Personally, I would not wish to live within a 100-mile radius
of any aluminium smelter plant given my understanding of the
uncertainties over the human and environmental health impacts.
My 100-mile buffer zone is called-in the environmental policy
literature-the Not in My Backyard (NIMBY), you dont!
syndrome in which people may be quite happy to have a project
established but not in their neighbourhood!
What are the Governments criteria for locating the smelter
and what role is identified for the public therein including
those whose backyards have been targeted? National Energy
Corporation CEO Prakash Saith set out the Governments
criteria at the December 6 smelter symposium: 1,000 acres
of continuous land, preferably government-owned and zoned
for industrial use with available or easily developed infrastructure,
proximity to a harbour, suitable geological conditions and
minimum occupancy and social impacts. Notice, there was no
mention of human health or environmental impacts.
In so far as the social factor is addressed it is logical
to seek a site with minimal occupancy-related social impacts
but how is minimal defined and by whom?
Are there other locations in T&T that meet these criteria?
Have non-T&T site locations been considered?
Prof John Spence has suggested smelting in Guyana, for example,
with downstream plants located in T&T, pointing to Japan
with major downstream aluminium facilities but no smelters.
Why not the USA itself? Alcoa director Wade Hughes recently
claimed that his company is reopening smelters in the USA
similar to the one proposed for Chatham.
Since we already are shipping LNG to the USA why not have
the energy requirement for the smelters allocated from our
huge gas exports to that country?
In this way the proposed transshipment of the dangerous pot-liner
waste would not take place: it would be within the final destination:
USA! We could then import the smelter output for the downstream
Five minutes democracy
Who should have the power to make this monumental decision
as to whether to invest in such aluminium smelters and their
location? Ultimately such power must rest with parliament
and/or agencies delegated by it with such powers.
The Environmental Management Authority (EMA) is the legally
empowered regulator, for example, to provide a Certificate
of Environmental Clearance (CEC). The EMA already has done
so for the Alutrint, La Brea, smelter. The CEC process is
still under way for Alcoa with the environmental impact assessment
not yet submitted.
However, there are no similar regulators in terms of certificates
of social and economic clearance, as it were. In these instances,
the responsibility ought to default to us, the people, of
the democratic Republic of T&T through our parliamentary
Theoretically our democratic system is comparable to a publicly
trading company on the stock exchange. By analogy, the PM
and Cabinet are the executives who ought to be implementing
policies made by the Board (aka Parliament) itself appointed
by we, the shareholders in T&T Inc.
The problem is that in a small Parliament the policy-making
and executive arm collapses into one. The political reality
we live, therefore, is five minutes democracy. Once voting
is over, power resides in the Government, and, more particularly,
in that of the prime minister.
There is little we can do quite frankly, within the current
constitutional arrangements except to punish the incumbents
at the next five-minute opportunity.
The Opposition MPs will all say nay to the smelters if it
was brought to Parliament tomorrow morning but if back in
power, are likely to change their tune quicker than a 24-hour
lizard transforms its colour!
And then we would be powerless to do anything but wait until
the next election to punish them as well: Something we have
been doing for at least 20 years, in my calculation.
The answer to the final question is that we have to fix the
system. We need a Parliament that separates representation
and hence policy-making, from execution of policies, including
a role for civil society to weigh issues on their individual
merit rather than on being automatically for or against the
Complementing this ought to be a constitutionally entrenched
right of the population to have referenda on any national
issue if an agreed proportion of the population signs up (say
20-25 per cent of the population). In which case we could
put the smelter decision to a referendum vote.
Hopefully, all those who have been motivated into action see
the connection between the concrete smelters cause celebre
and the more systemic, governance cause general.
A merry Christmas to all.