Aluminium smelter in the Eastern Cape January 16, 2007Posted by Andreas in "The Economy", Coega, Environment, South Africa.
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.