Tough talk and a meeting of minds

... JISCo/Alpart and residents discuss pollution and water

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

Thursday, May 02, 2019

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NAIN, St Elizabeth — For a while it seemed Monday's meeting between the leadership of JISCo/Alpart and stakeholder representatives from neighbouring communities was doomed to end in confusion and failure.

Heated crosstalk about the effects of industrial dust pollution from the company's bauxite mining and alumina refining operations, as well as related water issues, often blocked attempts at constructive discussion.

An intervention by managing director of Jiquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCo)/Alpart, Zhang Jun, who until then had only listened, appeared pivotal in a change of mood.

“Let's find a solution; let's stop quarrelling,” a stern-faced Zhang suggested.

Gradually tempers cooled, the various parties started listening to each other, and after nearly three hours, chairman of the meeting Len Blake, who heads the JISCo/Alpart Community Council, and others, including Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern Frank Witter (Jamaica Labour Party), declared the meeting a success.

By then, a commitment had come from the JISCo/Alpart management to give serious consideration to proposals from water truckers on ways to speed up, and make more efficient, the dispatch of water from the plant's loading bay.

Truckers dissatisfied with current arrangements for them to collect water and distribute to communities in JISCo/Alpart's operating areas led a demonstration last week Friday. They, supported by locals, used their bodies to block JISCo/Alpart railway lines.

Residents of Lititz and Bromington Hall, where the demonstration took place, were represented at the meeting, which was also attended by political representatives, Witter and councillor for the Myersville Division, Layton Smith (People's National Party).

JISCo/Alpart leaders pledged on Monday that within a week they would respond to the proposals from the truckers, in an effort to make water distribution more efficient.

For decades, Alpart has consistently facilitated the trucking of water to nearby communities — largely because dust emissions from its industrial operations have led to the contamination of rainwater catchment and storage, on which many people in St Elizabeth traditionally depend.

At Monday's meeting, it was pointed out by the JISCo/Alpart management that pressure on its water supply system had developed largely because of the failure of some wells in its well field at nearby Pepper, just below the St Elizabeth/Manchester border.

Patrick James, assistant managing director at JISCo/Alpart, made it clear that in addition to community obligations, the refinery needed huge amounts of water for its operations.

Zhang complained that the company's efforts to open a new well to support its refinery were held up by a nine-month delay in getting the requisite government approval.

Breakdown in pumping equipment also made life difficult since it took months to correct the problem. Only one Jamaican company is able to carry out such work, he said.

The point was made by political representatives that trucking of water to residents was a stop-gap, short-term solution pending the completion of the Essex Valley water scheme to serve communities in the vicinity of the Alpart plant.

“The only thing that can resolve the water situation is to get the Essex Valley water system up and running in all the areas,” said Smith.

The water scheme, conceptualised in 2001 by the Alpart Community Council, was officially launched a year later as a partnership between the Jamaican Government and Alpart. However, the project has been repeatedly delayed for one reason or another.

Witter has said that the scheme will begin delivering National Water Commission water to residents of some communities, including fast-growing Junction, soon. JISCo/Alpart has reportedly committed to installing piping infrastructure for the delivery of water for communities of Myersville, closest to the Alpart refinery. No timeline has yet been given for this phase of the project.

Regarding dust pollution, JISCo/Alpart leaders pledged at the meeting that short- and long-term solutions were actively being worked on to deal with the problem, which has haunted its bauxite/alumina operations.

Residents routinely complain that “white” dust from alumina refining and “red” dust from bauxite waste (categorised as red mud lakes) cause extreme health hazards, contaminate their homes, and damage roofs and crops.

For many years, residents have insisted that compensation for damage and inconvenience, as well as arrangements for medical treatment, are insufficient.

James said that in the short term, old equipment at the 50-year-old plant was being overhauled to significantly reduce the dust problem.

For the longer term, James gave a timeline of December this year for the completion of a project involving state-of-the-art technology that will minimise industrial emissions from the refinery.

At the red mud lake, there was ongoing work to minimise dusting by increasing the pumping of water to keep bauxite waste wet. In the longer term, a modern anti-dust “dry stock” method will be used on the mud lake, he said.

While there was approval from the floor of plans to deal with pollution, tough-talking residents wondered why it couldn't have been done before the refinery reopened in 2017 following its acquisition by Chinese company JISCo. The plant was closed in 2009 by previous Russian owners, UC Rusal, during the fallout from the global economic meltdown at that time.

Zhang said tours would be organised to show stakeholder representatives the efforts being made to deal with the environmental problems.

Company executives also appeared to give favourable attention to long-standing suggestions by community leaders, residents and political representatives for a change of approach to assessing dust pollution and the provision of compensation.

Communications manager at JISCo/Alpart Julian Keane told the Jamaica Observer that more meetings along the lines of that held on Monday will take place to explain Alpart's initiatives regarding dust pollution.

Blake and others suggested that in future, the National Environment and Planning Agency as well as the Jamaica Bauxite Institute should be invited to all such meetings.

“They are the regulators,” argued Blake, who is a former Member of Parliament for St Elizabeth South Eastern.

Witter emphasised that “communication is key” and should be improved in dealing with the various issues.

JISCo/Alpart, considered a major player in the Jamaican economy, currently employs 900 Jamaicans on a permanent basis, and several hundred more on a rotational arrangement.


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