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Friday, June 15, 2007

Local Opposition to Alcan Smelter Grows

Development under toxic cloud
15th of June 2007
The Herald Online

WHILE the rest of the world, including thousands of the world's leading scientists, politicians and economists, are scrambling to come up with solutions to what is potentially the biggest crisis we have ever faced in global warming, the Coega Development Corporation seems to know better than everyone else.

Faced with increasing public concern and protest, the CDC has gone to great lengths in recent adverts in the local media to try to discredit the opponents of the Coega smelters, and some of the other highly polluting and toxic industries the CDC is trying to attract, such as the ferro-manganese smelter, the oil refinery and the chlorine plant.

The people of Port Elizabeth need to ask themselves whether, in light of global warming, the pollution of our air and water, and its effects on people's health and in consideration of the billions of rand needed for the construction of new power plants, the provision of subsidies for the smelter, the job losses in other industries that can either not expand or exist due to the smelter's proximity, are worth the 1 000 jobs created by Alcan. Of these at least 300 will only be available to highly skilled professionals, probably many from overseas.

In light of the fact that each job created at the smelter is estimated to be costing about R5-million and considering the massive impact the smelters will have on our environment and the air we breathe, the answer to this should be easy.

We reject the condescending manner with which CDC staff, including marketing and communications head Vuyelwa Qinga-Vika, are treating protesters. Those who have voiced their opposition to the smelters have been denounced as egotistical half-wits who are more concerned about clean air than the plight of the poor and fools that cannot distinguish fact from fiction, silly enough to believe the reports by leading scientists and politicians on global warming.

It is the lack of information to the public thus far which has enabled the CDC to execute its environmental impact studies and other required processes without enough public awareness and involvement. It is this very lack of information to and awareness of the public which is so startling and worrying.

The whole sorry saga of the Coega development in an environmentally highly sensitive, unsuitable area began with the controversial weapons deal, which brought us, as an offset deal, the Coega Industrial Development Zone. In their desperate effort to secure the ever-elusive anchor tenant needed to justify the billions of rand spent to date on Coega, the CDC and government have bent over backwards.

They are now giving, in addition to tax incentives, tax holidays and import/export duty exemptions, large subsidies and rock bottom prices for our water and electricity to the world's most polluting and energy intensive industries.

These currently include the Alcan aluminium smelter - a double-sized smelter with an output of 720 000 tons of aluminium per year. This makes it one of the world's biggest aluminium smelters, which will use three times as much electricity as our entire city.

The sheer size of the smelter boggles the mind - the entire area stretches more than 120 hectares, of which 50 hectares will be used for the actual plant.

The capacity of our existing power stations is already strained to breaking- point, so new power stations will have to be built just to supply Alcan with the power it needs. This will entail either the building of yet another coal-powered plant, with massive power grids snaking their way all the way through pristine country, including game farms, or the construction of a nuclear power plant on our doorstep.

This would be at additional cost to our environment and to the taxpayers' pockets. It will not be Alcan who has to pay for the new infrastructure, but the South African taxpayer.

Alcan will receive our electricity for a price far below anything that any of us or other industries are paying. Another question that needs to be answered is: Who, in times of power shortages, will have preference - the smelter or the South African people?

This is only part of the problem. The Coega IDZ is located in an environmentally highly sensitive and unique area.

It has six biomes and is situated right next to the Addo Elephant National Park, close to various game and citrus farms, and the city of Port Elizabeth.

The health implications for all are enormous. Toxic emissions into air and our water include fluoride, sulphur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide, other greenhouse gases and others - all of which have severe impacts, such as respiratory diseases, cancers, Alzheimer's disease, brittle bone diseases, smog and acid rain.

Despite the latest findings by leading scientists that establish a clear link between the exposure to fluoride and lung and bladder cancers in smelter workers, and despite health warnings Alcoa sent out to 3 000 of its workers worldwide, the CDC continues to deny there could be any problems.

Whether or not fluoride or any of the other toxic substances occur naturally in the environment or not is beside the point - exposure to large amounts can and will have disastrous consequences.

As for the claims that "all is well in Richards Bay", various environmental organisations, including the Richards Bay Clean Air Association and Groundwork, most certainly differ. Richards Bay's residents are exposed to smog and pollution daily, with aluminium smelters being the prime suspects.

And let's not forget the issue of global warming - 1,8 tons of carbon dioxide is produced for every ton of aluminium. This figure alone should be enough to warrant a resounding "No" to the whole issue of aluminium smelters.

Another worrying factor, the issue of what will happen to the waste produced by the smelter, has not been clarified.

The spent pot linings, for example, is hazardous waste and needs to be stored in sealed waterproof containers. We would like to know where these will be stored and how it will be guaranteed that there will be no leakages and seeping of toxins into our water?

There are also serious concerns about the dust of the raw material, which will be easily spread by the wind.

Various community activists and environmentalists have presented suggestions and plans for environmentally friendly alternatives for Coega, including a multifaceted approach that combines agriculture, marine-culture, eco- tourism and the massive expansion of infrastructure. However, these seem to have been ignored .

We would like to remind the CDC, the government and the public that our Constitution guarantees that "everyone has the right a) to an environment that is not harmful to their health or well-being; and b) to have the environment protected".

We sincerely hope that the South African government will have a change of heart and reconsider the impact the proposed Coega smelters will have on South Africa's environment and therefore its citizens.

Members of Earthlife Africa, Nimble, The Zwartkops Trust, The Valley Bushveld Affected Parties, citrus farmers and concerned members of the public contributed to this article.

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