Toxic effects of red mud

From ToxicLeaks

Red mud is a waste product generated in the industrial production of aluminium and is one of the most challenging disposal problems in the mining and extractive industries.

Composition and environmental impact[edit | edit source]

Red mud is a highly alkaline substance full of oxidized iron, silica, unbleached residual aluminium, and titanium oxide. Between 1 and 1.5 tons of red mud is produced with each ton of aluminium separate from bauxite ore, using the Bayer Process.

Production and disposal of red mud[edit | edit source]

There is evidence to suggest that the aggressive expansion of the aluminium industry and related environmental disasters are not adequately addressed by the Chinese government. China currently produces over 40 million tons of it every year and stores a total of 200 million tons of nationwide. In the event of a containment breach, which could be caused from something as common as climate-related flooding, the toxic substance can spread over a large area.

Red mud disposal is subject to environmental regulation in many countries, but compliance failures are common – and especially so in China, where poor environmental practices driven by profit motives run counter to President Xi Jinping’s environmental goals. The estimated global annual production of red mud in recent years is 150 million metric tons, much of which is produced by China’s thirty aluminium smelters. In addition to active sites, China has an estimated 50 closed sites with red mud reservoirs.

Hongqiao red mud storage[edit | edit source]

In 2012, Hongqiao announced that it would build facilities for producing alumina using coal ash. By 2014, the firm indicated that these facilities in the Zouping Binzhou Beihai Development Zone had produced 4 million metric tons of alumina. Yet satellite imagery suggests the Binzhou facilities use bauxite, not coal ash. The images clearly indicate the presence of toxic red mud. The financial reason for continuing to refine bauxite is simple: Converting coal ash to alumina is substantially more expensive. The potential consequences in Shandong could be dire, as the region is China’s most significant producer of wine and other agricultural products. At Hongqiao, an accidental red mud release would rival the Ajka sludge spill in 2010, when an estimated 30 million metric tons of red mud was released over a 15 square mile area in Hungary, killing 10 people while injuring 150; it has taken years to clean up at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. The volume of red mud stored at Binzhou is unknown, but reasonably comparable to that released at Ajka, while 7.8 million metric tons – based on current production rates – are added each year to the reservoirs. The red mud reservoirs are surrounded by agricultural land, so the economic impact and damage done to China’s food supply with even a small amount of toxic mud release could both be catastrophic and long-lasting.

Notable incidents[edit | edit source]

Hungary’s 2010 red mud disaster[edit | edit source]

On October 4, 2010, the failure of a dam at the Ajkai Timfoldgyar Zrt alumina plant in Hungary caused a red mud containment reservoir to breach, sending a river of the toxic sludge cascading into the nearby villages of Kolontal and Devecser. The accident happened when the northwest corner of the Number 10 reservoir at Ajkai failed, releasing a million cubic meters of red mud from containment. Suspected causes of the accident included extreme weather, which had left Eastern Europe unusually rain-soaked that season and may have contributed to the soil instability and volume pressure that caused the dam holding back red mud to fracture and fail. However, aerial imagery taken in June 2010 just months before the incident showed a damaged and clearly leaking pond, suggesting a prior compromise of the containment wall’s integrity and an accident that could have been avoided.

The breach in the six-meter-high wall caused a red mud flow that was estimated by witnesses at 2 to 3 meters high, destroying everything in its path. In minutes, the nearby town of Devecser was struck by a red mud tsunami that washed homes from their foundations, cars from the street and bridges from their moorings. People who fled to rooftops were fortunate to escape; the red mud claimed 10 lives, and injured 150 others, many with severe burns from the alkaline mix.

In all, seven villages were impacted. The Marcal and Raba rivers were poisoned, and the red mud eventually reached the Danube, killing vegetation and wildlife in its path. The Greenpeace organization took soil samples the next day, with results that included 110 mg/kg for arsenic; 1.3 mg/kg for mercury; 660 mg/kg for chromium; 40 mg/kg for antimony, 270 mg/kg for nickel, and 7 mg/kg for cadmium. Air quality was affected by particulate matter was well.

On October 18, 2010, Hungarian Aluminium MAL announced an assistance program for victims of the red mud spill. On December 8, a Damage Relief and Reconstruction Office was announced. The Hungarian government spent 127 billion Hungarian forints in disaster relief, and the cleanup and rebuilding lasted for years. This was the first red mud spill of its magnitude, so scientists weren’t sure what to expect. Researchers in 2014 found less long-term damage to the rivers than initially feared, thanks to Hungary’s quick response and remediation efforts.

Much of the damage was mitigated and the communities have since rebuilt. The company paid a USD$647 million fine for environmental damage, but no one at MAL Hungarian Aluminium, the owner of the plant, has ever been held accountable for the costly catastrophe.

Zoltán Bakonyi, chief executive officer of MAL was arrested, but released on Oct. 13, 2010. On Oct. 12, 2010, the company's management was taken over by the state. A 2016 acquittal ruling for 15 defendants in the Ajkai case was overturned in February 2017, however, and a Hungarian court has ordered a retrial.

Red mud in China[edit | edit source]

The red mud problem in China has grown during periods of demand in the aluminium industry. The problem is only going to get worse if China’s irresponsible policies toward aluminium production continue. In 2000 China produced a relatively paltry 2.5 million metric tons of alumina. Since then, and thanks in part to massive subsidies from Beijing, China’s capacity has mushroomed to 59 million metric tons in 2015.

Some of the worst industry disasters involving red mud demonstrate a lack of vigilance on the part of aluminium production companies, in terms of safety, aided by the failure of Chinese authorities to act on violations. They also reflect misguided corporate finance priorities that exact a terrible toll on the environment, affecting both land and water resources and causing long-term effects on human health.

Xinfa Group[edit | edit source]

Shandong Xinfa Aluminum & Electricity Group Ltd. (China) is one of the largest private aluminium companies in China and globally among the top 10 producers. The firm includes more than six dozen individual companies, controls nearly US$25 billion in assets, and employs upwards of 60,000 people.

While most modern aluminium firms have found environmentally responsible methods for properly handling the highly toxic mixture of solid and metallic oxides that is red mud, Xinfa has done little. In the summer of 2010, protests erupted outside the Xinfa Aluminium Plant in Guangxi Province. Villagers said that the plant had been polluting the area’s water supply with red mud since 2007, causing it to become undrinkable. After armed police and government officials blocked the plant’s entrance, Xinfa sent approximately 300 plant employees into the crowd to bludgeon protesters, leading to several injuries. Two injured elderly protesters were reportedly shoved into a river in the melee.

Chiping, Shandong province, is the birthplace of Xinfa and it is where a high level of the firm’s operations take place. Unfortunately for residents, the company has essentially encircled it with a number of plants that have continuously polluted the area since Xinfa’s founding in 1972. An investigation carried out by China Youth Daily in 2014 revealed that the area was plagued by significant pollution in its groundwater and the waters of the Yellow River. According to locals, the water was toxic to both humans and crops. Groundwater was yellow and oily, and all potable water was imported from neighboring counties. Xinfa maintained red mud reservoirs in the area and, upon investigation by the reporter, red mud was found to be streaming from the reservoirs on a continual basis and in large quantities. Further, approximately six miles outside of town, Xinfa was maintaining several 1,400’feet-deep wells to which the firm pumped wastewater that is assumed to consist largely of red mud.

As a result of the pollution problems in Chiping, Xinfa was investigated by China’s environmental protection agency. The 2013 investigation found a red mud retention pool containing up to 1.8 million cubic feet of the substance was improperly constructed and therefore leaked. The improper storage led to seepage into ditches and ponds and, ultimately, reached the local water table. The firm was added to the groundwater pollution list and fined as a result. The agency again cited Xinfa in 2015, indicating that it lacked desulfurization and denitrification facilities in its sewage-treatment plant, leading to a “significant social impact.”

Due to the bad press, Xinfa engaged in a token “green washing” campaign designed to salvage the firm’s reputation. In summer 2015, the firm organized a public environmental impact assessment involving the construction of a new red mud discharge facility in Guanxi province. Later that year, Xinfa made a show of destroying seven cooling towers in conjunction with a modernization project. Possibly as a result of this green sheen activity, Xinfa was removed from the groundwater pollution company list in 2015.

Though it has found itself subject to punitive action by the state over its uncurbed polluting practices, that does not appear to slow Xinfa down. Over the past three years, Xinfa has been cited 30 separate times by various government authorities for environmental transgressions including: building without proper environmental impact assessments, significant dust emission, mismanagement of wastewater, red mud discharges, and emission of prohibited levels of nitrogen oxides and sulfur dioxide.

Xinfa has expended great effort in building and protecting its reputation as a low-cost provider of aluminium. Unfortunately, the low-cost aluminium it sells comes at a high cost to the people and the environment in the vicinity of its operations, and there is little to suggest that will change anytime soon.

Sanmenxia[edit | edit source]

On December 15, 2016, a landslide occurred at 6:30 p.m. local time, causing the red-mud reservoir in Mianchi County to fail. The reservoir was operated by East Hope Sanmenxia Aluminum Co., Ltd. The breach flooded the area with toxic alumina production tailings, causing the immediate death of at least two people as the deluge reached nearby towns. Emergency management officials, including occupational safety, health department and law enforcement professionals, organized a response shortly after the dam’s failure. That process continues as affected communities seek to recover.

It was not the first time Sanmenxia had come to the attention of Chinese officials. Experts inspected the red-mud reservoir after a different red mud spill in August 2016 and required Sanmenxia to conduct their own inspections and submit the findings. In July 2016, government inspectors checked the East Hope red mud field following reports about ground water contamination. They found no proof to substantiate the complaint, they said, and the company was exonerated shortly afterwards.

East Hope Sanmenxia has yet to be held responsible for any gross negligence, following the massive red mud release in December. In the Chinese legal framework, specifically the Regulation on Reporting and Investigation and Handling of Production Safety Accidents law, any accident resulting in fewer than three deaths is classified as an “ordinary” accident, and the jurisdiction remains at the local level. Under a related statute detailing penalties, municipal governments may impose fines on companies whose actions lead to casualties, but the minimal sum of between ¥100,000 and ¥200,000 ($14,600 and $29,000) is often not a deterrent. A more substantial penalty is equal to between 40 percent and 80 percent of the company’s total income the previous year. As of the last reports available, no evidence that such a fine has been levied appears in notices on either Sanmenxia’s or Mianchi County’s websites.

Henan Xiangjiang Wanji Aluminum Co., Ltd.[edit | edit source]

At the Henan Xiangjiang Wanji Aluminum Co., Ltd. Company, the weakening dam shut down plant operations in August 2016, and 300 residents were evacuated away from the imperiled reservoir. The county government called in industry experts to inspect all four red-mud reservoirs in the area after the spill.

Red mud in Malaysia[edit | edit source]

While China's economic rise has been costly to Chinese – filling the polluted skies and compromising the lives of tens of millions of migrant workers, it now appears that neighboring countries will bear the cost too. Chinese demand for aluminium set off an illegal bauxite mining hysteria in Malaysia starting in 2014, wreaking environmental havoc as radioactive dust and red mud contaminated Malaysia’s air, water and soil.

The unsustainable bauxite mining is producing ongoing pollution and health issues for the people living close to the mines. The red mud residue is full of radioactive or carcinogenic metals or minerals. It is generating radioactive dust that is carried by wind to contaminate large areas. Che Long bin Che Ali, a farmer from the bauxite mining region, refused to give mining companies access to his land but he is still paying the price of the reckless mining anyway. Countless lorries pass his house carrying red ore, covering his house and land with a layer of red dust which has made his orchard trees die. "I am not angry with the bauxite industry. I know it brings income for the government, but it must follow proper regulations. Don't pollute our roads, don't pollute the rivers,” says Che Long bin Che Ali.

Yet the miners have exploited a regulatory loophole. Indeed, environment impact assessments are only required when plots larger than 250 hectares are exploited. Therefore, many companies intentionally leased small areas to avoid having to do the assessment. The price of this callousness will, sadly, be paid by people who live there. Dr. Wong Ruen Yuan estimates that pollution is likely to cause respiratory and skin issues in the near future and lung cancers in the long run. This causes Fuziah Salleh to voice his bitterness about the disaster : "The greed, the need, of certain people, outweighed welfare of the common people and the authorities allowed it. And I think there is a lesson to be learned.". In January 2016, the Malaysian government decided to halt the pollution caused by the mining and clean up areas contaminated by bauxite dust, including the mining areas, the roads and the Kuantan port where stockpiles had been polluting the sea. However, the timing of the suspension was incredibly suspicious. It coincided with the Chinese economy's slowdown and subsequent decrease of bauxite demand, which saw prices plummet. The moratorium could just as easily be seen as a strategic pause until market rebound, to command the best price for bauxite.

Meanwhile, Malaysians are taking matters into their own hands to protect communities. When three children died in an abandoned, red-tainted bauxite mining pond in February 2017, residents with heavy equipment rechanneled the sludge to drain the pond near their homes. While admirable, the resident association’s effort to build a temporary channel was done without the technical expertise of bauxite industry remediation experts, and certainly not mining companies: A local security guard had to file a police report to even identify the companies involved, much less hold them accountable for a cleanup.

See also[edit | edit source]