JAMAICA: Dust, stench and claim of impotence: Pollution killing us, say communities near bauxite plants - Firms insist waste not toxic

The approximately US$400 million earned by the bauxite sector last year means nothing to Sandra McLean and other residents of districts surrounding the Alumina Partners of Jamaica (Alpart) refinery in Nain, St Elizabeth.

McLean and her neighbours say they have to contend with wheezing children, contaminated water, dead crops and damaged garments, which they blame on pollution from the plant.

"You know how long mi have flu and it can't better? McLean asked. "The white acid from the plant a kill we slowly. Mi niece dem suffering from asthma, all four to five time a year them go a hospital."

McLean's cry was echoed by persons living in New Building, Myersville, Stephens Run, Punch Bowl and other districts close to the refinery.

"The pollution a kill we. The dust is a real problem for us who live near to the plant," said Lenford Bailey, a New Building farmer. "When you get up in the morning and see the white stuff pan you step, you wouldn't believe. The acid carry a stinking stench."

In all four districts, the residents seem more than willing to tell tales of their woes.

Some of the men said they believe the bauxite dust is rendering them impotent.
"Mi no have no use fi mi woman again and mi a hear say a no me one tan so," one man, who declined to give his name, said to snickers from his neighbours.

Apart from the Nain plant, three more bauxite refineries - the Jamalco-owned plant at Halse Hall in Clarendon and the Windalco-run refineries at Ewarton, St Catherine and Kirkvine in Manchester - process bauxite ore in Jamaica.
Bauxite mining companies make their money from prospecting, mining, refining the precious red ore and exporting it for big bucks.

The firms say they observe environmentally friendly rules, but in the bauxite-rich parishes of Manchester and St Elizabeth residents have numerous complaints.

In Essex Valley, land nestled between the Santa Cruz Mountains and the Spur Tree Hills, the residents blame emissions from the nearby Alpart plant for the damage done to their crops and the contamination of their tank water.

To prove their point, the residents showed the Sunday Observer withered pumpkins, sweet peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers.

On both sides of the Stephen's Run main road, which is intersected by the Alpart-owned railway, a copper-coloured pall covers the vegetation. The leaves of mango, ackee and other trees are drooped and seem to be struggling for survival. One has to look carefully to see the green leaves.

Carlton McLean, a small farmer from New Building, said he was hard hit after losing most of some two acres of pumpkins, sweet peppers and carrots which wilted away. McLean claims to have lost thousands of dollars in earnings. He claims to reap 10,000 pounds of pumpkins per acre normally.

"Me can get $20 a pound and me lose whole heap a pumpkin. The acid come with the dew in the morning and it woulda bun up everyting," McLean said while pointing to hundreds of wilted pumpkins.

The residents also showed the Sunday Observer discoloured water in their tanks.

"We can't drink that, it toxic, man," one resident said, staring down at the dirty water in a tank in his yard.

Another complaint is damaged clothes and an alleged lack of compensation.
"We clothes get damage all the time and when you file losses, you get $1,200 per line of clothes. Dat can't even buy a good jeans pants," one woman said.

However, Lance Neita, public relations manager at Alpart, denied the woman's claim of a $1,200 compensation package.

"We do not pay $1,200 per line of clothes," he told the Sunday Observer. "There is no truth to it. The company pays out huge sums in compensation each year. We have to ensure that the claims are legitimate and once that is realised, then we will compensate."

The checks are made, Neita explained, because some persons were known to exploit the system and make unreasonable claims for expensive items of clothing, including wedding dresses and tuxedos, as well as items such as table cloths and curtains.

A Sunday Observer investigation revealed that Alpart compensates complainants for each item of damaged clothing.

The Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), the state body entrusted with keeping bauxite companies in line with pollution control and other environmental regulations, said while the miners have tried to protect the environment, more ground needs to be covered. In a release issued by the JBI's Hillary Coulton, the institute said it was moving to enforce stricter regulations on the industry soon.

The new rules include standards to minimise caustic emissions and for companies to conform to criteria set by the International Standards Organisation.

"We need to have a reduction in the frequency of episodic waste release in the communities" the release said. "We now require action plans from the companies to prevent failures that cause such releases."

The JBI also said it conducts studies to detect seepage of sodium into the aquifers every five to 10 years.

While admitting that acidic fumes periodically escape from the plant, officials at Alpart said the waste emitted from the refinery at Nain is not harmful to the environment. The company also insisted that it operates within the environmental boundaries set by the JBI.

"The company has constantly upgraded technology, and has improved mud-containment and emission control processes," Neita told the Sunday Observer.

"There is occasional caustic escape which goes out into the community, but when that happens we have a policy to immediately respond to the complaints."

Myersville, New Building and other districts have been mined-out and the present population was moved from other areas rich with the precious ore and resettled.

Before mined-out land can be resettled, bauxite companies must adhere to land reclamation regulations set out by the JBI. Deep craters which are left after mining is completed must be refilled. Bauxite companies are also required to restore the land and replace at least six inches of top soil in mined-out areas.

According to Bailey, the New Building farmer, the land in his district is barren, resulting in lower yields and withered crops.

"The six inches of top soil nah yield nothing, the soil no have enough nitrates and substance fi bring the crop dem right. We under siege yah sah," Bailey fumed.

But Neita said the land at Myersville was reclaimed over 40 years ago and the company responsible for mining the area at the time, Kaiser, had adhered to the rules. He, however, points to modern reclamation processes which have been implemented by Alpart.

In the neighbouring parish, Manchester, where another bauxite mining company, Windalco, has a mud lake at Battersea, the complaints focus on the odour from the lake.

"The scent that come from the lake a kill we. We can't live so close to the caustic soda," argued one resident while pointing to the mass of red mud at the Battersea lake. "It gets bigger and bigger as time goes by."

But Windalco is claiming that no virulent waste is emitted from the red mud lake at Battersea.

In a response to queries from the Sunday Observer, Windalco communications officer Kayon Wallace said that Windalco operated within legal environmental boundaries.

"There is no toxic waste in our mud disposal facility. The waste sent to the Battersea site is within the legal stipulations set by the Government, through the National Environment and Planning Agency," Wallace said in a written response.

But Wallace's statement means little to a male resident of Kendal who cursed the day a mud lake was created in his community.

"People a live inna torture," he said. "If you ever smell it, not even dead animal stink so. Someting must bad fi you health, nuh care wah dem say."

Windalco admitted that repugnant stenches rise from the lake, but said it wished to allay the residents' fear of ill-health.

"We are aware of an odour that occasionally emanates from our mud disposal facility at Battersea," the company said. "This is associated with the organics in the caustic soda which is one of the key ingredients in our process. While we acknowledge that the odour is a nuisance, we would also like it to be noted, this is not hazardous to one's health."

Meanwhile, residents in Blue Mountain in Manchester say their woes are just beginning. Late last year, Windalco rolled heavy machinery into the mountainous terrain to carve roads through the forest. The work, though, creates a lot of dust.

At the same time that a resident was criticising the firm's land acquisition process, a back hoe was loading buckets of red earth into a truck across the road, sending a huge puff of red in the direction of a crowd gathered at the town square.
The residents were so incensed that they staged a demonstration to protest against the activities of the bauxite miners in their community.

Since then, Windalco has met with the concerned citizens to allay their fears.
"At this time we are currently constructing the access road, which has little impact where dusting is concerned," the Windalco release said. "However, we have a system in place which involves the frequent wetting of the road and there are also plans to put vegetation in place."

According to statistics released in the United States Geological Survey, Mineral Commodities Study, which was commissioned in 2006, Jamaica produced the biggest portion - 26 per cent of the bauxite and 10 per cent - of the alumina imported into the United States between 2001 and 2004. Over the same period, the country exported 63,357,000 metric tons of dry bauxite, valued at US$27.8 billion.

Jamaica has produced more than 120 million tonnes of crude bauxite since 1974.

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