Smelter is well aware of hazards
Namibia Custom Smelters (NCS) and its parent company, Dundee Precious Metals, has always been aware of the presence of arsenic at the Tsumeb Smelter and has therefore made significant effort to address the problem, says Hans Nolte, general manager of Namibia Custom Smelters.
The company invested in a multimillion-dollar programme to upgrade the smelter and bring it in line with international environmental standards.
Nolte emphasised that the environmental hazards posed by the company’s smelting operations have been present ever since the Tsumeb Smelter was built in 1963.
When Dundee Precious Metals Inc acquired the company two years ago, it immediately embarked on a multimillion-dollar programme to upgrade the smelter and bring it in line with international standards in an effort to turn it into a world-class facility for the benefit of the Tsumeb community, Oshikoto region and the Namibian nation, he further said.
Nolte declined to comment on a recently released environmental audit on the Tsumeb Smelter which confirmed the presence of high levels of arsenic at the smelter and its surroundings, stating that the company representatives are yet to see the audit.
“Namibia Custom Smelters is aware that a report of the environmental audit has been submitted to Cabinet and the Ministry of Environment and Tourism. However, we have not yet seen an official copy of the report and therefore we hesitate to draw any conclusions or inferences based on what has been reported in the media in this regard,” Nolte told the Economist.
He added that the company will, however, work with government to address any health and environmental concerns.
The Minister of Environment and Tourism, Netumbo Nandi-Ndaitwah confirmed that the report, which indicates that there are “high levels of arsenic and various other substances hazardous to the human body and the surroundings at the smelter”, will be tabled before Cabinet soon. Cabinet will discuss all the findings and will decide on the way forward.
According to a preliminary report on the activities of the Tsumeb Smelter, the NCS emits about 60 000 tons of sulphur a year into the environment in the form of sulphur dioxide. This can result in acid rain.
One of the recommendations made by the environmental audit is that the current production of the smelter be reduced by half in order to improve the health of the company’s employees and the community at large.
“… we have very limited knowledge of what is contained in the audit report since we do not have the official copy. It can be said though, that cutting our production in half would have detrimental effects on NCS as a company and on Dundee as a publicly traded corporation, but in the absence of information, particularly scientific data, the precise nature of those effects are difficult to enunciate.
“NCS would not like to reduce its workforce for any reason as we have hundreds of loyal, hard-working and highly skilled men and women in our employ. Some of them have been on the job for many, many years. These employees have families who depend on them and mortgages and monthly bills to pay and we don’t want to jeopardise their futures or their livelihoods. Some months ago certain individuals called for the immediate closure of the smelter. This would have been catastrophic and we did everything we could to avoid such an extreme measure. It is far too early to tell what impact the government’s directives will have on our operations, or whether they will lead to a reduction in the workforce. At this stage we are taking a wait-and-see attitude,” Nolte said.
In order to adequately deal with the impact the smelter has on the environment, Dundee Precious Metals initiated several projects to improve conditions at the town.
These include a disposal site where products containing arsenic can be stored, two new bag houses are currently being constructed to improve the filtering of gasses at the smelter which is expected to be in working condition by August. The Environment Ministry has recommended that the NCS advance the installation of the sulphuric acid plant from 2014 to 2013.
NCS currently employs 527 workers and 280 permanent contractors. Dundee has thus far invested N$140 million in environmental projects at the smelter. The company treats an estimated 180 000 tons of copper concentrate per year.