€2.3bn coal importer rejects abuse claim

The Irish company that imports coal from a Colombian mine accused of human rights abuses has recorded revenues of €2.3bn.

CMC Coal Marketing, which has supplied millions of tonnes of coal from the Cerrejon Mine for burning at the ESB’s Moneypoint power station, insists the operations in Colombia are all above board.

Human rights groups are pushing for a public hearing on the coal purchase deal. The Department of Communications, Climate Action, and the Environment, as well as the Oireachtas committee with that brief, have asked the ESB for explanations.

Over the past seven years, ESB has sourced some 7.5m tonnes of coal through CMC Coal Marketing, a Dublin-registered company set up to market and distribute coal from Cerrejon in Ireland and internationally.

According to accounts filed in Ireland, the company, which is owned by the same three multinationals as the mine, made an after-tax profit of €62.5m on €2.3bn in revenues in 2017 and it paid €9.2m in tax here.

Its low-key presence is in stark contrast to Cerrejon itself, which is under attack internationally amid claims of evictions, intimidation, and environmental destruction among the poor communities of La Guajira in north Colombia, where it operates one of the world’s largest open cast mines.

Cerrejon has repeatedly denied the allegations but following concerns raised by Dublin South-West Sinn Féin TD Sean Crowe in the Dáil, and a joint letter from Trócaire, Christian Aid, Friends of the Earth, and the Latin America Solidarity Centre, the Oireachtas environment committee wrote to ESB seeking explanations. The department said it has also raised issues with the ESB.

ESB said it is a member of the Bettercoal initiative, an international alliance of major coal-buyers, which works to promote improvements in the way the industry operates.

“The Bettercoal assessment of Cerrejon indicates that the mine’s operating principles, including how it conducts its business, treats its staff, and works with its neighbours, are essentially in line with the Bettercoal best practice code,” it said.

Plans are being made to phase out coal at Moneypoint — and the station has recently been off-line because of technical problems — but ESB would not discuss the nature of its purchasing agreement with CMC Coal Marketing or how long it has left to run.

Sian Cowman of the Latin America Solidarity Centre said the company has questions to answer.

“The Bettercoal response is not an adequate answer. It’s an industry-led voluntary standard.

If Moneypoint is to continue for any length of time, we need to be looking deeply at the sources of the coal and the human rights issues implicit in where it comes from, and the best way to do that would be to directly question the ESB.”

CMC was asked a number of questions but the company declined to put forward a spokesperson.

It passed the questions on to the mine which provided a statement of its co-operation with Bettercoal and other independent assessments.

It said it has acted on various recommendations and is continuing to work towards improving relations with the communities in what it said is a very disadvantaged region of Colombia with high poverty rates, poor public services, limited rainfall, and “difficulties in governance”.

“Despite this massive effort, the challenges remain huge, and structural and institutional difficulties in La Guajira persist,” said CMC Coal Marketing.

The sheer scale of the needs — and the expectations of the different groups — does much to explain the negative perception you refer to in regard to Cerrejon’s performance.

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