Hydro accused of pollution in Brazil

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Oslo-based industrial firm Norsk Hydro is fending off accusations that its Hydro Alunorte aluminum plant in northern Brazil has polluted water sources used by the local population. After initially denying the accusations, Hydro has formed an “expert task force” to review the situation, and stresses that it is cooperating with “all relevant authorities.”

This aerial view shows the Hydro Alunorte plant in northern Brazil, which one local resident described as being in the “heart of the Amazon.” The reddish bauxite resident deposits can be seen in the background. PHOTO: Hydro

Both local residents, health authorities, a research institute tied to the Brazilian health ministry and environmental organizations started ringing alarms earlier this month. The Evandro Chagas Institute claimed it had photos, as did others, showing overflow and flooding from a basin used for Hydro Alunorte’s bauxite residue deposits, also known as “red mud.”

Hydro denied for several days last week that there had been any leaks from the deposits, expressing concern only about “a short period of unusually heavy rainfall in the region of Barcarena,” near Hydro’s alumina refinery. The company claimed that “technical surveys by different surveillance authorities” confirmed there has been no leakage or rupture from the deposits that are full of hazardous metals and minerals.

Norwegian newspapers Dagens Næringsliv (DN) reported Monday, however, that the research institute specializing in public health confirmed pollutants had leaked from Hydro’s plant in Brazil and that around 400 families were affected. Some have already reported stomach ailments. “This is extremely dangerous,” Marcelo Lima of the institute told DN. He led a survey of the area launched by authorities in the state of Para, where Hydro has its main Brazilian operations.

Parent company Norsk Hydro AS claims that Hydro Alunorte increased the number of water pumps in use at its containment basins for bauxite residue deposits (red mud) from eight to 13 following heavy rain in mid-February. Questions are rising whether the residue leaked into local rivers and water supplies. PHOTO: Hydro

DN reported that public concern has been high since a leakage did occur from the poisonous deposits in 2009, when Hydro was a minority shareholder in the company. Alunorte was fined the equivalent of NOK 40 million, but the DN reported it remained unpaid. Hydro Alunorte is now controlled by Oslo-based Norsk Hydro, in which the Norwegian state has a 34 percent stake.

On Saturday parent company Norsk Hydro reported that it had “established an expert task force to lead a comprehensive review at Hydro’s Alunorte alumina refinery,” which ranks as the world’s largest. It still pointed to heavy rainfall on February 16-17, with the company claiming it would “establish the effects of the rainfall on the operational integrity of the bauxite residue deposits, including the ability to treat and dispose of excess water.”

The task force would also “analyze and evaluate internal and external data and information related to possible environmental impact in the local communities” and propose improvements to the systems. The task force will be headed two Norwegian executives who will report directly to Hydro CEO Svein Richard Brandtzæg.

“Our commitment to safe and sound operations is universal and absolute,” Brandtzæg claimed in a written statement. “We intend to evaluate all aspects of our operations in Alunorte in an open and transparent manner, in close dialogue with relevant authorities.” The company still contended that “no proof of leakage from the bauxite residue deposits at Alunorte has been found.”

In the meantime, Hydro acknowledged it was “concerned about the situation” and would join local and state public agencies in distributing clean water to affected areas. Hydro claimed it was also meeting with community leaders while some local residents are complaining directly to Norsk Hydro’s ethics and compliance department and to Norwegian media outlets.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund