A spill at Hydro’s majority-owned Alunorte alumina refinery in Brazil in 2009 has resulted in a series of new claims in a local small-claims court. The spill, where water with red mud and bauxite residue overflowed the drainage channels around a deposit, occurred two years before Hydro acquired a majority stake in the world’s largest alumina refinery.
The lawsuits, about 6,000 in total, have been submitted before a small-claims court in Barcarena, in the state of Pará, but have still not been served to Alunorte, where Hydro increased its ownership interest from 34 to 91 percent in 2011. Hydro is not yet familiar with the details of the new cases. The court in Barcarena has confirmed receipt of the lawsuits by the company's legal counsel.
"The court has informally notified us that due to the holiday season, it could still take several weeks before we are formally served with all the lawsuits," says executive vice president Johnny Undeli, head of Hydro's Bauxite and Alumina operations..
"We are taking the lawsuits seriously, however, we find it difficult to see how the plaintiffs can succeed with their claims if related to the 2009 incident," says Undeli.
Unusually heavy rainfall
Alunorte's red mud spill happened after an unusually heavy and long rainfall in April 2009. At its most intense, the region had 105 millimeters of rain in just 90 minutes. The extreme rain made water containing red mud from the deposit seep into the Murucupi river. In 2010, Alunorte was fined nearly BRL 20 million after the spill, but has not accepted the fine.
Both Alunorte and independent authorities have made repeated tests of the water quality in the Murucupi river as well as in the much larger Pará river. The tests show that the spill has had no significant effects on the water or on life in and around the river.
15 court cases
A total of 15 individuals have previously disagreed with this conclusion and have brought an action against Alunorte, by claiming that fish had disappeared in the river or that crops had deteriorated after the spill. However, it has not been proven that the incident has caused such effects.
Alunorte lost the first two cases, but won the 13 next in the first court. All the 15 cases were appealed and are now being tried in the state capital Belém. A judgment has not yet been served, and it is not known when this will happen.
After the incident in 2009, the company strengthened both the deposit and the drainage channels from the deposit to prevent spills from recurring. The drainage channels were heightened and lined with the same waterproof membrane that is lining the basins, to prevent seepage into the soil. When Hydro took over as majority owner, the company decided to drill 10 groundwater wells around the plant. This activity is on course and will be finished by August. Previously, the existing monitoring wells were only surrounding the red mud deposit.
In addition to natural occurrence of substances such as silicon, iron, calcium, titanium and natrium in the soil, red mud contains around 12 grams per liter of caustic soda, which is part of the process when bauxite is refined into alumina. Most of this caustic soda is recycled and reused in the refining process.
All drainage and rainwater from the red mud deposit is collected and led to a processing plant where it is cleaned and neutralized before it is emitted into the Pará river. The pH value (acidity) and water quality are tested and adjusted continuously – around the clock. In addition, comprehensive measurements of the water quality are made regularly several places in the river. The results of these measurements are reported to the authorities in Barcarena.
The threshold for taking matters to court appears considerably lower in Brazil than in Norway and many other European countries, and it is said not to be unusual for large Brazilian companies to have several hundred cases pending trial in court.
"These numbers may give our situation a certain perspective. However, we wish to run our business in such a way that we may avoid the strain cases like these represent for our neighbors, our local community and ourselves. We work for continuous improvement of our operations, not least relating to the environment, and therefore we take this situation seriously. In addition, we want to strengthen the dialogue between our units and the local community, for example through more transparency than what has been usual in Brazil," Undeli says.