to the energy sector, has largely remained undeveloped.

"While the chamber acknowledges the legitimate community concerns raised about the Chatham smelter plants, the chamber was confident that the EMA would have made a decision in the best interest of the country," the group said.

James Campbell, a member of the La Brea Welfare Council, said that the community has a "desire to rise out of economic depression and the vast majority of us are saying loudly 'yes' to the smelter".

But the Chatham/Cap-de-Ville Environmental Protection Group, which was at the forefront of protests against the smelter plants in the southwest peninsula villages, and the group Fishermen and Friends of the Sea have vowed to continue their campaign regardless of where the government intends to construct the plants.

Agriculturalist and former lawmaker John Spence said while the government should be congratulated for responding to the calls by residents of the southwest peninsula to safeguard the area from heavy industrialisation, he still had some concerns.

"I am quite certain that the prime minister would not have had the time to listen to eight hours of symposium presentations, and so his view that the discussions concluded that the health and environmental issues could be managed must be based on erroneous advice," Spence wrote in a newspaper column.

Spence said that while he was in no position to "draw any conclusions on the aluminium smelting health studies", he believes that the government, through the Ministry of Health and the Faculty of Medicine at the University of the West Indies, should assemble a panel of local and foreign doctors to advise on health issues in aluminium smelting.

"They must pay particular attention to the high temperatures in the tropics and our local culture of resisting the wearing of protective clothing," he wrote.

Errol McLeod, president of one of the biggest trade unions here, worries that building an industrial estate at Otaheite Bay may severely affect the commercial fish centre in south Trinidad. "This is where I get my weekly supply of fresh fish and I hope nothing will be done to interfere with both the fish supply and the health of residents," McLeod told reporters.

"If smelter operations will be deleterious to the health and social development of Chatham or any area of Trinidad and Tobago, it will be deleterious to Otaheite," he added.

Otaheite Bay also serves as a nesting ground for the scarlet ibis, one of Trinidad and Tobago's national birds, as well as 36 other avian species.

"A smelter here is a no-no," said Judy McLean, who heads the group Neighbours Inc., which is battling to ensure the scarlet ibis and other birds are not harmed.

Seuridge Seepersad, public relations officer for the South Oropouche Citizens' Association, said his organisation would be mobilising communities in the area to oppose the construction of the plants as part of a wider industrial estate.

"We do not want any smelter here, what we need is to develop the fishing industry at Otaheite," he said, warning that effluent from the plants would affect the areas where the fish nest.

He said that destruction to the fishing industry there would affect more than 3,000 families that depend on the sector.

But the government has so far dismissed the complaints of local residents.

"What amazes me is that people, without the benefit of any study, would say that the fishermen would starve, the mangrove would die, and so on. On what basis do they do that? It is just emotion," said Energy Minister Lenny Saith.





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