New Report: Increases in U.S. Aluminum Production Should Include Cleaning Up a Pollution-Heavy Industry
Washington, D.C. – Aluminum is a key component in solar panels and wind turbines, more efficient cars and planes, and long-lasting construction materials. As demand for low-carbon products grows, aluminum demand is projected to rise about 40 percent by 2030. But production of this lightweight and durable metal is energy-intensive and pollution heavy, including climate emissions from fossil fuels, sulfur dioxide from smelters and refining operations, destructive mining practices, and mercury contamination of rivers.
A new report by the Environmental Integrity Project (EIP), “The Aluminum Paradox: Vital for Clean Energy, but also a Major Source of Greenhouse Gases, Air and Water Pollution,” details the impacts of the “mining-to-metal” production chain and identifies opportunities for the U.S. industry to reduce climate emissions and clean up its act as aluminum becomes part of a more sustainable economy.
“The aluminum products we all use are shiny and light—but the impacts of their production on communities and the environment are anything but,” said Nadia Steinzor, policy and research analyst with EIP and lead author of the report. “The aluminum industry creates a large amount of pollution that could be stopped with the right technologies and policies. Without strong action, the promise of aluminum in attaining a lower-carbon world will prove to be a false one.”
The six remaining aluminum production plants in the U.S. are old and use mostly fossil fuel-based electricity. Despite operating with the benefit of outdated regulations, these six plants have exceeded permitted pollution limits at least 208 times over the last five years, including for substances that harm health like mercury and copper in water and particulate matter and sulfur dioxide in air.
The plant with the most violations was in southwest Indiana, the Alcoa Warrick smelting facility in Newburgh. The coal plant powering the plant exceeded its legal limits on discharges of mercury to the Ohio River 28 times between 2018-2023, according to EPA records cited in the report. The same aluminum smelting facility also violated limits for zinc, copper, aluminum and other water pollutants 73 times over this period.
Violations of Pollution Limits at U.S. Aluminum Facilities, 2018-2023
|Facility||Year built||Water pollution violations||Air pollution violation||Cause of federal air quality standard exceedance|
|Alcoa Warrick (Newburgh, IN)||1960||101||15||—|
|Century Aluminum Sebree (Robards, KY)||1972||23||— *||SO2|
|Magnitude 7 Metals (Marston, MO)||1969||9||16 *||SO2|
|Alcoa Massena (Massena, NY)||1902||5||—||SO2|
|Century Aluminum Hawesville (Hawesville, KY)||1969||2||14 *||—|
|Century Mt. Holly (Goose Creek, SC)||1980||—||23||—|
|Sources: Permit and compliance documents from state regulatory agencies and records in EPA’s Enforcement and Compliance History Online (ECHO) database for new or “primary” aluminum, not recycled aluminum. Air quality exceedances as of September 2023. * ECHO lists the results of state and federal reviews of compliance tests as “pending,” so it is possible that the number of violations is higher.|
Producing aluminum creates environmental and health impacts at each of four main steps along the way: mining ore, refining alumina, producing a key ingredient from a byproduct of petroleum refining called petroleum coke, and smelting aluminum.
Mining the ore that contains aluminum in its mineral form, called bauxite, destroys forests and grasslands, contaminates water resources, and creates toxic dust and waste. For example, residents living near a government-owned mine in Jamaica that supplies the U.S. alumina refinery in Louisiana recently sued over damage to their health, land, water, and livelihoods.
“One of the big reasons nothing is being done at all is that the government is the owner and they are also the ones who supervise,” said Al Gallimore, a retired broadcaster who lives adjacent to the mines in Jamaica. “So, who do we have to complain to about what’s being done to the ecology and the people?”
Turning crushed bauxite into a fine white powder called alumina requires large volumes of water and caustic chemicals. Bauxite contains mercury, which the refining process releases. Mercury emissions from the U.S.’s only alumina refinery in Gramercy, Louisiana, have settled onto nearby waterways, threatening aquatic systems, drinking water, and public health. According to EPA data, in 2021, Atlantic Alumina Refinery was the top source of mercury releases in Louisiana, accounting for 1,900 pounds of mercury, which can damage the nerves, kidney, liver, and immune systems.
“When it’s releasing mercury, it’s getting on both sides of the river in everybody’s yard,” said Wilma Subra, a chemist and environmental advocate in Louisiana. “I also like to use this facility as an example for particulate matter pollution up and down Cancer Alley. At other plants, people don’t realize what they’re inhaling, but in this case, it’s red. They can see what they’re breathing.”
Petroleum coke, or petcoke, is a key ingredient in the production of devices—called anodes—needed to conduct electricity for the conversion of alumina into aluminum. Billionaire William Koch’s Oxbow Port Arthur plant in southeast Texas, the world’s largest supplier of petcoke, released about 22 million pounds of sulfur dioxide each year from 2016 through 2019—making it one of the state’s largest sources of this air pollution, which can trigger lung disease and heart attacks. In 2021, the Environmental Integrity Project and partners filed a complaint that allowing all this pollution in a majority Black and Latino community violated the Civil Rights Act, triggering an ongoing EPA investigation.
Aluminum smelting converts alumina powder into metal. But smelters emit large amounts of sulfur dioxide and are the leading industrial source of perfluorocarbons, powerful and long-lasting greenhouse gases. The global aluminum industry accounted for 1.2 billion tons of global greenhouse gases in 2021, the same amount as the energy used by over 150 million homes. This contribution to climate change is set to only grow along with global demand for the metal.
U.S. demand for aluminum is growing, primarily for electric vehicles, construction and packaging materials, and clean energy and electrical systems. Yet the production of new aluminum in the U.S. has been on a steady and steep decline due to rising costs and a changing world market.
The fact that demand for aluminum is being driven by the need for cleaner energy systems and transportation creates opportunities for change through four key strategies. Investing in these strategies could create American jobs and facilitate the transition to a lower carbon aluminum industry and a green economy.
- Rein in climate emissions. Currently, five of six U.S. aluminum smelters use fossil-fuel based electricity either from coal-fired power plants or utility-owned grids that run on coal, oil, and gas. States with smelters need to make changes to their electricity policies to increase the use of clean energy, such as solar and wind, in producing aluminum. Operators should also start using carbon-free devices – inert anodes — for smelting when they become available.
- Update federal pollution rules. The EPA has failed to update technology-based pollution control requirements for the aluminum industry to keep pace with technological advancements, as required by the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act.
- Reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. U.S. aluminum smelters and the petcoke plants that support them are notorious for emitting large quantities of sulfur dioxide that threaten air quality and health. Yet U.S. smelters have long operated without equipment, called “scrubbers,” designed to curb releases of this pollutant. Scrubbers should be required for all U.S. smelters and petcoke refineries.
- Recycle more, use less. Automakers and other industries are eager to purchase recycled aluminum to meet sustainability targets. Some investments are being made to recycle more aluminum, reducing the need for new metal. But industrial systems for reuse of scrap aluminum, and municipal systems for recycling aluminum products, need to be more accessible and effective.
For a copy of the report, click here.
The Environmental Integrity Project is a nonprofit organization, based in Washington D.C. and Austin, Texas, dedicated to enforcing environmental laws and strengthening policy to protect public health and the environment.
Media contact: Tom Pelton, Environmental Integrity Project (443) 510-2574 or email@example.com