Norsk Hydro’s fatal spill in Brazil

From ToxicLeaks

Alunorte, the world’s largest alumina refinery[edit | edit source]

Norsk Hydro, established in 1903, is a Norwegian aluminium producer based in Oslo. It opened its first production facilities during the 1940s, beginning as part of the World War II effort to support Germany. Its domestic market production began in 1946 (the plant was acquired through a 1986 merger) and the company began in the 1970s to expand its aluminium operations into other countries. As of October 2017, Norsk Hydro had bauxite mines, alumina refineries, and fabrication facilities in more than 40 countries. Among them is Alunorte, which acquired all aluminium assets from the Brazilian company Vale in 2011, and operates the largest alumina refinery in the world at Barcarena in northern Pará state.

The Government of Norway has a 34 percent stake in Norsk Hydro, which also owns the bauxite mine at Paragominas some 244 kilometers away from the Barcarena port on the Atlantic Ocean, a part of the city of Belem that is a gateway to the environmentally crucial Amazon River. The strip-mined bauxite for Alunorte is sent through a pipeline that runs from Paragominas to Barcarena and its alumina processing.

Company denies spill forced by February storms[edit | edit source]

In January 2018, a series of destructive rainstorms killed two people and forced 1,700 others from their homes in southern Brazil. The severe storms and torrential downpours continued into February; a widely shared video from Recanto Ecológico Rio de la Plata showed rainforest hiking trails completely submerged on February 2, looking eerily like a diving experience. On February 14 and 15, record-setting rains of 123.2mm in just one hour – about one month’s worth – flooded Rio de Janeiro, killing at least 4.

To the north in Belem, the unusually hard deluge struck on February 16 and 17. As 200 mm of rain fell in just 12 hours, flooding at the Alunorte plant in Barcarena caused the tailing retention ponds to overflow, pushing the red mud and contaminated water into the nearby streets, homes and areas of rain forest.

At first, Alunorte officials denied any toxic spill because of flooding or any contamination associated with the rain-driven waste. “Technical surveys by different surveillance authorities have confirmed that there has been no leakage from or rupture of the bauxite residue deposits, also known as red mud,” the firm said on February 22. But by March 16, the company was apologizing to affected Brazilian residents. The transparency turnaround came too late to avoid exposures – or the death of an environmental activist.

Environmental and public health impacts[edit | edit source]

Residents living near the Barcarena refinery have for years complained of cancer and illness because of contaminated water. They say their water was poisoned, their fish stocks were toxic and dwindling, and their local produce was tainted. In February 2017, the Amazon Association of Mixed Race, Indigenous and Quilombolas, a community activist group known as Cainquiama, filed a USD$154 million lawsuit against the local Pará government, and Hydro Norsk’s Alunorte refinery and Albras aluminium smelter.

The February contamination made matters worse. By February 23, the Brazilian Ministry of Health’s Instituto Evandro Chagas confirmed that toxins from the Alunorte spill were discharged into the environment. Unsafe levels of lead, aluminum, sodium and other substances were found in sampling tests, and the communities of Bom Futuro, Vila Nova and Burajuba were advised not to drink the water.

At Bom Futuro, aluminium levels were 22mg per liter, far above Brazil’s legal limit of 0.1mg per liter. The level was nearly 6,000 mg per liter near a previously undiscovered pipeline that discharged untreated effluent into nearby soils and waters. High levels of nitrate, sulphate and chloride were detected. Norsk Hydro denied the pipe existed at first, but later released videos explaining why it existed – and leaked. They also denied that releases into Canal Velho from the overflowing tailing ponds were dangerous.

In a finding that contradicted both Hydro Norsk and local environmental officials, the health ministry directed that safe drinking water be provided for residents. Those residents say this was not the first leak – and they worry that their region will suffer a disaster like the November 2015 Samarco spill.

Assassination of Paulo Nascimento[edit | edit source]

By March 12, community and environmental activists found they had even more to fear than cancer and poisoned water. Paulo Nascimento, a 47-year-old leader of Cainquiama, was murdered in his home. His shooting was the second reported killing of environmental activists standing up to Alunorte – Fernando Pereira died on December 22 – and the Cainquiama members say it is tied to their community defense.

"It is as if we are the hunted and they are the hunters," said Bosco Oliveira Martins Júnior, who added that he’s been threatened and harassed since 2014 because of Alunorte. It’s an all-too-common story when citizens stand up against corporations and environmental violations in developing countries, and the reason why the United Nations rolled out a new environmental defender program in March 2018.

An attack on Cainquiama headquarters in December 2017 forced some members to flee the community. The group’s members filed an appeal for government protection, which was denied. “Hydro strongly disapproves any action of this nature and repudiates any type of association between its activities and actions against residents and communities of Barcarena,” the company said in a media statement.

Brazilian government response[edit | edit source]

Brazilian officials visually verified environmental damage by helicopter on February 17, and health ministry officials began testing that showed toxic contamination from the Alunorte red mud spill. On February 27, the Secretariat of Environment and Sustainability (SEMAS) in Pará forced Norsk Hydro to cut alumina production by 50 percent. Still the company denied responsibility for any spill damage, having initially said that the rain runoff caused the red-mud color due to natural soil characteristics.

Norsk Hydro actions and remedies[edit | edit source]

Following the flooding and toxic tailings spill, Norsk Hydro was forced to declare force majeure on March 2, citing the 50 percent production cut and uncertainty over steps needed to return to its capacity of 6.3 million tons per year. The company said Brazilian agencies including SEMAS, the Municipal Secretary of Environment and Economic Development of Barcarena (Semade), Municipal Secretary of Environment of Abaetetuba (Semea), the Civil Defense, Fire Brigade and Ibama all had found no proof of any spill.

Just days later, following the ministry of health results and orders to cut production at Paragominas as well, Ibama levied a USD$6.1 million fine against Alunorte because of the undisclosed leaking pipeline. On March 11, the company said again that it only released rainwater and there were no residue leaks into the adjacent water canal. Yet at the same time, Norsk Hydro also was under order by the public prosecutor in Pará to repair cracks in the pipe and block the entrance to Canal Velho within 48 hours.

On March 16, Norsk Hydro announced it was investing $64.8 million at Barcanera for water treatment system upgrades. “The pressure on Alunorte’s water treatment system most likely will increase in the years ahead because of a trend of more extreme weather,” the company said, citing the February rain incident. “We take this immediate step to bring Alunorte up to a new environmental standard.”

Norsk Hydro also issued a long overdue apology to the community that has for years paid the price of its environmental practices – and lost at least two environmental activists to violence in the process. “Hydro acknowledges that people in Barcarena are genuinely concerned about water contamination. The local communities have not received the information they deserve, and they have not found us trustworthy,” said CEO Svein Richard Brandtzæg. “We accept that to build trust, we will have to make changes in our own attitudes, in our actions, and in our ways of working with the local communities.”