Is bauxite mining/alumina refining worth the trouble?
Residents in areas where bauxite and other minerals are mined, as well as those living close to alumina refining plants are often caught in a quandary.
On the one hand they welcome the jobs and economic activity which come with mining and refining. But then there is the down side.
We refer to degrading and destruction of farmland; damage to the physical environment which have reportedly triggered such disasters as fish kills; and direct threat to human health and well-being from dust and chemical pollution.
Health experts and environmentalists claim that ailments, including pneumonia, acute chest and respiratory conditions, and even cancers, can flow from mining and related pollutants.
The anecdotal evidence suggests that Jamaicans, including some who actually benefit economically from mining and allied activities, have become increasingly impatient with the negative effects — their political representatives often coming under pressure to act.
The absence or inadequacy of lasting socio-economic benefits for host communities have helped to kindle hostility.
We well recall the 2020 lament from then Member of Parliament for Manchester Southern Mr Michael Stewart, after he was called in by residents of Rose Hill because of bauxite mining close to their homes, rendering their lives a living hell.
The residents claimed at the time that without even bothering to consult them, the mining company and its contractors had started work, triggering clouds of dust driven by strong winds.
“This has been happening for too long now. We have to wonder if the industry is worth all this trouble,” Mr Stewart told this newspaper at the time.
“As it is now, this area is a very, very windy place… and here we have bauxite mining taking place right beside where people live, and no one even came to talk to the people about it. For decades bauxite mining has degraded the countryside — flora and fauna destroyed, farms damaged and destroyed, water quality eroded — and the people who live in the mining communities have nothing to show. If anything, it has left them poorer,” Mr Stewart said.
A major challenge for the authorities has always been that people at the community level feel their interests are treated as secondary to those of the mining and refining companies.
That negative public perception is not helped by news that it took a recent probe by this newspaper for Jamaicans to hear of a 2021 hazardous chemical leak involving the operations of bauxite/alumina company Jamalco, in Clarendon.
We hear that the leak from a red mud waste pond — described by Jamalco as “minor” — which reportedly threatened ground water, was contained, but that a permanent fix could run into millions of US dollars.
No matter how minor the threat was or was not, we are at one with the Jamaica Environment Trust that Jamaicans should have been told about it. Again, ordinary people are left to feel that they are treated with scant regard by those they elect to lead.
Beyond that, the latest environmental controversy involving the bauxite/alumina industry reminds us of the question asked by Mr Stewart at Rose Hill in 2020: Is it worth it?