'Century Aluminum' Tag Archive

Feb 20 2017

‘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

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

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 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.

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

Aug 29 2012
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Hellisheiði: A Geothermal Embarrassment


While driving Iceland’s national ring road, in a southerly direction from Reykjavík, one cannot miss noticing the steam coming up from an extraordinarily grey infrastructure covering a large piece of land around mount Hengill, approximately 30 km from the capital. Filled with roads, drills, pipelines, and a large powerhouse, this once untouched geothermal area is now the site of the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant, operated by the publicly owned Reykjavík Energy (“Orkuveita Reykjavíkur” in Icelandic, abbreviated “OR”), generating electricity almost entirely for aluminium production.

Geothermal energy is commonly praised as a “green” alternative to environmentally unfriendly power sources such as fossil fuels, coals and nuclear energy. As a result of “the development of what were once thought to be non-viable resources”, a glossy brochure from engineering firm Mannvit states, “more and more public and private entities are looking into geothermal power as part of their strategy to mitigate global warming while still meeting growing energy demands.” In a promotional text for the Geothermal Energy Exhibition at Hellisheiði, the plant is said to be a “striking example of how geothermal energy is harnessed in a sustainable manner in Iceland and a showcase for the rest of the world.” Additionally, Reykjavík Energy has not hesitated maintaining that “general public opinion of exploiting the geothermal resources in the Hengill region is positive.”

So many men, so many minds. Only about ten kilometres away from the plant stands the small town of Hveragerði, wherein one gets to hear a completely different story. “We cannot accept that OR will be permitted to continue polluting the atmosphere,” Hallgrímur Þ. Magnússon, clinical doctor in Hveragerði said to newspaper DV last June. A few days earlier he had voiced his worries to local newspaper Sunnlenska, encouraging the town’s residents to start taking magnesium and iodide supplements to counteract the health impacts of the power plant’s sulphur (hydrogen sulphide) pollution. “I maintain that the pollution is of such quantity that the human body needs those two materials in order to resist the effects,” Hallgrímur said to Sunnlenska.

Recent inspection makes it clear that the sulphur pollution, which does not only reach to Hveragerði but also to Reykjavík, often goes far above Icelandic and international standards. In the case of Hveragerði, the quantity of polluting materials in the atmosphere is such that the town should be considered within the plant’s dilution area (the area in which residential homes are not permitted).

EFFLUENT LAGOONS AND MANMADE EARTHQUAKES

Unfortunately for the burgeoning and PR heavy Icelandic energy sector, the green image of geothermal power has been repeatedly challenged lately. In particular regarding the country’s and, in fact, the world’s biggest geothermal plant at Hellisheiði. Two new unplanned effluent lagoons were recently discovered close to the plant, where waste water from geothermal pumping had leaked out onto the surface. Environmentalist and journalist Ómar Ragnarsson, who originally discovered the lagoons, followed the story by publishing his own photographs of similar lakes created by other geothermal plants, such as those by the plants at Reykjanes, Svartsengi, Nesjavellir and Bjarnarflag1. These lakes can be very dangerous to local freshwater systems, as Saving Iceland’s Jaap Krater and Miriam Rose explain in a book chapter on the development of geothermal harnessing in Iceland:

Geothermal fluids contain high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic elements, including radon, arsenic, mercury, ammonia and boron, which are damaging to the freshwater systems into which they are released as waste water. Arsenic concentrations of 0.5 to 4.6 ppm are found in waste water released from geothermal power plants; the WHO recommends a maximum 0.01 ppm in drinking water.2

Yet another backlash for the geothermal industry is a recent study, carried out by Hanne Krage Carlsen, whose results were published in the international Environmental Research journal earlier this year3. The study shows a direct link between the plant’s sulphur pollution and increased purchase of asthma medicine among the residents of the greater Reykjavík area. New examination of vegetation in the Hellisheiði area also shows that the sulphur pollution has damaged large quantities of moss, which according to Magnea Magnúsdóttir who carried out the examination, will take decades to recover4. OR claims that the results of the plant’s Environmental Impact Assessment “indicate that construction of the plant will not have a lasting influence on the area’s vegetation” — something which, according to this recent information, needs to be questioned.

POLLUTION ABOVE GUIDELINE LIMITS

During OR’s Annual General Meeting (AGM) last June, it was revealed that Hveragerði is inside an area wherein sulphur (hydrogen sulphide) pollution is above the current guideline limits. New rules are supposed to go through in 2014, according to which the guideline limits will be strict 50 micrograms per square-meter per 24 hours. The authorities will also be obliged to alarm the public each time the pollution goes above that limit.

Though they admit the plant’s high concentration of polluting emissions, OR has said that the company will not able to adapt to the new rules until 2019 at the earliest. Therefore, the company will ask for an exception, to which the people of Hveragerði are heavily opposed. In an interview with Iceland’s National Broadcasting Service (RÚV), the town’s Mayor Aldís Hafsteinsdóttir protested against the company’s request, stating that OR had obviously rushed way too fast when preparing and building the plant and thus underestimated its environmental impacts. In a separate interview with Saving Iceland’s Miriam Rose this June, Aldís emphasized this point:

We feel very much like victims of all of this. This town has been here for 70 years and the power plant has only been here for 10 or 15. They should have considered the effects on the neighbourhood they were putting it in. It is absolutely obvious that the plant is situated too close to our town, as there are so many impacts that affect daily life here in Hveragerði.

Adding fuel to such criticism, Minister of the Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir followed in the footsteps of many environmentalists and told RÚV, in an interview last June, that OR had been nothing but the puppet of heavy industry for the last years. That explains not only the company’s poor financial situation but also the environmental catastrophe at Hellisheiði, Svandís said. Mayor Aldís agrees: “They [OR] have sold their energy to the aluminium smelters way too cheap and now they can’t afford to reduce their pollution. That is, in my opinion, the reason why they are trying to stop the new regulations.”

DILUTION AREA: BIGGER THAN OF ALUMINIUM SMELTERS

The Hellisheiði plant started operating in 2006 and has since then seen two expansions, in 2008 and 2011, leading to increased sulphur pollution. Most of the energy goes to the aluminium smelter in Grundartangi, owned and operated by the North-American Century Aluminium, which then again is owned by mining and commodities giant Glencore.

Demonstrating Iceland’s haphazard approach to the development of geothermal energy, the Hellisheiði power plants’ dilution area has yet to be defined after six years of operation. However, it is clear from recent evidence that the dilution areas for geothermal plants should be much larger than for other polluting industries in Iceland — much bigger, for instance, than Rio Tinto Alcan’s aluminium smelter in Straumsvík and Century’s in Grundartangi, as reported by newspaper Morgunblaðið in June5. During OR’s recent AGM, their environmental director Hólmfríður Sigurðardóttir, admitted that she could not guarantee that the health of people living inside the area where pollution is above guideline limits (i.e. people living inside the dilution area) is not negatively affected by the pollution. Permanent residence is, in fact, prohibited inside such areas by law and land use is restricted to several limitations.

Interestingly, the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for the Hellisheiði power station, carried out by engineering firm VGK on behalf of OR, overlooked the potential impacts on Hveragerði altogether, though it did take into consideration the negligible impacts on Þorlákshöfn and other towns much further away from the plant.

In September 2011 more than 1500 earthquakes were felt in Hveragerði in a single day, with other quakes going on for several weeks, some up to 4 on the Richter scale6. At first OR denied any culpability in the incident, though the residents immediately recognised the quakes as being unusual as many were focused on a single spot. However, after a few days they admitted that they had been pumping geothermal effluent water back into the ground, which is necessary to prevent surface pollution, but is well known by geologists to be a cause of man-made earthquakes. OR responded to the resident’s outrage over the quakes by holding a public meeting in which they claimed they were simply speeding up the release of earthquakes that would have happened anyway in the future. To this local resident Einar Bergmundur stood up and stated: “That is a very good argument. I am also sure I am going to die one day, but that doesn’t give you the right to kill me today to speed the process up?”

THE GUINEA PIGS OF HVERAGERÐI

In January this year some residents of Hveragerði started experiencing breathlessness, coughing and nausea as well as a strong sulphurous smell. They called Aldís to ask what was going on. Thanks to a monitoring site the residents had requested OR to install on their kindergarten, Aldís was able to see that hydrogen sulphide levels had persistently been in the hundreds of micrograms for more than a week. One day they had reached 337µg, more than double the current regulations, and almost seven times higher than the new regulations would allow. With the man-made earthquakes still on their minds, the residents were furious. Aldís told us that despite this breach of regulations no action seems to have been taken by OR:

I just can’t believe that this is how it is supposed to be — that the locals are supposed to monitor these levels themselves. There must be some institution that is supposed to take care of the people and make sure that we are not breathing this. But it did not happen. We live here, we have kids, the elderly are fragile and some have bad lungs. They [OR] are experimenting with these technologies as they build the plants. If they wanted to use us, the inhabitants of Hveragerði as guinea pigs they should have asked us first and not let everything that has happened here come as a surprise. They must have known better before they started this project and that is a fact the makes us angry. Our experience of the Hellisheiði power plant teaches us that not a single plant should be built here in the vicinity before they have a complete control of those matters that have gone wrong in Hellisheiði.

In response to such criticism, OR published a press releases claiming that there are no health risks at that level of exposure and that much of the science which says so is contended. They invite people to visit the plant and breathe the fumes, and even suggest that up to 14,000µg of Hydrogen Sulphide is acceptable to breathe for up to 8 hours7.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) does not agree. They state that concentrations above 280µg can cause breathing problems, followed by eye irritation at 500µg, loss of energy and increased lactic acid in the blood at 700µg, and finally headaches, irritability, dizziness, memory loss and fatigue at 2800µg. By 14,000µg people tend to suffer “olfactory paralysis” — a shut down of sense of smell which prevents them from noticing the odour and accompanying dangers. The WHO recommends a maximum guideline of 150 µg/m3 for a 24 hour period to ensure “the absence of appreciable risks that can cause adverse health effects” whereas the Californian regulation limits Hydrogen Sulphide emissions to 43 µg/m3 for more than an hour to prevent strong smell8. Iceland’s current regulations are weak by international standards and even these weak standards are not being enforced.

In the same press release OR presented a diagram of emissions from Hellisheiði showing that 99.49% of the steam released from the power plant is made up of water, while only 0.42% is CO2 and 0.08% Hydrogen Sulphide. This is a clear attempt at greenwashing the reality, as it is self evident that steam is largely made up of water and that this is not how sulphur concentrations in the environment are measured. These widely broadcast figures try to downplay well established science in what Aldís called “an insult to the intelligence of the people of Hveragerði.”

REYKJAVÍK’S CITY COUNCIL OPERATING AGAINST ITS OWN POLICY

Yet another 90 MW expansion is now planned in the area of Hverahlíð, south of the Hellisheiði plant and even closer to Hveragerði. The Hverahlíð plant is supposed to generate energy for another Century smelter, which currently stands half built and collecting dust in Helguvík, close to the Keflavík International Airport. The Helguvík project has been criticised from the beginning of its construction in 2008, not only for environmental reasons but also for the major energy uncertainty the project has long faced. During the smelter’s ceremonial first shovelling — interrupted by Saving Iceland activists who rightly named it “Century’s Lack Of Permission Party” as the company did not have any permissions but to construct the building itself — Century’s director in Iceland, Ragnar Guðmundsson, said that he hoped the energy issues would be sorted in late 2010, when the smelter’s first phase would be complete.

Today the unfinished building stands like a skeleton at the construction site while the energy issue remains unsolved. Century has signed contracts with two energy companies, OR and HS Orka — the latter owned mostly by Canadian firm Alterra Power and partly by Icelandic pension funds — but neither company has been able to guarantee any energy. HS Orka hopes to be allowed to drill in the geothermal areas of the Reykjanes peninsula — a large-scale construction that would not only permanently alter the peninsula’s unique nature, but also, as many scientists have claimed, not produce enough energy for the Helguvík smelter.

OR, on the other hand, bets on Hverahlíð as an electricity supplier for Helguvík. But the company is heavily indebted after its recent aluminium adventures, which is one of the reasons the contract with Century should be breached, says Sóley Tómasdóttir from the Left Green party (“Vinstri græn”) and board member of OR. In an interview with RÚV in April this year, she maintained that the company should focus on the environmental impacts at Hellisheiði before even thinking about building new plants. She also criticised the current majority of Reykjavík’s city council (composed of the social democratic “Samfylkingin” and the centrist “Besti flokkurinn,” a new party that won the city elections in 2010), for not standing by its promises to stop selling new power from the publicly owned energy company to heavy industry projects.

In the same interview, Haraldur Flosi Ólafsson, chairman of the board, responded to this criticism by maintaining that despite the current majority’s official opposition to developing any further energy for aluminium production, the company would have to abide to already existing contracts. The Century contract is originally from 2006 but was renewed in late December 2008, less than three months after Iceland’s infamous economic collapse. At the aforementioned AGM, Haraldur’s words were echoed by the company’s director Bjarni Bjarnason, who said that in his opinion all future plans for building new power plants should be abandoned, as building new plants for private entities goes against the company’s current policy. However, Bjarni stated, already existing contracts needs to be abided.

Sóley disagrees, pointing out a clause in the contract, which should allow for the company’s withdrawal if it does not have the financial capacity to fund the project. But instead of doing so, OR is now planning to finance the Hverahlíð plant with the assistance of Icelandic pension funds. Such a step is generally seen as very controversial (such as in the heavily criticised case of HS Orka) and as the first step on the way to the privatisation of Iceland’s nature.

NEITHER SUSTAINABLE NOR RENEWABLE

The impacts of sulphur pollution, man made earthquakes and effluent lagoons appearing at Hellisheiði are of great importance in Iceland in view of the large scale geothermal plans which are increasingly being promoted in Mývatn and Reykjanes peninsula. According to the recently published parliamentary resolution for the so-called Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources in Iceland, these geothermal power plans are definitely “on”, while several planned hydro dams are now “off”.

Effluent lagoons have already been discovered at test drilling sites at Þeistareykir and Bjarnarflag in the North9. If all of the planned geothermal power plants are built around Mývatn, the town of Reykahlíð will become exposed to 32,000 tons of hydrogen sulphide per year potentially raising serious health issues for residents10. In Reykjanes the two existing geothermal power plants at Svartsengi and Rekjanesvirkjun already produce huge amounts of hydrogen sulphide, and the proposed expansions and new projects would radically increase this figure. Scientists have warned that geothermal fields at Svartsengi are already overexploited and may not be able to produce power much longer11. In addition many of the new proposed drilling sites are connected to the same geothermal aquifer and could very quickly become dried or cooled by excessive exploitation for large scale energy. For further information read Saving Iceland’s detailed account of the planned geothermal power projects on Reykjanes peninsula.)

The fact is that geothermal energy technology is still very new and little is known about the long term, or even short term effects of exploiting the heat of volcanic aquifers on such a large scale. In addition, geothermal areas are globally incredibly rare and each one is different, making the impacts of drilling and power generation hard to predict. Cambridge University professor David McKay’s comprehensive 2009 book on sustainable energy points out that geothermal power is neither sustainable nor renewable when used on a commercial scale as the wells can quickly dry up or cool down, taking more than a hundred years to recover afterwards12, yet drastically altering the local environment. Experimenting with such an undeveloped technology in Iceland’s endemic geothermal hot spring areas, which the country is so famous for, could result in total destruction of these beautiful and unique places. All that for only a few years of energy production, which in turn would be sold at a cut rate price to heavy industry, reaping little reward for Icelandic people.

See Saving Iceland’s photos of the effects of drilling at Hellisheiði here. The photos are from 2008 when Saving Iceland’s then annual action camp against heavy industry was located at Hellisheiði. Read More

May 21 2012
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Glencore: Reaping Huge Profits From Life’s Essentials


This video by Patrick Clair tells the story of commodity broker Glencore International, the biggest shareholder of Century Aluminum, and the company’s dangerously powerful position on the world’s markets.

Click here to read Saving Iceland’s dossier on Glencore, Century and the incestuous world of mining.

May 11 2012

The Geothermal Ecocide of Reykjanes Peninsula


After thirteen years of environmental, economic and technical evaluations, followed by a proposition for a parliamentary solution and a three month long public comments process, wherein 225 reviews where handed in — we are now witnessing the final steps in the making of Iceland’s Master Plan for Hydro and Geothermal Energy Resources. The plan, which in diplomatic language is supposed to “lay the foundation for a long-term agreement upon the exploitation and protection of Iceland’s natural resources,” has now been presented as a bill by the Ministers of Environment and of Industry, respectively, and is currently awaiting discussion and further bureaucratic processes in parliament.

Treated as the Master Plan’s trash can, the unique geothermal areas on the Reykjanes peninsula get a particularly harsh deal. Out of the peninsula’s nineteen energy potential areas, only three are listed for protection while seven are set for exploitation in addition to the four that have already been harnessed. Five additional areas are kept pending, more likely than not to be set for exploitation later. Existing plans for energy production outline how the peninsula is set to be turned into a single and continuous industrial zone, and the power companies seem to be simply waiting for a further green light to exploit the area. All this in order to further feed the aluminium industry.

In this overview we take a look at nine of these nineteen areas — those from the west of Gráuhnúkar — of which only one is to be protected according to the Master Plan. We look at the plans on the drawing board, their current status, the key companies involved, the already existing power plants, the threatened areas, and at last but not least: possible targets for direct action. On the map below, these areas are marked from number one to nine. Obviously the map only shows the areas at stake and the reader has to use her or his imagination to fill in power lines and the rest of the necessary infrastructure. Most of the following photos are taken by Ellert Grétarsson — click here and here for more of his photos.

Energy Options

 

Unmasking the Geothermal Myth

In a world increasingly concerned about carbon emissions,” Jaap Krater and Miriam Rose state, “the clean image of hydroelectric and geothermal energy is appealing.” This has certainly been the case in Iceland, where the highly polluting aluminium industry has attempted to re-model their dirty image by powering their production with so-called ‘green energy’. However, this greenwashing has not entirely worked as the eastern highland’s Kárahnjúkar dams — fully built in 2007 to power an Alcoa aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður — have proven to be as ecologically and economically disastrous as environmentalists warned. As a result the aluminium companies have now mostly moved from hydro and instead are increasingly focussing on geothermal energy.

One of the companies is Norðurál, subsidiary of Century Aluminum, who claim that their planned 360 thousand ton aluminium smelter in Helguvík will be one the world’s most environmentally friendly smelters. Why so? Because according to the company, the 625 MW of electricity required to run a smelter of this size is supposed to come only from the peninsula’s geothermal energy sources. However, environmentalists and scientists consider the estimation of geothermal energy believed to be extractable from the peninsula to be highly over-estimated, and claim that additional hydro power plants would be needed to power the smelter. This would most likely come from the much-debated and now temporarily halted dams in the river of lower Þjórsá.

Last year, unable to access the necessary geothermal energy in north Iceland, aluminium company Alcoa was forced to withdraw their six years long plan to build a geothermal powered smelter at Bakki, Húsavík. We predict that if Century cannot force through the damming of lower Þjórsá a similar situation awaits Helguvík. But that has not stopped the project’s interested parties, who still state confidently that the smelter will be built, and powered with geothermal energy.

Regardless of the need for additional hydro power, the exploitation of the Reykjanes peninsula’s geothermal areas spells the end of this magnificent nature of the peninsula as we know it. Test drilling and boreholes, endless roads and power lines, power plants and other infrastructure; all this would turn the Reykjanes peninsula — this unique land of natural volcanic wonders, which many scientists and environmentalists believe to be one of the world’s best options for creating a giant volcano park with educational and tourism-related opportunities — into a large industrial zone.

But these are only the very visible impacts of the planned large-scale exploitation. Other environmental catastrophes are in fact inevitable with large scale geothermal industry, becoming increasingly visible to the public as the green reputation of geothermal energy slowly decreases.

Two of Saving Iceland’s spokespersons — ecological economist Jaap Krater and geologist Miriam Rose — have thoroughly analysed the development of Iceland’s geothermal potential in a chapter, written on behalf of Saving Iceland, and recently published in a book on the current energy crisis. While we strongly recommend the piece for further reading about the geothermal myths, a few of their points will be addressed here, with relevance to recent events in Iceland.

Firstly, geothermal gases are rich in a variety of harmful elements and chemical compounds such as sulphur dioxide, whose impacts are systematically underestimated according the Public Health Authority of Reykjavík. Since production began at the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant — often claimed to be the biggest of its kind in the world — in 2006, a 140 percent increase of sulphur pollution has been measured in the capital area of Reykjavík, only 30 kilometres away. Recent studies, conducted by the University of Iceland, suggest a direct link between increased sulphur pollution on the one hand, and increased use of medicine for asthma and heart disease ‘angina pectoris’ on the other hand. However, engineering firms such as Mannvit, authors of many of the Environmental Impacts Assessments for geothermal power-plants, have so far ignored these studies and instead based their assessments on so-called prediction models. (Read more about the sulphur pollution here and here.)

Secondly, at the end of last year it was revealed that for two years energy company Reykjavík Energy — who own and operate the Hellisheiði plant — had on occasions been pumping waste water containing hydrogen sulphide into drinking water aquifers. Sulphides are far from being the plants’ only damaging effluents entering our water system; Krater and Rose mention that “geothermal fluids contain high concentrations of heavy metals and other toxic elements, including radon, arsenic, mercury, ammonia, and boron.”

Thirdly, it is suggested that depletion of one geothermal reservoir can result in the drying up of surrounding hot spring areas. While large-scale exploitation in Iceland is probably too young to witness these effects, environmentalists and geologists have warned that exactly this will happen in the Reykjanes peninsula if the existing plans go ahead.

The Key Companies Involved

HS Orka

HS Orka is an energy company that owns and operates two geothermal power plants on the peninsula — Reykjanesvirkjun and Svartsengi — the majority of who’s energy goes to Norðurál’s aluminium smelter in Grundartangi, Hvalfjörður. HS Orka’s majority shareholder is Magma Energy Sweden A.B., a puppet company of the Canadian firm Magma Energy, which was established to get around laws that prevent non-Europeans from buying Icelandic companies. After Magma’s 66,6% share, the remaining 33,4% is owned by Icelandic pension funds.

Before privatisation HS Orka (then called Hitaveita Suðurnesja) was owned fifty-fifty by the Icelandic state and several municipalities on the country’s south-west coast, but in 2007 the state’s share was sold to a private company named Geysir Green Energy (GGE). Following laws passed in 2008, regarding the separation of private energy production from competitive operations, the company became two different firms — HS Veitur and HS Orka — of which the latter takes care of energy production and sales. Bit by bit, GGE bought up two thirds of HS Orka’s shares. In 2009, GGE sold extra 10% to Magma Energy, which at the same time bought 32% from another energy company, Reykjavík Energy, and the nearby municipality of Hafnarfjörður. At this point GGE owned 55% of HS Orka and Magma owned 43%.

Harsh criticism arose over these deals which were effectively privatisation of Iceland’s natural resources, including a campaign led by pop-singer Björk and Eva Joly, the recent French Green Party presidential candidate, who at that point served as the Icelandic center-left government’s special financial advisor, following the general elections in 2009. Asked if the company was considering majority stake in HS Orka, Magma’s CEO Ross Beaty replied with a straight “no”. He then emphasised that the company would not buy more than 50% of the shares, as had officially been accepted by Iceland’s government, calling this “a rather awkward business position but certainly something that we feel can be workable.”

However, in 2010 Geysir Green Energy sold all their shares to Magma, which now owned 98.5% of HS Orka. A year later Magma sold 25% to Jarðvarmi slhf, a company owned by fourteen Icelandic pension funds, which a little later bought additional 8.4%. At last, Magma bought the 1.5% still owned by four different municipalities. Thus Magma holds 66.6% of the shares today, while Jarðvarmi owns 33.4%. The land use rights held by Magma allow for 65 years exploitation with an option to extend this for another 65 years.

Alterra Power

Just as the name could not have been coloured with more controversy and scepticism, Magma Energy merged with Plutonic Power and became Alterra Power, a company traded on the Toronto Stock Exchange. The new company’s Executive Chairman Ross Beaty, said that the merger would “strengthen both companies and […] create a larger, more diversified renewable energy company.” He further stated: “Geothermal will remain a core focus of the new company, but hydro, wind and solar assets will be solid business platforms for future growth. In the renewable energy business, bigger is better and this combination will achieve that while enhancing returns to each company’s shareholders.”

Alterra Power already operates geothermal, hydro and wind power plants in Nevada and British Columbia, which together with the Iceland plants have the energy capacity of 570 MW. In the company’s own words, they have a “strong financial capacity to support [their] aggressive growth plans,” which include geothermal plants in Chile and Peru. Such Latin-American adventures are certainly not new to the company’s key people, as Ross Beaty founded and currently serves as Chairman of one of the world’s largest silver producers, Pan American Silver, with some of its mines in Peru.

For the last three decades in fact Beaty has founded and divested a series of mineral resource companies, but has now shifted his focus to the ever-enlarging economy of ‘green energy’. As he explained himself: “This time around I wanted to build something green, so I looked at geothermal and it was just perfect, it just fit”. When confronted with the possibility that he and his company were taking advantage of Iceland’s economic collapse — a theory supported by the words of John Perkins, the author of ‘Confessions of an Economic Hitman’ — he called such ideas “ignorance and complete nonsense.” Only a few months later, he nevertheless said to Hera Research Monthly, an online investment newsletter, that “going into Iceland was strictly something that could only have happened because Iceland had a calamitous financial meltdown in 2008.”

Norðurál

Norðurál is a subsidiary of North-American aluminium producer Century Aluminum, whose largest shareholder is commodity broker Glencore International, a company that controls almost 40% of the global aluminium market. Glencore is mostly known for its many tentacles of corruption and worldwide human rights and environmental violations — most recently manifested in the exposure of child-labour in the company’s copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, as well as the dumping of acid into a river at another site in the same country.

Norðurál currently operates an aluminium smelter in Hvalfjörður, which was fully built in 1998 despite harsh opposition by the fjord’s inhabitants. The smelter has been enlarged in a few phases, seeing the production capacity going from the original 60 thousand tons per year, to the current 278 thousand tons. Since 2004, the company has invested 20 billion ISK into building another Iceland smelter, in Helguvík on the north-west tip of the Reykjanes peninsula. According to the project’s Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA), the smelter is supposed to be powered solely by the peninsula’s geothermal energy — a claim that environmentalists and geologists have seriously questioned.

In April 2007, HS Orka signed a contract with Norðurál, promising the latter company 150 MW of energy for the Helguvík smelter’s first phase, supposed to be extracted by the planned expansion of the Reykjanesvirkjun geothermal power plant. Three years later, when no energy had been made available, the aluminium company filed charges against HS Orka for non-compliance. The conflict ended up in an arbitration court in Sweden, the registered home country of HS Orka’s owner, Magma Energy Sweden. Officially the conflict was presented to the public as a matter of energy prices but in late 2011 the court ruled that HS Orka is obliged to provide Norðurál the originally agreed-upon energy, suggesting that the conflict had to do with more than prices.

Already Existing Power Plants

Reykjanes

Reykjanesvirkjun is a 100 MW plant, owned by Alterra Power, whose energy partly powers Norðurál’s smelter in Hvalfjörður. It is located on 410 hectares of land located at the south-west tip of the peninsula. The company has plans for at least an 80 MW expansion of the plant, which is supposed to take place in two 50 and 30 MW phases, that according to HS Orka should both be completed in 2013.

However, following conditions set by Iceland’s National Energy Authority (NEA) last year, the expansion plans have become a bit more complicated. In order for it to happen, at least 30 out of the 50 MW included in the first phase have to come from another area than currently planned. Further extraction in the already exploited area would simply be unsustainable and decrease the area’s capacity. Geologist Sigmundur Einarsson actually believes that the field is already over-exploited. His claim is based on studies from 2009, by the very same NEA, which state that the area’s long-term sustainable production capacity is hardly more than 25 MW.

Svartsengi

The Svartsengi plant is operated by HS Orka and is located on 150 hectares of land owned partly by the municipality of Grindavík and partly privately. Next to it stands the Blue Lagoon, a tourist attraction created by the brine pollution from the power plant. The plant is a combined electricity and heat plant with a current electric power capacity of 75 MW, of which most goes to Norðurál’s smelter in Hvalfjörður.

The Threatened Areas

Eldvörp

The Master Plan gives a green light for the exploitation of Eldvörp, a 15 km long row of craters, located four km south-west of Svartsengi. Svartsengi and Eldvörp are thought to share a geothermal aquifer, which many claim to be fully exploited already. Thus even the smallest energy production would be unsustainable. Alterra Power still has plans to build a 50 MW power plant in Eldvörp, for which both research and utilization leaves have been granted. The planned plant is on land owned by the municipality of Grindavík, which apparently is about to finish the required land use plan enabling the project to take place.

The geothermal field is situated at the heart of the row of craters. There are only a few signs of geothermal activity on the actual surface, only fumaroles the lavafield and steam wisps when the weather is mild. One single borehole has already been constructed close to one of the craters at the centre of Eldvörp. It’s environmental impact is very limited compared with the impacts of the planned over-all drilling and the appendant pipelines, power lines, roads, powerhouse separator building. Such construction will have enormously destructive impacts on both natural and cultural relics in the area, including the row of craters and the Sundvörðuhraun lavafield.

Stóra-Sandvík

Stóra-Sandvík is a unique geothermal field in a coastal area close to the municipalities of Grindavík and Hafnir, as well as to the Reykjanesvirkjun plant, which in itself should be reason enough to move it from the exploitation category and instead to protection.

Krýsuvík

This geothermal area consists of four subfields — Sandfell, Trölladyngja, Sveifluháls and Austurengjar — which all connect to the same volcanic system, usually just named Krýsuvík. The geothermal activity is located at the margins of the system’s fissure swarms, while the Núpshliðarháls tuff ridge lies closer to its centre, with thousands of years old lava flats and eruptive fissures on both sides. Where the tuff has tightened due to geothermal transformations, small streams flow on to the lavafields and have thus created vegetated areas such as Höskuldsvellir, Selsvellir, Vigdísarvellir and Tjarnarvellir. As from the west of Hellisheiði, hardly any water runs on the surface of the whole Reykjanes mountain range, save the above-mentioned areas of Krýsuvík.

Interestingly, Krýsuvík is directly linked to what many consider to be the origins of environmentalism in Iceland. A geologist and environmentalist named Sigurður Þórarinsson, who had often voiced his concerns regarding Icelanders’ treatment of the country’s natural environment, had become seriously alarmed by what he witnessed by the Grænavatn maar in Krýsvík. It was, Sigurður said, used as a trash can for construction projects in the nearby area. At a meeting at the Icelandic Ecological Society in 1949, Sigurður suggested the creation of a legislation regarding nature conservation. Shortly afterwards, he was asked to take part in designing the legislation, which was passed in 1956 — the first in Iceland’s history. (Read about Sigurður Þórarinsson here.)

Out of the four Krýsuvík areas, the Energy Master Plan allows for the exploitation of Sandfell and Sveifluháls, while Trölladyngja and Austurengjar are supposed to be pending until the results of drilling in the two former areas are known. The National Energy Authority claims that these combined 89 km2 of land should have the production capacity of 445 MW of energy for 50 years, and as such be Iceland’s third most powerful geothermal field after the Hengill and Törfajökull areas. However, independent scientists and environmentalists have seriously questioned these figures, believing the area’s maximum possible production capacity to be 120 MW for 50 years.

Sandfell

Sandfell area is a semi-unspoiled volcanic area of lavafields and tuff mountains, large vegetated flatlands, and beautifully formed craters. It is a uniquely colourful area, which will be permanently altered if HS Orka’s planned 50 MW power plant will be built. The company has already been granted permission for test drilling and one borehole has been test-drilled, but no results have yet been published.

Sveifluháls (Krýsuvík)

Sveifluháls is a 20 km broad and 150 to 200 meter high compounded and mostly non-vegetated tuff ridge. The 2-3 km long geothermal area of fumaroles, mud springs and muddy hot springs — usually referred to as simply ‘the Krýsuvík geothermal area’ — lies a little east of the Krýsuvík fissure swarm. Despite drilling done in the second half of the 20th century, the area is relatively unspoiled and could easily be brought back close to its natural state. Due to the tuff transformation, the area is especially rich in colour and contains unusual geothermal salt deposits and gypsum. The area is unique due to its many maars, for instance Arnarvatn and Grænavatn (pictured above), of which some show signs of Holocene volcanic activity. Sveifluháls is a popular stopover as well as an outside school-room for geology. It also contains historical relics of human residence, as far back as Iceland’s original settlement.

There are plans to operate a 50-100 MW power plant in the area — a construction that would include somewhere between 10 and 20 boreholes, road construction, pipelines and power lines to connect the plant to the national energy grid. HS Orka has a research leave in the area but has not been able to guarantee the utilization rights, which are owned by the municipality of Hafnarfjörður.

Austurengjar

The geothermal area of Austurengjar is about 1.5 km east of lake Grænavatn — a relatively flat and mostly unspoiled area of mud pots, hot springs and dolerite ridges, which slopes north to lake Kleifarvatn. As a result of earthquakes in 1924, the geyser activity increased dramatically and since then, Austurengjahver has been the area’s most powerful spring. This colourful geothermal area is special as it lies completely outside of Krýsuvík’s volcanic system and shows no signs of Holocene volcanic activity. The plans for a 50 MW power plant at Austurengjar, including 10 to 15 boreholes and a whole lot of power lines, would directly impact the whole area and change the face of lake Kleifarvatn, which is today a wild and unspoilt lake, surrounded by mountains.

Trölladyngja

Trölladyngja is one of the three mountains (the other two being Grænadyngja and Fífavallafjall) that together make up the north-east end of a 13 km long tuff ridge called Núpshlíðarháls, which lies within Krýsuvík’s volcanic system. The geothermal area is about three km long and seems to be partly connected to extension fractures in the system. South of the mountains, a small stream called Sogalækur has shovelled out a considerable amount of clay and thus formed a colourful canyon called Sogin. The stream deposited the clay into the lava below and formed the vegetated field Höskuldarvellir. HS Orka has for many years had plans to build a power plant in Trölladyngja and three holes have been drilled already, resulting in very limited success but a lot of disruption. The Trölladyngja area is partly included in the Natural Heritage Register.

Protected Area(s)

Brennisteinsfjöll

Only one out of the peninsula’s nine potential energy generating areas will be protected if the Master Plan goes through parliament unaltered. Brennisteinsfjöll are a row of mountains, considered an impenetrable part of the Krýsuvík area, and do in fact constitute the largest untouched wilderness around the capital area of Reykjavík. As highlighted by Krater and Rose: “Wilderness areas are becoming rare globally, with over 83 percent of the earth’s landmass directly affected by humans, and the Icelandic wilderness is one of the largest left in Europe.”

Possible Targets for Protests and Direct Actions

The Ministry of Environment
Skuggasund 1
150 Reykjavík

The Ministry of Industry
Arnarhváll by Lindargata
150 Reykjavík

HS Orka
Brekkustígur 36
260 Reykjanesbæ

Jarðvarmi slhf
Stórhöfða 31
110 Reykjavík

Norðurál Grundartangi ehf (smelter and offices)
Grundartangi
301 Akranes

Norðurál Helguvík ehf (only offices)
Stakksbraut 1
Garður
232 Reykjanesbæ

Helguvík Smelter
See location on map here.

Century Aluminum Company (Corporate Headquarters)
2511 Garden Road
Building A, Suite 200
Monterey,
CA 93940
USA

For a list of more offices and smelter click here.

Alterra Power Corp. (Corporate Offices)
600-888 Dunsmuir Street
Vancouver, BC
Canada V6C 3K4

For a list of more Alterra Power offices click here.

Glencore International

Registered Office
Queensway House
Hilgrove Street
St Helier
Jersey
JE1 1ES

Headquarters
Baarermattstrasse 3
P.O. Box 777
CH 6341 Baar
Switzerland

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Main Sources

Áhugahópur um verndun Jökulsánna í Skagafirði, Eldvötn – samtök um náttúruvernd í Skaftárhreppi, Félag um verndun hálendis Austurlands, Framtíðarlandið, Fuglavernd, Landvernd, Náttúruvaktin, Náttúruverndarsamtök Austurlands (NAUST), Náttúruverndarsamtök Íslands, Náttúruverndarsamtök Suðurlands, Náttúruverndarsamtök Suðvesturlands, Samtök um náttúruvernd á Norðurlandi (SUNN), Sól á Suðurlandi. Umsögn um drög að tillögu til þingsályktunar um áætlun um vernd og orkunýtingu landsvæða. 11. nóvember 2011. (Download PDF here.)

Krater and Miriam Rose on behalf of Saving Iceland, “Development of Iceland’s Geothermal Energy Potential for Aluminum Production — A Critical Analysis”. In: Abrahamsky, K. (ed.) Sparking a World-wide Energy Revolution: Social Struggles in the Transition to a Post-Petrol World. 2010, AK Press, Edinburgh. p. 319-333. (Download PDF here.)

Various information from Náttúrukortið (The Nature Map) on the website of environmentalist NGO Framtíðarlandið (The Future Land).

Sigmundur Einarsson, Hinar miklu orkulindir Íslands, Smugan.is, October 2009.

Sigmundur Einarsson, Er HS Orka í krísu í Krýsuvík?, Smugan.is, November 2009.

Sigmundur Einarsson, Ómerkilegur útúrsnúningur iðnaðarráðherra, Smugan.is, November 2011.

Sigmundur Einarsson, Er HS Orka á heljarþröm?, Smugan.is, December 2011.

Catharine Fulton, Blame Canada? Geothermal energy, Swedish shelf companies and the privatisation of Iceland, The Reykjavík Grapevine, October 2009.

Catharine Fulton, Magma Energy Lied to Us, The Reykjavík Grapevine, May 2010.

Volcano Park to Open in Iceland? Iceland Review, July 2007.

Various information from the websites of Alterra Power, HS Orka and Norðurál.

Mar 11 2012
2 Comments

Plans to Dam Lower Þjórsá River Put on Hold


Three planned dams in lower Þjórsá river will not be included in a parliamentary resolution for Iceland’s Energy Master Plan, according to sources from within both governing political parties. While some might see this as a reason for celebration, one should think twice before opening up the champaign bottles as these news do not imply that this highly controversial dam project has permanently been thrown off the drawing tables. The project will simply be moved from the exploitation category to the pending category and might eventually end up in the hands of  the political parties most of all responsible for Iceland’s heavy-industrialization.

Since the publication of the long-awaited Energy Master Plan’s second phase in July last year, a good part of the discussion regarding the plan has been centred around the Þjórsá river, especially as the two concerned ministers — Minister of Environment Svandís Svavarsdóttir and Minister of Industry Katrín Júlíusdóttir — presented their proposition for a parliamentary resolution for the Master Plan, wherein the three Þjórsá dams were included. Following a three months long public commentary process — including 225 commentaries by individuals, organizations and companies, of which more than 70 had specifically to do with Þjórsá — the above-mentioned ministers have been working on amending their proposal in order for it to go through parliamentary discussion before the end of parliament sessions this spring.

The Energy Master Plan, which is supposed to lay the foundation for a long-term settlement upon the future exploitation and protection of Iceland natural resources, is split into three categories, of which two are quite clear, titled “exploitation” and “protection”, but the third one, titled “in waiting”, has pretty much been the bone of contention. On the one hand those in favour of extreme energy extraction believe that too many exploitable areas are being kept in waiting, while on the other hand environmentalists think that many of the areas categorized as in waiting should rather be moved straight into the protection category. Read More

Dec 09 2011
4 Comments

Time Has Told: The Kárahnjúkar Dams Disastrous Economical and Environmental Impacts


The profitability of Landsvirkjun, Iceland’s national energy company, is way too low. And worst off is the Kárahnjúkar hydro power plant, Europe’s largest dam, the company’s biggest and most expensive construction. Landsvirkjun’s director Hörður Arnarson revealed this during the company’s recent autumn meeting, and blamed the low price of energy sold to large-scale energy consumers, such as Alcoa’s aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður, as one of the biggest factors reducing profit.

These news echo the many warnings made by the opponents of the cluster of five dams at Kárahnjúkar and nearby Eyjabakkar, who repeatedly stated that the project’s alleged profitability was nothing but an illusion, but were systematically silenced by Iceland’s authorities.

Now, as these facts finally become established in the media—this time straight from the horse’s mouth—similarly bad news has arrived regarding another big Icelandic energy company. Reykjavík Energy has failed to make a profit from their 2007 and 2008 investments, effectively making them lose money.

At the same time, new research shows that the environmental impacts of the Kárahnjúkar dams are exactly as vast and serious as environmentalists and scientists feared.

And yet, more dams, geothermal power-plants and aluminium smelters are on the drawing table—presented as the only viable way out of the current economic crisis. Read More