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By John Helmer, Moscow

United Company Rusal has triggered three recent pollution crises in Ukraine, Russia and Guinea, and in the latest one, frozen red dust from alumina refining operations at the Ukrainian city of Nikolaev coated a five square kilometre area last week, making it look to residents like a Martian landscape.

This is the same Rusal which has issued this call to “save Norilsk Nickel” from some of the worst environmental practices it has found in Russia: according to Rusal, Norilsk Nickel is responsible for one breath in ten of every mouthful of polluted air that blows over Russia.

Today, according to the Rusal funded website, “management of Norilsk Nickel is not focused on minimising environmental pollution levels, whereas environmental improvement is a priority for UC RUSAL that has extensive experience in this sphere.” If you want more reassurance, try the Rusal


That is, if you are in an environmental zone secure from air or waterborne pollutants. On that account, you will have to avoid Nikolaev, Ukraine; Friguia and Conakry, Guinea; and the Krasnoyarsk krai, western Siberia.

According to this week’s reports from Southwestern Ukraine, waste, aka red sludge in the aluminium industry, produced from Rusal’s alumina refinery at Nikolaev has been blowing in the air and coating the ground. Rusal has responded to reporters asking questions: “the dust that appeared as a result of freezing was raised by the wind. The situation has now normalized.”

Rusal’s Martian dust, or red sludge, is toxic because of its high alkaline properties. The experts estimate that around 45% is iron-oxide, which is what gives the stuff its redness. Another 10% to 15% is aluminium oxide; a further 10% to 15% is silicon oxide; and there are smaller quantities of calcium oxide, titanium dioxide and sodium oxide. Try a PH dipstick in the Nikolaev area this week, and this is what you would see:

The BBC has reported Paul Younger, a professor at the Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability at Newcastle University, as saying the “fundamental problem is that it has a tendency to be strongly alkaline”. In high concentrations, Rusal’s red dust is comparable to kitchen and toilet-bowl cleansers. It can burn skin, lungs and eyes, and if ingested through poisoned fish, meat or vegetables, it can damage the digestive tract.

Rusal’s announcement on the Nikolaev release is that the by-products emitted from the refinery have “no harmful effects on the air or soil. In Nikolayev, the sludge goes through a six-stage filtration process and does not contain caustic soda.”

In the west African republic of Guinea this week, the local media have reported that the government sent armed security forces to halt trains carrying alumina, in its white powder form, from being delivered from the Rusal-owned refinery at Friguia (Fria) to port and then loaded
on board ships bound for Nikolaev.

Guinea’s newly appointed environment minister Papa Koly Kourouma, was reported by Reuters as saying that a government decision on the pollution issue was imminent. “You cannot continue work while polluting,” Kourouma said. Rusal has been charged by the Guinean authorities in connection with several pollution incidents related to alumina by-product spills over the past three years.

Rusal has responded to the Guinea pollution crisis by issuing statements to news agencies denying that the rail movements and port loading process have been halted. The port situation, the company claims, is not connected to the alumina cargoes. “We hope that the respective governmental bodies will clear up this misunderstanding. This information is contrary to the reality. The situation with the port is not connected with RusAl’s activities. RusAl’s facilities work as normal, and deliveries of bauxite and alumina proceed according to the schedule.”

In 2008, when Guinean protesters halted the trains, and shots were fired by the security forces then on Rusal’s side, Rusal announced the rail blockage “does not affect the company’s overall performance targets”.

Indeed, it has not. In the latest report by Rusal of its year-end financial results, issued on February 14, production of bauxite at the Kindia and Friguia mines in Guinea jumped 9% and 24%, respectively, over their 2009 levels, to make 5 million tonnes altogether. That represents 42% of Rusal’s entire bauxite production worldwide.

The alumina report shows Guinean production up last year by 13% to 597,000 tonnes. Friguia alumina comprises 8% of the company’s global total. Nikolaev in the Ukraine is dependent on Guinean bauxite, and it is vital in Rusal’s chain of production of alumina to feed the aluminium smelters in Russia. In 2010, Nikolaev turned out 1.5 million tonnes of alumina, up 3% on the year before. That amounts to 20% of the Rusal aggregate.

Next to alumina, electricity is the most important ingredient for aluminium production – and without cheap Siberian electricity Rusal could not continue to compete in the marketplace. This is what makes significant this month’s disclosure by Rostekhnadzor (RTN) of Rusal’s safety and environmental compliance violations.

RTN is the Federal Service for Ecological, Technological and Nuclear Supervision. In a letter dated February 22, the agency announced that inspection of construction of the Boguchanskaya hydroelectric power plant has uncovered multiple violations of standards and regulations. For years, these have been charged against Rusal, the principal investor in the project to generate new electricity for its smelters, by a coalition of local, regional and national environmental groups.

The Boguchanskaya dam and hydro-electric generating works are located on the Angara River, near Kodinsk in the Krasnoyarsk territory. Designs for the project started in 1974, and construction began in 1980, but lack of government money brought a halt in 1994. It was then revived by Rusal in partnership with the state electricity company, now called RusHydro. Construction re-started in 2007, but when Rusal crashed into insolvency in 2008, the rate of construction was slowed again. The power station’s first three generators have been planned to reach full capacity operation by 2012.

But that is opposed by Russia’s environmentalists, and the RTN has just taken their side. According to Aleksey Knizhnikov of the Russian branch of the World Wildlife Fund, the risks of further construction of the Boguchanskaya project and the start of hydropower generation are too high, and should never have been ignored in the design process. “The violations discovered by the environmentalists require not only the speedy modernization of legislation in terms of environmental impact assessment, but also changes in environmental policies and [enforcement of] standards for such major corporations as RusHydro and Rusal. It is also important to raise the standards of social and environmental responsibility of such financial institutions as Vnesheconombank and Sberbank, [the state banks] which are carrying out the project financing.”

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