The Multinational Monitor



In Western Australia, Alcoa Threatens Timber, Air, and Water

based on information supplied by Chris Flynn

The Conservation Council of Western Australia, representing 30 environmental organizations, filed a suit in February against Alcoa and Reynolds Metals in the U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The Council sees the U.S. courts as the only available forum for combatting aluminum companies' dangerous expansion plans in Australia. Environmental laws in Australia are rudimentary or nonexistent. Said Council president Neil Bartholomaeus, "We have called public inquiries to no avail. We've staged street protests and sent people before bulldozers, but they've only been arrested."

The current litigation, pitting Australian environmentalists against U.S. mining companies, reflects the mounting fears of Australians that foreign aluminum companies are polluting their drinking water and destroying the ecosystem of the country's most scenic regions.

Nowhere are these concerns more pronounced than in Western Australia, where the government subsidizes Alcoa's bauxite mining operations. Alcoa of Australia Ltd., 51 percent owned by the Aluminum Company of America, possesses three bauxite mines and three refineries in the ore-laden Darling Ranger of Western Australia (see map).

Alcoa's mining operations and its dealings with the state government headed by Sir Charles Court have been scandalous from the beginning. In 1961, Court, then the Minister for Industrial Development, made a commitment in Parliament that the forests of Jarrah trees-a variety of eucalyptus found only in Western Australia-which cover the Darling Range would be cleared for bauxite mining at a rate not exceeding 14 hectares per year.

But Western Australia's lawmakers framed the early agreements so badly that "Alcoa's legal status amounted to open slather," said State Minister for Industrial Development Andrew , Mensaros. By 1969, Alcoa was mining about 80 hectares a year, and by the end of 1978 its mining operations had affected more than 4,000 hectares. The Department of Conservation and Environment estimates Alcoa's operations will eventually extend through 400,000 hectares of the northern Jarrah forest.

To make matters worse, the state government introduced legislation last year to allow Alcoa to expand operations and to permit another mining group, Alwest, to begin operations. The government completed no environmental studies prior to this legislative move, leading the Environmental Protection Authority's technical advisory group to object. "Some issues we view with great concern: in particular, the legal framework of bauxite mining, and the current Environmental Review and Management Program procedure which appears to be inadequate to protect the state's interest."

The Environmental Protection. Authority had good cause to worry. Alcoa's lease in Western Australia runs for more than 250 kilometers down the Darling Range, which contains the catchment areas for all of Perth's water supply and the only water source for the inland mining town of Kalgoorlie, more than 500 kilometers to the east.

As Alcoa proceeds with its mining operations, it destroys the trees over increasingly large areas. With no trees to remove excess water, the underground water level rises and dissolves salts found at higher levels in the soil. This salty water then runs off into the creeks and rivers which supply nearby wheat fields and forests and form the catchment for Perth's dams.

The loss of the Jarrah forest is a concern not only because of its implications for the water supply. Jarrah trees supply one of the world's hardest woods and are a source of revenue for' the region. They cannot grow in the hard claypan left after bauxite is mined. Moreover, Alcoa's vehicles have spread a fungus disease known as dieback, which is killing the Jarrah trees at an accelerating rate.

Alcoa's Kwinana refinery is one of Western Australia's greatest polluters. It discharges wastes into the already sullied Cockburn Sound, and the southwesterly winds that blow steadily throughout the year spread the discharge from Alcoa's chimney stacks over most of Perth's southern suburbs. Surrounding residents complain that the discharge, heavy enough during the day, increases dramatically during the nighttime hours.

But the Kwinana refinery's lakes of sticky red caustic mud cause the most concern. The area's native bird population is being decimated for mistaking the caustic mud for water, and landing on it-never to leave. The caustic mud, a waste product of the refining process, is also leaking into the ground water. During times of drought, ground water from this area is used to supplement the supply of Perth's drinking water.

Despite all the hazards it brings, Alcoa receives favors from the Western Australian government. Alcoa uses 60 percent of the state's natural gas production, four times as much as all the households in the state, yet it pays the State power authority considerably less per unit for its gas supplies than do domestic consumers.

In 1975-1976, Alcoa exported alumina worth $A250 million (U.S. $295 million), from Western Australia, yet it paid only about A$1 million in royalties. Alcoa sells its product to its American parent at half the world parity price; yet in 1976, it still managed to make a profit of A$74 million (U.S.$87 million). To put Alcoa's Australian operations in perspective, the Environmental Protection Authority's Technical Advisory Group reports that Alcoa makes payments to the Jamaican government at a rate of about 100 times that paid in Western Australia.

Alcoa may not be able to enjoy such advantages for long. Public opinion currently is mounting to counter existing and planned aluminum projects:

  • The Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization has questioned the wisdom of the expansion plans.
  • The secretary of the Western Australia Timber Workers' Union said that present bauxite proposals are a "rip-off. "
  • The Institute of Foresters has said that the risks of expanded bauxite mining in the Darling Range. were too great and the consequences too serious.
  • Even the state council of the (ruling coalition member) National Country Party wants no further expansion of bauxite mining in Western Australia until doubts have been cleared up about effective forest restoration.
  • The secretary of the Water Supply Union said that "this is a ludicrous situation where a Perth family cannot have a picnic in a Jarrah forest within these catchment areas because of the recognized dangers of disturbing this fragile environment. Yet a mining company can walk in and completely devastate these forests in the name of profit."

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