Danger in the dust

Decades-old problem stokes anger among residents

BY GARFIELD MYERS
Editor-at-Large
South/Central Bureau
myersg@jamaicaobserver.com

Sunday, April 21, 2019

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NAIN, St Elizabeth — Fiona Facey, a young resident of Austin, close to the JISCO Alpart bauxite/alumina plant, smiled ruefully when asked whether she thought her community would be better off without bauxite/alumina production.

“Look here,” she said, “nobody is calling for a shut down of the company (JISCO Alpart), we are happy that a lot of young people are up and working, providing for their families. But is one thing to provide for your family and then another thing, a few years down the line, you losing your family ... everybody dead.”

Her comment, seemingly melodramatic even in its ambivalence, captured the mood of a turbulent public meeting at Austin Primary School last Wednesday to discuss ongoing concerns about dust and air pollution in the communities of the Myersville Division, close to the bauxite/alumina plant.

The meeting, with scores of people, mostly women, in attendance, was organised by the Opposition People's National Party caretaker for St Elizabeth South Eastern Dr Dwaine Spencer and councillor for the Myersville Division, Layton Smith (PNP). It was attended by Opposition spokesman on mining Phillip Paulwell.

As a Cabinet minister in 2015/16, Paulwell played a mediatory role in the acquisition of Alpart by Chinese metals powerhouse Jiquan Iron and Steel (JISCO) from Russian aluminum giant UC Rusal. That acquisition led to the eventual reopening of Alpart refinery operations in 2017.

Paulwell, constantly reminded of his role in the reopening of the refinery, heard militant appeals for action to be taken to curb pollution. Crucially he was urged to ensure that a water project, the Essex Valley Water Scheme — a partnership of the Jamaican Government and Alpart — which has been 18 years in the making and is now nearing completion, does not bypass communities closest to the plant.

Councillor Smith, supported by people in the audience, said any attempt at bypassing the Myersville communities — extending southerly and westerly to the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains — would be met by militant action including “roadblock” demonstrations. The water project, they pointed out, was originally initiated precisely because of the contamination of water catchment and storage tanks in communities close to Alpart.

Wednesday night's forum was described by organisers as a “community meeting”. However, current MP Frank Witter, and representatives of JISCO Alpart and State agencies such as the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) were absent. Spencer claimed Witter, JISCO Alpart and NEPA were invited.

Checks by the Jamaica Observer brought denials from Witter, communications manager at JISCO Alpart Julian Keane, and Peter Knight, CEO of NEPA. Keane said he had been told about the meeting but received no invitation.

Back in 2017, the reopening of Alpart — after being shut down in 2009 as a consequence of the global economic crisis of that time — was hailed as a game-changer, providing employment for hundreds of people and boosting the local and national economy.

But as was the case for decades prior to the plant's closure in 2009, emissions from the process of refining bauxite ore to alumina; and dust from red mud — which is bauxite waste dumped in an area known as the red mud lake just south-west of the plant — have generated strong resentment in the local population.

Accustomed dry weather and powerful east-to-west winds in the early months of the year have made the situation worse.

Those at Wednesday night's meeting complained bitterly about “clouds” of white dust — residue of the refining process — and red dust from the mud lake, descending on their homes and farms, contaminating stored water, clothes hung out to dry, and withering away crops.

Most of all, they said, the dust, both white and red, was endangering their health, causing extreme sinus-related problems and chest infections. Some suggested that cancer and other life-threatening illnesses could be a consequence of the pollution.

JISCO has continued the long tradition of providing sums of money, said to range between $5,000 and $7,500, to households for “clean-up” of homes following heavy dust episodes.

Farmers are also compensated for crops assessed to have been damaged by industrial pollutants.

As explained by JISCO Alpart's Keane, when contacted by telephone, compensation for “clean-up” and damaged crops should not be “confused with medical”.

Keane emphasised that those with ailments said to have been triggered by what residents commonly refer to as “dust blow” are taken to any of four contracted doctors, based a few miles away in Junction. Patients are treated at JISCO Alpart's expense and prescription costs are also met by the company.

Keane said that in cases where people may choose to visit a doctor of their own choosing, they are asked to submit a bill.

But at Wednesday night's meeting, residents made it clear they thought none of that was enough.

They noted that there had been little or no progress in long-stated plans to relocate those closest to the plant.

They and their councillor, Smith, complained that JISCO Alpart did not appear to care about their needs. And further, that Government agencies, such as NEPA, which is mandated to ensure adherence to environmental rules; and the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), which monitors the bauxite/alumina industry, were equally at fault.

One young mother showed the Sunday Observer a cellphone image of her sleeping child on a bloodied pillow. The recent dust episode had triggered persistent nose bleeds and breathing problems for her son, she said.

A farmer showed what he said was a compensation cheque worth $1,485 paid to him by Alpart, following an assessment of what he said was the destruction, in its infancy, of an “acre of pumpkin”.

Residents complained of what they said was extreme arbitrariness in the assessment of damage to crops and other property.

Councillor Smith suggested the use of so-called “independent assessors” paid by JISCO Alpart was fundamentally flawed. How could an assessor be independent if he is paid by the company? he asked.

In the case of household compensation, Smith said it would make far more sense for the company to pay a set amount on a monthly basis.

Interviewed by the Sunday Observer on Thursday, Member of Parliament Witter agreed with Smith.

He felt the assessment of agricultural damage would be better done by the JISCO Alpart Community Council, which represents residents of the company's mining communities.

Keane told the Sunday Observer that he fully expects that in “less than a year”, technological improvements to the refining process at the Alpart refinery, as well as improved methods of pumping waste to the mud lake would significantly reduce industrial emissions and dusting. Before then, he said, JISCO Alpart would invest in additional irrigation systems to keep the mud lake “wet” thereby minimising dusting.

At the Wednesday night meeting, PNP constituency caretaker Spencer — one of the four doctors contracted by JISCO Alpart to treat people complaining of ailments relating to industrial contaminants from the plant — told his listeners that as a medical doctor and aspiring political representative their interests were his first concern. This was the case, despite his contractual relationship to Alpart dating back to 2015 — before he entered politics, he said.

Spencer said he would be recommending to JISCO Alpart that there should be mandatory chest X-rays “at a bare minimum” for those seeking medical help. He would also be recommending mandatory eye tests, Spencer said.

Paulwell announced that he would be meeting with JISCO Alpart leadership this week to discuss the complaints and would return to the community in early May to report to residents. He would seek to initiate dialogue between residents and the JISCO leadership, he said.

Paulwell said although he was on the Opposition benches, he felt he had an obligation to do all he could to help resolve the situation.

He emphasised the importance of JISCO Alpart to the economic life of local communities, the wider St Elizabeth, and Jamaica. Much of the 1.8 per cent growth recorded by the Jamaican economy in 2018 had been triggered by production at JISCO Alpart, said Paulwell.

There had to be a balance between the imperative of economic gain and protecting the environment, Paulwell said. He argued that agencies such as NEPA and JBI should “do more” to monitor and protect communities.

“These problems need to be solved,” said Paulwell, “people should not have to get to the point of demonstrating, of blocking roads, vilifying investors, to get problems solved.”

He later told the Sunday Observer that modern and emerging technologies could minimise much of the pollution being complained about. He cited reduction of emissions from the Carib Cement plant in his Kingston Eastern and Port Royal constituency as a prime example.

For all the complaints about dust pollution, what seemed to trigger most emotion at Wednesday's meeting were reports that piped water from the Essex Valley Water Scheme would bypass people living close to the refinery on its way to fast-growing Junction to the south.

“We going block the road,” came the threat from several voices, and Smith made it clear he would not allow it to happen over his “dead body”.

Paulwell, who struck a conciliatory note throughout the meeting, agreed that bypassing Myersville communities with piped water, supplied by the National Water Commission (NWC) from the Essex Valley Scheme, would be unacceptable. He, too, would be prepared to travel from Kingston to join a demonstration, if such a thing were to happen, he said.

While there has been improvement in recent years, most residents of St Elizabeth are without water supply from the NWC. They make do with their own arrangements including rainwater catchment and the purchase of expensively trucked water.

As the Sunday Observer understands it, the Essex Valley Water project was first conceptualised in 2001 by the Alpart Community Council, when it was co-chaired by the late Member of Parliament Derrick Rochester.

The obvious need to deal with industrial contamination of rainwater catchment for people living in communities close to the refinery gave impetus to the project.

Land was donated by Alpart at Long Hill, west of Alpart, for a well field. At least one well was reportedly dug back then.

Funds were committed by both the then PJ Patterson-led PNP Government and Alpart. However, competing demands meant the then Government was unable to come up with its portion, said to have been just over $100 million. That was said to be the case up to the time of the 2007 General Election, when the Government changed, with the Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) taking power.

However, prior to that election, the community council and Member of Parliament Len Blake, who had succeeded Rochester, reportedly raised more than $20 million from the JBI to continue work on the project.

According to Witter — corroborated by Blake, who is now chairman of the JISCO Alpart Community Council — that money was eventually accessed, and with additional funding from central government, work resumed on the Essex Valley Water scheme.

However, work again stalled, only resuming in mid-2014 by which time the Portia Simpson Miller-led PNP Government had been in office for a year and a half and a new MP, the PNP's Richard Parchment, had taken over from Witter as MP for St Elizabeth South Eastern.

This section of the project involved the laying of what Witter described on Wednesday as “secondary lines” to deliver water from Nain to Junction and communities along the way.

Ironically, the laying of those “secondary lines” bypassed a number of communities in the Myersville area, west of Alpart — the very same communities said to be most affected by pollutants.

Work stalled once again, prior to the 2016 General Election, narrowly won by the JLP — with Witter returning as MP for St Elizabeth South Eastern having defeated Parchment. The pipe-laying work resumed last year and lines into Junction and communities along the route from Nain are now said to be complete and at the “testing” stage.

Witter told the Sunday Observer that funding from the Government also enabled secondary water delivery lines to be run into the Myersville Housing Scheme. However, there was not enough money to deliver water into a host of other communities in the Myersville area including Warminster, Austin, and New Building.

Witter and Blake both told the Sunday Observer that JISCO Alpart had pledged to bear the major portion of the cost of laying pipes for an NWC water project for “all” those communities around the plant. Witter said an initial estimate done by the NWC and delivered to JISCO Alpart had been rejected by the leadership of the company since several communities had been bypassed. The scope was too limited, the JISCO Alpart leadership reportedly said.

Witter said he now had a new estimate for $200 million which will be delivered to the company immediately after the Easter break. The MP said he expected the company to bear 70 to 80 per cent of the cost with Government covering the rest.

The revised project embraced all the communities around the plant, Witter said. JISCO Alpart is said to be driven by a desire to rid itself of the persistent, cumbersome problem of having to truck social water to communities with all its attendant issues.

While Witter is unable to give a time frame for this phase of the water project, he is hopeful that it will happen soon.

Meantime, he said, the “turning on” of water from Nain to Junction should happen within the next six weeks.

But like those at Wednesday night's public meeting, Blake argued on Thursday that any move to bypass Myersville would be a big mistake. According to Blake, it would “create a whole heap of unnecessary problems”.

Said Blake: “Don't get me wrong, Junction should get water, but that should be phase two. The communities around the plant should get water first. That's why we named it the Essex Valley Water Scheme.”


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