Mar 06 2011 15:25
Johannes Myburgh

Johannesburg – The apparent mismanagement at the BHP Billiton [JSE:BIL] Mozal plant in Matola, 17km outside Maputo, has led to inspection visits by three international complaints directorates.The plant’s mismanagement led to the near-breakdown of a few filters and now officials are being accused of not communicating properly with civil society organisations, which has led to a breakdown of trust with the surrounding communities.

This has prompted investigations by the International Finance Corporation, the European Investment Bank and the National Contact Point United Kingdom.

In November last year, Mozal started emitting tars and toxic gases directly into the air while repairing its two-fume treatment centres (FTCs) that had corroded to the point of collapse.

This raised the ire of civil society organisations and prompted formal complaints to the JSE’s Socially Responsible Investment index and investors.

University of Johannesburg academic Harold Annegarn told City Press that the potential collapse was not a minor problem.

He said: “It is the serious breakdown of the whole plant. Now they’re trying to patch it up and keep it going.”

Built 10 years ago for $1.3bn, Mozal was the largest capital injection in one of the world’s poorest countries. African leaders lined up to see the industrial success story during an African Union summit in Maputo.

But a decade later, the plant has bypassed its FTCs for more than four months, the longest shutdown experts know of and a “highly unusual condition”, according to Annegarn.

“It is an indication of poor operating conditions, poor maintenance or fundamental design faults,” Annegarn said.

At one point, the ducts that connected the aluminium furnaces with air supply caught on fire, a situation indicating “seriously poor management”, he said.

Mozal Assets president Mike Fraser last year attributed the deterioration to “suboptimal engineering” and “overproduction”, comparing the filters to “a small exhaust for a Ferrari”.

During a biannual public meeting in Maputo last week, Fraser said: “We have really tracked this down to the failure of the FTCs in 2003. They were repaired, but if you look at the filters, it wasn’t adequate.”

The FTCs were being reconstructed to allow easier access for inspection in future, he said.

In spite of the seriousness of the filter bypass, the subsidiary of the world’s largest mining company avoided engagement with civil society and complicated access to its environmental studies, leaving little time for independent analysis of its contingency plans.

The communications bungle triggered an unprecedented reaction.

An NGO coalition tested every possible legal measure to question Mozal’s lack of transparency. In December the smelter relented, agreeing to set up a stakeholders’ forum.

Yet its regular publication of air quality monitoring data has not healed its relationship with some Matola residents.

During last week’s public meeting, the plant said its emission levels were within World Health Organisation (WHO) limits.

Its independent consultants measured 11 grams per cubic metre of PM, 2.5 on average daily up to the beginning of February, at its northern fence.

The WHO limit for 24-hour exposure to the carcinogenic particulate matter, small enough to penetrate the human lung, is 25g per cubic metre.

But some community members were still doubtful that the emissions were harmless, and accused the plant of not doing enough to engage with them.

“Somebody should come explain the secondary effects to us,” said one widow.

“I live close to a market built by Mozal and there have been no meetings,” said Manuel Gomez, another resident.