"Boues rouges" scandal: polluting the Mediterranean Sea

COMMENTARY – At the heart of the National Park of the Calanques, close to the town of Cassis (France), a real environmental massacre is happening. The disaster has been denounced by ecologists, scientists and residents for several years, but no definitive measure to solve it has been adopted yet. The industrial waste (“boues rouges”) produced by the factory of Gardanne has been discharged in the Mediterranean Sea for decades producing incredible damages to the marine environment and biodiversity.

English

Contaminated fish - Source: print screen from ThalassaOfficiel.

History of the Boues rouges


In order to use mobile phones, screens, many other commodities as well as supply nuclear power and the army, we need aluminum. But where does this material come from? The white powder used for the production of aluminum comes from a highly particular element called bauxite. Prominently imported from Africa nowadays, the bauxite is used in a reduction process to produce aluminum. However, part of this industrial chain consists also in waste, namely the boues rouges (i.e. red mud.) it is, in fact, the bauxite that gives the distinctive red colour to the waste sludge.1


The industrial estate of Gardanne is one of the main producers of aluminum in Europe and in the world. In fact, the factory in Gardanne is the biggest producer in the world of aluminum “of specialty” and it’s been owned by different companies since its establishment. The current group of investment that owns the estate is the American Altéo.2 As Monde Diplomatique reports, the bauxite was discovered in Baux-de-Provence in 1821.3 Moreover, the process of dissolving the aluminum contained in the bauxite with soda was effectively enacted at the industrial estate in Gardanne starting from 1893. Since the very beginning of the enactment of this process, a lot of industrial waste was produced. As a result of the incredibly huge quantities of toxic material that was brought about after the reduction of bauxite, in the 1960s many protests were organised in the area. However, the voice of the residents was not heard, at the time, due to the political project that France had in the 1960s to show the power and high competitiveness of the country on an industrial and economical level as well.


The disposal of such industrial waste has, thus, continued over these years. Currently, the tubes containing the red mud run for 47 km on public domain to then arrive at the Mediterranean Sea, right at the centre of the National Park of the Calanques where the red mud is released. The disposal of this industrial waste currently happens right at the beginning of the trench of Cassidaigne, a marine environment well-known for its biodiversity.4 Due to the continuous persistence of the problem, in January 2016 the people of the region reversed in the streets again to protest against this threat to the environment. January 2016 was, in fact, the ultimate date for the industrial estate of Gardanne to stop producing such enormous quantities of industrial waste. The decision was initially taken in 1996, in accordance to the objectives of the Barcelona Convention for the protection and preservation of the Mediterranean Sea (ratified in 1998) and in occasion of the creation of the National Park of the Calanques. However, the Prefect of Bouches-du-Rhône published a new order which authorises the factory of Gardanne, managed by Altéo, to continue the production of aluminum for 6 more years.5 This was too much for the French inhabitants of the region and in January 2016, thousands of people marched in Marseille’s streets to protest against “the red mud scandal.”6


As a consequence of the protests, “Altéo has installed a new press filter processing and separating the solid and liquid wastes, but this does not reduce the harmful effects of these discharged hazardous residues.”7 The toxicity of the boues rouges has been proven countless times. Arsenic, lead, titanium, chromium, nickel, cadmium are just a few of the elements contained in the red mud discharged in the seawater, in a process of continuous contamination of the marine environment and biodiversity.8 Moreover, the pipes and cranes which bring the red mud to the sea are starting to deteriorate after many decades of usage.9 What would happen if they were to break at an unexpected moment in time? The experience of Brazil and the environmental disaster that affected the Rio Doce comes to mind: the inevitable disaster that affected the country in 2015 can’t be forgotten and we should learn from mistakes committed in the past to avoid them in the future.10

 


Environment and human rights


The environmental disaster that has been carried out for many decades is evidently real and urgent. However, how does it relate to human rights?


Firstly, the undermining of the biodiversity in the Mediterranean Sea has affected the flora and fauna of the marine environment. As reported by Thalassa, Guillaume Le Testu, a local fisherman, commented on the current state of fishes in the region asking himself how it was even possible that life was still present in the affected areas.11 The toxicity of these metals is, in fact, measured in a long-term perspective: the accumulation of the waste within the living organisms present in the sea provokes an alteration in the behavior, reproduction and development of marine life.12 Thus, the fish that is caught in the area is the one that many people consume and end up on the tables of various different people, locals especially. This is food that has been contaminated by the toxic industrial waste, highly dangerous for human beings. As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) noted, “Water pollution can cause a decrease in fish production either by reducing or eliminating fish populations or by making fish unsafe or undesirable for consumption.”13 And this constitutes a threat to a full enjoyment of human rights.


Furthermore, as Thalassa14 reported, Bruno Chareyron, director of Criirad (Commission de recherche et d’information indépendantes sur la radioactivité), has carried out some radioactivity tests on samples of water gathered in the affected zones of the Mediterranean. Mr Chayeron has discovered that the level of radiation found in the water was highly superior to the natural one. With people consuming edible products coming from the sea, the health and well-being of many residents and non-locals is threatened and fundamental human rights put at stake along with it. The already irreversible damage done to the environment is going to worsen even more now that the Prefect has decided to condone more years to the industry in Gardanne, permitting the discharge of the boues rouges for longer than expected.


It’s fundamentally important to point out that not only the discharge of industrial waste is affecting the sea and the living organisms present in the marine environment, but the presence of the factory is also affecting the health and well-being of the residents in the region. Le Monde Diplomatique reports that out of the 20 people living the closest to the deposition of the toxic sludge, 8 suffer of cancer, 1 of the Charcot disease and 5 have thyroid problems.15 The residues of the industrial powders that get spread in the air are clearly having damaging effects on the residents’ health and, once again, threatening their fundamental human rights.

 


Looking forward


As LPO has pointed out, considering that France was the country that host earlier on this year the COP21, the responsibility that derives from a commitment to preserve the environment and the planet and, as a consequence of it, the well-being of human beings, can’t be forgotten.16 The importance of preserving the Mediterranean Sea as a natural resource has to be valued and remembered. A good starting point could be for France to respect the Convention of Barcelona and respect the commitment undertaken in 1998 when the convention was ratified. Moreover, UNEP pointed out that when discussing the issue of water contamination and pollution, “New and improved legal and institutional frameworks to protect water quality are needed from the international level down to the watershed and community level.”17 The UNEP Report suggests different steps to be undertaken: as a first step, laws on protecting and improving water quality should be adopted and implemented. Moreover, essentially, “international guidelines for ecosystem water quality, and priority areas for remediation need to be developed and deployed globally.”18


Despite the urgent need for efficient legal tools to face the current issue, a clear political action should also be undertaken, particularly considering what has happened in the past. Once again, the comparison with the environmental disaster that affected Brazil in 2015 can be done. The mud coming from the mineral mines that reversed in the Rio Doce in Brazil killed thousands of fish before reaching the Atlantic Ocean. As the BBC reported, “the 60 million cubic meters of mine waste, equivalent to 25,000 Olympic swimming pools, cut off drinking water for a quarter of a million people.”19 The presence of the dense orange sludge completely undermined the biodiversity of the marine environment: in fact, in the contaminated mud “the Minas Gerais Institute of Water Managment has found toxic substances like mercury, arsenic, chromium and manganese at levels exceeding drinking water limits […] It could potentially impact the wider marine ecosystem.”20


At this point, a complete and utter disaster hasn’t happened yet, as none of the pipes transporting the boues rouges has collapsed or suddenly broken. However, considering the reportage21 done by Thalassa, there could be good chances for that to happen. As the Guardian reported, in relation to the Brazilian environmental disaster, the United Nations criticised the response of the companies and the Brazilian government as “insufficient,” saying: “The government and companies should be doing everything within their power to prevent further harm.”22 Therefore, now that the time has come for an urgent action to be taken, the discharge of red mud in the sea should stop as soon as possible in order to avoid the perpetuation of an environmental disaster that could potentially worsen in the near future.


Prevention seems to be the real key in this action. As the UNEP has stated as well, in fact, there is a strong need for prevention of pollution: “Pollution prevention is the reduction or elimination of contaminants at the source before they have a chance to pollute water resources […] As the world takes on the challenge of improving water quality, pollution prevention should be prioritized in international and local efforts.”23 Hence, as we’re facing many different cases of water pollution around the world, the need for prevention seems as urgent as ever. In addition to the boues rouges case in France, another example of polluted water has very recently come about in Russia. As reported by the National Geographic, “the Daldykan River in Russia, which flows through the industrial city of Norilsk above the Arctic Circle, changed from its usual blue-green color to bright red over the last couple of days.”24 The residents of the industrial town of Norilsk have said they have seem the river turning red before: the phenomenon seems to be due to ore runoff from the nearby factories. However, not much has been defined yet in terms of industrial leak as scientific analyses are been carried out in these days. In spite of the uncertainty as to the polluted state of the Russian river, the reality of contaminated waters is real and an urgent action on behalf of Governments, along with the work that has been already done by the civil society and international organisations, is now evidently present.


Hoping that the enactment of efficient legal tools and of prevention strategies could pave the way for a real and effective change, for the moment we can only raise awareness about these issues, always remembering that preserving the environment is a duty that we have as human beings and that needs to be fulfilled in order to protect and defend our own fundamental human rights.

 

1 BONTEMPS Sophie (2016), « Les boues rouges - Les dessous d’un scandale en Méditerranée », Thalassa. Available at : https://thalassa.atavist.com/les-boues-rouges

2 BONTEMPS, Op.Cit.

3 LANDREVIE Barbara (2015)  « La Méditerranée empoisonnée », Le Monde Diplomatique. Available at: http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2015/05/LANDREVIE/52952

4 BONTEMPS, Op.Cit.

5 Notre-Planete (2016), « Le scandale des boues rouges dans le Parc National des Calanques ». Available at: http://www.notre-planete.info/actualites/4397-boues-rouges-pollution-Med...

6 Costal Care (2016), « Red Mud Pollution: Outrage in Marseille ». Available at: http://coastalcare.org/2016/01/red-mud-pollution-outrage-in-marseille/

7 Ibidem

8 Ibidem

9 BONTEMPS, Op.Cit.

10 LPO (2015), « Après 50 ans de pollution par les boues rouges, la Méditerranée est enfin autorisée à panser ses plaies! », Agir pour la Biodiversité. Available at: https://www.lpo.fr/actualites/apres-50-ans-de-pollution-par-les-boues-ro...

11 BONTEMPS, Op.Cit.

12 Notre-Planete, Op.Cit.

13UNEP (2010), « Clearing the Waters – A focus on water quality solutions ». Available at: http://www.unep.org/PDF/Clearing_the_Waters.pdf

14 BONTEMPS, Op.Cit.

15 LANDREVIE, Op.Cit.

16 LPO, Op.Cit.

17 UNEP, Op.Cit.

18 Ibidem

19 BBC News (2015), « Brazil dam toxic mud reaches Atlantic via Rio Doce estuary ». Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-34892237

20 MASSARANI Luisa (2015), « Brazilian mine disaster releases dangerous metals », Chemistry World. Available at: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/brazilian-mine-disaster-releases-dan...

21 BONTEMPS Sophie and BERDER Nedjma. « Boues Rouges, la mer empoisonnée (reportage complet) » (2016) In : Thalassa / France 3, YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH_BkLMniRY

22 The Guardian (2015), « Mud from Brazil dam disaster is toxic, UN says, despite mine operator denials ». Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/26/mud-from-brazil-dam-dis...

23 UNEP, Op.Cit.

24 BRADY Heather (2016), « This River in Russia Just Turned Red », National Geographic. Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/09/red-river-russia-possible-fac...

 

 

MR - Research Assistant at CIPADH

 


Webography


Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean against Pollution 1998. Available at: http://195.97.36.231/dbases/webdocs/BCP/BC76_Eng.pdf

BBC News (2015), « Brazil dam toxic mud reaches Atlantic via Rio Doce estuary ». Available at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-34892237

BONTEMPS Sophie (2016), « Les boues rouges - Les dessous d’un scandale en Méditerranée », Thalassa. Available at : https://thalassa.atavist.com/les-boues-rouges

BONTEMPS Sophie and BERDER Nedjma. « Boues Rouges, la mer empoisonnée (reportage complet) » (2016) In : Thalassa / France 3, YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wH_BkLMniRY

BRADY Heather (2016), « This River in Russia Just Turned Red », National Geographic. Available at: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2016/09/red-river-russia-possible-fac...

Costal Care (2016), « Red Mud Pollution: Outrage in Marseille ». Available at: http://coastalcare.org/2016/01/red-mud-pollution-outrage-in-marseille/

LANDREVIE Barbara (2015)  « La Méditerranée empoisonnée », Le Monde Diplomatique. Available at: http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2015/05/LANDREVIE/52952

LEROUX Luc (2016), « A Marseille, « colère rouge » contre les boues rouges », Le Monde. Available at: http://mobile.lemonde.fr/pollution/article/2016/01/30/a-marseille-colere...

LPO (2015), « Après 50 ans de pollution par les boues rouges, la Méditerranée est enfin autorisée à panser ses plaies! », Agir pour la Biodiversité. Available at: https://www.lpo.fr/actualites/apres-50-ans-de-pollution-par-les-boues-ro...

MASSARANI Luisa (2015), « Brazilian mine disaster releases dangerous metals », Chemistry World. Available at: https://www.chemistryworld.com/news/brazilian-mine-disaster-releases-dan...

Notre-Planete (2016), « Le scandale des boues rouges dans le Parc National des Calanques ». Available at: http://www.notre-planete.info/actualites/4397-boues-rouges-pollution-Med...

The Guardian (2015), « Mud from Brazil dam disaster is toxic, UN says, despite mine operator denials ». Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/nov/26/mud-from-brazil-dam-dis...

RIVASI Michèle and BOVÉ José (2016), « Le fléau des boues rouges: un véritable poison en mer comme sur terre », Le Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.fr/michele-rivasi/traitement-boues-rouges-usin...

UNEP (2010), « Clearing the Waters – A focus on water quality solutions ». Available at: http://www.unep.org/PDF/Clearing_the_Waters.pdf

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