News Archive

Dec 05 2014

Majority Pushes For Eight New Hydro Power Plant Options


flogulon-holmsa-600x400 Proposal and lack of due process called “unlawful” and “declaration of war”

Haukur Már Helgason

Last week’s Thursday, the majority of Alþingi’s Industrial Affairs Committee (AIAC) announced its intention to to re-categorize eight sites as “utilizable” options for the construction of hydroelectric power plants. These have until now been categorized, either as for preservation, or as on “standby”. These are categories defined by the Master Plan for nature conservation and utilization of energy resources, as bound by law. The re-categorization would serve as the first legal step towards potential construction.

The proposal had neither been announced on the committee’s schedule, before its introduction, nor introduced in writing beforehand. The committee’s majority gave interested parties a week’s notice to submit comments on the proposal, which is admittedly faster than we managed to report on it.

Reasoning

When asked, by Vísir, why the proposal was made with such haste, without any prior process in the committee or an open, public debate, Jón Gunnarsson, chair of the committee on behalf of the Independence party, replied that “it is simply about time to express the majority’s intention to increase the number of options for utilization.”

The proposal is in accordance with statements made by the Minister of Industry, Ragnheiður Elín Árnadóttir, at Landsvirkjun’s autumn meeting earlier that week, as reported by Kjarninn. In her speech at the occasion the Minister said: “I will speak frankly. I think it is urgent that we move on to new options for energy development, in addition to our current electricity production, whether that is in hydropower, geothermal or wind power. I think there are valid resons to re-categorize more power plant options as utilizable.”

Opposition

As the proposal was introduced to Alþingi, members of the opposition rose against the plans.

Róbert Marshall, Alþingi member in opposition on behalf of Bright Future, has called the lack of process “deadly serious” and “a war declaration against the preservation of nature in the country”. Steingrímur J. Sigfússon, the Left-Greens’ former Financial Minister, concurred, calling the proposal the end of peace over the topic, as did the former Environmental Minister on behalf of the Left-Greens, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, who called the proposal “a determined declaration of war”. Katrín Júlíusdóttir, former Minister of Industry, on behalf of the Social-Democrats’ Coalition commented that the proposal was obviously not a “private jest” of the committee’s chair, but clearly orchestrated by the government as such.

Lilja Rafney Magnúsdóttir, the Left-Greens’ representative in AIAC, and the committee’s vice chair, condemned the proposal. According to her, Minister of the Environment, Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson, specifically requested fast proposals on these eight options. She says that she considered the data available on all options to be insufficient, except for the potential plant at Hvammur.

That same Thursday, the Icelandic Environment Association (Landvernd), released a statement, opposing the proposal. According to Landvernd’s statement, five of the eight options have were not processed in accordance with law. Landvernd says that the proposal “constitutes a serious breach of attempts to reach a consensus over the utilization of the country’s energy resources.” It furthermore claims that the AIAC’s majority thereby goes against the Master Plan’s intention and main goals.

Landsvernd’s board says that if Alþingi agrees on the proposal, any and all decisions deriving thereof will “constitute a legal offense and should be considered null and void”. Guðmundur Ingi Guðbrandsson, Landvernd’s manager, has since stated that if the plans will proceed, the high lands of Iceland will become a completely different sort of place.

The Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA) also opposes the plans. The association released a statement, pointing out that if current ministers or members of Alþingi oppose the Master Plan legislation, they must propose an amendment to the law, but, until then, adhere to law as it is.

The options

Mid-October, Environmental Minister Sigurður Ingi Jóhannsson already proposed re-categorizing one of the eight areas, “the plant option in Hvammur”, as utilizable. This was in accordance with proposals made by AIAC last March. Leaders of the parties in opposition then objected to the decision-making process, saying that such proposals should be processed by Alþingi’s Environmental Committee before being put to vote. The Hvammar plant would produce 20 MW of power.

The other seven options to be re-catogorized are: the lagoon Hágöngulón (two options, totalling 135 MW); Skrokkalda, also related to Hágöngulón (45 MW); the river Hólmsá by Atley (65 MW); lake Hagavatn (20 MW), the waterfall Urriðafoss (140 MW); and Holt (57 MW).

The last two, as well as the plant at Hvammur, would all harvest the river Þjórsá, the country’s longest river. The eight options total at 555 MW.

Kárahnjúkar July 2005 Backstory: Kárahnjúkar

The latest power plant construction in Iceland took place at Kárahnjúkar. The 690 MW hydropower plant at Kárahnjúkar is the largest of its type in Europe. It fuels Alcoa’s aluminum smelter in Reyðarfjörður. The largest power plant in the country before Kárahnjúkar, was the Búrfell hydropower plant, on-line since 1969, at 270 MW. The Icelandic government and the national power company Landsvirkjun committed to the dam’s construction in 2002, which was concluded in 2008. The total cost of the construction was around USD 1.3 billion. The largest contractor was the Italian firm Impregilo. The construction was heavily contested, for its environmental and economic effects, for the treatment of the workers involved and for a lack of transparency and accountability during the prior decision- and policy-making process.

At least four workers were killed in accidents on site, and scores were injured. “I have worked on dam projects all over the world and no-one has even been killed on any of the schemes. To have this number of incidents on a site is not usual,” commented International Commission on Large Dams (ICOLD) vice president Dr Andy Hughes at the time.

During the construction, the country saw new kinds of protest actions, involving civil disobedience and direct action, led by the organization Saving Iceland. Andri Snær Magnason’s 2006 book Draumalandið – The Dream Land – contesting Iceland’s energy policies, and calling for a reinvigorated environmentalism, became a bestseller at the time. Ómar Ragnarsson, a beloved entertainer and TV journalist for decades, resigned from his work at State broadcaster RÚV to focus on documenting the environmental effects of the Kárahnjúkar plant and campaigning against further construction on that scale.

In the eyes of many, however, the greatest impact was the environmental damage done to a significant part of the country’s wilderness and fragile eco-system, as one thousand square kilometers of land were submerged by the dam. Along with Saving Iceland, INCA was at the forefront of the struggle against the plant’s construction.

Few would contest that the dam construction at Kárahnjúkar was the most dividing topic of debate in the country during the first decade of this century, until the 2008 economic crash. Alþingi’s Independent Investigative Committee, established to investigate the advent of the crash, was not alone in relating the expansive effect of construction on this unprecedented scale to the succeeding crisis.

[Correction: Apart from a 2 MW plant in Kaldakvísl, n]o new power plants have arisen since the construction at Kárahnjúkar. Which plays the bigger role, environmentalist campaigns, or the economic crash which ensued, may be debated. What remains at stake is not any single construction project, as such, but the pro-heavy industry policy, continuous through multiple governments through the last fifty years.

Earlier this November, before the latest turn of events, INCA pointed out that at least three of the options that Landsvirkjun already categorized as “utilizable” were considered for preservation according to the still current Master Plan. Due to this, the association protested the Landsvirkjun’s vice president Ragna Árnadóttir’s recent claims, that the company intended to reach a wide consensus on the use of energy resources.

Landvernd and Landsvirkjun

Landvernd, the Icelandic Environment Association, was founded in 1969. It is among the the country’s leading environmental NGOs, runs several educational programs, lobby groups and reviews parliamentary bills and motions. In the last two decades, its emphasis has moved from the conservation of soil and vegetation towards protecting Iceland’s wilderness and landscapes, not least in the country’s uninhabited central highlands. It has initiated civil disobedience actions, its website citing the Mayday Green Walk in 2013 as an example.

Landsvirkjun is the country’s largest electricity provider, operating seventeen power plants, on a scale from Hafið’s 2MW to Kárahnjúkar’s 690MW. The largest hydroelectric power plant serving the public, rather than industry alone, is the plant at Búrfell, at 270MW.

Original source: Grapevine

Oct 05 2014

Is Fluoride Hurting Iceland’s Farm Animals?


Ragnheidur Thorgrimsdottir

Al Jazeera

Some farmers suspect fluoride from aluminium smelters is making animals sick, but the companies sharply disagree.

Reykjavik, Iceland - For the third summer in a row, hydrogen fluoride has been detected in vegetation samples taken near an aluminium plant in eastern Iceland, worrying farmers and horse owners who fear for their animals’ well-being.

Aluminium plants emit fluoride, a chemical element that can be toxic to animals and humans in high concentrations.

The Environment Agency of Iceland found the concentration of fluoride in grass grazed by sheep exceeded the recommended limits near the town of Reydarfjordur.

Sigridur Kristjansdottir from the Environment Agency told Al Jazeera the high levels this summer were “primarily due to meteorological and geographical factors … This resulted in the results for early June showing relatively high values”.

A press release issued by the Alcoa Fjardaal aluminium plant noted that, despite the spike this summer, average fluoride levels this year are lower than they were in 2013, which in turn were lower than in 2012.

Fluoride is a cumulative poison, meaning that animals and plants often register higher levels of the element as they age. Before the Fjardaal aluminium smelter began operation, the fluoride level in Sigurdur Baldursson’s sheep – who live on the only farm near Alcoa’s plant – were measured as having 800 micrograms per gram (µg/g) of fluoride in their bone ash. That’s well below the recommended limit of 4,000 µg/g in the bone ash of adult sheep, or 2,000 µg/g for lambs.

But samples taken in 2013, recorded the sheep’s fluoride levels between 3,300 and 4,000 µg/g. Baldursson said he expects the next readings to exceed 5,000 µg/g – above the recommended limit.

“The sheep that will be sampled next were born in 2007, and are thus as old as the aluminium plant itself,” he told Al Jazeera.

Nevertheless, Baldursson said he has not noticed signs of ill health in his sheep.

‘I only heard about it by accident’

Bergthora Andresdottir sees things differently from her farm on the other side of Iceland, 25km north of the capital Reykjavik. She said she is constantly phoning the Environment Agency to complain about smoke rising from Century Aluminium’s smelter at Grundartangi, directly across the fjord from her farm.

“I phone them several times a week,” she told Al Jazeera. “But there’s no specific person to talk to, and they don’t help much. Sometimes they claim that the smoke is coming from the neighbouring factory [the Elkem ferrosilicon smelter], but I tell them it isn’t.”

In August 2006, an accident at the Grundartangi plant caused a large amount of fluoride emissions. Riding school owner Ragnheidur Thorgrimsdottir said local farmers were never told about this accident, which meant that sheep, cattle and horses ate fluoride-contaminated grass. “I only heard about it by accident, two years later,” she told Al Jazeera.

That same year, the capacity of the Century plant was increased from 90,000 tonnes of aluminium a year to 220,000. The firm HRV Engineering stated “the increase in fluoride for the autumn months of 2006 in the atmosphere … can partly be traced to the increase in capacity of the smelter”.

Sick horses

Thorgrimsdottir lives about five kilometres southwest of the Grundartangi plant, and owns 20 horses – which she said have been badly affected by fluoride, some so badly that they have had to be put down.

“This is the eighth year in a row that my horses have been sick. Currently three of them are sick, but I’m also keeping an eye on four more,” she told Al Jazeera. Instead of keeping her horses outside all the time, as is the norm during Icelandic summers, she has kept them in at night and given them hay to eat because they do not digest grass properly.

Thorgrimsdottir showed Al Jazeera one of the affected horses named Silfursteinn. “The affected horses walk stiffly, like sticks. They also tend to have lumps and swellings on their bodies,” said Thorgrimsdottir.

When asked about Thorgrimsdottir’s horses, Solveig Bergmann – a public relations officer for Century – said she could not explain their maladies. “I have no explanation. According to veterinarians, the horses … bear symptoms of Equine Metabolic Syndrome (EMS), which is caused mainly by obesity and lack of exercise,” she said, citing a report by the Icelandic Food and Veterinary Authority (IFVA).

But Thorgrimsdottir said EMS can also be caused by fluoride, and when IFVA vets took samples from the horses she had to put down, they only measured fluoride levels in their bones, not in their soft tissue as she had requested.

Gyda S Bjornsdottir studied the birth rates and health of sheep from 2007 to 2012 in the area close to the Grundartangi plant for her Master’s degree. She found in the areas southwest and northeast of the smelter – which are the most common wind directions in the region – a higher proportion of sheep did not produce any lambs.

“Usually, two to three percent of sheep do not produce lambs. Away from the plant, 2.6 percent of ewes were lambless, whereas in the area southwest of the plant, this figure was 7.4 percent,” she told Al Jazeera. Northeast of the plant, she added, 4.5 percent of ewes did not bear lambs.

“The sheep in the area to the southwest of the plant also show visible signs of tooth damage, which is a clear sign of fluoride poisoning, and poor quality wool,” said Bjornsdottir.

Because the aluminium smelter is next to a ferrosilicon plant that also emits pollutants, Bjornsdottir said she cannot be sure the effects are caused by fluoride, as there were also increased concentrations of sulphur dioxide, nickel and arsenic.

“But the results are consistent with fluoride distribution,” she said.

‘No evidence’ of negative effects

But Bergmann, the Century public relations officer, disagreed. “In research carried out since 1997 in the vicinity of the Century Aluminium smelter at Grundartangi, no evidence has ever been found of negative effects of fluoride on sheep, or any other animal,” she said.

Bjornsdottir, however, pointed out in her thesis that farmers say it is not economically viable to send sick sheep to a veterinarian. Instead, they slaughter the affected sheep at home. As a result, she said she believes the figures are biased, because the sheep monitored by Century for fluoride are healthy animals that are sent to the slaughterhouse.

In a letter sent by Iceland’s Food and Veterinary Authority to Alcoa in January 2013, Thorsteinn Olafsson – who was responsible for sheep and cattle diseases at that time - said: “There are reasons to suppose that the danger levels for grazing and fodder for Icelandic sheep are even lower than overseas research shows. This needs to be researched even better in the local environment of aluminium plants in Iceland.”

Source: Al Jazeera

See also Hand in Hand: Aluminium Smelters and Fluoride Pollution

More Flouride in Animals Around Aluminium Factories than Elsewhere – Environmental Agency Refuses to Investigate

Mar 05 2014

Björk, Patti Smith, Lykke Li and More to Play Concert for Icelandic Conservation


2012bjorkpr270312 Event takes place on March 18 in Reykjavik at Harpa.

Bjork will play a concert in protest at the Icelandic government’s proposed changes to conservation laws.

The Icelandic singer tops the bill at the event, which will take place on March 18 at the Harpa Concert Hall in Reykjavik, Iceland. Artists appearing include Lykke Li, Patti Smith, Mammút (pictured below), Highlands, Of Monsters And Men, Samaris and Retro Stefson.

The concert is organised in conjunction with the Iceland Nature Conservation Association (INCA), Landvernd, the Icelandic Environment Association and director Darren Aronofsky, whose film Noah was shot on location in Iceland in 2012 and will premiere at Sambíóin Egilshöll Cinema on the same afternoon.

Collectively operating under the name Stopp!, the group aims to encourage the Icelandic authorities to protect Iceland’s natural environment and impose controls on the damming of glacial rivers and harnessing of geothermal energy, in light of new legislation, reports RUV.

This project was introduced at a press conference at Harpa on the 3rd of March 2014. Björk and Darren Aronofsky participated in the press conference.

The artists will donate their time and the net income will go to INCA and Landvernd.

The following statement lists the group’s demands:

Stop – Guard the Garden! mammut-komdu-til-min-svarta-systir

All over the world too much of priceless nature has been sacrificed for development, often falsely labeled as sustainable. Rain forests have been cut, waterfalls dammed, land eroded, lakes and oceans polluted, earth’s climate altered and the oceans are now rapidly getting more and more acidic.

In Iceland, the Karahnjukar Power Plant has become the symbol for the destruction which threatens human existence on this earth.

It is our duty to protect Icelandic nature and leave it to future generations, undamaged. The Icelandic highlands, Europe’s largest remaining wilderness – where nature is still largely untouched by man, is not just a refuge and treasure which we inherited and will inherit. The highlands belong to the world as a whole. Nowhere else can we find another Lake Myvatn, Thjorsarver Wetlands, Sprengisandur, Skaftafell or Lake Langisjor.

We demand that Thjorsarver Wetlands, the wilderness west of Thjorsa River and the waterfalls downstream will be protected for all future to come. We strongly protest plans by the Minister for the Environment and Resources to change the demarcation line for the extended nature reserve in the Thjorsarver Wetlands. By doing so, the minister creates a space for a new dam at the outskirts of the area. The way in which the minister interprets the law in order to justify that all nature and/or potential power plants are at stake in each and every new phase of the Master Plan for Conservation and Utilization of Nature Areas is an attack on Icelandic nature and not likely to stand in a court of law. [We have engaged a law firm and we are threatening lawsuit if the Minister goes ahead with his plan]

We now have a unique opportunity to turn the highlands into a national park by bill of law to be adopted by the parliament. Thereby the highlands as a whole will be subject to one administrative unit and clearly defined geographically. Thus all plans for power lines, road construction and/or other man made structures which will fragment valuable landscapes of the highlands will belong to history.

We strongly caution against any plans to construct a geothermal power plant at or near Lake Myvatn. The Bjarnarflag Power Plant is not worth the risk. Lake Myvatn is absolutely unique in this world. Hence, we have a great responsibility for its protection.

We demand that the nature of Reykjanes Peninsula will be protected by establishing a volcanic national park and that all power lines will be put underground.

We find it urgent that the government will secure funds for conservation by hiring land wardens and will protect valuable nature areas against the ever growing pressure of mass tourism.

In particular we protest against the attack on nature conservationists, where unprecedented (sic. S.I. editor) and brutal conduct by the police as well as charges pressed against those who want to protect the Galgahraun Lava, was cruel and unnecessary. We remind that the right of the public to protest nature damage everywhere, worldwide, is a basic premise for the success of securing future human existence on this earth.

We demand that the proposed bill of law repealing the new nature protection laws be withdrawn and that the new laws should take effect, as stipulated, on April 1.

 

Feb 16 2014
1 Comment

New York Times Sounds Alarm for Endangered Icelandic Highlands


30highlandsmynd_big Natural wonders are in danger.
Go see them before it’s too late.

The Icelandic government has spent decades protecting its glaciers, pools, ponds, lakes, marshes and permafrost mounds in the Thjorsarver Wetlands, part of the central highlands, which constitute some 40 percent of the entire country, mostly in the interior. But last year, the government announced plans to revoke those protections, allowing for the construction of hydropower plants (instead of glaciers and free-flowing rivers, imagine man-made reservoirs, dams, paved roads and power lines). “If they get into this area, there will be no way to stop them from destroying the wetlands completely,” said Arni Finnsson, the chairman of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association. More bad news looms: A law intending to further repeal conservation efforts has been put forward, so if you ever want to see Iceland in all of its famously raw natural beauty, go now. — DANIELLE PERGAMENT

Feb 05 2014

People’s Victory Costs Vedanta $10 Billion at Niyamgiri!


Dongria activist uses a phone to document the police at a six day foot-march to prepare for On Saturday 11th January the Ministry of Environment and Forests finally gave its statement formally rejecting permission for Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mine. This move brings a conclusive end to the ten year struggle of the Dongria Kond tribe, alongside local farmers and dalits, to prevent the mining of this sacred mountain range which is their livelihood. Saving Iceland has followed the struggle and supported our comrades at Foil Vedanta as part of the global solidarity campaign which helped win this unique victory. Read More

Feb 05 2014

Copper Colonialism – Vedanta KCM and the Copper Loot of Zambia


cecil-rhodes Saving Iceland associates Samarendra Das and Miriam Rose of Foil Vedanta have recently authored a report exposing Vedanta’s dirty dealings in Zambia. The report has already caused a stir and the Mineworkers Union of Zambia have launched an investigation into the report’s findings.

Daily Nation, a leading independent Zambian daily newspaper, reports: Copper gate scandal deepens

The report by Das and Rose can be downloaded here: Copper Colonialism – Vedanta KCM and the copper loot of Zambia report or you can read the full report (35 page) online below.

21st January 2014. 

In December Foil Vedanta activists made a trip to Zambia to investigate the operations of Vedanta subsidiary Konkola Copper Mines (KCM), Zambia’s biggest copper miner, and to make links with grassroots movements, academics, journalists and those in the political system who may be questioning the unjust terms of copper mining in their country.

We were shocked to discover the environmental and social devastation wrought by Vedanta’s operations, and the lack of information held by policy makers and regulators in Zambia on this multinational as well as on wider issues with copper market manipulations, material flows and the real interests controlling their country. This report is a comprehensive account of the origins of, and interests behind the rapid loot of Zambia’s copper resources which is currently taking place. Read More

Oct 21 2013

Passion for Lava – The Struggle to Save Gálgahraun Lavafield


galgahraun By Dr. Rannveig Magnusdottir

People have different passions. Some people are enthusiastic about coffee, others adore shiny things, yet others are passionate about nature and wildlife. Passion for nature makes people chain themselves to trees, parade naked to protest the fur trade, sail in rough seas to stop whale killing, climb oil rigs to protest drilling etc.

Now in Iceland, a group of environmentalists (lead by the NGO “Friends of the lava” are passionate about protecting a lava field, close to Reykjavík called Gálgahraun (Gallow-lava), from being dug up and buried under major roadworks. Some people might think this very odd. Why protect a small piece of lava since Iceland has so much of it? There is lava pretty much everywhere! There are a number of reasons why this particular lava field is unique and should be kept unspoiled. This lava was formed in the eruption of Búrfell, 8000 years ago and is protected by law. mynd0114 This beautiful lava field is mostly intact, and contains amazing geological features and old historical paths used by our ancestors. It also has a strong resonance for cultural reasons, as our best known painter, Jóhannes Kjarval, used scenes from the Gálgahraun lava field as inspiration for some of his famous paintings. Furthermore, it is one of the last unspoiled lava fields within the greater Reykjavík area. What upsets people about the situation is that the planned (and possibly illegal) road construction is completely unnecessary. It will only serve a low number of people (Álftanes has a population of 2.484) and the road construction will cost a fortune (approx 6 million Euros). hraunavinir-copy The argument put forward for the new road layout is that the old road has caused accidents because of icing but out of 44 roads within the greater Reykjavík area, 21 roads were considered more dangerous than the Álftanes road, and of 1427 roads in the whole country, 301 roads have more accidents than Álftanes road. The road could be improved and made much safer for a fraction of what the new road would cost. I don’t know exactly what drives the municipality of Garðabær and The Icelandic Road and Coastal Administration to pursue this insane road construction but something about the whole thing stinks very badly.

Four nature NGO’s have sued the municipality to halt the road construction, but have not been able to change the planned work and the lawsuit is still being processed in court. galgar In the last weeks hundreds of people have been protecting the lava field and they set up a rota to make sure there was always someone in the lava field protecting it from the bulldozers. These brave people are making a human shield to protect something they love. Today, the police started dragging them away and are carrying them handcuffed like they were the criminals. On days like these it doesn’t feel like Iceland is a country of law and order anymore.

If you want to help in any way, you can either show up in Gálgahraun and protest or transfer a donation to their bank account number: 140 05 71017, kennitala. 480207 – 1490. All help is greatly appreciated.

burdur Addition at 13:30 on 21st of October: I just came from Gálgahraun and the bulldozers are already ruining this amazing lava field. Dozens of people have been arrested, there is police everywhere and we all (even the police) stood there horrified watching the screaming bulldozer tear down delicate lava features. The people responsible will stop at nothing, their greed has no limits.

Update in February 2014: Gálgahraun lavafield has been destroyed and the court cases against its defenders have commenced. All are charged for “disobeying police orders”. (S.I .Ed.)

 

Apr 25 2013
4 Comments

The Biological Death of River Lagarfljót — Yet Another Revelation of the Kárahnjúkar Disaster


The First Explosion - Karahnjukar In his much celebrated play, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Italian absurdist Dario Fo brings forth a tragicomic picture of the scandal and its most typical aftermaths in democratic societies, thus described by the main protagonist, the Maniac:

People can let off steam, get angry, shudder at the thought of it… ‘Who do these politicians think they are?’ ‘Scumbag generals!’ […] And they get more and more angry, and then, burp! A little liberatory burp to relieve their social indigestion.

These words came to mind last month when Iceland’s media reported upon the current situation of river Lagarfljót in the east of Iceland. “Lagarfljót is dead,” some of them even stated, citing the words of author and environmentalist Andri Snær Magnason regarding a revelation of the fact that the river’s ecosystem has literally been killed by the the gigantic Kárahnjúkar Dams. The dams were built in Iceland’s eastern highlands in the years between 2002 and 2006, solely to provide electricity for aluminium giant and arms producer Alcoa’s smelter in the eastern municipality of Reyðarfjörður.

Lagarfljót turbidity -- the photo is from 2008 The revelation of Lagarfljót’s current situation originates in a report made by Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s state owned energy company and owner of the 690 MW Kárahnjúkar power plant, the main conclusions of which were made public last month. Although covered as breaking news and somewhat of a scandal, this particular revelation can hardly be considered as surprising news.

Quite the contrary, environmentalists and scientists have repeatedly pointed out the mega-project’s devastating irreversible environmental impacts — in addition to the social and economical ones of course — and have, in fact, done so ever since the plan was brought onto the drawing tables to begin with. Such warnings, however, were systematically silenced by Iceland’s authorities and dismissed as “political rather than scientific”, propaganda against progress and opposition to “green energy” — only to be proven right time and time again during the last half a decade.

AQUATIC ECOSYSTEMS SHOULD RECEIVE MORE ATTENTION

Lagarfljót turbidity: The photo is taken in 2008, which suggests that the current situation is even worse One of the Kárahnjúkar plant’s functions depends on diverting glacial river Jökulsá á Dal into another glacial river Jökulsá í Fljótsdal, the latter of which feeds Lagarfljót. This means that huge amounts of glacial turbidity are funnelled into the river, quantitatively heretofore unknown in Lagarfljót. This has, in return, led to the disintegration of Lagarfljót’s ecosystem, gargantuan land erosion on the banks of the river, serious decrease in fish population and parallel negative impacts on the area’s bird life.

As reported by Saving Iceland in late 2012, when the dams impacts on Lagarfljót had become a subject matter of Iceland’s media, the glacial turbidity has severely altered Lagarfljót’s colour. Therefore, sunlight doesn’t reach deep enough into the water, bringing about a decrease of photosynthesis — the fundamental basis for organic production — and thereby a systematic reduction of nourishment for the fish population. Recent research conducted by Iceland’s Institute of Freshwater Fisheries show that in the area around Egilsstaðir, a municipality located on the banks of Lagarfljót, the river’s visibility is currently less than 20cm deep compared to 60cm before the dams were constructed. As a result of this, not only is there less fish in the river — the size of the fish has also seen a serious decrease.

Following last month’s revelation, ichthyologist Guðni Guðbergsson at the Institute of Freshwater Fisheries, highlighted in an interview with RÚV (Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service) that the destruction of Lagarfljót’s ecosystem had certainly been foreseen and repeatedly pointed out. He also maintained that aquatic environment tends to be kept out of the discourse on hydro dams. “People see what is aboveground, they see vegetation, soil erosion and drift,” he stated, “but when it comes to aquatic ecosystems, people don’t seem to see it very clearly. This biosphere should receive more attention.”

BENDING ALL THE RULES

Siv Friðleifsdóttir All of the above-mentioned had been warned of before the dams construction took place, most importantly in a 2001 ruling by Skipulagsstofnun (Iceland’s National Planning Agency) which, after reviewing the Kárahnjúkar plant’s Environmental Impact Assessment, concluded that “the development would result in great hydrological changes, which would have an effect, for example, on the groundwater level in low-lying areas adjacent to Jökulsá í Fljótsdal and Lagarfljót, which in turn would have an impact on vegetation, bird-life and agriculture.” The impacts on Lagarfljót being only one of the dams numerous all-too-obvious negative impacts, Skipulagsstofnun opposed the project as a whole “on grounds of its considerable impact on the environment and the unsatisfactory information presented regarding individual parts of the project and its consequences for the environment.”

However, Iceland’s then Minister of the Environment, Siv Friðleifsdóttir, notoriously overturned the agency’s ruling and permitted the construction. Although her act of overturning her own agency’s ruling is certainly a unique one, it was nevertheless fully harmonious with the mega-project’s overall modus operandi: For instance, during Alcoa and the Icelandic government’s signature ceremony in 2003, Friðrik Sophusson, then director of Landsvirkjun, and Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, then Minister of Industry, boasted of “bending all the rules, just for this project” while speaking to the US ambassador in Iceland.

A BIOLOGICAL WONDER TURNED INTO DESERT

Reindeers at Kringilsárrani - Photo: Skarphéðinn Þórisson As already mentioned, the destruction of Lagarfljót is only one of the dams irreversible impacts on the whole North-East part of Iceland, the most densely vegetated area north of Vatnajökull — the world’s largest non-arctic glacier — and one of the few regions in Iceland where soil and vegetation were more or less intact. Altogether, the project affects 3,000 square km of land, no less than 3% of Iceland’s total landmass, extending from the edge of Vatnajökull to the estuary of the Héraðsflói glacial river.

Sixty major waterfalls were destroyed and innumerable unique geological formations drowned, not to forget Kringilsárrani — the calving ground of a third of Iceland’s reindeer population — which was partly drowned and devastated in full by the project. In 1975, Kringilsárrani had been officially declared as protected but in order to enable the Kárahnjúkar dams and the 57 km2 Hálslón reservoir, Siv Fiðleifsdóttir decided to reduce the reserve by one fourth in 2003. When criticized for this infamous act, Siv stated that “although some place is declared protected, it doesn’t mean that it will be protected forever.”

Jökulsá á Fljótsdal The dams have also blocked silt emissions of the two aforementioned glacial rivers, Jökulsá á Dal and Jökulsá í Fljótsdal, resulting in the receding of the combined delta of the two rivers — destroying a unique nature habitat in the delta. In their 2003 article, published in World Birdwatch, ornithologists Einar Þorleifsson and Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson outlined another problem of great importance:

All glacier rivers are heavy with sediments, and the two rivers are muddy brown in summer and carry huge amounts of sediment, both glacial mud and sand. The Jökulsá á Dal river is exceptional in the way that it carries on average 13 times more sediment than any other Icelandic river, 10 million metric tons per year and during glacial surges the amount is many times more. When the river has been dammed this sediment will mostly settle in the reservoir.

Hálslón reservoir: June 2009 In contravention of the claim that Kárahnjúkar’s hydro electricity is a “green and renewable energy source,” it is estimated that the reservoir will silt up in between forty and eighty years, turning this once most biologically diverse regions of the Icelandic highlands into a desert. While this destruction is slowly but systematically taking place, the dry dusty silt banks caused by the reservoir’s fluctuating water levels are already causing dust storms affecting the vegetation of over 3000 sq km, as explained in Einar and Jóhann’s article:

The reservoir will be filled with water in autumn but in spring 2/3 of the lake bottom are dry and the prevailing warm mountain wind will blow from the south-west, taking the light dry glacial sediment mud in the air and causing considerable problems for the vegetation in the highlands and for the people in the farmlands located in the valleys. To add to the problem the 120 km of mostly dry riverbed of Jökulsá á Dal will only have water in the autumn, leaving the mud to be blown by the wind in spring.

The reservoir's dust This development is already so severe that residents of the Eastfjords municipality Stöðvafjörður, with whom Saving Iceland recently spoke, stated that the wind-blown dust has been of such a great deal during the summers that they have often been unable to see the sky clearly.

All of the above-mentioned is only a part of the Kárahnjúkar dams over-all impacts, about which one can read thoroughly here. Among other factors that should not be forgotten in terms of hydro power would be the dams’ often underestimated contribution to global warming — for instance via reservoirs’ production of CO2 and methane (see here and here) — as well as glacial rivers’ important role in reducing pollution on earth by binding gases that cause global warming, and how mega-dams inhibit this function by hindering the rivers’ carrying of sediments out to sea.

TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE OF CORRUPTION AND ABUSE OF POWER

Lagarfljót turbidity: The photo is taken in 2008, which suggests that the current situation is even worse. “Lagarfljót wasn’t destroyed by accident,” Andri Snær Magnason also said after the recent revelation, but rather “consciously destroyed by corrupt politicians who didn’t respect society’s rules, disregarded professional processes, and couldn’t tolerate informed discussion.” The same can, of course, be said about the Kárahnjúkar ecological, social and economical disaster as a whole, the process of which was one huge textbook example of corruption and abuse of power.

Responding to same news, Svandís Svavarsdóttir, Iceland’s current Minister of the Environment, cited a recent report by the European Environment Agency, titled “Late Lessons from Early Warnings,” in which the results of a major research project into mega-project’s environmental impacts and public discussion are published. One of the damning results, the report states, is that in 84 out of 88 instances included in the research, early warnings of negative impacts on the environment and public health proved to be correct.

This was certainly the case in Iceland where environmentalists and scientists who warned of all those foreseeable impacts, both before and during the construction, found themselves silenced and dismissed by the authorities who systematically attempted to suppress any opposition and keep their plans unaltered.

Industry Ministers Unite! -- From left to right: Valgerður Sverrisdóttir (minister during the Kárahnjúkar construction), Katrín Júlíusdóttir (current industry minister) and Friðrik Sophuson (industry minister in 1987 and Landsvirkjun's director from 1998 to 2010) One of the most notorious examples of this took place after the publication of Susan DeMuth’s highly informative article, “Power Driven,” printed in The Guardian in 2003, in which she highlighted all the up-front disastrous impacts of the project. The reaction in Iceland was mixed: While the article served as a great gift to Icelandic environmentalists’ struggle — tour guide Lára Hanna Einarsdóttir suggesting “that an Icelandic journalist would have lost their job if he or she had been so outspoken” — the reaction of the project’s prime movers was one of fury and hysteria. Mike Baltzell, president of Alcoa Primary Development and one of the company’s main negotiators in Iceland, wrote to The Guardian accusing DeMuth of “creating a number of misconceptions” regarding the company’s forthcoming smelter. Iceland’s Ambassador in the UK and Landsvirkjun’s Sophusson took a step further, contacting the British newspaper in a complaint about the article’s content and offering the editor to send another journalist to Iceland in order to get “the real story” — an offer to which the paper never even bothered to reply.

Another example is that of Grímur Björnsson, geophysicist working at Reykjavík Energy at that time, who was forbidden from revealing his findings, which were suppressed and kept from parliament because they showed the Kárahnjúkar dams to be unsafe. His 2002 report, highly critical of the dams, was stamped as confidential by his superior at the time. Valgerður Sverrisdóttir, then Minister of Industry, subsequently failed to reveal the details of the report to parliament before parliamentarians voted on the dams, as she was legally obliged to do. Adding insult to injury, Grímur was finally deprived of his freedom of expression when his superior at Reykjavík Energy — taking sides with Landsvirkjun — prohibited him to speak officially about the Kárahnjúkar dams without permission from the latter company’s director at that time, Friðrik Sophusson.

THE SHADOW OF POLLUTED MINDS

Þórhallur Þorsteinsson Similar methods applied to the East-fjords and other communities close to the dams and the smelter, where the project’s opponents were systematically ridiculed, terrorized and threatened. One of them is Þórhallur Þorsteinsson who, in a thorough interview with newspaper DV last spring, described how he and other environmentalists from the East were persecuted for their opposition to the dams. In an attempt to get him fired from his job, politicians from the region even called his supervisor at the State Electric Power Works, for which he worked at the time, complaining about his active and vocal opposition. Another environmentalist, elementary school teacher Karen Egilsdóttir, had to put up with parents calling her school’s headmaster, demanding that their kids would be exempt from attending her classes.

Farmer Guðmundur Beck — described by DeMuth as “the lone voice of resistance in Reyðarfjörður” — was also harassed because of his outspoken opposition towards the dams and the smelter. After spending his first 57 years on his family’s farm where he raised chicken and sheep, he was forced to close down the farm after he was banned from grazing his sheep and 18 electricity pylons were built across his land. Moreover, he was literally ostracised from Reyðarfjörður where Alcoa’s presence had altered society in a way thus described by Guðundur at Saving Iceland’s 2007 international conference:

In the East-fjords, we used to have self-sustaining communities that have now been destroyed and converted into places attracting gold diggers. Around the smelter, there will now be a community where nobody can live, work or feed themselves without bowing down for “Alcoa Director” Mr. Tómas.* — We live in the shadow of polluted minds.

(*Mr. Tómas” is Tómas Már Sigurðsson, Managing Director of Alcoa Fjarðaál at that time but currently president of Alcoa’s European Region and Global Primary Products Europe. Read Guðmundur’s whole speech in the second issue of Saving Iceland’s Voices of the Wilderness magazine.)

A LESSON TO LEARN?

Kárahnjúkar Dams All of this leads us to the fact that Icelandic energy companies are now planning to go ahead and construct a number of large-scale power plants — most of them located in highly sensitive geothermal areas — despite a seemingly non-stop tsunami of revelations regarding the negative environmental and public health impacts of already operating geothermal plants of such size. This would, as thoroughly outlined by Saving Iceland, lead to the literal ecocide of highly unique geothermal fields in the Reykjanes peninsula as well as in North Iceland.

Two of the latter areas are Þeistareykir and Bjarnarflag, not far from river Laxá and lake Mývatn, where Landsvirkjun wants to build power plants to provide energy to heavy industry projects in the north. Large-scale geothermal exploitation at Hellisheiði, south-west Iceland, has already proven to be disastrous for the environment, creating thousands of earthquakes and a number of polluted effluent water lagoons. The Hellisheiði plant has also spread enormous amounts of sulphide pollution over the nearby town of Hveragerði and the capital area of Reykjavík, leading to an increase in the purchasing of asthma medicine. Another geothermal plant, Nesjavallavirkjun, has had just as grave impacts, leading for instance to the partial biological death of lake Þingvallavatn, into which affluent water from the plant has been pumped.

Responding to criticism, Landsvirkjun has claimed that the Bjarnarflag plant’s effluent water will be pumped down below lake Mývatn’s ground water streams. However, the company has resisted answering critical questions regarding how they plan to avoid all the possible problems — similar to those at Hellisheiði and Nesjavellir — which might occur because of the pumping and thus impact the ecosystem of Mývatn and its neighbouring environment. In view of this, some have suggested that Iceland’s next man made ecological disaster will be manifested in a headline similar to last month’s one — this time stating that “Mývatn is dead!”

At Kárahnjúkar before the dams were built Concluding the current Lagarfljót scandal — only one manifestation of the foreseen and systematically warned of Kárahnjúkar scandal — the remaining question must be: Will Icelanders learn a lesson from this textbook example of political corruption and abuse of power?

Recent polls regarding the coming parliament elections on April 27, suggests that the answer is negative as the heavy-industry-friendly Framsóknarflokkur (The Progressive Party), for which both Siv Friðleifsdóttir and Valgerður Sverrisdóttir sat in parliament, seems to be about to get into power again after being all but voted out of parliament in the 2007 elections. Following the Progressives, the right-wing conservative Sjálfstæðisflokkur (The Independence Party) is currently the second biggest party, meaning that a right-wing government, supportive of — and in fact highly interrelated to — the aluminium and energy industries, is likely to come into office in only a few days from now.

In such a case, Iceland will be landed with the very same government that was responsible for the Kárahnjúkar disaster as well as so many other political maleficences, including the financial hazardousness that lead to the 2008 economic collapse and Iceland’s support of the invasion in Iraq — only with new heads standing out of the same old suits. Sadly but truly, this would fit perfectly with the words of Dario Fo’s Maniac when he states on behalf of the establishment:

Let the scandal come, because on the basis of that scandal a more durable power of the state will be founded!

Dec 16 2012

Call Out for Action: Kick Vedanta Out of London! 1pm, 11th Jan 2013


Lanjigarh Demo 6th December 2012 From our friends at Foil Vedanta.

Declare solidarity with grassroots movements fighting Vedanta in India, Africa and elsewhere!

Kick Vedanta out of London for it’s corporate crimes, murder and destruction. Noise demonstration and picket at Vedanta headquarters, 16 Berkeley Street. Read More

Dec 05 2012
1 Comment

Call out for action! Noise demonstration at India High Commission, 2pm, 6th December


1000 tribals and farmers rally against the Niyamgiri mine at Muniguda, Odisha on Monday From our friends at Foil Vedanta.

Declare solidarity with Odisha grassroots movements! Stop the Niyamgiri mine once and for all!

Noise demonstration and picket at India High Commission, Aldwych, WC2B 4NA, Holborn Tube, 2 – 4pm, Thursday 6th December.

On Thursday 6th December tribals and farmers of the grassroots organisations Niyamgiri Surakhya Samiti, Loka Sangram Mancha, Samajwadi Jan Parishad, and Sachetana Nagarika Mancha will hold one of the largest demonstrations ever on the threatened Niyamgiri mountain since the movement began. In anticipation of the final Supreme Court decision on the planned mega-mine ten thousand people are expected to rally on the mountain in a show of defiance. They will call for closure of the sinking Lanjigarh refinery and an absolute ban on the so-far-unsuccessful attempt to mine bauxite on their sacred hills. Read More