Encouraged by efforts from the West Indies Alumina Company (Windalco) to eliminate a dust nuisance from its red mud (waste disposal) lake at Battersea in Central Manchester, residents have reportedly suspended plans to sue.
“The objective was never about money, the aim always was to get the company to do the right things,” Battersea resident Mark Cameron told the Sunday Observer last week.
Cameron was one of the leading voices protesting the dust nuisance,
“The feeling now is that they (Windalco) are now on the right track though there is a lot more that needs to be done,” he added.
Cameron had said late last month that a member of his community was preparing to file a “class action” law suit against the bauxite/alumina company as a consequence of “the clouds of toxic dust” from the dry lake invading their homes and endangering health.
But over the last two weeks the waste disposal site — which over a period of months had become a dust bowl — has been flooded with water.
Last week most areas of the lake that were visible from the Winston Jones Highway and the Kendal main road were obviously water soaked. A large pool of water was visible in one area, sprinklers were running and there was evidence of cut grass being dumped on the surface.
Cameron told the Sunday Observer yesterday that dust monitors had been installed at some homes.
While declining to go into details, Windalco’s senior communications officer, Kayonn Wallace, confirmed last week that her company was “meeting the requirements from NEPA (National Environmental Protection Agency) to keep the site wet”.
“We do have a plan … a strategy (in collaboration) with regulatory agencies,” she explained further.
In a recent media release NEPA reported that during a meeting with officials of Windalco and the State’s bauxite/alumina oversight agency, the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI) a number of measures had been reached to deal with the dust nuisance.
They include “engaging overseas technical support to assist with managing the problem, installing a third tower (sprinkler) and completing the installation of piping to wet the southern area … ploughing selected surfaces followed by berming, covering of surfaces with grass and using .. fire trucks … to apply water to surfaces.
“In addition, Windalco was instructed to install additional particulate monitoring stations at the southern and western boundaries to measure the dust levels impacting the surrounding communities ….”
The release said the measures were expected to result in a “marked reduction in the dust nuisance … thereby alleviating the residents’ discomfort” and “full compliance should be achieved within a month”.
While expressing satisfaction with the proposed actions, NEPA said it had “made it clear to Windalco that the immediate and long-term measures must be sustainable. If Windalco reneges on its commitment the company will face additional enforcement actions.
“Windalco will provide daily reports to NEPA and the JBI and the agency will continue to monitor the disposal site to ensure that the measures outlined by Windalco are implemented”.
For decades the red mud lake at Battersea was the dumping area for bauxite/alumina waste from Windalco’s Kirkvine alumina plant in neighbouring Kendal. Windalco shut down operations early last year following the collapse of metal prices as a result of the global economic recession — twinned to chronic inefficiencies in energy usage at its plants. All 762 Windalco employees located at plants and installations at Kirkvine as well as at Ewarton and Port Esquivel in St Catherine are to be made redundant by March 31, as the company enters a moth balled phase.
Windalco said recently that the dust nuisance came about largely because the alumina plant has gone idle coupled with the current intense drought.
In a release late last month, Windalco said it had “various dust control mechanisms in place, including a sprinkler system, which works with the mud slurry to keep the site wet. Since suspending production, however, no mud slurry has been pumped to the site and although the capacity and reach of the sprinkler system has been increased, the dry and windy conditions, coupled with the loss of additional moisture, have resulted in abnormal levels of dusting”.
But residents claim negligence was the real cause. Yesterday, Cameron expressed concern that there needed to be a “long-term plan” to deal with the more unfortunate legacies of bauxite/alumina processing such as red mud lakes and mined-out lands.
“I would love to see efforts to put down a fund to deal with it (environmental issues)”, said Cameron. “The entire bauxite (industry will soon be gone… what then?” he said.
Environmental concerns have always been high on the agenda in relation to Jamaica’s bauxite/alumina industry despite its long-standing status as a mainstay of the Jamaican economy.
Net earnings from bauxite/alumina were slashed by more than half from an estimated just over US$500 million annually last year following the cessation of production at the Windalco plants, Kirkvine in Manchester and Ewarton in St Catherine, as well as the closure of the largest producer, Alpart, at Nain in St Elizabeth. More than 2,000 workers were said to have lost jobs.
All three plants are majority-owned by the debt-burdened, Russia-based UC Rusal — the world’s largest aluminium producer.
Word broke recently that Rusal is contemplating a reopening of the Ewarton plant before year-end. But prospects for the near-term reopening of Kirkvine and Alpart are said to be dim.