Dangerous games

Published: Friday | February 8, 2013 Comments 0

By Peter Espeut

I think Energy Minister Phillip Paulwell is playing games with environmentalists and the quality of Jamaica's future. If extracting rare-earth elements from red mud will not do harm to the natural environment, and to those of us who live in it, why the secrecy?

As a chemist, I am excited at the prospect of Jamaica producing elements like scandium, cerium and dysprosium to feed the global high-tech electronics industry. But I also know that China, the largest producer of rare-earth elements in the world, damages its own environment in the process.

In 2012, Scientific American published an article about problems that plague rare-earth mining, which is described as a "toxic mess". It reads: "By some accounts, the smog in Baotou can be dense, the air acrid. But the biggest hazard is an artificial 'tailings' lake west of the city, where refineries that process the rare-earth minerals dump their waste.

A Daily Mail reporter, who sneaked past guards and climbed sand dunes to reach the rim of the lake, described it as "an apocalyptic sight. The lake instantly assaults your senses. Stand on the black crust for just seconds and your eyes water and a powerful, acrid stench fills your lungs," the article read.

We know the risk posed by tailings (red mud) from the extraction of alumina. Drive past any red mud lake and your nose, lungs and eyes are assaulted by caustic soda (sodium hydroxide) fumes. These lakes are lined, supposedly, to prevent caustic residue from leaching into underground aquifers and polluting the water supply; but wells downstream of Jamaican red mud lakes have had to be closed because of caustic soda intrusion.

caustic-fume problems

Caustic soda is the essential chemical used in the extraction of alumina from bauxite ore. The price we pay for having a bauxite-alumina industry is caustic fumes damaging fruit trees, rooftops, clothes hanging on the line, and our lungs. Alumina companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars compensating householders for damage to property and self. In Clarendon, the whole community of Bowens (downwind of the Jamalco plant) had to be relocated upwind (as New Bowens) because of the known problems.

All these bauxite-alumina plants were built prior to the creation of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA), empowered to protect humans and the natural environment from polluting industries. I personally heard the NRCA head's remark that were the NRCA in existence prior to the construction of some of these bauxite-alumina plants, things would have been done quite differently.

We still have the NRCA (now merged with the National Environment and Planning Agency - (NEPA), but according to the JIS website, "The pilot project has also been approved by NEPA, and is awaiting final approvals from other regulatory agencies." And last week, ground was broken at Hope Gardens for the pilot plant.

Here's what I don't understand: There's a well-established procedure to be followed when some new factory or plant is to be built in Jamaica. The NRCA must require that an environmental impact assessment (EIA) be conducted if there is reasonable doubt about the process to be used. Surely, any reasonable person must admit that, bearing in mind what goes on in China, there is some doubt about the safety of humans and the natural environment?

Blind faith?

In a speech at the groundbreaking, chairman/executive director of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute, Dr Parris A. Lyew-Ayee, admitted as much: "Unlike in many other countries where rare-earth minerals are mined with severe negative impacts on the environment, ... the Jamaican scenario is completely different."

With all due respect to Parris, I ask, how do we know this? Must we take your word for it? Where is the EIA to reassure us?

Long-established and accepted procedure is that the EIA should be published for public comment; and it is a requirement that a public meeting be convened to ventilate the issues. No EIA, and no public meeting.

What chemicals will be used to extract the rare-earth elements from Jamaican red mud? Are they different from the ones used in China, described above? (Remember the cyanide used in the extraction of gold in Main Ridge, Clarendon?)

Where will the tailings from the rare-earth extraction plant be disposed of? What chance is there that toxic particles will blow into people's yards? Why no public meeting to advise residents in Hope Pastures, Mona Heights, College Green, and surrounding areas about what is going to take place next door?

If everything is safe and above board, why the secrecy? Why have the environment-permit protocols been so publicly breached?

Peter Espeut is a chemist, environmentalist and a rural development consultant. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com.

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