'ALCOA' Tag Archive

Aug 07 2017
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Iceland’s Troubled Environment


Michael Chapman

When it comes to loving where you’re from, Iceland has a fantastic international reputation for its widespread use of renewable energy, its untouched landscapes and its sustainable environmental policies. But just how true is Iceland’s positive attitude to the environment?

How are phenomena such as climate change, heavy industry and tourism affecting the landscape, the wildlands, the glaciers and the seasons of the country? Most importantly, how are the Icelandic people responding to these threats, if at all?

There can be no denying, nor any hope of denying, Iceland’s staggering aesthetic beauty. Icelanders themselves are quick to point out their spiritual connection to the land, understandably proud and protective of their country’s many highlights; its geological marvels, breathtaking panoramas and stunning natural scenery.

With rolling black sand beaches, mist-wreathed mountainscapes, cerulean glacier tongues and bubbling hot springs, Mother Nature has candidly outshone herself decorating this small, Atlantic island. Read More

Feb 20 2017
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‘A nice place to work in’? Experiences of Icelandic Aluminium Smelter Employees


A special report for Saving Iceland by Miriam Rose

In 1969 the first of three aluminium smelters was built in Iceland at Straumsvík, near Hafnafjörður, on the South West side of Reykjavík by Alusuisse (subsequently Rio Tinto-Alcan). In 1998 a second smelter was constructed by Century Aluminum (now a subsidiary of controversial mining giant Glencore), at Hvalfjörður near Reykjavík, and in 2007 the third, run by Alcoa, was completed at Reyðarfjörður in the remotely populated East of the country. The Icelandic Government had been advertising the country’s vast ‘untapped’ hydroelectric and geothermal energy at ‘the lowest prices in Europe’ hoping to attract jobs and industry to boost Iceland’s already very wealthy but somewhat fishing dependent economy. The industry, which would permanently change Iceland’s landscape with mega-dams, heavy industry scale geothermal plants and several kilometer long factories, was promoted by the Icelandic Government and the aluminium companies as ‘good employment for a modern age’. However, ten years after the flagship Alcoa Fjarðaál project was completed, unemployment is higher than it was in 2005, and Iceland’s economy has become dependent on an industry which is vulnerable to commodity cycle slumps and mass job losses. Worse, the price charged for Iceland’s energy is tied to the price of aluminium and analyses of the country’s 2008/9 economic crisis suggest it was exacerbated by the poor terms of Iceland’s late industrialisation. Yet demands for further industrialisation remain, and more than 1000 Icelanders are employed in the aluminium sector.

This article exposes the conditions inside Iceland’s aluminium smelters based on interviews with workers conducted in 2012. The stories from two smelters share correlating accounts of being forced to work in dangerous conditions under extreme pressure, and without adequate safety equipment, leading to serious accidents which are falsely reported by the companies. These shocking allegations require serious attention by the trade unions, Icelandic government and health and safety authorities. This especially in the current context of labour disputes with the aluminium companies, alongside revelations about the same companies’ tax avoidance schemes and profiteering in the country. Read More

Jul 30 2015
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Time to Occupy the Smelters?


Helga Katrín Tryggvadóttir

Icelanders are notoriously bad investors. Once someone has a business idea, everyone jumps on the wagon and invests in exactly the same thing. The infamous growth of the banking sector is one example, before the 2008 banking crash the Icelandic banking sector was 12 times the size of the GDP and Iceland was supposed to become an international financial centre. I have no idea how anyone got the idea that an island with three hundred thousand inhabitants could become an international financial centre, but many people in Iceland considered this a perfectly normal ambition.

And then there are the politicians, they have had the same investment idea for more than hundred years. Either it is building an artificial fertiliser factory, or it is building an aluminium smelter. Last year one MP proposed building an artificial fertiliser factory, in order to “lure home” young Icelanders who have moved abroad. A majority of those have moved abroad to educate themselves, but sure, who doesn’t want to use their PhD on the factory floor?

Now there is an Icelandic investor in the North of Iceland, Ingvar Skúlason, who is planning on building an aluminium smelter, at a time when aluminium prices have been dropping due to overproduction. He has already managed to sign a deal with a Chinese company, NFC, which is willing, he says, to pay for the whole construction, yet the smelter would be owned by Icelandic companies. All of this sounds kind of dubious in my ears. And everyone can see that this is not a good idea, even the banks, with a new report released by Arion Bank advising against more investment in the aluminium industry. The bank bases its analysis on the fact that aluminium price is too low at the moment to bring any profit into the country (since the price for the electricity is connected with the price of aluminium, the price the aluminium smelters pay to the National power company (LV) is low when aluminium prices are low).

But that does not stop the politicians from supporting the idea. The prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson, was present when Skúlason signed a deal with the Chinese company, praising the initiative. Skúlason also claims to have support from the Minister of Industry, which is not surprising since her only campaign promise was building an aluminium smelter and get the “wheels of the economy rolling”. Recently, Alcoa World Alumina, owned by Alcoa Inc., admitted to having bribed officials in Barein. In Iceland, however, they have never had to pay any bribes. Icelandic officials have been more than willing to do their service for free, “bending all the rules” as Friðrik Sophusson, former head of LV, was caught on tape saying.

There are currently three aluminium smelters in Iceland. Together, they use 80% of the energy produced in the country and their profit account for 60 billion ISK a year (USD 500 million). Yet, a majority of the profit is registered as debt to their parent companies abroad, leaving the Icelandic subsidiaries operated in debt but creating profits to the parent companies. The only profit that is left in the country is the wages they pay to their employees, and that only accounts to less than 1% of the national revenue. The jobs they create (which is usually the main argument for their construction), also account for less than 1% of all jobs in Iceland. The price they pay for the energy is also below the normal market price. Lets think about this for a second: 80% of the electricity produced in the country goes to international corporations that only produce 1% of the national revenue and creates 1% of the jobs, exports the majority of the profits and pays below-market price for the energy. So, 99% of the people do not get any share in the majority of its electricity production. Sounds familiar.

Maybe it is time to occupy the smelters?

Dec 05 2014

Majority Pushes For Eight New Hydro Power Plant Options


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.

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. Read More

Oct 05 2014

Is Fluoride Hurting Iceland’s Farm Animals?


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

Oct 03 2013
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The Age of Aluminium – A Documentary


Aluminium has found its way into every facet of our lives: deodorants, sun lotions, vaccines or filtered drinking water. But what do we actually know about the side effects of our daily consuming of aluminium products? The light metal comes with heavy consequences. Latest research links it to the increase in Alzheimer’s, breast cancer and food allergies. Hand in hand with the large scale environmental destruction and routine cultural genocide, deemed necessary to generate electricity for smelters, come the often disastrous ecological impacts of bauxite mining.

Saving Iceland would like to recommend this recent and informative film by Bert Ehgartner. Below is a short trailer for the film. You can stream or download the whole film, in either English or German here.

See also: Is Aluminium Really a Silent Killer?

Jamaica Bauxite Mining Videos

Sep 12 2013
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The Mark Kennedy Saga – Chapter Iceland


Snorri Páll Jónsson Úlfhildarson Grapevine

Each time a free-floating rumour gets confirmed, and past political behaviour becomes a scandalous spectacle, one cannot resist wondering if such conduct might be going on today. This was the case in 2006, after a grand exposure of espionage the Icelandic state aimed at socialists during the Cold War. During parliamentary discussions following the revelation, Mörður Árnason, MP for the Social-Democratic Alliance (“Samfylkingin”), highlighted the importance of revealing if similar espionage was indeed occurring in present times. If so, he asked, “how is it being conducted? […] Which foreign states have been able to access this information?” Quite typically, those questions were never answered.

Half a decade later, in late 2010, it was revealed that a British police officer, one Mark Kennedy, had travelled around Europe for seven years disguised as environmental and anti-capitalist activist ‘Mark Stone’ and was collecting information about various activist movements and, in some cases, acting as an agent provocateur. Along with the UK, Denmark, Germany, Italy and France — to name but a few of the places where he worked — he did a stint in Iceland’s Eastern highlands in the summer of 2005. In Iceland, he attended a protest camp organised by the environmentalist movement Saving Iceland which targeted the construction of the gargantuan Kárahnjúkar dam and American aluminium giant Alcoa’s smelter in Reyðarfjörður.

The revelation mostly stayed within activist circles and publications, until early 2011, when a public expose of the spy’s true identity lead to the collapse of a UK trial against six climate-change activists, in which Mark’s secretly obtained evidence played a key role. British newspaper The Guardian then took up the case, and the Mark Kennedy saga started to snowball contemporaneously with the broader attention it received, bringing to light a number of other undercover spies.

Sex, Secrecy And Dead Children’s Identities

Shortly after Mark was exposed, Irish and German authorities admitted that he had worked within their jurisdictions and with their knowledge. Due to the ongoing efforts of Andrej Hunko — MP for German left party Die Linke — a truckload of information regarding European cross-border undercover police operations has since seen the light of day.

A recent book on the matter, written by Guardian journalists Paul Lewis and Rob Evans, brings further context to the affair — the mapping of at least 30 years of police espionage and infiltration of environmentalist, anti-racist and anarchist movements in the UK and elsewhere. Among the information revealed, the authors explain how the undercover officers at the Special Demonstration Squad — the undercover unit responsible for the infiltration — had the modus operandi of taking up identities of dead children in order to build up credible alter-egos based on the short lives of real persons.

It has also been revealed that Kennedy — along with others in his position — enjoyed several intimate relationships with some of his prospects, using sex to build up trust and gather information. One infiltrator, Bob Lambert, even fathered a child with one of these women, only to disappear as soon as his undercover employment became too risky. Eight British women who were victims of this tactic have pressed charges against the spies’ employer, the Metropolitan Police, due to the psychological damage they suffered. In a recent episode of investigative TV programme ‘Dispatches’ on Channel 4, some of them described their experience as having been mass-raped by the state, as they would never have consented to sleeping with the police officers had they been aware of their real identities. Adding insult to injury, their claims will not be heard openly — the British High Court recently ruled that it would take place in the secret Investigatory Powers Tribunal.

Saving Hell’s Angels

Enter Iceland, where the big question concerned whether Mark Kennedy had operated with or without the Icelandic authorities’ knowledge and approval. According to the country’s penal code, a foreign party or state’s espionage that takes place within the jurisdiction of the Icelandic state — or is directed at something or someone therein — is illegal and punishable with five-years imprisonment. Had Mark operated without the authorities’ knowledge, it should have caused an international conflict. If he, on the other hand, collaborated with the Icelandic police, it would have equaled the invoking of proactive investigative powers, which the Icelandic police apparently didn’t have at that time.*

Thus the affair entered Iceland’s parliament in late January 2011. Assuming the former version being more likely than the latter, the above-mentioned MP Mörður Árnason asked his fellow party-member and then-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Össur Skarphéðinsson, about the government’s possible actions regarding the matter. After a few lousy personal jokes thrown between the two, Össur claimed he would wait for a report on the matter — conducted by the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police — which Ögmundur Jónasson, MP for the Left Greens and then Minister of the Interior, had already requested.

But when finally published by the Commissioner’s National Security Unit in May 2011, it was pretty much impossible to estimate the relevance of the report, as the details of Ögmundur’s request were never made public. It was, however, clear that the National Commissioner — whose report literally equated environmentalist activists with Hells Angels — wasn’t about to bring any concrete information out into the public domain.

Lost In Information

Although admitting that the police received information about the activists and their plans via domestic and foreign sources, and that the Icelandic police collaborated with foreign police authorities regarding the protests, the report’s authors nevertheless fully dodged the question regarding the Icelandic police’s alleged collaboration with Mark Kennedy. The main conclusion of the report merely found that “during an overhaul of data at the National Commissioner’s office, no information has come forth enabling an answer regarding whether this agent provocateur […] was here in collaboration with or without the knowledge of the Icelandic police in 2005.”

Despite criticism from Saving Iceland and Árni Finnsson, head of the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which both accused the minister of condoning cover-ups and evasions by accepting these results, Ögmundur never really touched officially on the issue again. Neither did Össur nor Mörður or — as a matter of fact — anyone else from the establishment.

The truth regarding Kennedy’s operations in Iceland is still not publicly acknowledged, and the absurdity of the issue as it now stands is probably best described by Ögmundur’s own words, taken from an article published on Smugan — a now defunct leftist news-site —  and his last public remark on the report: “The National Commissioner’s report states that the Icelandic police obtained information from abroad concerning the protests at Kárahnjúkar, but that the police do not have information about how this information was obtained.”

* It is, in fact, questionable if the Iceland police had proactive investigative powers or not. As a result of weak laws and a lack of regulations, it actually seems that until 2011 the police had just about carte blanche regarding whom to spy on and for what reason. See more about it here.

Click here to go to the support site for the women’s legal action against the Metropolitan Police.

Watch the above-mentioned Dispatches show here below:

The Police’s Dirty Secret (47mins – Dispatches/Channel4 – 24JUN2013) from Casey Oliver on Vimeo.

May 24 2013

In the Land of the Wild Boys


Andri Snær Magnason

First published in Grapevine. Based on a 2010 article entitled “Í landi hinna klikkuðu karlmanna.” (“In the Land of the Mad Men”). Translated in part by Haukur S. Magnússon.

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

Apr 25 2013
4 Comments

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


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 2011, 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
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Hand in Hand: Aluminium Smelters and Fluoride Pollution


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.

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1.  Christopher Bryson, 2004. The Fluoride Deception. Seven Stories Press.