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Rio Tinto says it is a green mining giant. Study shows environmental gaps from Quebec to the Amazon | CBC News

Rio Tinto has at times spilled hazardous chemicals at several sites in Quebec without notifying the provincial government – behavior that is at odds with the multinational’s reputation as an environmentally friendly company.

Documents obtained from Radio-Canada Inquiry The program uncovered, through a request for information, more than 100 environmental violations committed by Rio Tinto’s aluminum division in Quebec over the past 15 years.

The company also paid $2.1 million in fines during the same period, making it the third-largest polluter in the province.

The company has been cited eight times for neglecting or delaying reporting pollution-related problems to Quebec’s environment ministry. The documents include violations for obstructing the work of public officials and failing to produce mandatory documents when requested.

These violations occurred at Rio Tinto’s massive Complexe Jonquière and other nearby locations around the city of Saguenay. The Complexe Jonquière is an industrial site that employs 1,500 people. It includes two aluminum plants as well as various other refining, chemical and research facilities.

A large complex
An aerial view of Rio Tinto’s Complexe Jonquière in the Saguenay area. (Radio Canada)

Rio Tinto’s environmental missteps come just as the company is amassing tens of millions of dollars in public money.

Inquiry also confirmed the company’s patchy environmental record through a whistleblower who works at the Jonquière complex and whose identity should be protected for fear of professional reprisals.

In addition to investigating Rio Tinto’s environmental practices in Quebec, Inquiry also traveled to the heart of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil – to a mine in which Rio Tinto has a 22 percent stake. The company sources some of its bauxite here.

There, residents expressed concerns about the mine’s impact on the environment and the long-term health of people living nearby.

“We’re always hiding things.”

According to the whistleblower, the company often resorted to concealing spills and changing the color of a substance using gravel or soil.

“We’re always hiding things and sweeping them under the rug. It will take some time before we see all the things that are hidden, but it is starting to come to light,” says the source.

“Only the amount of the fine can cause the company to react.”

Rio Tinto declined our interview requests. In an email, it denied these allegations.

Rio Tinto Aluminum said: “The company has a strict culture of environmental compliance, which includes reporting spills to the relevant authorities.”

“If an incident occurs, it is thoroughly investigated and corrective action is taken to prevent it from occurring again,” the company said.

A person.
Marie-Claude Prémont is a professor at the École Nationale d’administration publique. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

In a letter released Friday, Rio Tinto said allegations of cover-ups, obstructions or delays “are not our values ​​and we do not behave like them.”

“Our 4,300 employees in Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, like everyone around the world, are concerned about the legacy they will leave to their children,” the letter said.

The industry has been emphasizing its green beliefs for years by claiming it uses clean hydropower. Aluminum plants in Quebec emit less carbon dioxide than plants in China and elsewhere that run on coal.

But critics say plans that could have further reduced Rio Tinto’s carbon emissions sooner were either never implemented or came to fruition much later than promised.

“Investments [were promised] to modernize all facilities that are outdated, obsolete, polluting and at the end of their useful life,” said Jacques Dubuc, now retired and formerly a spokesman for Alcan, which was bought by Rio Tinto in 2007.

He said: “We have a history of broken promises, partially kept promises, using excuses or tricks to try to extend the life of aging plants.”

In 2007, as discussions began to introduce a carbon trading system in Quebec, “green aluminum” began to emerge as a common industry term. Aluminum producers, among the province’s biggest polluters, were expected to have to start paying into the system, which would have hit profits.

But by promoting the green aluminum concept behind the scenes, these companies were able to get exemptions, according to Marie-Claude Prémont, a professor at the university École Nationale d’administration publique.

“Green aluminum is a marketing tool,” she said.

“It’s a label that’s been applied to an industry that hasn’t changed much in the last few decades.”

According to Prémont, “the public needs more than just marketing” to understand what is going on and make informed decisions.

Two humans.
Myriam Potvin and Jacques Dubuc are among a group of about 20 former Rio Tinto Alcan employees who have criticized the company’s practices. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

Rio Tinto, with its four aluminum smelters and alumina refinery, is still among the province’s top 20 polluters, and its carbon emissions have barely changed since 2007.

In 2018, Elysis, a joint venture that includes Rio Tinto and Alcoa, was founded as a research initiative aimed at producing aluminum with a zero carbon footprint. Since then, the governments of Quebec and Canada have provided $160 million in subsidies.

On its website, Elysis claims that it is developing a “revolutionary” and “disruptive” technology and even calls it “environmentally friendly” aluminum. But the technology, which was supposed to be mass produced in the mid-2020s, has been quietly postponed until after 2030.

In an email, Elysis did not disclose its new timeline, saying it was focused on research and development.

Even if Elysis were fully implemented, between 1.3 and two tons of CO2 would be generated per ton of aluminum. That’s because bauxite must be mined, shipped, and refined into alumina before it’s made into aluminum—and every part of that process leaves a carbon footprint.

The large amount of CO2 produced depends on whether the alumina is refined in Quebec or imported.

Rio Tinto will testify before a parliamentary committee in Ottawa in April to provide an update on its program. It is also said that a commercial prototype will be released later this year.

The company also says it is working systematically to further reduce emissions at every stage of production.

The aluminum industry is expected to grow by almost 40 percent globally by 2030, largely due to increased demand from electric car manufacturers.

Man on boat.
Raymundo Wilson shows a handful of red mud from Lake Batata in his hand. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette)

Traceability of the production chain to Brazil

Much of the bauxite used by Rio Tinto comes from a mine in the heart of the Amazon forest.

“Claiming that your product is environmentally friendly is very serious given the bauxite production chain. How can you call clearing the forest green? How can anyone say that digging up the ground is green?” asks Lilian Braga, a prosecutor who works in the Amazon state of Para near the mine operated by Mineracao Rio Do Norte (MRN).

This ore deposit was discovered by Alcan of Montreal in the 1960s. Since 1979, the mine has been transporting industrial quantities of bauxite to Quebec.

Because of the mine, “sometimes people get sick,” said local activist Carlos Printes, whose family has lived near the MRN-owned mining town of Porto Trombetas for many years.

“A lot of people get sick because of the company. But they do nothing for these people,” he said.

Although there are no long-term public health studies to confirm this, other people who lived near the mine echoed these claims.

“People who drink this water get diarrhea and stomach pain. We can see that it is a water-related problem because not everyone has a well,” said Raymundo Wilson, a village leader who lives near Lake Batata.

A field.
Trees were felled in the Amazon rainforest to make it easier to extract bauxite. (Priscilla Plamondon Lalancette/Radio-Canada)

MRN dumped 18 million cubic meters of bauxite tailings into the lake between 1979 and 1989, in what some say was one of the most egregious cases of industrial pollution in the Amazon at the time. He told us that 60 out of 120 families living around the lake still do not have access to filtered well water.

Extracting bauxite from the ground can release heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and mercury. These can also get into bodies of water. Locals also worry about how safe the tailings ponds are. These are similar to wet landfills and MRN has 29 of them where the residues resulting from bauxite washing are deposited.

Vladimir Moreira, Director of Sustainability at MRN, said Inquiry that the tailings are inactive and there is no risk to human health. When asked if he would eat local fish, he replied: “Of course I would.”

According to its own information, the company has “around 250 monitoring stations for water, air and noise quality. And all of these stations show that there is no contamination.”

“Our waste management system is completely safe,” said Moreira. He added that the mine follows international standards and local communities participate in mine safety protocols.

In its open letter, Rio Tinto says it is also working with MRN to ensure best practices are followed to improve environmental and social performance. This includes vigorous reforestation efforts and close monitoring of water quality and dam stability, as well as health and education services for local communities.

Brazil has previously seen dam bursts at Mariana in 2015 and Brumadinho in 2019, killing 19 and 272 people respectively. The latter featured a dam design called upstream.

Vale, the company that owned the Brumadinho mine and was a 40 percent shareholder in MRN until 2023, said in a 2020 statement to the Security and Exchange Commission that MRN had dams similar to those at Brumadinho resembled.

The rupture of any of these structures could result in loss of life as well as serious personal injury, property damage and environmental damage,” Vale said in its statement.

Aerial view of mining waste.
An aerial view of the mountains of garbage in the Brazilian Amazon, not far from the mining site. (Comissão Pro Indio de São Paulo)

Jose Domingos, a farmer who lives near Lake Sapucua, which lies downstream of the dams, says the local population is under constant threat of environmental disaster.

“If one day there is a potential problem for the 16 communities of Sapucua Lake, it’s over for us, you understand?” Domingos said. “In winter we can’t sleep at night because it rains so much.”

MRN commissioned studies that allowed it to change the classification of its dams with the Brazilian government’s mining regulator. Dams classified as upriver, a category widely considered more dangerous, were given a different designation.

According to Moreira, the geography in which MRN has its tailings reservoirs is different from that in Mariana and Bruhmadino.

Parts of Lake Batata in the Amazon rainforest remain red. (Radio Canada)

But at least one expert questions these reclassifications.

If there are doubts about a dam, a preventative approach should be taken to “ensure the protection of people and the environment,” said Andressa Lanchotti, who was part of the prosecution team in the Bruhmadino case.

Rio Tinto says it is aware of concerns surrounding bauxite mining in Brazil.

“We are working tirelessly to improve our operations by promoting a circular economy and promoting best environmental, social and governance practices across our entire supply chain, from mine to consumer,” said Nina Mankovitz, vice president of Rio Tinto aluminum.

A politican.
Martine Ouellet, a former provincial minister, says Rio Tinto calling its product green aluminum is a case of “greenwashing.” (Jacques Boissinot/Canadian Press)

Billions in subsidies and financial benefits in Quebec

“Calling it green aluminum is greenwashing,” said Martine Ouellet, a former Quebec natural resources minister who now leads a small political party dedicated to fighting climate change.

Ouellet, who was also head of special projects at Hydro-Québec, estimates that Rio Tinto receives about $1.2 billion a year in subsidies through greenhouse gas fee waivers, tax rebates and the use of its private dams.

Rio Tinto says most of the projects initiated since 2020, with a total investment volume of $2 billion, have not received government subsidies.

Elysis has been supported by major brands such as Apple, Michelob and BMW, who plan to purchase this product as soon as it becomes available.

But the aluminum industry is demanding even more funding.

In early March 2024, the Aluminum Association of Canada called on the Quebec government to continue subsidizing electricity for aluminum and to invest more in Elysis. These subsidies and financial benefits could cost taxpayers billions more in the coming years.

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