Norwegian industrial firm Norsk Hydro has revealed more cases of spills from its aluminum plant in Brazil, and apologized for what may have fouled the water supply for those living nearby. The company faces fines and regulatory restrictions at its Alunorte plant, along with questions and criticism at home in Norway.
“We have discharged untreated rain- and surface water into the Pará River,” Hydro’s chief executive Svein Richard Brandtzæg stated in a press release issued early Monday. “This is completely unacceptable and in breach (of) what Hydro stands for.
“On behalf of the company,” Brandtzæg continued, “I personally apologize to the communities, authorities and the society.” The hard-pressed CEO has earlier referred to the problems in Brazil as the most serious he’s faced during his years at the company.
Hydro also announced that it was expanding its “ongoing independent review of Alunorte” by a Brazilian environmental consulting firm (SGW Services), “to include all interfaces with areas adjacent to the refinery operation.” Alunorte ranks as the world’s largest aluminum refinery, and employs 2,000 people in the Barcarena region of Pará, in northern Brazil. It extracts bauxite from mines in the area for use in aluminum, but its production has also been cut in half under orders from a local court handling complaints about its operations.
The current problems began after heavy rains in mid-February that led to flooding and spills in the area. Hydro reported that it was served with an “infraction notice” from local environmental authorities last week, relating to an “unlicensed connection between the Alunorte refinery and a licensed drainage canal from the adjacent Albras aluminum plant, leading to discharge of untreated rainwater from the roof of the coal storage shed at Alunorte into the Pará River through this internatal canal.”
Alunorte’s license requires all rain and surface water from the refinery to be led into its water treatment system. Tests revealed that “the water instead flowed into the canal stemming from Albras,” independently of the extreme rainfall experienced in February.
Spills confirmed by Hydro have set off concerns and anger among environmental activists and the local population, whose drinking water is believed to have been contaminated by the spills. Others are worried about the economic effects of the problems and whether it will lead to a loss of jobs in the area. Brandtzæg told reporters in Norway last week that the company realizes it “needs to rebuild confidence” in the community, by “changing our attitudes, actions and how we cooperate with our neighbours” in Brazil.
Things turned dramatic last week when news broke that a local environmental activist who has criticized Hydro over the years was found shot to death, the lastest in a string of murders in recent years of people promoting the interests of indigenous people and the environment. A Hydro spokesman condemned the killing and told Oslo newspaper Aftenposten that the “company’s thoughts go to the murder victim’s friends and family.” There was no immediate evidence that the murder was directly tied to Hydro’s recent troubles in the area.
The company earlier has been accused of arrogance and initially denying responsibility for the spills. Brazilian prosecutor Ricardo Negrini told newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN) last week that Hydro has been “unclear” and tried to minimize the effects of leaks and discharge from its plant. He’s been negotiating with Hydro on what must be done in order for production to resume in full.
Harsh criticism at home
Kristian Hoelscher, a senior researher at the Oslo peace research insitute PRIO, wrote in a commentary in DN over the weekend that as Hydro’s profitable operations at Alunorte “collapse,” the company must move from being “defensive and reactionary” to acknowledging how it can and may already have damaged the environment in the local community. “It’s legally sensible not to admit guilt,” Hoelscher wrote, “but the damage to the company’s reputation can cost much more.”
He claimed Hydro had “lost control” over the situation through the company’s “arrogance” and “catastrophic communications strategy.” Company spokespersons, on the other hand, have stressed a need for openness and been quick to issue statements and press releases on the problems in Brazil. Brandtzæg himself flew to the area shortly after news of the problems broke late last month.
Hydro’s largest single shareholder, meanwhile, is the Norwegian state with a 34 percent stake, with the state pension fund Folketrygdfondet owning another 6 percent. Members of Parliament have called Norway’s business and trade minister, Torbjørn Røe Isaksen, in for questioning while industrial investors KLP and Storebrand are also raising questions and evaluating their invesment in the company, which already has seen its share price slide. Isaksen himself called in Hydro’s management for a meeting last Thurday.
Makes Norway look ‘hypocritical’
“We want to know whether Hydro has released something into the drinking wanter to folks that’s had a damaging effect,” Torgeir Knag Fylkesnes of the Socialist Left party (SV) told DN on Saturday. He serves as deputy leader of the Parliament’s committee on business and trade, which is holding Isaksen accountable through his ministry’s role as Hydro’s controlling owner. The committee also wants to know what’s being done to correct the problems at Alunorte and help local residents.
Hydro’s alleged pollution at Alunorte is also embarrassing for the Norwegian government, which long has sent funding to preserve rainforests in Brazil and put demands on Brazilian government authorities. Hoelscher wrote that Hydro’s own environmental threats at Alunorte have thus contributed to a “diplomatic quarrel” between Norway and Brazil and made Norway’s rainforest demands appear hypocritical.
Hydro announced late last week that it will invest NOK 500 million in upgrading its treatment plants at the refinery, increase its capacity and improve the plant’s ability to handle extreme weather.