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Raffique Shah


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Arrogance vs ignorance

November 05, 2006
By Raffique Shah

I have thus far stayed silent on the controversy surrounding the proposed establishment of two aluminium smelter plants in south Trinidad. But after Prime Minister Patrick Manning's vituperative assault last week on those who are protesting against the smelters, I cannot help but have my write on the matter. What, other than naked power, gave Manning the authority to denigrate people like Peter Vine, John Spence and Julian Kenny? These are three recognised scientists, albeit in different fields, who are questioning the need for smelters in tiny T&T. They are not politically motivated or driven by ignorance in what they say or write about the negative aspects of smelters.

The Prime Minister knows this. He knows, too, that many of his political opponents or detractors jump on the anti-smelter bandwagon spouting tonnes of hogwash. I don't know that Ramesh Maharaj has a clue about the adverse effects of a smelter plant, or most of the other heavy industries that now dot our western landscape. Before he was made Attorney General, he marched with the people who live close to the Point Lisas Estate, vowing to take action against harmful pollution from industries there.

When he got to power, his silence on industrial emissions was deafening. So one does not treat with Maharaj the way one does with Kenny, Spence and Vine. In addition to the many facts that are circulated about the ill-effects of aluminium smelters, there are even more misconceptions. I confess that I, too, held some views that were not in synch with reality.

To begin in the reverse, industrialisation, more so in downstream energy industries, has long become the lifeblood of the country's economic growth. Oil and gas prices can go as high as they may, but without harnessing their value-added components we would have remained stuck in the 19th century mode of underdevelopment. While many of the methanol and urea and ammonia plants have their negative sides, the country as a whole also benefits from the revenues they bring to us, the jobs they offer, the opportunities they create for spin-off economic activities.

On the smelter issue, let me state that without doubt aluminium is a metal in high demand. It is used in products as varied as household articles (pots and cups, foil and furniture, door frames and roofing) to the aerospace industry. It has replaced steel in many applications, and if we are really seriously opposed to aluminium per se, we should consider not using any aluminium products, which will mean not flying anywhere! No one may be able to survive by not using aluminium products.

What is argued is that while we use its by-products, we do not want to have smelters on our soil. It's a typical case of "not in my backyard". If we block Alcoa here, the company will simply set up shop elsewhere and make aluminium that we may utilise. Let others bear the burden of pollution while we enjoy the benefits. That cannot be right. If we oppose smelters, we oppose them, wherever they may be established. But that will never happen since none of us, advocates or opponents, can live comfortably without using the metal.

The strongest argument against smelters is that we are much too small a country to accommodate the size plant that Alcoa proposes to build. Further, if the plant will sit on an aquifer that produces potentially potable water (Manning said it will not), then that adds to reasons why it should not be built. I add another, a point I have made with respect to certain other Government-driven industrial activities. Aren't we, as a country, earning more than adequate revenues from the established and soon-to-be-established industries other than the smelters?

Aren't we being too greedy, just seeking to monetise our gas and oil to an almost obscene level? What shall we do with all this additional revenue? Will the smelters guarantee us the disappearance of squalour, the eradication of poverty? I think not. The major beneficiary of the proposed Cap-de-Ville smelter will be Alcoa, not T&T. Let us get that clear in our minds.

Alutrint is a different case, in my view. Besides being majority owned by this country, it's a much smaller plant that will provide feedstock for several downstream industries. In other words, we shall not be selling aluminium. We shall be manufacturing vehicle rims and a range of other aluminium products that will bring us much more revenue from a smaller, manageable investment.

Additionally, the people of La Brea, and, I think, many of those who oppose Alcoa's plant, have few if any objections to Alutrint being established. Since Union Estate, like Point Lisas, is already a reality, then I say proceed with Alutrint and let us debate, in a rational way, whether or not we need Alcoa's plant. This cannot happen when one side-the Government-shows extreme arrogance, and many of the other side sheer ignorance.

Part II | Part III