Gardanne (France) (AFP)

A flagship of the industry, Alteo, the world leader in alumina, has some lead in its wings.

In financial difficulty, the plant near Marseille and its some 500 employees are facing the sling of residents overwhelmed "by pollution".

With its kilometers of pipes, tall vats and chimneys, the factory sits at the entrance to the town of Gardanne (Bouches-du-Rhône) whose streets are covered with ocher-red dust, but stores its waste in a commune neighbor.

In its bowels, Alteo grinds and transforms each year more than a million tonnes of red bauxite imported mainly from Guinea to manufacture white alumina used in weapons, the automotive industry or the manufacture of mobile phones.

In the hands of the French group Péchiney until 2003, the oldest alumina factory in the world, created in 1894, is now owned by the American investment fund HIG.

"Péchiney was paternalism: we were housed, we had the right to a doctor, to vacation camps," recalls the daughter of one of the many Italian immigrants who came to work there.

Today, however, Aline Frosini criticizes one of the largest employers in the area with its 500 employees and 400 indirect jobs.

The activity of the factory, regularly pinned down by environmental associations, cannot "last any longer", estimates the one whose father worker died of cancer.

But in Gardanne, already "traumatized" by the closure of the coal mines where 475 "black men" were still working in 2003, the financial difficulties of Alteo, looking for a buyer or a partner since its placement in recovery judicial process at the end of 2019, worried the population and public authorities.

- "Where are we going to work?"


"Jobs are more important than the environment," said Robert Giannini, a worker for 40 years at Alteo.

"We are 66 million inhabitants in France and we no longer want a factory, so where are we going to work?" Asks the septuagenarian.

Until a prefectural decree the sum, at the end of 2015, under pressure from environmental associations, to stop dumping the waste of bauxite in the creeks of Marseille and Cassis, the plant rejected in 50 years at least 20 million tons of red mud loaded with arsenic and cadmium in the Mediterranean.

"It's a thing of the past, colossal efforts have been made by the company," underlines the new mayor LR, referring to the new treatment processes for this liquid waste.

Like the former communist majority at the head of Gardanne for 43 years, the elected representative encouraged by the unions of the factory (CGT, FO, CFE-CGC) "wishes above all to preserve employment" and notes that "no study did not show "that the activity of the company affects the health of the inhabitants.

In 2016, the health agency Anses nevertheless noted that after the imposed treatment of red mud "the future discharge will always constitute a source of contamination".

For environmentalists, pollution has only been moved from the sea to the land and it infuriates the mayor of the neighboring town of Bouc-Bel-Air.

If in September the company inaugurated a treatment station for its "liquid effluents" discharged into the sea, it has at the same time increased the storage of solid residues extracted from this water, in immense grounds dug in the open air instead. said de Mange-Garri, in Bouc-Bel-Air.

- Hundreds of thousands of tonnes -

Out of sight, at the top of a wooded hill, 300,000 tons of red earth, bauxaline, accumulate each year, the town hall told AFP.

In April 2018, the cloud of red dust covering the city, fanned by a blast of the mistral, revealed the size of the storage site, equivalent to a total of 50 football fields, and raised new questions.

"Bauxite residues are non-hazardous according to regulations", assures Frédéric Ramé, president of Alteo holding.

"Many devices" such as watering have been put in place to "completely control the flight of dust", detailed the manager during the inauguration of the treatment plant.

"The environmental studies are biased because the samples are taken by Alteo or so conclude that it is necessary to go further to establish a report of harmfulness on the environment", accuses Aline Frosini.

ANSES noted in 2017 that studies around the Mange-Garri site did not allow "to exclude a health risk at the local level".

"Stop telling us that there is nothing in this dust. The toxic residues that were thrown into the sea have gone somewhere," annoys the LR mayor of Bouc-Bel-Air Richard Mallié.

He says "no longer trust the company" which for 20 years "has been trying to buy time".

The councilor filed a complaint against the company and its rejections like a handful of residents for "endangering the lives of others" which led in March 2019 to the opening of a judicial investigation.

Since then, he has asked in vain for a water balance, worried like environmental organizations, of the risks of pollution of runoff water on groundwater.

© 2020 AFP