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After the election, we see the old parties of economic mass destruction are coming back to power. Giving enormous promises of easy money to be wrestled from evil vulture funds, debt relief and tax reduction, The Progressive Party doubled in size after a few years of hardship. There is a jolly good feeling between the two young new leaders of a brave new Iceland, and when a radio host called them up and offered to play them a request, they asked for Duran Duran’s ‘Wild Boys.’ I Googled the lyrics, not quite remembering the lines, and got a nice chill down my back:
Wild boys fallen far from glory
Reckless and so hungered
On the razors edge you trail
Because there’s murder by the roadside
In a sore afraid new world
They tried to break us,
Looks like they’ll try again
Sounds quite grim. This, coupled with the new government’s announcement that it would be effectively dismantling the Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources and that there will be no Minister for the Environment, gave me a strange flashback feeling. I decided to revisit the state of mind that we used to call normal in 2006. When the economic policy, the energy policy, the expansion of our towns, the mortgages on our homes—almost all aspects of our daily life had become totally mad. This is not my own diagnosis; if you search the homepage of the IMF for the phrase “Collective Madness,” you’ll find this:
“’Iceland, in the decade and a half leading up to the crisis, was an example of collective madness,’ said Willem Buiter, chief economist at Citigroup, a remark that elicited spontaneous applause from the more than 300 participants, many of them Icelandic policymakers, academics, and members of the public.”
In our daily lives, we usually sense what is normal and what is over the top. Sometimes the discourse will blind us; PR and propaganda can create a kind of newspeak. It can be a good exercise to try to talk about things in a foreign language, to view them in a new light. As an Icelander, you could for instance try to tell someone from another country that Iceland’s government sold one state bank and received payment in the form of a loan from another state bank—and vice versa. That the state banks were thereby handed to men that were closely connected to the then-reigning political parties. The manager of one of the parties became head of one of the banks’ board of directors, while the other party’s former Minister of Trade belonged to the group that was given the other bank. That man had access to every bit of inside information about the bank’s standing.
In the meantime, this former Minister of Trade became Central Bank Manager. He went to the US and made Alcoa an offer that the company could not refuse. He had thus set in motion the largest-scale construction project in Icelandic history, greatly increasing economic activity in Iceland—a grand boon for the bank he just finished selling to himself.
If you tell this story in a foreign language, people shake their heads. They gape in disbelief. They use words like “corruption” and “mafia.” They exclaim, full of disbelief and even disappointment, “no, not in Scandinavia!”
THE ACCEPTED INSANITY
It is insane to expand a banking system by tenfold in eight years. We know that now. It isn’t technically possible to grow all the knowledge and experience needed to build up and manage such a contraption in such a short time. Not even by shoving an entire generation through business school. It is impossible.
But the megalomania was not just confined to the banking sector. Energy production in Iceland was doubled from 2002–2007, when the huge Kárahnjúkar dam was built in the eastern part of the highlands—to serve one single Alcoa smelting plant. The energy it produces, about 650MW annually, is enough to power a city of one million people. Doubling the energy production in a developed country over a five-year period is not only unheard of, but it would also be considered ridiculous in all of our neighbouring nations. Most industrialised states increase their energy production by around 2–3% annually. Doubling it would be unthinkable. It has been proven again and again that gargantuan investments generally destroy more than they create. Read More
May 24 2013
Article by Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine. Photos: Stills from the film.
It’s dark and silent — nothing unusual around midnight by river Laxá and lake Mývatn in the north of Iceland. But somewhere behind the darkness, beneath the silence, something extraordinary is about to happen. Suddenly, a dynamite explosion disturbs the silence — in what has gone down in history as a single yet highly important step in a much greater movement of resistance.
More than a hundred farmers officially claimed responsibility for the explosion, which annihilated a small dam in the river on August 25, 1970. The area’s inhabitants were determined to prevent the construction of a much bigger dam, which would have destroyed vast quantities of this natural area, as well as most of the surrounding farmlands.
Just as determined to keep the saboteurs away from legal troubles, those who claimed responsibility kept a strict policy of silence, making it hard for the authorities to single out alleged leaders or protagonists. Now, almost half a century and a saved river later, another bang has broken that silence.
A WATERSHED ACT IN ICELANDIC HISTORY
Namely, that is Grímur Hákonarson’s documentary ‘Hvellur’ (“Bang” — see trailer below), which premièred at the Bíó Paradís cinema on January 24. Through dialogues with some of the participants, many of whom still reside by the river, the film tells the story of the Laxá conflict. “We kept all commentators and university professors out,” Grímur told me a few days before the première, “focusing instead entirely on those who took part in it.”
The case is often considered the beginning of environmentalism in Iceland. Shortly thereafter, Nobel Prize-winning author Halldór Laxness wrote his famous, hard-headed call-out for nature conservation — titled ‘The Warfare Against the Land’ — and the Laxá conflict also brought about the Environmental Impact Assessment, which up until then had been completely absent in Iceland’s energy production.
“What makes the Laxá conflict peculiar is that those who resisted also succeeded,” Grímur says. “The planned dam was never built and the area was saved.” Four years later, parliament passed a law securing the protection of Laxá and Mývatn, contributing to the explosion’s status as “the most remarkable and powerful event in the history of environmentalism in Iceland,” as Sigurður Gizurarson, the bomber’s defence lawyer, put it.
Celebrating the forty-year anniversary of the act in August 2010, one of Iceland’s most remarkable environmentalists, Guðmundur Páll Ólafsson, remarked that the act “literally saved the ecosystem of Mývatn and Laxá.” He also maintained that the dynamite “blew up a democracy-restriction imposed on the district’s inhabitants and all those who loved the land, by the authorities and the board of Laxárvirkjun,” the company that owned the dam. “The arrogance of the authorities hovered over the land until the bomb exploded, but then we became free — for a while.”
Sixty-five people were charged for sabotage, but no one spoke out about any details and the Supreme Court ended up handing out mild suspended sentences. The film now reveals that three men were responsible for igniting the dynamite. Only one of them is still alive.
In any case, exposing secrets is much less the film’s aim than documenting and preserving this extraordinary story. And for a good reason — it could easily fall into oblivion. “People over fifty remember this event very well, but those who are younger don’t really know the story,” Grímur says, adding that during the film’s making, they were told numerous times that they should have started filming much earlier as many involved have since passed away.
But how do those still alive recall these events today? “No one looks back regretfully, and most of them are still politically radical, opposed to large-scale destruction of natural areas for energy production. They are proud of the results of their act,” Grímur says.
But as Guðmundur Páll’s words, “then we became free — for a while,” imply, the plans had not been cancelled for good. During the construction of the huge Kárahnjúkar dams in Iceland’s eastern highlands, a new construction plan for Laxá was put on the drawing table. However, as words of warning came from Mývatn — including that the locals surely hadn’t forgotten how to use dynamite — the plans were later drawn back. Siv Friðleifsdóttir, then Minister of the Environment, stated that never before had she been so pleased to cancel a project.
Many of Iceland’s most remarkable natural areas are still the bone of contention between environmentalists and industrialists, including geothermal areas close to Mývatn [see here and here]. Grímur doesn’t consider the film to be part of the current conflict, but it doesn’t mean that people won’t feel some connection with today’s most pressing environmental issues. “One only needs to listen to the debates in parliament,” Grímur concludes, “to notice that the same old discussion is still going on today.”
Apr 25 2013
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.
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
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
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
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.”
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.
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.
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 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.
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
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?
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!”
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!
Apr 07 2013
In October last year, high levels of fluoride were discovered in hay grown on three farms around Alcoa’s Fjarðaál aluminium smelter in East Iceland. In response, the company announced that their much-acclaimed pollution control technology had failed at some point in the summer and claimed that they had “acted immediately” to deal with the situation. In mid January the results of tests on hay which Alcoa itself had submitted to the Food and Veterinarian Authority (MAST) came back, showing that fluoride levels were “below the maximum limit” – 50 mg/kg for cows, goats and sheep, but 30 mg/kg for dairy cattle – and therefore safe for livestock. Two out of seventeen samples were, in fact, above the acceptable fluorine limit for milking cows for human consumption but this was deemed to be fine since that farm only had horses.
The truth is that aluminium smelters and serious fluoride poisoning go hand in hand. Aluminium smelting is the largest single producer of fluorides worldwide. These toxic compounds are released from smelters in both gaseous and solid forms. ‘Scrubbers’ are usually used to remove the majority of fluorides from factory smoke today, but when those scrubbers are spent they are also dumped in landfills where the soluble fluorides absorbed into them can leak out into the soil. Fluorides are phytotoxic (toxic to plants) and actually accumulate in vegetation, making long living trees particularly susceptible to fluoride poisoning. When animals or humans eat fluoride polluted plants or meat, or drink fluoride rich water, they can develop ‘fluorosis’ which weakens bones and teeth and can, in extreme cases, lead to bone deformation and birth defects. Fluoride can also build up in soft tissue in the body causing a range of serious health effects1.
Swollen Jaws and Weak Teeth
In West Iceland, a number of farmers living around the Century Aluminum (Norðurál) smelter in Hvalfjörður have been suffering serious fluoride pollution in their sheep and horses – in particular since a major pollution incident at the factory released large amounts of fluorides in August 2006.
Sigurbjörn Hjaltason and his wife Bergþóra run a sheep farm at Kiðafell on the South side of the fjord, across the water from the 280 thousand ton aluminium smelter and Elkem’s steel alloy factory. Their sheep have recently developed swollen jaws and weak teeth which break easily and are, in some cases, unable to feed properly and have therefore died. Not satisfied with the industry’s own monitoring, they sent a few of their sheep heads for independent investigation and found fluoride levels of up to 1300-1400ppm, against a baseline (normal level) of 300-400ppm. Sigurbjörn and Bergþóra point out that Umhverfisstofnun (The Environment Agency of Iceland) give no maximum level of fluoride permitted in livestock teeth in Century Aluminum’s license, or elsewhere. Norðurál themselves use a guideline that is based on Norwegian research on young deer and suggests that between 1000 and 2000ppm can cause damage to teeth, and above 2000ppm damage is certain to occur. Sigurbjörn and Bergþóra claim that even this guideline is too high to prevent disease and even death of sheep as they have experienced.
Despite complaints regarding the unacceptably high levels for permitted fluoride, filed by Sigurbjörn and Bergþóra to Umhverfisstofnun and MAST (Iceland’s Food and Vetinary Authority), the situation has not improved.
A Story of Silence
Across the fjord, about four kilometers West of the smelter, stands a farm called Kúludalsá. The owner, Ragnheiður Þorgrímsdóttir, runs an outdoor education center and keeps horses for pupils to ride and learn from. She has looked after horses since her childhood without problems, but in 2007 her horses suddenly started to get sick. They developed a build up of material in the neck and became stiff and unwell, in some cases too stiff to be able to walk. In an interview with Saving Iceland, she explained that in August 2006, while Century were expanding their smelter, a failure occurred in the plant’s scrubbing system with the results that raw fluoride was emitted for at least 20 hours. Local farmers were given no warnings or information, “They told no-one about it until many months later when they were forced to do so because the figures showed that something serious had happened” Ragnheiður said.
She wrote to MAST and requested a formal investigation in April 2009. The agency passed her request to Umhverfisstofnun who declined to act on it until two years later under public pressure. Ragnheiður had already sent samples of bones to local labs, discovering fluorine levels about four times higher than the estimated baseline, nevertheless still technically below the legal limit. In May 2011, she told her story on RÚV, Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service; only two days later she received a letter from Umhverfisstofnun, announcing their formal refusal to investigate the matter.
Finally in spring 2011, MAST agreed to investigate samples of horse teeth and bones from Kúludalsá. However, they didn’t examine fluoride in the liver and other organs as they had been requested to do, claiming that fluoride doesn’t build up in the soft tissues. Following their investigation MAST terminated her case, concluding that Ragnheiður could be blamed for the horses’ sickness herself which was due to overfeeding. At this point she decided to take matters into her own hands and sent samples to a foreign laboratory for further analysis. The lab found high fluoride levels in the liver, spleen, kidney and muscles, proving that fluoride had indeed been accumulating in the soft tissue of the animals – and suggesting that this may be an ongoing issue.
She wrote to the Minister of Environment in spring 2012, and later also to the Minister of Industry and Innovation. Finally in autumn 2012 she was able to meet with both of them and explain her situation in detail. She told Saving Iceland that the two ministers listened to her and resolved to further investigate the matter. They have now appointed two experts to look into the matter in more depth.
In an article on her website (Námshestar), published last autumn, Ragnheiður tells her story in detail through the whole period of her dealings with the authorities, from the moment she first noticed the horses’ illness up until the day of the article’s publication. Her conclusion is the following:
I have fought for in-depth research of the horses and their environment for a few years. Eventually, I was forced to do it myself. After the findings of tests on several biological specimens (monitoring that neither Iceland’s Environment Agency nor MAST were willing to conduct) I believe there to be a well-grounded suspicion that the horses are suffering from a metabolic disease (equine metabolic syndrome) as a result of too much fluoride in grass and hay. In addition to causing calcium deficiency in blood and damaging both teeth and bones, fluoride also impacts the activity of the thyroid which operates the body’s metabolism. Fluoride also wears away magnesium and other important substances.
Regarding her dealings with the authorities, she concludes by stating that her experience through the last years has taught her “not to expect important affairs to receive speedy and conscionable process within public administration in Iceland.” In particular she points out how the local authorities have actively ignored repeated warnings about pollution from the Grundartangi industrial complex and appear to be working for the interests of the industry rather than the people. This fits in with the Icelandic government’s original invitation to energy intensive heavy industry in 1995, which was entitled ‘Lowest Energy Prices!’ and promised ‘a minimum of red tape’ on environmental clearance for foreign industrial companies setting up in Iceland.
More Industry: More Pollution: Less Democracy
Century Aluminum (Norðurál) are supposed to measure fluoride levels around their Grundartangi plant, but according to local nature-protection organization, Umhverfisvaktin við Hvalfjörð (Hvalfjörður Environment Watch), the company stops monitoring the wider local area during the winter months – when pollution hangs in the fjord and is more intense – and, instead, only monitor fluoride levels right at the edge of the smelter, thus distorting the annual figures.
In 2011, Saving Iceland reported on the plans to expand the industrial area at Grundartangi in Hvalfjörður in order to house more polluting industries on top of the already existing ferro-silicon and aluminium plants. Despite more than 70 letters of opposition by local farmers, summer hut owners and others, the local authorities have accepted the planned expansion on behalf of the community. In one of these letters, Umhverfisvaktin pointed out that no proper assessment has yet been made regarding increased industrial pollution in the fjord and its environmental and livestock impacts. In response, the local authorities stated that there was no evidence to suggest that this should be taken into account.
The Most Environmentally Sensitive Smelter in the World!
In the beginning of last February, MAST published a report emphasizing the importance of monitoring the impacts of fluoride pollution in Reyðafjörður. The report states that although current fluoride levels are below maximum levels, a blind eye should not be turned to the possibility that too much fluoride will later damage the dental hygiene of young animals currently grazing at the most polluted areas. As their glaze is taking shape during the period from birth until they obtain permanent teeth, fluoride in too high numbers can endanger the quality of the glaze and damage the teeth up to two years post the absorption. Therefore, MAST states, it’s important to examine the bones of slaughtering animals and monitor the teeth of lambs and young sheep, foals and young horses, calfs kept for breeding, heifers and young dairy cattle – increasing both monitoring as well as the sampling locations.
One of the farms affected by fluoride pollution in East Iceland is Kollaleira, where local farmer Guðmundur Beck famously opposed the giant Alcoa smelter, claiming it would destroy the fjord he knew and loved. Guðmundur spoke to us about the recent pollution incident:
The news about fluoride pollution in Reyðarfjörður last autumn was just what had been warned of all the time, although I admit that it happened a few years earlier than I expected. Alcoa is trying to excuse this event as some kind of accident, when it seems to be a clear case of negligence. It certainly doesn’t fit with the widespread propaganda about “the most environmentally sensitive aluminium smelter in the world” that Alcoa has continuously spread around East-Iceland.
This event clearly underlines the profligacy of the aluminium industry and of the Icelandic authorities that allowed their operation. The experience from other smelters here in Iceland shows that it doesn’t matter how much they pollute – the companies are never fined or punished in other ways for breaking their operating license. And their operation is never amended.
1. Christopher Bryson, 2004. The Fluoride Deception. Seven Stories Press.
Dec 05 2012
By Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson, originally published in the Reykjavík Grapevine.
There is a photograph by Richard Peter of a statue of an angel overlooking the card-house-like ruins of Dresden. During three days in February 1945, the German city was annihilated by the allied forces using a new firestorm technique of simultaneously dropping bombs and incendiary devices onto the city.
The photo resonates with philosopher Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘On the Concept of History,’ in which he adds layers of meaning to a painting by Paul Klee titled ‘Angelus Novus’. Benjamin describes Klee’s angel as ‘The Angel of History’ whose face is turned towards the past. “Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet.”
Wanting to “awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed,” the Angel’s wings are stretched out by a storm from Paradise, which “drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high.”
“That which we call progress,” Benjamin concludes, “is this storm.”
Can You Stand in the Way of Progress?
If the storm disenables us to fix the ruins of the past, what about preventing the storm from blowing? That would not be so simple according to art collective Angeli Novi, comprised of Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson, whose exhibition is currently showing at The Living Art Museum (Nýló).
Under a confrontational title — ‘You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress,’ shaped as the ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ sign of Auschwitz — Angeli Novi have greatly altered the museum’s space with an installation of sculptures, soundscapes, smells and videos, including a 20-minute film of the same title as the exhibition. The film is a kind of kaleidoscopic time machine, examining the plight of generations which, one after the other, become tools and puppets of economic and historical structures.
In a well-cooked and stark manner — adjectives borrowed from Nýló’s director Gunnhildur Hauksdóttir — often shot through with streaks of black humour, the exhibition displays a dark image of Western civilization via versatile manifestations of the horrors embedded in capitalism, industrialism, nationalism, religion, the dualistic and linear thought of occidental culture, and the individual’s buried-alive position in society.
The metaphor here is literal as the only visible body-parts of the film’s thirty protagonists are their heads. The rest are buried under ground. Between themselves, their chewing mouths fight over ceremonial ribbons carrying a collection of Western society’s fundamental values, doctrines and clichés, in a dynamic collision with a collage of significant images behind them — “the history of Western thought,” as author Steinar Bragi points out. Towering over a coffin shaped as a baby’s cot, located in a mausoleum at the museum’s entrance, the same ribbons have been tied onto a funeral wreath. A single cliché, “From the Cradle to the Grave,” hangs between the mouths of two children’s heads that stick out of the black sand below the coffin. A smooth corporate female voice greets the visitors: “Welcome to our world!”
I Sense, Therefore I Think
“It’s very pessimistic,” Steinar Bragi says during our conversation in a bunker-like room of Nýló. “The film shows us disembodied beasts, fighting over the phrases that our entire society is built upon. I always see the head as the rational approach to life, stuck in these dualistic pairs that are so far from reality as I experience it. We have sensibilities, then emotions, and finally there are words and reason. Reason is useful for certain tasks, when one has to go from place A to place B, but it’s only a tool to be used on something far more extensive.”
Steinar and I agree that society is constantly simplified into Cartesian dualism — “I think, therefore I am” — the ground zero of Western thought. And while dualism doesn’t necessarily reject sensibilities and emotions, Steinar maintains that it locates reason on a higher level. “Reason is expected to control, which it certainly does in a small and unglamorous context, but it’s only an expression of what lies beneath.”
Enemies of Progress?
It’s clear that the core of this rationalism is simplification such as how political and social conflicts tend to be reduced to a fight between alleged good and evil forces. This not only brings us to the religious nature of the myth of progress, but also the power of language. Because “although they are hollow and empty and repeatedly chewed on, these phrases are also very powerful,” as literary scholar Benedikt Hjartarson points out. “They conduct the way society is shaped. They manifest the social and economic reality we live with.”
As former director of US aluminium corporation Alcoa Alain Belda told the newspaper Morgunblaðið in March 2003: “Some people are against progress.” He was referring to the opponents of the Kárahnjúkar dams, constructed in Iceland’s highlands to create energy for Alcoa’s smelter. “But fortunately,” he continued, “the world is growing and people are requesting better lives.”
Such an argument equals economic growth and people’s welfare, portraying the megaproject’s opponents as enemies of progress. At the same time it negates the destructive nature of progress, manifested for instance in the culturally genocidal impacts — in the form of displacement of populations — and irreversible environmental destruction often associated with large-scale energy production, and how the lives of whole generations are wasted by wars waged for power and profit.
“We see this contradiction within modernity,” Benedikt continues, “how the idea of progress thrives on destruction and always calls for annihilation.” But unlike the revolutionary destruction encouraged by 19th Century anarchist philosopher Michail Bakunin — who stated, “the passion for destruction is a creative passion too!” — the annihilation inherent to progress is rather used as a stimulus for an unaltered continuum of the status quo under the pretext of development. Thus, the contradictory nature is evident again, as well as the religious one: “The present is never here,” Benedikt says, “it’s always something we are aiming for.”
Violence Intrinsic to Social Contracts
The film displays a great amount of violence, which musician Teitur Magnússon sees with a strong reference to alienation. “One feels like it’s somehow supernatural, like it’s not the work of humanity but rather of a monster that’s eating everything up, and we don’t seem to have any control of it.”
Artist Bryndís Hrönn Ragnarsdóttir furthermore connects this brutality with authority. “Humans aren’t able to handle more power than over themselves,” she says. “As soon as someone is granted higher power, violence enters the picture.” She maintains that some sort of violence is intrinsic to all simplifications — “all of society’s attempts to try and settle upon something” — meaning a wide range of social contracts, from organized religion to written and unwritten rules regarding people’s behaviour.
A Leap Into the Future
As Angeli Novi’s subject is not only complex but also polarized — layered with our cultural history of construction and destruction, repression and revolt — the exhibition doesn’t preach any simple solutions to the great problems it addresses. Such attempts are often just as contradictory as the myth of progress itself, or as philosopher Slavoj Žižek ironically sums up in his analysis of what he calls ‘a decaf reality,’ when the “very thing which causes damage should already be the medicine.”
Thus, one cannot resist wondering if there actually is a way out of the horrors analysed and manifested in the exhibition. Or is humanity bound to be stuck in a premature burial while the seemingly unstoppable catastrophe witnessed by Benjamin’s Angel of History keeps on enlarging into eternity?
With images referring to France’s July Revolution of 1830, Angeli Novi reject such a vision and suggest instead a peculiarly creative approach to revolt. Already during the revolution’s first day, clocks on church towers and palaces all over Paris were shot down and destroyed, signifying the urgent need to nullify predominant social structures and ideologies by putting an end to the time of the oppressors.
In continuum of this rebellious tradition of what philosopher Herbert Marcuse referred to as “arresting time” — directly related to what William Burroughs called “blowing a hole in time” — Angeli Novi transcend the well known demand for “all power to the people” with a leap into the future, granting wings to the mind and calling for all power to the imagination.
Saving Iceland: Kárahnjúkar Dam Blown Up in New Film by Angeli Novi
Jón Proppé: Standing in the way of progress
Þóroddur Bjarnason: Jafnvægislist (Icelandic only)
Dec 05 2012
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
Oct 08 2012
Saving Iceland would like to draw its readers attention to a currently ongoing exhibition by art collective Angeli Novi, comprised of artists Steinunn Gunnlaugsdóttir and Ólafur Páll Sigurðsson who both have strong ties to Saving Iceland. Sigurðsson was the founder of Saving Iceland and both of them continue to be active with the network today. You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress is the collective’s first extensive exhibition and is on show at The Living Art Museum (Nýlistasafnið) in Reykjavík.
At the heart of the exhibition, which consists of audio, video and sculptural pieces, is a 20 minute long film in Icelandic and English, bearing the same title as the exhibition. Around 30 people were willingly buried alive during the making of the film, which was shot this year in Greece and Iceland. Soundscapes were created by Örn Karlsson in collaboration with Angeli Novi.
Corporate green-wash and the Kárahnjukar dams play a key role in You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress. In one of the film’s scenes, the 700 m long and 200 m high central Kárahnjúkar Dam is digitally blown up by the very same explosion that blew up the Dimmugljúfur canyon in March 2003. The first destruction of the 200m deep canyon, which was carved out by the 150 km long river Jökulsá á Dal, played a strategical key role in the conflict about the power plant’s construction, and was meant to signify the government’s determined intention to steamroller Iceland’s eastern highlands in order to produce electricity for the US aluminium corporation ALCOA. As environmentalists warned from the beginning, the construction has turned out to have devastating environmental, social and economical impacts, and contributed also heavily to Iceland’s infamous 2008 economic collapse.
Asked about the cinematic blast, artists Gunnlaugsdóttir and Sigurðsson said: “It was particularly pleasurable to blow up the image of the dam that has now become the main symbol of corporate power abuse and ecocide in Iceland.” Sigurðsson added that it was “Very appropriate to use for our purpose the same film footage that was used by the Icelandic government in 2003 to dash people’s hopes of saving the Kárahnjúkar area from deeply corrupt forces of corporate greed and governmental stupidity. These same forces have learnt nothing from their past crimes and mistakes and are now lining up for taking power next year in order to continue their destructive rampage through Icelandic nature.”
A press release from The Living Art Museum states the following:
Angeli Novi create a kind of a kaleidoscopic time machine, examining the plight of generations which, one after the other, become tools and puppets of economic and historical structures. Through symbolism and imagery, Angeli Novi examine the ideological backdrops of these structures, the variously substance-drained core values of occidental culture, as well as as the reoccurring themes of doctrines and clichés in the societal rhetoric, necessary for society to maintain itself.
You Can’t Stand in the Way of Progress opened on 29 September and will run until 2 December. The Living Art Museum is located on Skúlagata 28, 101 Reykjavík.
Police forces from a number of EU countries are meeting in secret as part of the covert International Specialist Law Enforcement project (ISLE). The project is designed to help police officers exchange and communicate information on secretly gaining access to rooms, vehicles and electronic devices.
This was the critical response of Andrej Hunko, Member of the Bundestag, to the German Federal Government’s answer to a minor interpellation on this topic. Andrej Hunko continues:
“The Federal Government calls this ‘bypassing security systems’. Police officers can use surveillance technologies like microphones, cameras and Trojans to listen in on private conversations.
At the initiative of the European Commission, Britain’s Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA) has taken on the management of the covert working group. Germany’s Federal Criminal Police Office is involved in the joint steering committee. ISLE receives funding from its members, as well as from the EU programme entitled Prevention of and Fight against Crime. Read More
Sep 11 2012
Why do we allow a handful of politicians to make decisions about the fate and future of our natural heritage, decisions that will be condemned by generations to come? How come we don’t have the guts and solidarity and wisdom to stop this madness?
— Guðmundur Páll Ólafsson
After a hard struggle with cancer, our dear friend and comrade Guðmundur Páll Ólafsson — naturalist, author, photographer and a truly genuine environmentalist — passed away on August 30th, 71 years old. Guðmundur was a pioneer of environmentalism in Iceland and a big supporter of direct actions, which he also practised himself. Among many of his great contributions, he relentlessly pointed out the destructive impacts of damming glacial rivers and thus restraining their natural flow, directly affecting fish stocks as well as rivers’ role in binding greenhouse gases. As such Guðmundur played a key role in the deconstruction of aluminium and energy companies’ greenwashing attempts, pointing out that what they generate by harnessing glacial rivers is not green but indeed grey energy.
As an author of a good number of books, Guðmundur also played a great educative role. His books, which are illustrated by his own photographs, take on issues such as the seaside, bird life, Iceland’s highlands and the Ramsar listed Þjórsárver wetlands, which have been besieged by Landsvirkjun (the National Power Company) for more than half a century. For the last couple of years he travelled around the world due to his work on a new book entitled ‘Water, the World and Us’, for which he collected extensive knowledge about the situation of Iceland’s rivers, the country’s main arteries, from glaciers to deltas, from fluvial sediment transport to fishing grounds — and especially how all of this is interwoven and integral to all life.
Wherever one looks into the struggle for the protection of Iceland’s nature — the successful struggle to put an end to plans to dam river Laxá by lake Myvatn in the early 70′s, the fight against the construction of the Kárahnjúkar Dams, the campaign to save Þjórsárver wetlands and river Þjórsá — the list could be much longer, Guðmundur’s name is always prominent, ranging over an extensive area from written and spoken words to symbolic and direct actions. Most recently he voiced his serious criticism at the process of the creation of Iceland’s Energy Master Plan — a plan which, despite its official aim being to settle the constant conflict between nature conservation and energy extraction, is set to have devastating results for Iceland’s glacial rivers and geothermal areas.
While we at Saving Iceland, as other environmentalists, mourn this now gone friend, some one you could always count on being a mine of information about what ever you wanted to ask him, we strongly believe that the most honest and respectful way to honour Guðmundur Páll’s memory — keeping his name and works alive — is to continue his and our struggle and not watch passively as the authorities, energy and aluminium companies march forward in their crusade against the wilderness. This we owe him for his deep love of the Icelandic highlands, a love that nourished the spirit behind the passionate and unselfish work of his life.
The Saving Iceland network send deeply felt condolences to his family.