Bauxite/Aluminum and the Environment

Bauxite/Aluminum and the Environment
Aluminum is the third most common element in the earth?s crust, with reserves guaranteed to last hundreds of years, and, in its ore, bauxite, one of the most economically significant minerals in the world. It is, perhaps, more easily recycled than any other mineral substance used by man, but mining operations still continue and are enormously valuable. Aluminum companies have been at the forefront of environmental progress and effort in the minerals industry.
Aluminum is not the cleanest metal to produce, and it is often found in ecologically significant regions. However, the undaunted aluminum industry has managed to do its part for the environment, and continually improve its own efficiency. Azom.com notes that, since bauxite is chiefly found in tropical or subtropical areas, mines are often associated with the rain forest. In truth, only about 6% of the world?s current bauxite production takes place in rain forest regions, ?affecting a total area of around 1.5 km2 per year? (azom.com). Bauxite mines are almost always of the open-cast type, so they have a wide impact on the land area above them. Even so, 80% of bauxite mines on forestland are eventually returned to forest, the rest ?replaced by agriculture, commercial forest, or recreational area, thereby making the area more productive for the local community?; what?s more, the ?rain forests in particular? are ?almost totally reverted back to rain forest? (azom.com). Most companies mining bauxite remove the fertile top soil separately from the rest of the overburden, so that it can reapplied to assure maximum usefulness of the reclaimed land. In addition, ?over 60 per cent [of companies] have their own nursery plant facilities? and many put special care into water drainage to avoid soil erosion due to rainfall or other runoff (azom.com). In short, the reclamation procedures undertaken by aluminum companies are typical of the modern American mining industry.

The workers in aluminum run into more difficulty during the processing stage. Aluminum refining produces large amounts of PFCs, CFCs, and other poisonous or environmentally damaging gases. The process of refining itself involved diatomic chlorine gas as a reagent. Reducing the amount of chlorine gas used is a constant preoccupation in the industry, although attention is also given to reducing gaseous, liquid, and solid waste by operating ?air pollution equipment that captures pollutants and recycles raw materials? (Aluminum Association). In recent years, great progress has been made by the Voluntary Aluminum Industry Partnership (vaip) organized by the epa. In 2002, emissions for aluminum production were down 57%, or ?equivalent to eliminating emissions from over 1.2 million cars . . . in 2002 alone? (US epa). Over the past hundred years, ?energy consumption per tonne of production has fallen by 70%? (American Aluminum Institute). The industry is clearly making progress, necessitated by the horrendous consequences of improperly run aluminum mining or refining facilities.

The catastrophic results of such an ill-run facility are well documented. In Central Asia, the government of Tajikistan was sending an annual check to its neighbors in Uzbekistan as financial compensation for the incredible amounts of toxic gas they sent over the border. When the Tajiks defaulted on the payments, the environmental disaster came to the attention of the world community. ?The wind pattern? in the region ?is such that toxic emissions from taz [the Tajikistan Aluminum Refinery] are carried by air streams to three neighboring districts [of Uzbekistan]: Sariasiisky, Uzun, and Denau, with a population of over half a million? (Fluoride Action Network). In the unfortunate Uzbek provinces, the poison gases have been obstructing the lives of both humans and the livestock and agriculture on which they depend. The Fluoride Action Network reports:

?Agriculture is suffering enormous damage. Silkworm raising is almost at a standstill. Vineyards, the famous Dashnabad pomegranate orchards and stone fruit crops have perished, and cattle have been affected. The milk and meat of these diseased animals are unfit for consumption. But perhaps worst of all, the operation of taz is taking a toll on public health. The affected regions have seen severalfold increases in the incidence of metabolic disorders, diseases of the endocrine system, and disorders of blood and hematopoietic organs, the pulmonary organs and the musculoskeletal system. Birth defects and tumors are on the rise?

(Fluoride Action Network). There is no simple solution to the crisis in Uzbekistan; the aluminum plant, although it is running at only 38% of capacity to minimize the toxic gases, can account for as much as a quarter of the national profits of Tajikistan in some years. Karshi Sulanov, the chief medical officer of the Uzun Public Health and Epidemiological Service in Uzbekistan, reports that ?the aluminum plant has even stopped replacing filters of late. It doesn?t have enough money? (Fluoride Action Network). Clearly, the environmental problems posed by mineral extraction and processing do not stem from a lack of understanding or a lack of will, but from sheer practicality issues, especially outside of developed nations like the United States. Even within the plant itself protective measures are weak or nonexistent; although wind carries most of the external emissions across the border into Uzbekistan, illness and serious health problems are reported to be common among the Tajik employees of the plant as well.

Bauxite is a mineral of enormous worldwide significance economically and ecologically. The metal aluminum has a variety of applications essential to the modern economy, and the production process shows great promise to be cleaner and more efficient than ever in the future. The problem facing the industry now is economic; for the aluminum industry to remain beneficial and responsible, measures must be taken to properly equip and train facilities like the one in Tajikistan, to ensure that irresponsible, desperate capitalism does not create a negative image for the entire industry.

Bauxite/Aluminum and the Environment 8.4 of 10 on the basis of 3210 Review.