Aluminium refinery sickens Jamaicans
Three years after Chinese state-owned mining giant Jiuquan Iron and Steel Company (JISCO) acquired the largest bauxite to alumina refinery in Jamaica, residents want the company to relocate and to better compensate them for the plant’s adverse health effects.
More than 30 residents in Upper and Lower Warminster in the southwest parish of St. Elizabeth say mining activities have compromised air quality, leaving households with spiraling health care costs. Clean water is now less accessible and some small-scale farmers say they have abandoned production as they dig deeper in their pockets to put food on the table.
“The company’s future is well secure, but what about ours?” one local resident asked.
Jamaican officials lobbied and secured the US$300 million investment from the government of Gansu province in north-central China, where JISCO is headquartered, in 2016. It acquired the refinery from Russian conglomerate UC Rusal. JISCO then invested a further US$60 million to reopen the plant, which was closed in 2009 as the global financial crisis deepened.
Jamaican and Chinese officials celebrated the deal – one of the largest investments by an international company in Jamaica – as a “win-win” development, which created 800 new jobs. Data from Jamaica’s central bank shows that it drove foreign direct investment above pre-crisis levels.
For communities on the frontline, however, the impacts are most keenly felt on their health and property.
On March 6, more than 30 residents met to lament what they say as JISCO’s blatant disregard for their right to a healthy environment. They condemned the company’s compensation scheme – many have settled but cite pressure to do so – as undermining.
They also allege the company will only cover their medical expenses if they visit its designated doctor, who prescribes the same treatment irrespective of the complaint; antibacterial soap, eye drops, and cough medicine.
“My daughter took sick, they wanted me to take her to their doctor. I sent her, and she came back, and things got worse. I said to them, I need to take her to my doctor,” one resident explained.
Warminster is one of seven communities around the Nain area where the refinery is situated. It lies approximately 30 minutes outside the main parish town of Santa Cruz. Like the other communities, there is no formal water infrastructure, so residents must collect and store it themselves.
We did sign it, they just bring it and say you must sign so that you get the cheque
Several residents said they’ve had to stop using their facilities.
“When the dust blow, if you have an air-tank, it wash off from the zinc on the housetop in the tank…it hurt the children them. It hurt your belly… we either have to throw it away or use it to wash, we cannot drink it.”
To rectify these water woes, JISCO/Alpart apparently sends one to two trucks of water to the community monthly. But residents say that too is problematic.
“The [dust] blow and…wash into the parish tank and we have to drink the water because we have no other source.”
Some residents also point out that pollution caused by the plant has complicated existing illnesses. Asthmatic 65-year old Keith Peters (not his real name) said that over the last two years, he’s developed a lung infection due to the pollution from the plant.
“When this thing blow, they take so long to send you to [the] doctor that the asthma, it develop on me then it start to almost lock me off. I waited too long and by the time I went to the hospital, my lungs were infected.”
An 81-year old resident who uses a walking stick said pollution from the plant causes her to cough to the point she urinates herself.
Another 75-year-old community member said she and her granddaughter each had to pay $19,000 (US$152) for glasses to halt the deterioration of their vision. She claims the company only provided $7,500 (US$60) in compensation to her family. Jamaicans earn on average $7,000 (US$56) weekly.
I thought I was only signing to get compensation, not signing away my rights
Several residents presented a document which appears to be a Settlement and Release Agreement that JISCO requires each resident to sign once they claim redress. But many argue that the agreement is being forced upon them since they were not able to read its terms or get legal advice.
“We did sign it, they just bring it and say you must sign so that you get the cheque, it wasn’t like them say it’s a contract nor nothing. It’s just to be sure to get it,” a 65-year-old resident claimed.
One resident told Diálogo Chino: “I thought I was only signing to get compensation, not signing away my rights.”
Exporting industries – and pollution
As growth slowed in China and Premier Li Keqiang’s “war on pollution” intensified, China began exporting the problem of its industrial overcapacity to its external markets.
This involved developing heavy – often high-polluting – industries with many of its trading partners, with supposed mutual benefits. A Chinese ministry of foreign affairs’ 2016 policy paper pledges to develop “production capacity” in Latin American countries.
In China, government officials reduced aluminum smelting and refining primarily to protect air quality, yet secured new supply lines overseas to drive JISCO’s growth. CRU Group predicted that JISCO became the tenth largest aluminum producer worldwide and fifth largest aluminum producer in China following the acquisition.
the number of violations Jisco is suspected of committing in China
Meanwhile, the company’s environmental record is under scrutiny. Records from the Beijing-based Institute of Public & Environmental Affairs (IPE) show that between 2016 and 2018, JISCO committed or is suspected of committing 16 environmental infractions.
In 2016 and 2017, following tougher enforcement of environmental laws, one of its companies, the Gansu Dongxing Aluminum Industry, received a C rating in its environmental credit assessment. The company was the only large industrial enterprise to receive a C in the whole of Gansu province in 2016.
Affiliated companies have committed other environmental infractions, including Gansu Jiu Steel Group Hongxing Iron & Steel Co, which was fined in 2017 when its concentration of smoke and dust exceeded national emissions standards.
JISCO settles in Jamaica
As JISCO establishes itself in Jamaica, it also plans to build a liquid natural gas plant to facilitate a second alumina refinery as part of a larger plan to develop an industrial park and a special economic zone. The project is expected to cost the company $US3 billion.
But residents fear the plans leave them with a bleak future.
“I have never in all my life experienced this. When I cough, it’s like my entire stomach is tearing apart. During the night, when I cough and spit, it has a colour like what you would see on a [rusty copper coloured] 50ȼ coin.”
While some residents are pondering a class action lawsuit against JISCO, others are calling for the creation of an independent body to determine the amount they are compensated. Some want to be able to consult their own doctor and be reimbursed. All said they yearn to live again in a healthy environment.
When contacted for comment, the company said that, regretfully, it was not able to guarantee a formal response, or when this would be forthcoming.