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Raffique Shah


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Death and development

November 19, 2006
By Raffique Shah

Besides Alcoa not even referring to its highly-touted new technologies for "safely" disposing spent pot lining (SPL), both the company and the Government have made no reference to the proposed plant being used for recycling aluminium cans and other waste. If Alcoa were to promise to absorb, say, 75 per cent of the beverage cans that prove to be as dangerous to our environment as smelters, I'll probably back its construction. In the UK, where an estimated five billion cans are used every year, Alcan has established the only dedicated recycling plant for beverage cans.

Of course neither the authorities nor the company ever captures more than 50 per cent of this waste. But, to be fair to them, they are campaigning using easily accessible bins, offering cash, and mounting public campaigns to create environmental awareness.

Aluminium is the most recyclable of metals. It can be recycled repeatedly with no loss of quality. Even better, the recycling process uses substantially less energy than the smelting of raw alumina. In fact, it is estimated that while it takes 13 kWh of electricity to produce one kilogramme of the metal, that usage is cut by almost 10kWh in the recycling process. If Alcoa's proposed 314,000 tonnes a year plant will absorb most of our used beverage cans, I think many people may think twice about opposing its construction.

But the arguments against Alcoa setting up shop here have gone past recycling. Prime Minister Patrick Manning, who claims to be leading us into "Vision 2020", must ask himself why no new aluminium smelters are being constructed in the developed North, so-called developed countries that he's hoping to emulate.

In all of the UK there are a mere three smelters with a total capacity of 355,000 tonnes per year. There is no further expansion or establishment of smelters in North America or Europe. In fact, the list of countries that have embraced smelters reads like a Third World Who's Who.

Let me spell them out for Mr Manning and those who seem to think Alcoa is the best thing since Randy Rust struck oil in Aripero. The World Bank is backing smelters in: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Brazil, Cameroon, China, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Guyana, Indonesia, India, Kazakhstan, Malawi, Mozambique, Oman, Russia, Tajikstan, and Turkmenistan. Plants are also slated to be built in Suriname, Malaysia, Abu Dhabi and Qatar. Indeed, the latter is of special interest to us. When then Prime Minister Basdeo Panday turned the sod to signal a Norsk-Hydro (NH) smelter in Savonetta, he was blissfully unaware he was being used as a "patsy". NH, one of the big players in aluminium, was actually seeking leverage in Qatar, and TT was being used for that purpose.

NH went on to sign a multi-billion deal with Qatar to construct a 585,000 tonnes per year plant, 51 per cent owned by the Qatar government. In Abu Dhabi, the largest single-site smelter in the world is due to start construction soon.

It's a 1.2 million tonnes plant. NH, Alcan and Vedanta Resources are ploughing into Orissa state in India, given free rein by India's government to "smelt" the bauxite-rich state. Hundreds of thousands of poor people there are displaced as dams are constructed to provide hydroelectric power for these plants. Interestingly, Vedanta is owned by Anil Agarwal, a former scrap-metal dealer who is now one of India's richest-and most ruthless-entrepreneurs.

Why are these Third World (and yes, even those in the former Soviet Union can be deemed as such) countries being targeted for smelters? Because they have an abundance of energy and cheap labour. Forty-five per cent of the cost of producing aluminium is electricity.

Bauxite is a relatively cheap raw material available widely across the world. Converting it into alumina is as cheap, given the labour costs in bauxite-rich countries. Of course, one does not factor in the cost in health woes or deaths of those who work the mines. But when it comes to smelting, electricity, whether it comes from dams or rivers or gas and oil, is what counts.

Is this Mr Manning's "Vision 2020"? To put us in the same league as Armenia, Guinea, Malawi or Orissa in India? He may cite Malaysia or China or even India as beacons of 21st century development. But these countries have immense land masses, and they can site these deadly plants where they will kill only the "disposables" in their societies. It's their culture. Death and development go hand in hand for them. Is that what we want? And I ask again, what real benefits will three smelters bring to T&T? Let us go with Alutrint, ensure it has a recycling commitment, and move on towards being both a developed country and a civilised society. Anything less will expose us as being rich in resources but deficient both in vision and in compassion for our own citizens.

In other words, we revert to being uncivilised for a few dollars more.

Part I | Part II