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Red Mud Project No Danger to Environment

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The pilot plant being established to undertake the extraction of rare earth elements from the island’s bauxite waste (red mud), will have no negative impact on the environment, says Executive Director of the Jamaica Bauxite Institute (JBI), Dr. Paris Lyew-Ayee.

The assurance has come following concerns raised by the Jamaica Environment Trust about the potential environmental impact of the pilot plant to be constructed at the JBI headquarters in Hope Gardens.

Speaking in an interview with JIS News recently, Dr. Lyew-Ayee stressed that there is no danger posed by the project, which he explained, is a laboratory experiment to try to understand the commercial aspect of extracting the rare earth elements.

“We would not endanger our people, our neighbours and our community in any way…the pilot plant work that is going to be done at the JBI is a laboratory experimentation to go through the details of the processing before we go to the commercial side,” he stated.

The pilot project involves researchers from Jamaica and Japan treating some 30 tonnes of dry red mud to potentially extract some of the 17 rare-earth elements, which are vital in manufacturing smartphones, plasma screens, wind turbines, satellites and numerous other high-tech products.

“This red mud will be neutralized with acid, that’s the first thing we do. The red mud that we have in our various mud containment ponds…are very safe and secure. It’s caustic (and) alkaline and some people would classify it as a hazardous material. This process is going to neutralize it so it would then be non-toxic. We will then be extracting the rare earth elements, oxides, from this red mud,” Dr. Lyew-Ayee explained.

The Executive Director noted that although the project will entail the transportation of dried red mud to the plant, this is not hazardous, “because it’s dried, and when it comes (to the plant) it will be put in special bins.” He pointed out that this substance contains the same level of radioactivity found in red soils in Red Hills, Stony Hill, Mandeville and other parts of Jamaica.

He said the BTI ensured that it followed all the required procedures to undertake the project. “We have had to go to the National Environment and Planning Agency (NEPA) andthe Natural Resources Conservation Authority(NRCA). We have the permits. We had to get a permit from the Kingston and St. Andrew Corporation (KSAC) and from the National Works Agency (NWA). We had to go through the usual processes and we had all of those papers before we could move,” he said.

Turning to the matter of a public hearing, Dr. Lyew-Ayee told JIS News that this was not required for this aspect of the project.

“When we are going for the commercial operation, that is going to have to entail an environmental impact assessment, which has public hearings and things like that,” he noted.

The Executive Director further informed that the JBI will continue its research on the material to understand better how to manage it and to see what else can be extracted, because red mud has many other minerals such as iron and titanium that can be beneficial to the country.

Speaking of the pilot project in Parliament last month, Science, Technology, Energy and Mining Minister, Hon. Phillip Paulwell, stated that the pilot plant study “will seek to specifically map the potential impact on land, water, and air and the effect of neutralizing the by-products of rare earth element extractions.”

Ground was broken for the construction of the US$3million pilot plant on Monday, February 4, which is being funded by Nippon Light Metal. The company will also be responsible for the operating cost. The pilot project is scheduled to last for six months.

Nippon Light Metal Company Ltd. is a publicly traded aluminum supplier headquartered in Tokyo.

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