Tailings Wash-out Results in Deaths in Jamaica

A "remediated" mine tailings area at Myersville, Jamaica became a watery grave for five people on July 16, 2005, when rains from Hurricane Emily washed their car off a road and over a precipice.

The bauxite mine, dug thirty years ago, belongs to Alpart and had been " restored, rehabilitated and certified," according to Lance Neita, Alpart's public relations manager. Jamaican National Works Agency (NWA) spokesman Stephen Shaw said that erosion had taken place at the site and guard rails should have been installed.

When Noranda (now Falconbridge) purchased 49% of Alpart during Kaiser's bankruptcy proceedings in October 2004, the company only picked up the more profitable Gramercy refinery in Louisiana and the Ste-Anne bauxite and alumina operations. The remainder of Kaiser's operations, with its legacy of red mud tailings in St. Elisabeth, have basically been abandoned to the other Alpart partner -- the Government of Jamaica. [Note: the original version of this article contained inaccurate information implying that Falconbridge maintained an interest in the rest of Kaiser's operations.]

Falconbridge has bought into more than its share of environmental and social problems. Alpart, and other bauxite and aluminium operations in Jamaica have left a toxic legacy for many of the citizens. The company reports complaints on a very regular basis from the 18 communities in the vicinity of the plant. Alpart has been helping NWA deal with the incident.

Problems from the Alpart operations were documented in a case study undertaken by the University of Oslo in 2002. Among the problems they identified were:

  1. There is no sector specific environmental legislation in Jamaica; and because the country is more concerned with tax revenues, mineral rights and ownership, there has been little attention paid to environmental concerns.
  2. Regulatory requirements for environmental protection are often not met.
  3. Mining companies are not required to restore land that was not formerly agricultural land. Most mining takes place on government lands and farming is not allowed on government lands. As a result, most lands are not restored. "It is dangerous to move around and the destroyed areas are unsuitable for alternative economic activity."
  4. Contamination of ground water is the main environmental problem. Odd Are Berkaak found in the 1980s that pollution from the Alpart plant was threatening the Nain-Pepper aquifer upon which the Mandeville water supply scheme was based. He stated that the pH of the liquid phase seeping into the aquifer was 14. Norsk Hydro sampling showed pH values much lower than that, but Alpart employees were still concerned.
  5. A study conducted by the World Bank showed significant evidence of increased corrosion within 3 km of alumina plants. Alpart has paid compensation to some families in the vicinity of the plant.
  6. There are concerns about noise from the conveyor belt rollers, the level of dust from access roads and the production kilns and the seepage from the mud disposal ponds.

The author of the report concluded that "the Alpart tradition has been to mute local protest rather than to eliminate the source of the environmental problem". The Jamaican Bauxite Institute argues that restoration has been a huge success. However, "in many places where land has been restored, it has subsequently deterioriated." The full report is available on line at (see Chapter 5).

The Jamaican Bauxite Institute is funded by the companies and government to manage the complaints, but the farmers and villagers do not trust them to meet their needs.

There has been on-going protest in Jamaica about the health and environmental costs of the bauxite and alumina operations. In Canada, a website - www.jbeo.com - is dedicated to exposing these problems. The Jamaican Bauxite Environmental Organization (JBEO) works with their fellow Jamaicans at home to raise funds for health testing., community clinics and other solutions to the problem. The problems they deal with range from resettlement issues, spills, inadequate water supply and dust events to sickness that appears to be related to the plant.

The person behind JBEO is Junior John, an expatriate Jamaican from St. Elizabeth living in Toronto. Junior with his friends in Jamaica has been an unrelenting thorn in the side of the aluminium companies for a number of years now; and was the instigator of a legal case demanding compensation for roof corrosion and human health from the Alpart dust. They now have independent technical experts monitoring dust emissions.

It remains to be seen if Falconbridge will live up to their rhetoric on environmental sustainability and deal with the dreadful legacy of bauxite mining and alumina production in Jamaica. Junior John and JBEO will need a lot of support to ensure they do.