Sealed ships and silos part of possible expansion to Corpach port

The Alvance British Aluminium smelter at Fort William . Photograph: Iain Ferguson, Alvance-smelter01-scaled.jpg
The Alvance British Aluminium smelter at Fort William . Photograph: Iain Ferguson, Alvance-smelter01-scaled.jpg

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Specially-designed cargo ships with sealed holds to prevent dust pollution would pump alumina for recycling into large silos at Corpach port as part of possible plans by Lochaber  smelter operator, Alvance Aluminium.

Alvance, a member of Sanjeev Gupta’s sustainable industry leader GFG Alliance, recently announced a £94million investment package in a new recycling and casting scrap aluminium facility facility that will double aluminium production at its Fort William plant.

The plan, if approved by Highland Council, would see the recycling plant replace the already consented scheme for an alloy wheels factory on the smelter site, which has since been shelved due to the downturn in the worldwide car industry.

To support the developments, Alvance is also proposing what it described as ‘significant upgrades’ to the port at Corpach to improve efficiency of material flow.

But this has already sparked consternation among Corpach residents, who have spent years complaining about pollution and disturbance from the existing operations of the local harbour.

Just recently the Lochaber Times reported on complaints of clouds of carbon dust being washed into the loch’s waters during the loading of a vessel with carbon anodes from the smelter.

Before Christmas, Kilmallie and Ardgour Community Councils held a joint session in order to quiz representatives from both Alvance and Corpach port operators, Boyd Brothers, and others on what future developments at the port might hold.

Brian King, chairman of Alvance British Aluminium, explained Alvance’s thinking behind using the port at Corpach, although he made clear no firm decision had yet been made on which port would be the best option, if indeed a port was eventually chosen as the optimum solution to the company’s needs.

Saying the alloy wheels plant was not feasible at this point and has been shelved, ‘possibly forever’, Mr King commented: ‘What we have been doing is looking at alternative plans to guarantee the future of the business going forward and to both protect existing jobs and create some more jobs.

‘We’ve come up with another plan to produce another product from the smelter. It’s called billet, which basically is aluminium cast into a shape akin to a telegraph pole, typically eight metres long and round, and five to 12 inches in diameter or bigger.

‘There’s growing demand because it’s used in all sorts of ways; it forms a lot of car body chassis. and is also used in the aero industry.’

However, Mr King said investing such a large sum in the project meant the business had to be ‘de-risked’, with the main concern being the disruption of local rail services primarily due to bad weather.

At the moment, the alumina used by the smelter is shipped from Ireland to Blyth on England’s east coast where there is a closed former smelter site.

‘The problems caused by the weather is a big risk we need to manage, so that is why we want to bring the alumina closer to where it is needed and so are looking at a port close to the smelter,’ explained Mr King.

‘We have been looking at Corpach and other places in order to find the best place to do that.’

Mr King said the sort of vessels being envisaged for the task were between 3,000 and 4,000 tons and fully enclosed. Once alongside the quay at the port, the alumina would be pumped ashore.

‘You plug a pipe into the ship and pump the material ashore, so there is no dust or other environmental impact,’ he added.

Alasdair Ferguson, group managing director  of Ferguson Transport and Shipping, which is head-quartered at Corpach, wanted to know if Corpach port did indeed eventually prove to be the logical choice, what were the critical barriers to it being utilised.

Mr King replied: ‘Being the least obtrusive to the local community as possible, recognising that anything we do is going to be high profile, so keeping that to a limit. Basically we want to do something which is acceptable more than anything else.

‘But whatever we do is probably something people would rather sooner do without and I accept that, but we are trying to run the business for the greater good, ensure the work we do is easily controllable and access is something else as well.’

Commenting to the Lochaber Times afterwards, chairperson of Ardgour Community Council, Samantha Thomson, told us:  ‘It was encouraging to hear that Alvance intends to use a modified, sealed vessel with alumina pumped to silos ashore.

‘We have no idea how intrusive that might be, but the concern for us, as always, is any light, noise, air, habitats and loch pollution that developments might cause, intended hours of operation and also how any changes to the port or Eilean nan Craobh would affect our view or lifestyle.

‘We look forward to learning how Alvance and Boyd Brothers intend to improve things and welcome open lines of communication with the community.’

John Hutchison, acting chairman of Kilmallie Community Council, added: ‘We found out that the deep water harbour study that started in 2018 has evolved in to the Corpach Port masterplan.

‘I hope the masterplan will cover the entire area and that it gets into the public domain soon.  Many of the operations in the area are complementary and the community council has long been keen to see more integration of transport modes.

‘Alvance will be running a public consultation on its proposals towards the end of February so between now and then we encourage all parties to make the best of potential integration and publish the masterplan.

‘We see great potential for HIE [Highlands and Islands Enterprise] and Highland Council planners to lead the process to make this happen.  Fundamentally though, we need to see an improvement in the current situation.’