Danger averted!

Bauxite
and alumina company Jamalco is insisting that a leak containing hazardous caustic soda from its red mud pond in Hayes, Clarendon, is minor and has been contained. It counters a claim by sources with knowledge of the issue that the potentially dangerous substance has seeped into the groundwater.

The leak was reported to have been detected before the devastating August 22, 2021 fire that cost Jamalco estimated losses of US$500,000 per day as at September 2021.

Jamaica Observer sources had said the red mud pond developed the leak after “the liner broke”. This, the sources claimed, allowed untreated caustic soda waste to leak through the lining at the bottom of the pond and into the ground water system.

However, Austin Mooney, managing director at Jamalco, told the Sunday Observer last week that “As part of a regular inspection of the RSA [residue storage area], a minor seepage was identified on the external eastern embankment of the RSA. Jamalco has developed a containment area where the seepage is collected, isolated from the environment, and returned to the RSA. The seepage is managed continuously and there is no evidence of groundwater contamination due to the RSA or because of the seepage.”

Jamalco added that after consultation with a respected engineering firm, it immediately adopted a strategy of containment while designing a permanent repair solution.

“The repair work will commence at the site later this year with a completion date set for early 2024 and we are confident that we will meet this deadline,” Jamalco said.

The bauxite/alumina industry produces a waste product known locally as red mud, more than 70 per cent of which is water, enriched with caustic soda and organics.

The waste is thickened to 28 per cent solids and sprayed on a sloping drying bed in a layer eight to 10 centimetres thick. The liquid fraction is collected at the toe of the drying bed and is channelled via pipelines to a sealed holding pond. Pumps move the effluent from the holding pond back to the plant via a pipeline where it is recycled through the process.

Our sources said that since the detection of the leak, there have been several suggestions as to how to repair it, but they all require investments amounting to millions of US dollars.

One suggestion, which could result in an environmental catastrophe, is for the installation of a pipeline along the rail to pump the water into the sea.

The sources also say the water in the pond is more than it was built to accommodate. To prevent an overflow, Jamalco has constructed a gabion basket, but sources say the bottom of the basket is always wet, signalling a leak.

Asked if Jamalco has ever had to deal with other leaks, Mooney said one was identified in the past, “and a similar approach of containment and management strategy was used to address the problem until it was successfully repaired without any impact to the environment.”

He told the Sunday Observer that Jamalco continues its practice of regularly monitoring the RSA.

“Jamalco has been and will continue to be a responsible corporate entity that operates its facilities in accordance with strict environmental management standards (ISO) while making unceasing efforts to safeguard the natural environment,” he said.

Last Tuesday, a source at the Ministry of Mining told the Sunday Observer that the issue would have “more than likely” been reported to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA).

The source added that the ministry doesn’t perform any sort of regulatory functioning in relation to bauxite, and that it is the Ministry of Environment that treats with those matters.

When the Sunday Observer contacted the environmental division of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), a spokesperson, who requested anonymity, confirmed that there have been a series of notifications and follow-ups regarding the leak.

“NEPA, ourself, the Ministry of Health were all notified at the time, as well as with the subsequent reporting. The notification comes from Jamalco. Their permit requires that if there is any incident, any spill, that they are to report to the regulators. So they report to us and then we follow up with visits and audits and so on,” the spokesperson said.

“Reporting was done; we are aware of issues they had. Of course, the fire did create quite a different focus, but we are aware that there were some leaks and so from the operations at the same time,” the spokesperson said, adding that the JBI has an early warning system for any problem at any of the locations.

“In the case of things like leaks, there are, for example, requirements for monthly reporting and so on. Jamalco has to outline how they will go about correcting the problem or containing anything that has been spilled, as well as where the clean up would go,” the JBI spokesperson said.

The University of the West Indies’ Solutions for Developing Countries (SODECO) is currently engaged in a US$2.5-million mangrove restoration project in southern Clarendon, which is being done in partnership with Sugar Company of Jamaica Holdings Limited, the Ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation, NEPA, Ministry of National Security, Planning Institute of Jamaica, Inter-American Development Bank, and the United Kingdom Government.

An improper release of caustic soda — known as sodium hydroxide and which is potentially life-threatening and damaging to the environment — could reverse all efforts made by the project and jeopardise millions of dollars worth of work.

SODECO chief scientist Professor Terrence Forrester is hopeful that won’t be the case.

“My understanding is that the seepage is minor, and as this is several kilometres away from the coast; the mangroves are not endangered by it,” he told the Sunday Observer.

“Jamalco has been an excellent stakeholder in the mangrove restoration project inter alia through provision of fresh water supplies to one of the largest areas of die off that we are restoring. Fresh water is a scarce commodity, which is important for mangroves to thrive,” he explained.

Meanwhile, Ainsworth Riley, the Inter-American Institute for Co-operation on Agriculture agri-business specialist in Jamaica, highlighted the impact the red mud leak could have on farmlands.

“If it is concentrated, then it will increase the alkalinity of the soil, maybe beyond the level that is conducive for plant growth. Concentrated meaning it is above a certain acceptable limit, which is why, I suppose, they would try to contain it. If, for some reason or the other, it reaches an area where it is not supposed to reach, it is going to make the soil highly alkaline,” Riley told the Sunday Observer, noting that alkaline soil is less soluble than acidic soil, making it more difficult for plant roots to soak up necessary nutrients.

“Caustic soda is used widely in agriculture to reduce the acid levels in soils. Most plants prefer a pH of 5 to 6.5. At this level, the nutrients or elements that they need will become mobile and accessible to the plants. They can now absorb these nutrients for optimum performance,” he explained.

Riley added that though caustic soda can have positive effects on the soil, “it must be applied at a level that does not impact the chemical properties of the soil and renders it of little use to the soil. It would be good to know how concentrated the caustic soda from the alumina process is. It may need to be diluted before using it on the soil.”

As it relates to livestock and fisheries, the same exigency applies.

“Any over-concentration of anything will create problems for wildlife. Once you have an over-concentration above the acceptable limits, it will have a negative impact on different forms of wild life,” Riley said.

In 2010, the wall of a mud pond at an alumina refinery in west Hungary collapsed. An estimated 184 million gallons of the sludge escaped, flooding nearby villages killing seven people and injuring 120. Hungary’s prime minister at the time described the event as an “unprecedented ecological disaster”.

On August 8, 2016, China experienced what has been called the red mud pond burst in which the Xiangjiang Wanji Aluminium red mud storage was damaged in a mud landslide, resulting in heavy damage to village farmland.

Other notable red mud accidents are the overspill at Alunorte in Barcarena, Brazil, in 2009 and the 2019 red mud pond failure in Muri, India.