Alcoa, Inc. is one of the worst polluters on the planet. They are at the forefront of poisoning the air, land and water of Texas, the most heavily polluted state in the nation. Alcoa has grandfathered facilities exempt from the 1971 Clean Air Act. In Texas alone, it has several hundred plants that are accountable for the mounting pollution problems this of the state. Despite the troubles this company causes worldwide, and especially in Texas, UT had $53,550 invested in it as of June 2003.
Alcoa's chief interests are in aluminum, aluminum ore, and aluminum's principle ingredient alumina. It is the global leader in producing aluminum and alumina with a strong interest in aluminum ore, also called bauxite. Alcoa is in the aerospace, automotive, construction, and packaging markets by manufacturing automotive components, sheet aluminum, and alumina coupled with its chemicals.
Alcoa has operations in Milam, Bastrop, and Lee counties. Alcoa has been wanting to strip-mine coal and lignite from Bastrop and Lee counties for quite some time. They need three permits in order to do this, and they received one Friday September 20, 2002. They know that there is much to be made in Central Texas; their lawyers estimate that there is around $120 million in this area. Since Alcoa is dealing with small towns, it has even tried using its size to bully around local governments; they said that if they are not granted their permits, their lawyers claim they will file a lawsuit for said amount. This puts unfair pressure on a town with an operating budget of $10 million.
In Milam County, Alcoa has the dirtiest grandfathered plant in the state. Rockdale, Texas, located around 50 miles east of Austin, is home to a plant that sprawls over 7,000 acres and runs 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It is powered by four on-site power plants, three of which were built before the Clean Air Act of 1971 was approved. It contributes to the pollution problems in Austin and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. The aluminum smelter here discharges roughly 104,000 tons of air emissions per year, including over 60,000 tons of acid rain. If the permits to mine Bastrop and Lee counties are granted, the lignite that could be mined in that area would be burned in the Rockdale power plant and would produce another 100,000 air pollutants annually for the next thirty years.
Alcoa says that if it were forced to comply with state and national clean air laws, the alterations in equipment would be so expensive that the company would be forced to shut down the Rockdale plant; instead of doing this, they’ll keep the plant running and contaminate the area.
Grandfathered Plant Laws and How Alcoa Ignored Them
Grandfathered plants are those that are not in accordance with the recently approved laws since the plants predate these laws. Alcoa’s Rockdale plant was built prior to 1955, and therefore do not have to comply with the 1971 Clean Air Act. One stipulation of the grandfathered plant laws is that they cannot significantly upgrade their facilities; if they do, they are no longer considered grandfathered and are classified as regular plants.
Between the years 1983 to 1987 at a time when they were under scrutiny to maintain clean facilities, Alcoa spent $62 million to upgrade their facilities without consent from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nor the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission (TNRCC), blatantly violating federal law. Large increases in air pollution ensued in 1988, including nitrous oxides, particulate matter (which contain human carcinogens), carbon monoxide, and an annual increase of 13,000 tons of sulfur dioxide since completion of the modifications. Although Alcoa blatantly violated federal law, neither the EPA nor the TNRCC pressed charges. In February 2001, Neighbors for Neighbors, a grassroots organization, pressed the TNRCC to review Alcoa’s activities from 1983-87. They have "found violations" in the Rockdale plant but have yet to take action.
Local and National Attention
Alcoa has received much help from some federal and local agencies, like the EPA and TNRCC who seem to vacillate between helping the company and caring for the people and the environment, but Alcoa relies on politicians for the most help. On June 14, 2002, the Austin American Statesman reported that Alcoa was receiving help from President George W. Bush. It stated that a plan presented by Bush, backed by Vice President Dick Cheney and his energy task force, would relax federal air pollution laws. EPA officials noted that these reductions in pollution laws are "common-sense improvements that will encourage industries to voluntarily clean up old plants." Alcoa has yet to clean the Rockdale plant even though they have been forced to by law on several occasions. It is doubtful that implying a clean-up will solicit any results. Perhaps one reason that President Bush helped Alcoa is that Paul O’Neill, Alcoa’s multimillionaire chairman and former CEO, now serves as Secretary of Treasury under Bush.
Another large organization that gives much help to Alcoa is the World Bank. They have been an integral partner in Alcoa’s growth across the globe. The World Bank has put forth much money to help fund development projects for Alcoa.
The Rockdale plant can get away with this pollution since it has made a number of deals with state institutions. TNRCC gave Alcoa the right to discharge an appalling amount of air pollutants. In 1992, TNRCC underlined the "special" relationship the two organizations had by changing state regulations to allow Alcoa to continue its ways. The actual mandate called for "fossil-fuel fired steam generators located in Milam County which began operation prior to 1955" to exceed sulfur dioxide emission standards. Only the Rockdale plant fit this description. In the 1999 Legislative session, Alcoa was required to drastically reduce the amount of its emissions, but lobbyists from Vinson & Elkins successfully made the law turn a blind eye. By running contaminating grandfathered plants, Alcoa can save millions, even billions, and can therefore "dazzle Wall Street" with more than $1 billion in profits in 1999 alone, bringing their overall revenue to $22.9 billion as of the 2001 fiscal year. They are the 96th most profitable corporation on the planet.
Since 1987, more than forty-seven Alcoa facilities have been cited for pollution violations by state and federal regulators. In one instance when the EPA opposed Alcoa, they along with the Justice Department filed claims against the company as reported March 14, 2000. In the agreement, Alcoa consented to pay about $8.8 million to clean the Mississippi River Basin, reduce hazardous waste generation, and research new air pollution reduction technology. They must also install a new $5 million wastewater treatment system. This comes after infesting the river, killing many fish and invertebrates, and violating the 1971 Clean Air Act from 1994-1999. Six aluminum casting complex furnaces located along the Ohio River, which leads to the Mississippi River Basin, have been producing massive amounts of smoke, dust, and ash that affect many in the area.
In Port Allen, LA, Discovery Aluminas, Inc., an Alcoa subsidy, pleaded guilty to contaminating the water and was fined over one million dollars by the state and the federal government. In Point Comfort, TX, Alcoa was fined $181,400 for emission violations in its bauxite refining plant. Pollution in the Grasse River, a tributary of the St. Lawrence River by the New York- Canadian border, can also be attributed to Alcoa. Since 1989, they have been under an order by the EPA to clean the river. There is still much to be done despite $7.5 million in criminal fines and civil penalties paid by the company in 1991.
Alcoa was also cited for illegal export practices. They shipped potassium fluoride and sodium fluoride to Jamaica and Suriname on 50 separate occasions without obtaining the required Commerce export licenses, then lied about it. They were hit with a $750,000 civil penalty.
In 1963, Suralco, an Alcoa subsidiary, constructed the Afobaka Dam to power a smeltering plant in the town of Paranam, located in the country of Suriname. According to the World Rainforest Movement's Forest Peoples Program (FPP), the dam commandeered about 600 square miles of tropical forest. This forced indigenous people to transplant; $3 million was given to each of the 6,000 inhabitants.
Despite a laundry list of violations, Alcoa has been the recipient of a number of environmental awards, including "the Hungarian Business Leaders Forum-Business Life for Environment award, Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club-Business Service Award, Indiana Governor's Award for Excellence in Pollution Prevention, and Pennsylvania Governor's Award for Environmental Excellence, among others," according to Alcoa.