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Sludgy secrets of the aluminum companies

Production of the metal has exacted a huge toll.

A local resident wears a protective mask as streets are covered by toxic red sludge in Devecser, Hungary, on Wednesday. (AP Photo / Bela Szandelszky)
A local resident wears a protective mask as streets are covered by toxic red sludge in Devecser, Hungary, on Wednesday. (AP Photo / Bela Szandelszky)Read more

Last week, a toxic red sludge poured into three Hungarian villages, killing nine people, threatening the Danube River, and bursting the dam around a well-kept secret: The production of aluminum - vast quantities of which are used in cars, aircraft, packaging, weaponry, and more - is highly poisonous to living creatures. The devastation caused by the aluminum industry is usually invisible, however, because it's wreaked on some of the most remote corners of the Earth.

In an unusually frank 1951 report, industry analyst Dewey Anderson observed that the social and environmental costs of aluminum production were such that "the U.S. cannot any longer afford to make aluminum if it can be obtained in large enough quantities and on favorable price terms from other sources." As a result of such considerations, the mining, refining, and smelting of the metal has moved largely to corrupt, resource-rich countries where environmental and human-rights protections are weak.

Accidents are common in the industry. Caustic, radioactive red mud from the waste pond of an aluminum refinery in Lanjigarh, in eastern India, often contaminates the nearby Vamsadhara River. Several people have died of burns after bathing in the river. In 2000, the white-ash pond of an aluminum smelter in Angul, also in eastern India, breached its wall and swallowed 20 villages, causing many deaths and a toxic flash flood.

Aluminum is almost always extracted from bauxite, a porous mineral that often caps mountains. Bauxite retains water, so many of these mountains are forested. Moreover, the mineral slowly releases the water in perennial streams, nourishing the fields and people living around the mountains and feeding rivers. Mining bauxite in India therefore requires forcibly displacing indigenous people, clearing old-growth forests, blowing up mountaintops, and depleting crucial water sources.

Critics of the industry say the ecological cost of bauxite mining is at least $1,000 a ton (in addition to the social costs). But aluminum companies and their powerful backers have prevailed upon India to sell its bauxite for about $1.40 a ton. (The world average is $17 a ton.)

The World Bank, a major funder of aluminum projects, essentially advocates the forcible removal of villagers who object to mining on their land. Opponents of such projects are routinely bribed, intimidated, or even killed.

India recently gave in to protests and halted a bauxite-mining project that would have devastated the sacred mountain of the indigenous Dongria Kondh. But mining is planned or in progress on all of the region's 20 or so other bauxite-capped mountains.

Bauxite is refined to alumina, an oxide of aluminum, through washing with caustic soda and separation of the dangerous red waste. This yields roughly a ton of toxic mud per ton of alumina. Alumina is then smelted into pure aluminum in a process that can emit poisonous fluoride gas. Bone damage from fluoride poisoning is evident among villagers living near several Indian smelters.

Refining and smelting requires huge quantities of water and energy - 1,400 tons of water and 15,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity for each ton of aluminum. As such, refineries and smelters are usually located near rivers. Numerous dams have been built for the industry by drowning valleys and displacing hundreds of thousands of villagers. Electricity for aluminum production may come from captive coal-fired plants that generate toxic ash.

Aluminum companies invariably negotiate steep electricity and water subsidies. A typical refinery or smelter in India pays half what farmers do for water and covers only a small fraction of electricity costs.

Local governments, sometimes with massive loans from the World Bank, also provide much of the infrastructure the industry needs to manufacture and export aluminum, such as dams, roads, railways, and ports. The loans often put countries and provinces deep in debt, forcing them to mine even more.

Aluminum sells for about $2,500 a ton, and rich countries consume about 55 pounds per person per year (compared with the average Indian's consumption of less than a pound and a half per year). The benefits go to the companies' executives and shareholders; to metals traders and investors; and to the third-world civil servants and politicians who facilitate the deals. All these people live far from the landscapes they ravage.

Hungary has only three alumina refineries, and, with the European Union's help, it will no doubt be able to manage its red mud crisis. But this toxic industry will continue to engulf villages in India, Brazil, Jamaica, Suriname, Guinea, and other countries that have been sucked deep into the vortex of aluminum production.