Pollution penalty – Windalco subjected to heavy punishment for Rio Cobre diasater
The Government has moved to impose heavy punishment on UC Rusal Windalco for the release of “thousands of litres of harmful trade effluent” into the Rio Cobre last week that resulted in a fish kill which affected several species, impacted other aquatic organisms, and posed a danger to domestic water supply for tens of thousands of Jamaicans.
On Friday, National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) CEO Peter Knight disclosed that, in addition to prosecuting the alumina refinery, NEPA will relieve the company of US$771,558.69 (more than $117 million), the full amount of its environmental performance bond.
Knight told journalists at a press briefing that the agency has already written to the commercial bank holding the environmental performance bond posted by UC Rusal Windalco, as a condition for the operation of the refinery and its effluent holding pond, to recover the full amount in favour of the Natural Resources Conservation Authority (NRCA).
He said the company must also concurrently replenish the environmental performance bond as soon as the drawdown is completed so that it remains active and in compliance with the conditions laid down in its environment permit/environmental licence. In fact, Knight said NEPA is considering whether there needs to be a re-evaluation of the quantum of the environmental performance bond and the terms associated with its operation.
He said UC Rusal Windalco operatives will, on Monday, be served with legal documents, among them a notice of intention (NOI) to suspend the environmental permit and environmental licence. That NOI will be predicated on, among other things, the immediate reduction of the volume of trade effluent being held in the effluent holding pond as well as fast-tracking the completion of an additional holding pond.
“So UC Rusal Windalco will leave the meeting with the legal instruments in hand. The serving of the notice of intention to suspend is going to have a significant impact on the operations of the facility. Note that we are not only dealing with the volumes of trade effluent being held in the effluent holding ponds, but we are also dealing with the completion of the effluent holding pond, the environmental performance bond, and the environmental permits that UC Rusal has in hand that allow the company to undertake mining operations,” Knight said.
“The strategy, or how we will pursue that, will have an impact as to whether mining operations can exist,” he added.
The NEPA head also slammed the bauxite company for what he termed the “devastating pollution incident” which, he said, caused “tremendous impacts and damage to the social and economic fabric of residents, businesses, and communities; possibly impacting their health and welfare”.
“Let me state categorically and openly that what occurred over the past eight days is totally unacceptable and that the offending party — UC Rusal Windalco — will be made to answer for breaching the Wild Life Protection and the Natural Resources Conservation Authority acts, as well as its environmental permits and environmental licences,” Knight told journalists.
He said further action will be pursued against Windalco, including mandating it to improve its environmental accountability and stewardship to prevent any recurrence of similar pollution incidents from the company and any source whatsoever.
Pointing out that government facilities and investments owned by the National Water Commission and the National Irrigation Commission operate along the river, Knight said, “We can state with authority and without fear of rebuttal — as our investigations and assessments have conclusively determined — that the UC Rusal Windalco bauxite refinery, located just outside Ewarton, is the source of the pollution and contaminants that impacted the river.”
He said NEPA, in its own assessments, has found that, “UC Rusal Windalco, in losing control of its processes, has caused the release of thousands of litres of harmful trade effluent, containing sodium hydroxide (caustic soda), from the effluent holding pond at the Charlemont Mud Stacking and Drying Facility, more commonly known as the red mud lake, into the environment by way of the tributaries of the Rio Cobre.”
Knight said although the input occurred in the upper region of the river, the entire span of the river, which eventually empties into Kingston Harbour, showed signs of being impacted by the contaminants from the plant.
“Regardless of the challenges the company faces, the agency is firm that the pollution incident cannot go unpunished, and that UC Rusal Windalco will be held responsible, accountable and prosecuted,” he added.
UC Rusal Windalco had been prosecuted for two earlier pollution incidents resulting in breaches of its environmental permits and environmental licences, and is presently before the St Catherine Parish Court.
On Friday, Knight said NEPA is awaiting the decision of the court in those matters.