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MOZAMBIQUE: The double standards of BHP Billiton

Co-written by Vanessa Cabanelas and Natalie Lowrey

BHP Billiton operates the Mozal aluminium smelter located 17 kilometres from Maputo, in a densely populated area in the outskirts of Matola city. Officially opened on 29 September 2000, the joint venture includes BHP Billiton (47.1 per cent), Mitsubishi Corporation (25 per cent), International Finance Corporation (IFC) (24 per cent), and the Government of Mozambique (3.9 per cent).

Civil society groups are challenging a six-month authorisation allowing aluminium giant BHP Billiton to emit potentially dangerous fumes from its Mozal smelter into the air without treating them first.

On 5 April 2010, Mozal announced at a public meeting its intention to bypass two Fumes Treatment Centres (FTCs) for six months at its carbon plant, which re-processes and produces anodes for use in producing aluminium. This matter was already in negotiation for special authorisation with the Ministry for Co-ordination of Environmental Affairs (MICOA). No further clarification on the issue was given except that it would cause no harm whatsoever to the surrounding communities or to the environment.

On 8 April 2010, Justiça Ambiental (Friends of the Earth Mozambique) wrote a letter to MICOA with copies sent to Mozal and several other ministries and institutions, requesting further clarification. The letter also highlighted the concern that granting this authorisation would allow BHP Billiton to emit potentially dangerous fumes from its Mozal smelter into the air without treating them first.

MICOA responded on 14 June stating among other things that Mozal required a special authorisation for the bypass, and for this they would have to submit an Environmental Management Plan, prepare a contingency plan to address any problems arising from this project, and also review their social responsibility policy. A few weeks later Justiça Ambiental learned that this special authorisation was in fact already issued at the time they received the letter from MICOA. Mozal never responded to the letter.

Local groups, including Justiça Ambiental and Livaningo in Maputo and Matola, filed a court action on 14 September 2010 to reverse the government’s decision, which they say is based on insufficient information about the potential impact on human health and the environment around the smelter.

Bypassing FTCs is potentially dangerous to the environment and the communities living nearby. FTCs act as a filter of the carbon plant’s emissions and prevent harmful pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere. Without this filter, compounds like hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide could potentially be released, causing hypocalcemia, cardiac and respiratory arrest, and possibly result in death.

The coalition of groups has drawn up a petition with over 14,000 signatures outlining health concerns. The petition, to be submitted to the government, asks that more information be made available before a decision is taken on the matter.

With close to one million residents living within two kilometres of BHP Billiton’s Mozal aluminium smelter, community representatives and organisations have already complained about damaged agricultural production, which is to the detriment of their livelihoods.

The outcry that BHP Billiton’s public consultation has been inadequate is compounded by the example of its operation across the border in South Africa at Richards Bay. The longest bypass of the FTCs at the Richards Bay plant lasted only 72 hours, and this resulted in objections and serious concerns about the impacts on the environment and health.

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