BHP Billiton operates the Mozal aluminium smelter located 17 kilometres from Maputo, in a densely populated area in the outskirts of Matola city. Officially opened on 29 September 2000, the joint venture includes BHP Billiton (47.1 per cent), Mitsubishi Corporation (25 per cent), International Finance Corporation (IFC) (24 per cent), and the Government of Mozambique (3.9 per cent).

Civil society groups are challenging a six-month authorisation allowing aluminium giant BHP Billiton to emit potentially dangerous fumes from its Mozal smelter into the air without
treating them first. On 5 April 2010, Mozal announced at a public meeting its intention to bypass two Fumes Treatment Centres (FTCs) for six months at its carbon plant, which re-processes and produces anodes for use in producing aluminium. This matter was already in negotiation for special authorisation with the Ministry for Co-ordination of Environmental Affairs (MICOA). No further clarification on the issue was given except that it would cause no harm whatsoever to the surrounding communities or to the environment.

On 8 April 2010, Justiça Ambiental (Friends of the Earth Mozambique) wrote a letter to MICOA with copies sent to Mozal and several other ministries and institutions, requesting further clarification. The letter also highlighted the concern that granting this authorisation would allow BHP Billiton to emit potentially dangerous fumes from its Mozal smelter into the air without treating them first.

MICOA responded on 14 June stating among other things that Mozal required a special authorisation for the bypass, and for this they would have to submit an Environmental Management Plan, prepare a contingency plan to address any problems arising from this project, and also review their social responsibility policy. A few weeks later Justiça Ambiental learned that this special authorisation was in fact already issued at the time they received the letter from MICOA. Mozal never responded to the letter.

Local groups, including Justiça Ambiental and Livaningo in Maputo and Matola, filed a court action on 14 September 2010 to reverse the government’s decision, which they say is based on insufficient information about the potential impact on human health and the environment around the smelter.

Bypassing FTCs is potentially dangerous to the environment and the communities living nearby. FTCs act as a filter of the carbon plant’s emissions and prevent harmful pollutants from escaping into the atmosphere. Without this filter, compounds like hydrofluoric acid and sulphur dioxide could potentially be released, causing hypocalcemia, cardiac and respiratory arrest, and possibly result in death.

The coalition of groups has drawn up a petition with over 14,000 signatures outlining health concerns. The petition, to be submitted to the government, asks that more information be made available before a decision is taken on the matter.

With close to one million residents living within two kilometres of BHP Billiton’s Mozal aluminium smelter, community representatives and organisations have already complained about damaged agricultural production, which is to the detriment of their livelihoods.

The outcry that BHP Billiton’s public consultation has been inadequate is compounded by the example of its operation across the border in South Africa at Richards Bay. The longest bypass of the FTCs at the Richards Bay plant lasted only 72 hours, and this resulted in objections and serious concerns about the impacts on the environment and health. BHP Billiton says it has commissioned an independent report for its Mozal operation on the safety of the bypass proposal. The report has not been released publicly and the two authors have not been given permission to speak publicly about their findings.

Vanessa Cabanelas from Justiça Ambiental states:

“The study on the dispersion and deposition of fumes and gas is complete rubbish, it cannot even be referred to as a study as it violates the most basic concept of what a scientific study should contain; it does not have any information on authors, dates and methodology or where, when and how the data was gathered. We find it impossible to have faith in such a document. One of the self claimed authors informed us publicly, in a television debate, that the study was undertaken with data provided from Mozal.”

Justiça Ambiental says that all attempts to contact BHP Billiton in the United Kingdom and Australia have proven to be unsuccessful. “They clearly have double standards when working in Maputo, Mozambique and in Richards Bay, South Africa. The procedures undertaken to ensure no harm to the people or the environment are completely opposite.”

Funded in part by World Bank financing through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), BHP Billiton is required to adhere to specific performance standards throughout the life of the project to maintain the loan. Yet evidence is growing that the Mozal operation is violating BHP Billiton’s codes of transparency, and its policies of zero harm and abiding by the strictest emissions standards.

Co-written by Vanessa Cabanelas (Justica Ambiental – Friends of the Earth Mozambique) and Natalie Lowrey (Friends of the Earth Australia)