Mining giant BHP Billiton started a planned pollution at its Mozambican aluminium plant on Wednesday, despite heavy public opposition and a pending court application about its permit, a spokesman confirmed.

Gaspar Buque, superintendent of communications at the Mozal aluminium smelter, confirmed to Sapa that pollutive emissions would bypass filters from Wednesday during four month-long repairs.

“It started today,” said Buque.

Buque could not comment on why the bypass was starting while the Mozambican Administrative Tribunal was considering an application to suspend its special permit to bypass.

Mozal announced the bypass in a media statement sent only to local media on Tuesday night.

“After revisiting all data in light of stakeholder concerns Mozal remains confident that the by-pass will not harm the environment or human health,” it read.

Environmental and human rights organisations which have been battling the bypass, learnt of the commencement on the morning news.

The planned emission of harmful dust, tars and hydrogens was necessary because fume treatment towers had corroded to dangerous levels, Mozal argued earlier.

The issue raised controversy because of the lack of public consultation with the 800000 people living in the area around the plant before Mozal applied for a permit, the lack of independent environmental studies, and alleged mismanagement that led to the corrosion.

BHP Billiton later made available an incomplete environmental study which one analyst described as “grossly misleading”.

The controversy drove a group of Mozambican NGOs to lay formal complaints against BHP at the JSE Socially Responsible Investment Index (SRI) and a number of other ethics bodies.

In an interview with Sapa on Monday BHP vice-president for communications Johnny Dladla denied knowing when the bypass would start.

BHP spokesmen were not immediately available for comment. - Sapa