Start of the action : 07/03/2017
Since 1894, in Gardanne (Bouches-du-Rhône) take place one of the world’s first alumina production plants. This chemical compound is extracted from bauxite (a sedimentary rock) and is used to produce aluminum. The process for isolating alumina from bauxite generates two types of waste: process wastewater and Bauxite residues. This waste, called “Red Mud”, is charged with polluting substances (aluminum, iron, arsenic …), harmful for human health and the environment.
The “red sludge” produced at Gardanne, in the ALTEO alumina production plant, is transported and discharged in the sea, offshore Cassis, into the Cassidaigne canyon at a depth of 320 meters.
The Barcelona Convention for the Protection of the Mediterranean (1976) and the creation of the Calanques National Park (2012) compelled ALTEO to stop its solid discharges on 31 December 2015. This date also corresponded to the end of the authorizations of occupation of the maritime public domain for the operator.
To continue the operation, ALTEO has installed three filter presses to treat and dry solid residues. Nevertheless, several questions remain concerning liquid discharge, its harmfulness to humans, its impact on the environment and its dilution in the environment. Although the quantities of pollutants are greatly reduced, they remain however higher than the thresholds imposed by the regulations; in particular for six parameters: pH, Arsenic, Aluminum, Iron, BOD, COD. In December 2015, the Préfet of the Bouches-du-Rhône gives permission to ALTEO to continue its operation by modifying the nature of the discharge at sea (passage from a muddy discharge to a purely liquid discharge), and gives a derogation from the Barcelona Convention provisions (concerning the 6 parameters above) for 6 years allowing it to comply with the standards. Standards defined 20 years ago … !!!
Moving from a solid release to a liquid discharge is a positive point because it reduces the suffocation of the seabed. However, the actual composition of the liquid discharge remains unknown, and the fact that this release is liquid poses the question of the dilution and propagation of pollutants in the environment. A report by ANSES (National Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health Safety) highlights the risk of introducing these materials (Aluminum, Iron, Arsenic, etc.) into the food chain. Human health and fishing activity may be threatened.
Surfrider Foundation Europe does not ask the closure of the Alteo-operated alumina plant in Gardanne, but the compliance with the European (Barcelona Convention) and French (Decree of 2 February 1998 on water withdrawals and consumption as well as emissions of all kinds of installations classified for the protection of the environment (ICPE) subject to authorization) concerning the protection of the Mediterranean Sea.
On the 25th of January, 2019, the judge decided to reject the Alteo demand in appeal. So, the judge confirms the first decision. It’s a second victory for us. Now, we just wait and see for the application of this decision.
Sarah from the Mediterranean office of Surfrider Foundation Europe