Alteo’s « Red sludge »: Pollution in Africa is no better than one in Europe

09/03/21

In 2019, the fight led by Surfrider Coastal Defenders, and supported by other environmental protection organizations, succeeded in reducing the pollution of the Mediterranean Sea caused by the spillage of toxic “red sludge” produced by Altéo’s Factory, in Gardanne, France. This victory was, unfortunately, short lived as it has  has been bought and plans to be relocated to the coastal country of Guinea in West Africa where environmental measures are less restrictive. 


Altéo Gardanne: a short-lived victory


By producing alumina, Alteo’s factory was creating two types of waste: a solid element (bauxite dust) and a liquid element (loaded with lye) which, when combined, created a form of “red sludge” coating the marine environment. More than 20 million tonnes of this infamous sludge oozed at the hearth of the Calanque National parc since 1967. By 2015, the release of bauxite dust had been halted, but the liquid element, with concentrations in certain parameters (mercury, aluminum, etc.) over 100 times higher than the rates specified in the Barcelona Convention, continued spilling into the sea due to an exemption authorization from the French State. 


Alongside 5 other organizations, Surfrider Foundation Europe formed a legal argument to stop this exemption and after several years of struggle against the alumina giant, the decision was made in the NGOs favor in 2019 and Alteo was ordered to reduce its emissions. In addition to greatly improving environmental health and water quality, this action was celebrated as a milestone victory because it pushed the industry to innovate and develop alternatives that improved environmental performance. 


One step forward, three steps backwards: The refinery relocates to Guinea 


The problem? Engaged in debt settlement proceedings, Alteo was recently purchased by the Guinean Industrial United Mining Supply (UMS). Alteo has existing ties to the West African country which is where the company imported its bauxite from, so the strengthening and localizing of this relationship is bad news for Surfrider’s fight.

The now-owner, UMS, wishes to relocate the refinery from Gardanne to Guinea. This transition would mean the transformation of bauxite into alumina – the most polluting activity of all – will be done on-site, within the country, directly after extraction. Building plans for the refinery are located in the city of Boke, positioned strategically between mine and waterways port area. The perfect location to develop the activity, but far from perfect for the environment!

  


If, in France, Alteo was driven to respect the Barcelona Convention for Mediterranean Sea protection and turn to less polluting techniques, Surfrider Europe is concerned that the relocation in Guinea - where environmental restrictions are less limiting – will sweep away this progress. Bauxite extraction activities already deteriorating the environment and water quality in Boké area, generating the same “red sludge” found in Gardanne. With this relocation, the refinery’s pollution will be far less monitored and the risk of toxic waste pouring into the nearby estuary and waterways is extremely high.


A tragic situation outside of our scope 


The factory relocation angers the NGO because now that operations will take place outside of Surfrider’s European scope, it cannot take direct legal action against this new threat of pollution.   

To adapt to new regional constraints, Surfrider turns to supporting local organizations and encouraging the development of Surfrider Africa. The goal is not to secure healthy, clean European waters. Oceans and Seas are all interconnected, and pollution, no matter where it is, impacts the entire planet. It is a single fight: the one against Ocean pollution. The Intergovernemental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is already sounding the alarm:the modification of the Ocean’s acidification and warming already threaten the ocean floor and the 680 million people living in coastal areas. Surfrider Europe is not fighting to see companies engage in environmental dumping by relocating their activities in countries without any restrictions. It’s legal ability may be bound by borders, but its mission reaches far beyond that to end Ocean pollution and its impact on populations across the entire world.  

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