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'Rethink coal plan' - Environmentalists decry Nain plant proposal, gov't official also wary

Published:Wednesday | August 3, 2016 | 12:00 AMChristopher Serju
Diana McCaulay
Clifford Mahlung

Jamaica will pay dearly in terms of the health of its people and the environment if the new owners of the Alpart bauxite facility in Nain, St Elizabeth, are allowed to build a proposed 1,000 megawatt coal-fired power plant, according to the Jamaica Environmental Trust (JET).

The organisation yesterday registered its strong opposition to the proposed energy source "due to the harm to human health and climate posed by coal-fired power plants".

"Rethink this harmful project," Diana McCaulay, JET's chief executive officer, appealed to Prime Minister Andrew Holness, the portfolio minister for environmental issues.

She went on to argue some of the potential negative impacts of the various greenhouse gases discharged into the atmosphere by coal-fired plants, which are being phased out in developed countries.

"The pollutants from coal-fired plants that pose significant risks to human health are sulphur dioxide, nitrogen oxides, mercury, and particulate matter. Sulphur dioxide is a trigger for asthma attacks and combines with water vapour to form acid rain, which will also affect crops and soil health in the farming parish of St Elizabeth and beyond," JET said in a release.

"Nitrogen oxides are a precursor to smog and increase the likelihood of respiratory ailments such as wheezing, coughing, colds, flu, and bronchitis."

JET continued: "Mercury is a neurotoxin associated with irreversible IQ deficits and neurobehavioral pathologies. Particulate matter, also called PM or soot, consists of microscopically small, solid particles or liquid droplets suspended in the air. The smaller the particles, the deeper they can penetrate into the respiratory system and the more hazardous they are. There is a robust association between daily rates of human mortality and levels of particulate matter even when levels are below air-quality guidelines. Emissions of these pollutants can be reduced with modern equipment, but this type of coal plant is not cheap to build and does not produce cheap electricity."

Mining Minister Mike Henry recently announced the sale of the old Alpart plant to the China-based Jiuquan Iron & Steel (Group) Company Limited (JISCO).

He said JISCO would be investing US$2 billion to establish an industrial zone at Nain, employing more than 3,000 people.

It was announced that the industrial zone would comprise bauxite mines, an alumina refinery, a coal-fired power plant, a local electricity network, rolling wire mills, and a range of aluminium products, among other enterprises.

The Government's consideration of coal-fired power generation is also a matter of concern for Clifford Mahlung, project administrator at the Climate Change Division in the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation.

"There are other options out there I would have preferred, but they come at a cost," he told The Gleaner yesterday.

"I'm figuring that is probably the most cost-effective way of achieving what they want from the plant. But, yes, the emissions are of concern, and so we hope that the impact will be minimised as much as possible so that we can be proud of that plant."

However, yesterday, Energy Minister Dr Andrew Wheatley said no application had been made for construction of a coal-fired plant in St Elizabeth.

"There was no approval or anything like that done. They need to get their facts straight before they comment," Wheatley told The Gleaner/Power 106 News Centre.

Mahlung explained that while construction and operation of a coal plant would not be a breach of climate-change conventions, it could fly in the face of Jamaica's commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 1.1 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year by 2030.

While carbon capture and underground storage of the pollutants is an option, Jamaica does not have the technology, which would involve the use of large underground caves consistent with the size of the Green Grotto Caves in Discovery Bay, St Ann.

However, that does not seem a practical option in light of the country's geological formation, which is mainly limestone, which is very porous.

"So it can't keep the CO2 (carbon dioxide) underground ... . Maybe they can find a way to capture that CO2 and transport it to somewhere else in the island. But all of this is at a cost to store it if that technology becomes possible, but these would add to the cost."