Hindalco’s fatal red mud disaster in Muri

From ToxicLeaks

Hindalco corporation and environmental record[edit | edit source]

Hindalco Industries is the metals-business operation of India’s Aditya Birla Group. Along with its Novelis subsidiary, Hindalco operates in 12 countries, including a strong domestic presence: aluminium and copper production facilities in Karnataka, Odisha (Orissa) and Jharkhand provinces. The Muri Works of Hindalco – which were the site of a red mud spill on April 9 – is home to India’s oldest alumina refinery.

Operations at Muri began in 1948 along the banks of the Swarnarekha River, which forms the border with West Bengal province as the river courses some 395 kilometers to the Bay of Bengal. Aerial views of the Hindalco site reveal a sprawling complex that stretches for about two kilometers at the river’s edge, including a massive red-mud tailings pond at the south end near the town of Lagam. The pond contains  the toxic byproducts of Bayer-process alumina production, as it does at similar sites around the globe.

All told, the Muri refinery covers 135 hectares of land, relying on its own coal-fired power to produce aluminium and related products. Hindalco says its commitment to sustainability ensures compliance with air and effluent standards so there is “no material impact on community health, agricultural produce or livestock productivity,” and all waste generation is meant to protect its facility neighbors.

While the company also boasts of its 2012 GreentechGold Award for environmental management and its regional three-star rating for health, safety and environment, it is no stranger to environmental and human rights defenders who have opposed bauxite mines and related alumina processes since at least 2006.

Fatal April 2019 spill in Jharkhand[edit | edit source]

Hindalco’s environmental record finally caught up with the company on April 9, 2019, when the retaining wall failed at the Muri plant’s red-mud tailing pond – one so large it appears like a lake on Google Maps and is marked “filled caustic pond” as if it were any other landmark or natural feature of the topography.

Yet natural it is not, and the breach at the Muri site released a toxic flood of red mud. At least one worker died and four others were injured as they were buried by the mud flow, which caused a landslide onto adjacent railroad tracks. The same flow now threatens the Swarnarekha River, which sustains millions of Indians in a region already hard-hit by severe deforestation, rapid urbanization, and fast soil erosion. Experts at nearby Ranchi University have warned the river is quickly drying up, and its lower levels are reducing the region’s water table. But that also increases the concentration of toxic chemicals in the water.

The Hindalco Muri site has long been identified as part of the problem. The Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board lists the aluminium operations at No. 2 on its list of “highly polluting industries.” It complained three months ago about lapses at the tailings pond and vowed to hold Hindalco Muri responsible. In December 2018, officials from nearby Silli also met with Harsh Vardhan – head of the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change – to express fears about Hindalco Muri pollution.

Red mud and its environmental impacts[edit | edit source]

High-resolution satellite imagery of the Hindalco Muri tailing pond breach shows red mud flowing primarily to the west and south, but a narrow ravine runs across the south wall and into the Swarnarekha River just meters away. “If proper precaution is not taken immediately the dump containing alkaline liquid could go into the river through an adjacent drain,” said a local resident.

That would mean the caustic mud slurry would contaminate the waterway with sodium hydroxide – in other words, lye – along with sodium carbonate, sodium aluminate, trace heavy metals and other byproducts. It also releases red mud particulates into the air. The highly alkaline mix destroys agricultural soil, seeps into groundwater, and can cause respiratory irritation and other public health consequences in its airborne form. Across India, more than 4 million tons of red mud is produced each year, and the tragically fatal Muri Works failure has renewed attention to what is a national crisis.

“The Hindalco caustic soda dump wash off in Muri was a disaster in the making,” said one political opposition leader, who confirmed local officials had “raised the issue repeatedly” but to no avail. As recently as March 27, five senior Hindalco officials assured officials the tailing pond was just fine.

India’s response to Hindalco accident[edit | edit source]

Hindalco Muri operations were initially brought to a halt in 2017 because of environmental and safety failures, before resuming in 2018. Following the April 2019 red mud spill, the company’s "consent to operate" was again suspended pending investigation into the tailing pond breach.  The Jharkhand State Pollution Control Board established a four-member committee to review the technical construction of the tailing pond design while also filing notices against its two builders, the Mumbai and Roorkee IITs.

It’s obvious that Hindalco did not invest enough in ensuring the integrity of the red mud pond. Not only was it not designed for this amount of tailings, but the storage was not properly built from the beginning. As photos from the spill show, there were almost no protective fences ringfencing the perimeter. For an international company taking pride in its environmental accolades, the spill is nothing short of a scathing indictment of its business practices and should be cause for soul searching for its executives.

Hindalco said preliminary inspections indicated no material damage to neighboring land and waterways, but that’s little comfort (if true) for the family of the worker who was killed and the communities living in fear of environmental catastrophe. The incident also underscores the challenge for Greenpeace and other environmental activists and organizations that have opposed Hindalco in the past, and find themselves increasingly silenced by an Indian government they say aligns itself with industry rather than affected communities.