Bauxite and the Environment: Much Progress Mined


No one can question the enormously positive impact that the bauxite/alumina industry has had on the Jamaican economy over the last 53 years.
The sector is today the second largest foreign exchange earner, raking in some US$901 million last year (an 18 per cent increase over 2003), and creating significant linkages in the economy as well as providing quality employment.
One area, however, which has traditionally caused some concern, has been the bauxite/alumina industry’s impact on the natural environment and the quality of life of residents in the surrounding communities. Globally, there is a greater emphasis on not just aggregate economic growth but on sustainable development, which involves prudent environmental management and protection. Environmental management utilizes standards and procedures to minimize impact. In this regard, what is the report card on the Jamaica bauxite/alumina industry? How are standards monitored in the bauxite/alumina industry and which are the agencies involved? The Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), a Government agency, is charged with overseeing the development of the industry and as such, standards fall under its purview. In 1990 the JBI established an Environmental Technical Committee comprising members from the bauxite/alumina companies and the government agencies responsible for environmental regulation and management.
The following year the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA) was established with the specific mandate to “take such steps as are necessary for the effective management of the physical environment of Jamaica, so as to ensure the conservation, protection and proper use of its natural resources”.
Through the NRCA Act of 1991, the Authority is the agency with the overriding authority for environmental regulation and in 2001 became part of the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).
In 1994 a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between the NRCA and the JBI delegating responsibility for the environmental management and monitoring of the bauxite/alumina industry to the JBI, because of its particular experience in the industry.
The JBI, in collaboration with relevant Government agencies, particularly the Water Resources Authority (WRA), conducts environmental reviews at each company. Performance data is evaluated and the sites are inspected. The main areas in which the companies are assessed are waste management, water and air quality for which there are environmental monitoring programmes, as well as environmental incidents, such as spills. The reviews also include the companies’ action plans to address areas of concern and plans for the implementation of projects for the further enhancement of environmental management and sustainability.
“There are people who are making negative comments about the bauxite/alumina industry’s impact on the environment. However, there are some positive developments in the industry,” says Worrell Lyew You, Director of Process Monitoring and the Environment at the JBI. He points to a number of important new technologies which have been developed over the last few decades, which have substantially reduced some of the negative environmental impacts of the industry. In several areas, the Jamaican industry performs even above the international standards which have been set, informs Mr. Lyew You, whose job it is to monitor the environmental compliance of the industry, a job he executes with energy and enthusiasm. Since 1985, considerable progress has been made. Prior to 1985 the disposal of red mud was in some cases done in unlined pits, which resulted in sodium contamination of surface and groundwater resources. But due to new technologies, such as dry mud stacking, thick mud stacking and the use of sealed ponds, the potential for sodium contamination of the aquifer has been significantly reduced. The issue of the disposal of hazardous materials has been a vexing one for environmentalists. Formerly, asbestos, a cancer causing material when inhaled, was the insulating material used in the industry. Over time, however, as technology has advanced, other materials became available and have been replacing asbestos.
There are cases in the industry where specifications regarding the disposal of this waste have exceeded the US standards. “In these cases, the procedure is to put the waste in plastic bags and then pack them in steel wall containers or drums after which they are buried up to six feet deep,” Mr. Lyew You points out. A concern for the industry, which members of the public know very little of, is PCBs. PCBs are components of the oil which were previously used in transformers and other electrical equipment. Since 2000, all PCB contaminated material has been removed and shipped to France for incineration. INDUSTRY INITIATIVES
Each company has an Environment Department, which administers its environmental policy as well as oversees the monitoring and management programme. These programmes, designed in close collaboration with the JBI, involve pollution control, public education and monitoring at the mines, processing plants and ports. They also include transportation activities.
Both Windalco and Jamalco have Environmental Management Systems (EMS), which are certified by the International Standards Organization (ISO) — the ISO 14001 standards. Both ALPART and St. Ann Bauxite are developing EMS in line with ISO requirements with a view to future certification.
While the companies do their own monitoring – a practice also common in the United States and Britain – the JBI has verification systems and does its own independent data collection as well as examine citizen complaints. The companies sample and analyse water quality on a weekly and monthly basis, depending on different water quality requirements. Every three months, water samples are collected from wells determined by the Water Resources Authority and analysed by the JBI.
“The JBI is also concerned about noise pollution,” says Mr. Lyew You. He says the JBI has worked with the industry to ensure that heavy-duty equipment operate as much as possible in the day or early in the night, rather than late at night. Where they have to operate in the night the companies try to ensure that heavy-duty equipment are not near high-density areas. Also, the companies have moved to use systems for their equipment that reduce the noise pollution, such as low-noise conveyor belt systems.
DEALING WITH COMMUNITIES
The JBI has established a formal structure and mechanism to canvass the residents’ concerns and issues by means of community councils. These vibrant councils consist of representatives from citizens and community groups, industry personnel and the JBI and other government agencies, and they meet on a monthly basis. Persons in the communities near to the plants, port and mining areas who have environmental concerns can air them at these meetings. “The JBI database also includes issues arising from community council meetings. When we talk to the residents themselves, we use their information as data. The people’s concerns and points of view represent data and can’t be discounted. We don’t just go and talk to one set of people, the industry officials. We talk to all stakeholders,” insists Mr. Lyew You, who himself lives in one of the bauxite communities.
“We recognize that while the industry complies with standards under normal circumstances, there are episodic incidents, which affect the communities, such as heavy soot emissions, or a spill that was not controlled at source and in turn affects the wider environment. The JBI’s role in such a situation is to co-ordinate response agencies and the industry to do immediate clean-up and well as investigate long term options to prevent a future occurrence. It is important to keep the community and stakeholders involved in efforts to deal with these sorts of incidents,” he adds.
As the work of the JBI has unearthed deficiencies, it has made the relevant recommendations for legislative changes to facilitate greater balance between growth in the bauxite/alumina sector and environmental protection and sustainability and has also conducted research into the issues. In the past, one of the most frequent complaints from residents concerned the alleged effect of bauxite dust on the deterioration of their roofing material. Studies conducted to determine the cause and extent of the problem have shown that accelerated deterioration of the zinc roofing was not confined to the areas in close proximity to the companies. It was found that in most instances the quality of the roofing material used by the residents as well as handling and storage practices were responsible for the rapid deterioration of zinc roofing sheets, rather than emissions from the plants.
The Bureau of Standards Jamaica has been brought in to check the quality of the roofing material and has recognized the problem of poor roofing material and subsequently advised on the quality standards which should be maintained. In 2000 the Trade Act was amended to include a new standard for zinc roofing.
The Act requires that each zinc-coated sheet offered for sale be clearly stamped with the name of the manufacturer, the thickness of the steel base, as well as the zinc coating mass per unit area. “The industry has made significant improvements in all areas of environmental management. This is evidenced by more extensive monitoring systems. In addition, there is a reduction in the sources of pollution. Waste water discharges are now recycled to plant processes in most instances. As a result, caustic soda loss to the environment is considerably reduced,” says Mr. Lyew You.
“The approach of the local industry and of the JBI is not to just meet minimum standards. Our approach is to have continuous improvement, such that the performance is well within the standards and for the bauxite/alumina industry to become a model for environmental management and sustainability,” he adds.
The jury is in: There have been significant advances in environmental enhancement in the industry over the years, more particularly since 1985.

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