Aluminum is durable and lightweight, and its manufacturers are touting the metal’s environmental benefits in products like trucks, where a lighter vehicle gets better gas mileage. There’s even a growing market for sustainably produced aluminum, which has a lower carbon footprint than the original. But making aluminum has a lot of other environmental impacts. Take the small, isolated country of Suriname in South America. Over a century, Alcoa built an aluminum mining and manufacturing empire in the Dutch-speaking nation. A hydroelectric dam that the corporation still owns now powers half of the country’s electricity, for which Suriname pays Alcoa. The economy of the small nation of just over 500,000 residents is in crisis, and now Alcoa is winding down its operations there, leaving acute environmental impacts. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Rich Lord and some colleagues traveled to Suriname in March to learn about the history of Alcoa’s aluminum business there. Kara Holsopple talked with him recently about the series of stories, photographs and videos they produced, called The Land Alcoa Dammed.
Kara Holsopple: I think Suriname is not a place that a lot of people are familiar with. So why was Alcoa there?
Rich Lord: Alcoa went to Suriname in 1916 which was not too long after a traveling Frenchman discovered bauxite in the jungles of Suriname. Bauxite is the raw material from which aluminum derives. A number of companies went to check it out, and Alcoa was the one that did the most thorough job. And from 1916 until 2016 Alcoa was a presence in the country. It eventually obtained mining concessions, built an entirely integrated aluminum industry in this little country on the northern coast of South America. They mined the bauxite there ,they refined it into what’s called alumina and then they smelted it into aluminum, all within this little country.
KH: And now Alcoa is leaving Suriname. And they’re leaving a controversy. What’s at issue?
RL: Alcoa announced in December of 2015 that it was pretty much finished in Suriname. The supplies of bauxite were running out. It found that its operations there were among its least efficient operations in the world. And so they announced they were shutting everything down and pulling out. Of course, Alcoa has a lot of property there. It has areas that were mined out and haven’t yet been reforested. It has a refinery, giant lakes of red muck that came out of the aluminum process, and most of all it has a huge dam in Suriname. The dam became the focal point of the public debate over what happens when Alcoa leaves. The dam is owned by Alcoa’s subsidiary in Suriname called Sirocco. So the dam is really owned by Alcoa but it was built in the 1960s under the condition that Alcoa could own and operate the dam as long as it had an aluminum business in Suriname. When Alcoa shuts down its aluminum business, the Surinamese government says “Hey, wait a minute guys, if you don’t have an aluminum industry, we want the dam.” And behind the dam there’s 618 square miles of lake that has formed after the river was dammed. So one of the biggest controversies in this little country right now is what happens to that dam, and what does Alcoa have to do to clean up all of these various impacts that have made on the country over a hundred years.
LISTEN: “Alcoa Leaves a Dirty Legacy”
KH: Your series is called The Land Alcoa Damned, meaning that physical hydroelectric dam that Alcoa built there to fuel their operations. But is there kind of a double meaning there because of how the environment changed as a result of Alcoa’s actions?
RL: Alcoa undoubtedly had a lot of impacts on the country, positive and negative. And certainly Alcoa makes a compelling case that the positive impacts outweighed the negative. You had unionized workforce of five thousand people. A middle class was created out of this industry.You had an education system that was largely a byproduct of the need to educate people to be in the aluminum industry. You had a lot of people from this country that were able to go to college because of this industry. But you also have these very large ongoing impacts. When that dam was built – and an area of about 618 square miles was flooded – they had to move 6000 people who lived on that land. An area not that much smaller than all of Allegheny County which had been pristine forests — that’s a gigantic environmental impact right there, and one that they’re still wrestling with the ramifications of now. Of course you also have these red mud lakes of essentially refinery tailings as they’re called — chemicals and substances that come out when you turn the bauxite into alumina. So you have areas that were forests which are now essentially red, stony barren fields that need to be reforested. Sometimes they encircle villages, and people have traditionally relied on the forest. So while we spelled it The Land Alcoa Damned because of the dam, some within Suriname feel that they’re still dealing with what we call the resource curse, the impacts of having a natural resources based economy.
Some within Suriname feel that they’re still dealing with what we call the resource curse
KH: Is their cleaning up part of the agreement of them leaving?
RL: Yes, though Surinam really has no comprehensive environmental law at all. There are bits and pieces of environmental regulations spread through the Surinamese code, but there’s no EPA in Surinam or anything like that. There was an agreement that Alcoa would clean up to U.S. standards, as they called it, and also Pennsylvania standards because of Alcoa’s presence here. The question now is what are U.S. standards, particularly in the current environment? U.S. standards appear to be a little bit in flux. So that could end up being litigated if the Surinamese government does not believe that Alcoa lives up to this pledge. The estimate of the costs of cleaning up range from 225 million up into the 300 million range. The person assigned to negotiate this deal by the Surinamese government has said it could cost half a billion dollars and Alco would still pay. Alcoa hasn’t signed onto that statement, but there is a big job to do there.
KH: Alcoa is really trying to set itself apart as a global leader in sustainability. Is their history in Suriname and how they’re leaving the country at odds with that?
RL: I guess it depends on which yardstick you look at. In 2015, in one of its sustainability reports, Alcoa said that it wanted to leave net positive impacts on biodiversity in the areas in which it operates. There’s an organization called Conservation International Suriname, which is a branch of the larger Conservation International which is global. Conservation International Suriname said, “Hey guys, when you’re pulling out of Suriname how about doing that standard, the one espoused in 2015 in which you have a net positive impact on biodiversity?” When we ran that by Alcoa, they said that is an aspirational goal, not a guarantee. And we never really defined what net positive impact on biodiversity is. So that sounds like a really noble goal net positive impact. That means if you came in and you altered the landscape, the landscape after you’re done is even more diverse than the one you started with. It seems like it would be challenging to do that in a place like Suriname which, is in its untouched areas, a garden of Eden practically. And at this point Alcoa has not guaranteed that they will live up to that particular goal.
Rich Lord is the projects reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. For the series, The Land Alcoa Dammed, he shares a byline with reporter Len Boselovic. Photography was by Stephanie Strasburg, and the series was in partnership with the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. You can read the 4-part series, watch a video interview with a woman whose village was flooded as a result of Alcoa’s Afobaka Dam, and learn more about how Bauxite becomes Aluminum here.