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Aluminium smelter in the Eastern Cape January 16, 2007

Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Coega, Environment, South Africa.
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At the end of last year, the Canadian-based multinational aluminium company Alcan announced that it would start construction of a R19.5 billion aluminium smelter at the Coega International Development Zone (IDZ) outside Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape in 2008.

The factory, the fourth aluminium smelter in the region (after Bayside and Hillside, both in Richardsbay, and Mozal in Mozambique), will occupy a total of 120 hectares of land, produce 720 000 tonnes of aluminium per year and create some 1000 direct jobs and 200-300 subcontractors’ jobs once operational.

Reactions in the corporate press and from business were predictably favourable, lauding the “unprecedented” economic growth that the smelter will trigger in the impoverished Eastern Cape.

This is all good news, right!? Well, on coming across the initial reports I was sceptical and decided to look at the issues a little more closely…

For starters, Coega is an Industrial Development Zone (IDZ). In essence what that means is that it is a newly created industrial and commercial area which the South African government established to attract foreign investors by bending over backwards in all sorts of ways.

According to the official website, the benefits of investing at Coega include:

  • competitive skilled labour costs,
  • over 90 [government] grants and incentives,
  • purpose-built, world-class infrastructure,
  • integration with South Africa’s newest deep-water port [called Ngqura] ,
  • future plans for an international airport, and
  • among world’s cheapest electric power.

It turns out that converting bauxite (aluminium ore) into aluminium metal is the most energy-intensive industrial process in the world, that aluminium producers use more electricity than any other industry and are significant contributors to global warming and environmental pollution and degradation. (I plagiarised most of the information on this topic from an excellent booklet called Foiling the Aluminium Industry, produced by the International Rivers Network).

Aluminium metal is produced in three stages, all of which have serious negative environmental and social impacts. First bauxite ore is mined, which is then refined into aluminium oxide or alumina, which is itself smelted to produce ingots of aluminium metal.

Three giant companies (Alcoa, Alcan and Rusal) produce more than one-third of the world’s aluminium. There has been a trend in recent years for aluminium processing plants and particularly smelters to move from the traditional industrial centres of the US, Europe and Japan to countries in the developing world where electricity prices are cheap and workers are paid low salaries. The establishment of the smelter at Coega certainly has to be seen within this broader context.

Since the plant at Coega will be a smelter, I will focus on the potential impact of that part of the three-stage process and ignore bauxite mining and refining here. The main concerns about aluminium smelters are as follows:

  • Enormous energy consumption. Nearly all of the electricity consumed in the aluminium production chain is in the smelting process (estimated global average: 15.2-15.7 MWh per ton). In Mozambique, less than 10% of the population has access to electricity while the Mozal smelter devours four times the amount of electricity consumed by all other uses in the country. Escom recently signed an agreement with Alcan to supply the Coega smelter with electricity for 25 years.
  • Pollution and environmental destruction. Aluminium smelting results in polluting gaseous emissions (including hydrogen fluoride, alumina, carbon monoxide, volatile organics and sulfur dioxide) and solid wastes (particulate fluorides and particularly significant volumes of toxic spent smelting pot linings contaminated with fluorides and cyanide). In Canada, toxic run-off from aluminium smelters has been blamed for exceedingly high rates of cancer among beluga whales in the St. Lawrence River. Aluminium smelting emits significant amounts of green-house gases, including CO2 (principally from burning of fossil fuels during electricity generation), methane and perfluorocarbons (very long-lived atmospheric pollutants that are several thousand times more potent greenhouse gases than CO2).
  • Health risks. Workers at aluminium smelters are subject to the effects of fluoride poisoning with symptoms including osteosclerosis, sinus trouble, perforation of the nasal septum, chest pains, thyroid disorders, anemia, dizziness, weakness, respiratory disorders, nausea and increased susceptibility to various cancers.

Looking at all of these potential impacts, the prospect of an aluminium smelter in Coega is certainly much less attractive than the powers that be would have us believe.

Personally, I think it’s a downright disaster on a number of levels, but unless there is massive popular dissent, the promise of multi-million rand profits will no doubt outweigh the health of workers and the environment in the cost-benefit-analysis of those in power.

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Comments»

1. chris stott - February 15, 2007

Incredible that people are unaware or naive or stupid that they cannot see this is big business raping our country and poisoning our lives.
I commend you for your effort, foresight and attempt to enlighten.

2. Andreas - February 15, 2007

Thanks Chris. I’m glad somebody is reading this…

3. Tanja Price - February 16, 2007

Hi there,

I wrote a letter about all this and stating all the facts you give to The Herald Newspaper – it was published on Monday, 12.02.2007 – in it I gave my e-mail address so that people can contact me – however, the amount of responses (all positive though) I can count on my fingers! People seem to be very complacent here. Maybe this is because it’s too late and everything has been signed? However, I strongly feel that something can still be done – my reason being, while we all sort of somehow were aware of Global Warming and that it might maybe somehow effect our children’s grandchildren one day, we only now within the last few weeks heard that we ourselves and definitely our children will for certain reap the results of Global Warming. As all the latest data on this only became available recently after the signing of the contracts and no construction has begun yet, I do feel that maybe something could still be done, however, only if the people stand together. Plus, noone has made the people of P.E. aware of the negative impact of the smelter and therefore one could argue that they were purposefully mislead by all the hoopla created about job creation and what not. However, the odd 10 or 20 people will most certainly achieve nothing at all.
Do you know whether there is any environmental organisation on this case? I most certainly would be more than prepared to get actively involved.

4. Andreas - February 16, 2007

Good to hear from you Tanja. I think people are complacent about the Coega situation in particular because the whole project is consistently being presented to them as a great development that will bring jobs and investment to a poor region and also because it is presented as a done deal (as you mention).

I think the corporate media have been really poor in investigating some of the really worrying aspects of the whole project. There are huge amounts of money and very firm government support for Coega and all alternative points of view – like yours and mine – just get swamped.

I know it’s frustrating when you seem to be the only person who cares, but I think you need to stick with it, talk to as many people about this as you can and do whatever you can to help turn the tide.

I don’t know of any environmental organisation that has taken on this particular issue, but why don’t you try to contact Earthlife Africa

http://www.earthlife-ct.org.za
coordinator@earthlife-ct.org.za

and groundwork

http://www.groundwork.org.za
team@groundwork.org.za

I’m sure they would be able to point you in the right direction!

5. HS - February 26, 2007

Hi
I live in PE and think that it is terrible that the government is putting the concerns of the multinational corporations above those of the people and the environment (all in the name of ‘economic development), alowing these companies to pollute and destroy our beuatiful environment.

I agree that the people of PE are ill-informed regarding the enormous negative effects of this smelter. This is due to, not only the government’s obvious self-interest in witholding this information, but also due to the fact that the major newspapers (the EP Herald in particular) refuse to exhibit responsible journalism. They only seem to publish articles lauding the project as a major boost for PE. In regards to this they are exhibiting their lack of independance, rather opting to mouth government propaganda concerning this issue. The only reporter that seems to have the will to question this is Guy Rogers, who has written some very important observations about this issue.

Apart from the very important issues that you have mentioned in this article, there are even more considerations to be made. The health risks you mentioned extend beyond the workers at the smelter to include the community at large. The fall-out from the pollution of this smelter (especially the hydrogen flouride) will affect the whole community in PE, especially the poorest of areas, which are situiated closer to Coega. A lot of people in these communities suffer from malnutrition and there is a high AIDS rate, increasing their susceptability to the huge plethora of ailments associated with this pollution. Flouride poisening has furthermore been shown to cause birth defects, and brain deficiencies in children. The impact on the environment itself will also undoubtably be close to catastrophic, especially when one considers the millions of tonnes of co2 that will be released into the atmosphere every year due to operation and energy consumption. One also needs to consider the wide diversity of marine life present in algoa bay, especially the mammels that breed in the bay and will now be at risk of cancer.

It is unfortnate that the majority of people in the city do not fully realise the dangers associated with this smelter, otherwise some sort of mass action could be possible. Only through the voice of the people can government realise that we do not want Alcan to bring their smelter here to destroy our lives and environment.

6. Andreas - February 26, 2007

Hi HS

Do you know if there are any organisations (environmental or otherwise) in PE that have taken up the issue of the smelter and the other developments at Coega and in fact the whole of Coega in a critical way? Your comments are extremely valuable, but also very worrying!

Andreas.

7. Tanja Price - March 18, 2007

Hi guys,

As you might have seen Mr. Themba Koza, the executive manager: safety, health, environment and quality, Coega Development Corporation has taken the time to write a lengthy (admittedly well-written), however, flawed response to my letter. His letter was published in the Herald of Wednesday, March 14 and his main point seems to be that this smelter that they are planning in Coega uses AP35 technology, which is apparently “environmentally friendly” (first time I have heard this term in connection with an aluminium smelter) and he refutes all my facts (admittedly I am not an expert and the facts given by me were taken of various internet sites, as I had stated quite clearly in my letter) and he furthermore states that ” greenhouse gases from the smelter are relatively small and would contribute 0,5 per cent to South Africa’s emissions” (that’s great – he just conveniently omitts the fact that an entire separate coal burning plant will be constructed in order to supply the necessary electrical power to Coega and the emissions that will be caused by this plant) ; he claims that ” despite assuming an extreme worst-case exposure scenario, the cancer risks for benzo(a) pyrene was found to be well below acceptable risk levels” (clearly surely this means that there is indeed still a risk – what is an acceptable level?), that “the WHO has concluded in an assessment of potential links between aluminium and human health that no information is available associating aluminium exposures with adverse reproductive effects”; “fluoride from the smelter can be managed to be of low significance” (due to the implementation of the proposed mitigation measures) etc.etc.

Of course he can not refrain from using the age-old tried and tested method of trying to discredit any information given by me, by using terms, such as ignorant, ill-informed, too abstract etc.

I am happy to stand corrected on any of the facts I have learnt from the internet sites I have visited. However, Mr. Koza’s claims seem to lack foundation – 1. because the AP35 technology is so new (only a few years old) that it seems almost impossible to gain information on its environmental impact, 2. any improvements in its technology, as for example its decreased usage of electrical power (300.000 amperes as opposed to the originally proposed AP50 technology with 500.000 amperes) are surely off-set by the fact that they are now planning to build 2 pot lines instead of the originally proposed 1? And 2 pot lines surely also create more waste, more water usage etc.? The original EIA was for only 1 potline and Alcan did not have to submit another new EIA – they only had to submit an amendment as far as the technology used is concerned.

I quote from a letter from the Department of Economic Affairs, Environment & Tourism to Alcan “Although the change in technology will result in higher impacta on the environment, such impacts are proportional to the increase in production envisaged for the AP35 smelter. In this regard the information at hand is deemed to be sufficient and adequate to make an informed decision. It is the opinion of DEAE&T that the increased negative environmental impacts associated with the project can be kept within acceptable limits if the conditions contained in the Record of Decision as amended are implemented and adhered to (especially when seen in the context of the smelter being located in an area allocated for extensive industrial development)” PLEASE READ THIS AGAIN! I do not think that this statement needs any further comment from myself – ………

Now, I am busy trying to write a response to Mr. Koza’s letter, and am doing some research for this purpose – if any of you have any advise you would like to give, or any input – or even better if you could write your own letter to the Herald asap – that would be fantastic! It is rare that a discussion dealing with environmental issues is published or even started in the local newspaper and I do not think we should stop here or let Mr. Koza have the last word.

For any help or response, please e-mail me directly. my e-mail address is tprice@xsinet.co.za

Thanks. Hope to hear from you or see your letters in the Herald!

Tanja

8. Andreas - March 19, 2007

Fantastic work, Tanja. I’m sure you know how absolutely rare it is to get any official answers to any questions on sensitive matters these days. So, well done, just on that count. They’ll try everything to discredit you, what you say and your sources and sometimes it feels really lonely doing this kind of thing. Just remember that you are doing very important work and that there are other people out there who support you and care.

Getting this discussion out into the public sphere is very important. Keep it up. If I find any info that I think may be of use to you, I’ll pass it on and please do keep us informed about how things are going. Those of us not living in the Eastern Cape don’t generally have access to The Herald and would love to hear how this develops.

Good luck and may the force be with you,
Andreas.

9. Benjamin - March 20, 2007

They are building lots of those in Iceland. People seem to like it. Weird, eh?

10. Helter skelter Coega ferro-manganese smelter « The Antidote - March 22, 2007

[…] this year I bemoaned the impact that the recently announced Alcan aluminium smelter at Coega will have. Now it’s a ferro-manganese smelter. Sorry, let me rephrase that, […]

11. Tanja Price - May 5, 2007

Hi, just wanted to let you know, that Earthlife Africa is organising a nationwide day of action against Alcan – in Port Elizabeth this will be coordinated and organised by an organisation calles Nimble. The day of action is Wednesday, the 9th May – just for 1 hour. Meet at 10h00 at the Humewood Carpark behind the Paxton Hotel, alongside the Fire station, infront of the CDC offices. Please be there. This is our chance! Tanja

12. Andreas - May 7, 2007

Thanks Tanja. I’ll put out the message!

13. Kate Du Toit - July 31, 2007

Hi Everyone,

There are definitely lots of us trying to do something but we need to consolidate all these efforts.

We have also been involved with Nimble (www.nimblesa.org) and Greg particularly and my husband and I arranged a meeting with all the contacts we have to decide on an action plan and we plan on having another one soon.A local environmentalist is also looking at taking this to the constitutional court.

So, PLEASE all send me your contact details and we will let you know when our next meeting is. It will be sometime in the next two weeks. So far there are about 40 of us and we would love to have as many more as possible.It’s really important that we all do this together as this will make it stronger.

My email is kate@rooftop.co.za.

Thanks,

Kate

14. Des - September 21, 2007

Good day,
I have been working at an Aluminium Smelter in Richards Bay for 15 years, my family and I have been enjoying excellent health. Great care is taken to ensure Zero Harm at our plant and we have an independent environmental watchdog monitoring the emissions from our plant.

Thanks,
Des

15. Sonia - October 4, 2007

Hi Andreas,

Could you email me a copy of the IRN report? I’m trying to start a campaign against a smelter in Sarawak, Malaysia, and the link no longer works.

Thanks,

Sonia

16. Andreas - October 4, 2007

Hi Sonja

Sorry about that. The url for the report is:

http://www.irn.org/pdf/aluminum/Foiling2005.pdf

Please let me know if there are still problems…

Best,
Andreas

17. Henry - November 23, 2007

This Coega Aluminium Smelter is not a good idea. I am all economic development, but as you mentioned this kind of operation is very energy intensive. Eskom does not even have the capacity to supply the current needs of the economy. We have all experienced the loadshedding that is currently taking place. How are they going to supply that plant with electricity? And then at a cheaper than market related price!

That does not make economic sense. Or am I missing something here?

18. Colin - December 11, 2007

Most of these projects obtain dedicated supply and much of their power is recycled from their operation too. Considering the amount of gross income generated from export of aluminium, it’s a complete no-brainer decision to make Aluminium in spite of the electrical consumption.

Also, your information about pollution is horribly inaccurate and I can only assume is based on incredibly old processes that are not used today.

There are some hydrocarbon off-gas from smelting, many of which can and usually are burned to (guess what!) make power. Hydrogen fluoride is part of the process, yes indeed – but it’s a functional part which is not randomly spewed out as a pollutant as you suggest, modern plants pass these gasses back to the process where they are converted back to into fluoride for the cryolite.

And as for CO2, you produce it too – evil you!

19. Cathal Healy-Singh - January 21, 2008

Please chack out Trinidad & Tobago, the fight to stop ALCOA’s smelter. Our government wants three smelters. We have cheap gas, weak environmental legisltation and workers rights. ALCOA was stopped by NGOs but a government smelter was approved (it is being challenged in the courts). Check Rights Action Group, nosmeltertnt websites

20. Andreas - January 21, 2008

Will definitely check it out – thanks Cathal!

21. Jamie - May 28, 2008

Im a high school student doing reasearch on Coega and the recovery of alumium from bauxite; i think the environmental issues are crazy and the electricity usage is out of this world- nearly 4% of South Africa’s electricity…. thanks government, nice work! it just proves that people will take money over the environment ANY DAy. this is disheartening…

22. Jamie - May 28, 2008

another interesting fact is that the production of aluminium MAY lead to Alzheimer’s… but this has not been scientifically proven yet

23. Leea - August 10, 2008

Everyone calm down about this, seriously everyone wants to stop global warming but bickering about this isnt going to make it better. Cheers

24. Georgina-Lucinda - August 10, 2008

We arnt bickering about this Leea, seriously there are people who actually care about the enviroment, these factories are getting out of control, the government is going to have to do something about this. I hope they take thes messages into consideration.

25. kay-miiy - August 10, 2008

people have to stop this

26. akhona tiki - August 25, 2008

hi all. my name is Akhona a student at NMMU. I am currently doing research on the Environmental Issues and I am mainly focusing of the Coega Development. Many of us are blinded by the fact that this development is going to bring jobs to people in the surrounding areas. But when I look at the stats of how many people have tertiary education, it is shocking. Hence, the people of those surrounding areas will only be labores and will be the ones affected mostly.
I think if this information about the enviromental issues of this development was out there before the “deal” was done, more people would be aware and could take action.

Job well done to all those like Tanja, Andreas and others, who spoke out regardless what others think. We as the youth need people like those.

I

27. Maria - August 30, 2008

Hi everybody
I am living in a most beautiful region on the edge of the World Heritage Great Barrier Reefin a town called Bowen,Queensland, Australia. I am the leader of a group which has been formed as a result of the push by our State Government to make Bowen a site for one of the worlds largest aluminium refinery and smelter here on the Whitsunday Islands and it is owned by China (Chalco)
I have been reading your blogs and the situation here is very very similar-we are a small community and the benefits touted by our local Govt and up to all levels of Govt is jobs, jobs ,jobs!!It is madness. We have some local support but we need to get it out into the national and international arena as we are on the banks of one of the 7 wonders of the world-the Great Barrier Reef.
This whole area is to become a huge heavy industry area with a whole array of filthy industry as China and foreign companies take their polluting industries off-shore to Queensland,Australia.
Our Govt cannot get our coal out quick enough to China and our country is being dug up and destroyed.
The Whitsundays and Bowen are pristine and our present industries are agricultural(the largest vegetable growing region of Australia), fishing, tourism, cattle grazing and coal.
Please contact me as I would love to know that you have received this message as it is your Great Barrier Reef as well.

28. talar - February 8, 2009

i would like to know how much % of south africas electricity is going to the production of aluminium….

29. James - April 3, 2009

Although the very heavy electricity consumption for the production of primary aluminium seems massive, you need to look at the big picture. Aluminium is one of, if not the most recycled material on earth. The recycling of aluminium uses only 5% of the energy that the production of primary aluminium uses. Aluminium can also be recycled indefinably without loosing its properties (strength etc). In contrast to this, the recycling of steel is much more energy intensive, and thus, in the complete life cycle of the metals, aluminium ends up being much closer to other metals in the creation of green house gas emissions that it seems at first glance. To add to this, the use of aluminium in cars, planes, trains etc also drastically reduces the weights of these vehicles which in turn reduce the amount of fuel and thus green house gasses produced by these vehicles. Also the recyclability of the material means that less rubbish (plastic etc) will end up in land fills if these products are made from aluminium and recycling is managed correctly.

Regarding the fluoride emissions, most of the fluoride is trapped in a dry scrubber and fed back into the system to be reused. Modern smelters loose about 0.01% of their fluoride, which is not much at all, and is well within the legal limits.

Cyanide and fluoride containing spent pot linings are usually sold to cement factories which blend the product into the cement. By doing this, the levels of toxins are diluted to track amount which are below toxic levels. By doing this the pot linings don’t end up in a big toxic landfill.

The CO2 emissions are defiantly a problem in South Africa due to the fact that Eskom uses coal for its power plants. In this regard, it is better to build smelters in areas where hydro power is available. Unfortunately this is obviously no always possible.

Just remember that before you condemn the smelters, you should see how it will positively affect the economy of the area and the lives of people less fortunate than you.

Make sure you have the latest information from the newest smelters before you harp on about the pollution levels. Using data from 30 year old smelters will mislead you.

Lastly, take a look at how much aluminium YOU use daily, in your car, in your kitchen, packaging etc etc etc. This has to be made somewhere, so why not there? For you to expect it to be made somewhere else, and do all the bad things you think it does to other people in their back yard, and then still use the products is disgusting.

30. Linus - June 15, 2009

The world is moving away from aluminium and going towards greater use of carbon composite materials in manufacturing.

Unfortunately, in Trinidad & Tobago (1.3 million people on 1,864 sq. miles), our dotish government insists that a joint venture Alutrint smelting plant must be built.

Over 4,000 residents will hve to be tested every 2 years for cancer.

Wehre are we going?

Linus

31. Candice Pelser - December 2, 2010

Wonderful article Andreas, and great discussion everyone.

I’d like to explore the question of JOBS further.
Anyone know how many tons are produced on average each year?

Since we have the electricity consumption figures at 15.2-15.7 MWh per ton, we can get to a cost per ton & per year. And if we find out what the electricity tariff is that Eskom have offered the smelter, compared to a normal commercial or domestic tariff for example (in other words, the subsidised difference). Given that the SA taxpayer is putting up much of the funding for the power stations to be built (etc, etc…).

I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we discover that:
We could probably SAVE South Africa money, by not building the smelter, putting in the infrastructure, the power stations to fuel it etc, and instead, simply paying those potential employees to stay at home and do nothing for 25 years! (esp if we take costs to health and environment into account…etc)

And doing ‘nothing’, is very good for the environment.

Anyone like to help me work the maths on this one?


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