AW and the Long Harbour P4 pollution saga.

The production of phosphorus at Oldbury and Portishead was not as economically viable as Albright and Wilson would have liked. It  was mainly due to the amount of power needed to keep the furnaces running. They therefore looked at other sites where their operations could continue, with raw materials supply needed for production also a factor.

A letter in The National Archives concerning “the future of phosphorus production” provides the background.

“Albright and Wilson are seriously considering abandoning their manufacture of phosphorus in The United Kingdom, at present carried out largely at portishead Bristol, and partly at Oldbury , Birmingham, from phosphate rock imported from Florida at a cost of £750,000 a year. They have an option on a development in Newfoundland where they would set up phosphorus manufacture to replace that carried out currently in the UK, and Canada, still from Florida rock.”

A.C.H Cairns Department of Economic Affairs 14th April

National Archives EW 27/159

Southern Newfoundland in Canada provided an attractive proposition for the then board of directors as it offered cheap power. Albright and Wilson were paying a claimed .84 pence per KwH in Britain against an estimated .04-.05 pence by their Dutch competitors Hoechst and .2 pence guranteed Canada for 25 years. A plentiful supply of silica, one of the main ingredients for manufacture of p4 and also the depth of water in the area allowed shipping of the material easier. Two large carier vessels called The Albright Explorer and The Albright Pioneer.  Both had capacity to carry 5000 tonnes of P4.

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The Albright Pioneer and explorer at Portishead

The board of Albright and Wilson attempted to throw the then British Government into their commercial operations by playing a hustlers hand. The general proposition that the company asked was “are we as phosphorus producers, and is phosphorus as a commodity too valuable to the National economy to let us move abroad? We have secured a better deal elsewhere, but if you could offer us power at a cheaper rate, then we may consider staying- if it were in the national interest.”

They also claimed that they had a limited time to accept the offer and an American competitor would be likely to step in if they did not take up the offer. They applied for Exchange Control Permission, whereby the consent of the Bank of England and the Treasury was needed to allow investment in Canada. All money was to be borrowed in Canada  (£12m), and the project managed by their existing wholly owned Canadian subsidiary E.R.C.O, manufacturers of phosphorus based products.

The matter was even raised with then Prime Minister Harold Wilson as documents from The National Archives show.

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Letter from Douglas Jay to PM Harold Wilson 12th January 1967 NAT ARCHIVES EW/27/159. Reproduced by permission to http://www.whatliesbeneathrattlechainlagoon.org.uk/

The Albright and Wilson board at this time, as alluded to in the above letter, had internal arguments as to the direction that they wanted  to take with p4 manufacture, but eventually after delay, the company decided to end white phosphorus production in Britain and move abroad.

The new  AW phosphorus production furnaces, started in 1966, opened two years later on December 8th 1968. The Placentia Bay area had a bouyant commercial fishing community who were naturally concerned that a new Foreign chemical plant could cause problems. They were fed the usual tripe that such companies bring, offering the bait of “new jobs” and “health and safety systems” that would be fail proof- which were of course swallowed whole by gushing local politicians who cut the first sod in the ground.

 

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Pictured above- the plant pelletiser which ground raw phosphate rock into dust and into marble sized pellets. These were then fed and roasted in the furnace itself.

 

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The plant was built out of steel, cement and asbestos. The centre part of the picture shows the proportioning unit where the three raw materials were mixed before entering the furnaces. The process was outlined in Albright magazine- (minus the terrible pollution emitted).

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Just five days after the plant opened, and omenously on Friday 13th, all the fish in the bay were floating dead on the surface of the water. There was an obvious source. The plant expelled tonnes of dissolved Fluoride, cyanide and Sulphur dioxide every day into the water, but more crucially about 500 kg of P4 were carried away from the plant as phossy water.

The apparatus that Albright and Wilson had put into operation at the plant for waste was fatally flawed and they had completely failed to understand the longevative properties of the chemical that they professed to be experts in manufacturing.

Water from the waste processes of p4 production were collected in a large pool where they were diluted with more water ( sound familiar to a certain pool in Oldbury?) They wrongly believed that the “small amounts” of white phosphorus in the waste stream would be oxidised to phosphorus pentoxide and hydrolised to phosphoric acid. The waste water would then be further diluted with sea water before being pumped out to sea.

The plant closed and bizarrely perhaps in one of their favourite techniques of using “a trial”, lobsters were placed near the discharge point to ascertain if any further pollution followed, then the company would be allerted if anything untoward happened to them.

Despite being fit and healthy, the crustaceans survived, wheras massive further fish kills continued into 1969 with observed inflamed red gills in herring. It became known as “the red herring” affair, in that the company refered to the survival of the lobsters in the face of increasing fish deaths further away from the plant. “We’re not guilty” was the plea from the company, in much the same rebuttle as they delivered concerning Rattlechain.

Several further incidents of fish genocide occured along the coast of Placentia Bay over the next few months, including Arnold’s Cove, over 25 miles from the plant. Each new fish death occured further away from the plant,upto 40 miles, indicating that the pollution was rolling like a toxic tsunami under the water.

The was no hiding place for Albright and Wilson and they neared bankruptcy due to the closing done of the plant. Unfortunately they were saved by American firm Tenneco who bought half of the company. The company paid for the treatment of the waste effluent by building ponds on the East side of the site, where calcium oxide was added to precipitate the fluoride and neatralize the acid. Hugh Podger in “Albright and Wilson The Last 50 years” comments

“The capital cost of the treatment measures was estimated to be $400,000 immediately and £2.8 million in total, based on the system that had been used at Oldbury and the addition of Large ponds.”

This may have stopped the fish kills out to sea from this wretched polluting company, but “The system that had been used at Oldbury”, IE RATTLECHAIN LAGOON- can hardly be considered as an environmentally friendly system, though it appears the hierachy  were in total denial about how dangerous their operations were. WHAT ABOUT ANYTHING LANDING ON THESE ?!

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A settling pond- part of the AW idea of managing pollution

In 1969 The Placentia Bay incident became probably the most significant white phosphorus pollution incidents known to date, and what haunted Albright and Wilson as a company until its final demise. The deaths of tens of millions of fish, was at first considered to be “a mystery”- just as many of the p4 incidents of wildlife mortality around the world have been slow to emerge. P4 was found in the fish that were collected in low levels. CRUCIALLY THESE VERY LOW LEVELS IN SEA WATER WERE FOUND TO BE 1 PART PER BILLION. Fletcher 1972 reported Cod placed in sea water containing this amount could absorb and concentrate the chemical in their livers, and after just a few hours the amount could reach 25,000 times the amount conatained in the surrounding waters.

John Emsley in his book “The shocking history of phosphorus” notes

“Some marine species, like lobsters, were immune to phosphorus at these low concentrations, which rendered them useless as environmental monitors. Even though the phosphorus at Placentia Bay was diluted to almost immeasurably low levels, a shoal of fish swimming in such polluted water for a day or two would all die.”

Despite the promises of rectification the environmental problems continued.

Fluoride emissions from the plant’s smokestacks severely damaged nearby vegetation.  Deformed moose and rabbits were also reportedly found near the plant. Snowshoe hares were dissected and tested, and high levels of fluoride were found in their bones.

The Long Harbour plant finally closed in 1989. A news release from January 1996 reveals that “the clean up” of this site- incuding its settling ponds, would be undertaken by Albright and Wilson Americas- who did not transfer to Rhodia during their takeover of the UK company in 2000. The statement crucially notes the findings of the environmental consultancy undertaking the assessment. “Smith concurred that “because of the hazards associated with moving the large volume of contaminated wastes, in-situ containment should be implemented.” 

We therefore have the same situation of burial at land as that proposed at Rattlechain lagoon. Albright and Wilson’s gift to the community of tomorrow. The story of the proposed solution to the issue is told by those living in the Newfoundland community. at the time.

An incinerator plan at the site was eventually thrown out. Recently a nickel processing plant has found its way onto part of the Long Harbour site, bringing once again the promise of job security and cleaner technology. Eventually it too will have to be decontaminated- a prospect always dependent on economic fortunes, and for others to rectify in the future when those who promised the earth are usually buried beneath it with the toxic waste they left there.

Do you remember this incident or are you part of the Long Harbour fishing community? How did this incident affect you and has the area now recovered? We would love to hear from you.

One Response to AW and the Long Harbour P4 pollution saga.

  1. J N Wilde says:

    Way back in 1978 I worked as Chief Officer on one of the ships, M.V. Phosphore Conveyor, that delivered the raw phosphate from Tampa (Florida) to Long Harbour. Although capable of lifting 70,000 tonnes we would only bring a part cargo – about 55,000 tonnes – because of a draft restriction getting out of Tampa. I can also recall that one or both of the Allbright vessels was often berthed opposite us. Many years later I was to see them again when I worked on a small coastal tanker taking the unused fuel oil from the defunct power station in Portishead back to Milford Haven. Whilst I appreciate that none of this has anything to do with your concerns about pollution emissions my interest was piqued by the link between Long Harbour and Portishead, a connection I hitherto knew nothing about. Thank you for enlightening me!

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