'Hengill' Tag Archive

Apr 25 2013
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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!

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 30 2012
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The Unmasking of the Geothermal Green Myth Continues, and Other News


Recent studies show links between asthma and sulphur pollution from geothermal power plants. Reykjavík Energy denies their connection with newly discovered effluent water lagoons in Hellsheiði. The Parliament’s Industries Committee orders a report that condemns preservation of nature, presented in a parliamentary resolution for Iceland’s Energy Master Plans. Alterra Power announces lower revenues in Iceland and their plans to enlarge the Reykjanesvirkjun geothermal power plant despite fears of over-exploitation. Greenland faces Alcoa’s plans of an import of cheap Chinese labour en masse, while Cairn Energy dumps toxic materials into the ocean off the country’s shores.

This is the content of Saving Iceland’s first round of brief monthly news from the struggle over Iceland’s wilderness and connected struggles around the world.

Hellisheiði: Asthma, Sulphur Pollution and Effluent Water Lagoon

Those who promote large-scale geothermal energy production as green and environmentally friendly, are once again forced to face another backlash as a recent research suggests a direct link between sulphur pollution from the Hellisheiði geothermal plant and asthma among the inhabitants of Reykjavík. The results of this particular research, which was done by Hanne Krage Carlsen, doctorate student of Public Health at the University of Iceland, were published in the Environmental Research journal earlier this year, showing that the purchasing of asthma medicine increases between 5 and 10 percent in accordance with higher sulphur pollution numbers in the capital area of Reykjavík.

Adding to the continuous unmasking of the geothermal green myth, environmentalist Ómar Ragnarsson recently discovered and documented new lagoons, created by run-off water from Reykjavík Energy’s geothermal power plant in Hellisheiði. At first Reykjavík Energy denied that the lagoons’ water comes from the company’s power plant, but were forced to withdraw those words only a few days later. Ómar had then brought a journalist from RÚV, the National Broadcasting Service, to the lagoons and traced the water to the plant. Despite the company’s withdrawal, they nevertheless rejected worries voiced by environmentalists, regarding the very possible pollution of ground water in the area, and insisted that this is allowed for in the plant’s license.

According to the plant’s license the run-off water should actually be pumped back, down into earth, in order to prevent polluting impacts and the creation of lagoons containing a huge amount of polluting materials. Ómar’s discovery shows that this is certainly not the case all the time, and additionally, the pumping that has taken place so far has proved to be problematic, creating a series of man-made earthquakes in the area, causing serious disturbances in the neighbouring town of Hveragerði.

In an article following his discovery Ómar points out that for the last years, the general public has not had much knowledge about geothermal power plants’ run-off water, and much less considered it as a potential problem. Ómar blames this partly on the Icelandic media, which have been far from enthusiastic about reporting the inconvenient truth regarding geothermal power production. One of these facts is that the effluent water, which people tend to view positively due to the tourist attraction that has been made of it at the Blue Lagoon, is a token of a serious energy waste, as the current plants use only 13% of the energy while 87% goes into the air or into underutilized run off-water. These enlarging lagoons — not only evident in Hellisheiði but also by the geothermal power plants in Reykjanes, Svartsengi, Nesjavellir and Bjarnarflag — suggest that the energy companies’ promises regarding the pumping of run-off water, are far from easily kept.

The Fight Over Iceland’s Energy Master Plan Continues

During the last few weeks, the Icelandic Parliament’s Industries Committee received 333 remarks in connection with the committee’s work on a parliamentary resolution for Iceland’s Energy Master Plan. The resolution, which was presented by the Ministers of Industry and of Environment in April this year, gives a green light for a monstrous plan to turn the Reykjanes peninsula’s geothermal areas into a continuous industrial zone.

The remarks can generally be split into two groups based on senders and views: Firstly, individuals and environmentalist associations who, above all, protest the afore-mentioned Reykjanes plans. Secondly, companies and institutions with vested interests in the further heavy industrialization of Iceland who demand that the Master Plan’s second phase goes unaltered through parliament — that is, as it was before the parliamentary resolution was presented, in which the much-debated Þjórsá dams and other hydro power plants were still included in the exploitation category. Saving Iceland has published one of the remarks, written by Helga Katrín Tryggvadóttir, which differs from these two groups as it evaluates energy production and nature conservation in a larger, long-term context.

During the process, the head of the Industries Committee, Kristján Möller — MP for the social-democratic People’s Alliance, known for his stand in favour of heavy industry — ordered and paid for a remark sent by management company GAMMA. The company first entered discussion about one year ago after publishing a report, which promised that the national energy company Landsvirkjun could become the equivalent of the Norwegian Oil Fund, if the company would only be permitted to build dams like there is no tomorrow.

In a similarly gold-filled rhetoric, GAMMA’s remark regarding the Energy Master Plan states that the changes made by the two ministers — which in fact are the results of another public reviewing process last year — will cost Iceland’s society about 270 billion ISK and 5 thousand jobs. According to the company’s report, these amount are the would-be benefits of forcefully continuing the heavy industrialization of Iceland, a plan that has proved to be not only ecologically but also economically disastrous. Seen from that perspective, it does not come as a surprise realizing that the management company is largely staffed with economists who before the economic collapse of 2008 lead the disastrous adventures of Kaupþing, one of the three biggest Icelandic bubble banks.

Alterra Power: Decreases Revenue, Enlargement Plans in Iceland

Canadian energy company Alterra Power, the majority stakeholder of Icelandic energy company HS Orka, recently published the financial and operating results for the first quarter of this year. “Consolidated revenue for the current quarter was $16.4 million compared to $18.9 million in the comparative quarter,” the report states, “due to lower revenue from our Icelandic operations as a result of lower aluminium prices, which declined 13.9% versus the comparative quarter.”

At the same time, the company’s Executive Chairman Ross Beaty stated that Alterra is preparing for an enlargement of the Reykjanesvirkjun geothermal power plant, located at the south-west tip of the Reykjanes peninsula, which should increase the plant’s production capacity from the current 100 MW to 180 MW. The construction is supposed to start at the end of this year and to be financed with the 38 million USD purchase of new shares in HS Orka by Jarðvarmi, a company owned by fourteen Icelandic pension funds.

According to Alterra, permission for all construction-related activities is in place. However, as Saving Iceland has reported, Iceland’s National Energy Authority has officially stated their fears that increased energy production will lead to an over-exploitation of the plant’s geothermal reservoir. Furthermore, Ásgeir Margeirsson, Chairman of HS Orka, responded to Alterra’s claims stating that due to a conflict between the energy company and aluminium producer Norðurál, the construction might not start this year. According to existing contracts, the energy from the enlargement is supposed to power Norðurál’s planned aluminium smelter in Helguvík. That project, however, has been on hold for years due to financial and energy crisis, and seems to be nothing but a fantasy never to be realised.

Greenland: Cheap Chinese Labour and Toxic Dumping

The home rule government of Greenland is split in their stand on Alcoa’s plans to import 2 thousand Chinese workers for the construction of the company’s planned smelter in Maniitsoq. The biggest governing party, Inuit Ataqatigiit, is against the plan as the workers will not be paid the same amount as Greenlandic labour. On the other hand, the Democratic Party, which has two of the government’s nine ministerial seats, is in favour of the plans on the grounds that the workers’ working condition and payments will be better than in China.

In Iceland, during the construction of the Kárahnjúkar dams and Alcoa’s aluminium smelter in Reyðarfjörður, Chinese and Portuguese migrant workers were imported on a mass scale. More than 1700 work-related injuries were reported during the building of the dams, ten workers ended up with irrecoverable injuries and five workers died. In 2010, the Occupational Safety and Health Authority stated that the Kárahnjúkar project was in a different league to any other project in Iceland, with regard to work-related accidents.

At the same time as Greenland’s government argued over Alcoa, Danish newspaper Politiken reported that the Scottish oil company Cairn Energy — a company that, along with Indian mining giant Vedanta, shares the ownership of oil and gas company Cairn India — is responsible for dumping 160 tons of toxic materials into the ocean in the years of 2010 and 2011. The dumping is linked to the company’s search for oil off Greenland’s shore and is five times higher than the amount of comparable materials dumped in 2009 by every single oil platform of Denmark and Norway combined.

Nov 14 2011
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It Ain’t Easy Being Green


Words by Paul Fontaine. Photo by Alísa Kalyanova. Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

One of Iceland’s proudest assets is its energy grid. Geothermal energy, by 2010 figures, accounts for just over 26% of the country’s electricity, as well as 86% of its heating and hot water. Iceland’s geothermal energy technology has been shared with countries around the world, and has attracted the interests of foreign investors.

However, as comparatively cleaner for the environment geothermal power is not without its problems. One of these is the main elephant in the room: geothermal energy is not a renewable energy source. Boreholes that tap into the massive steam vents below the surface do not last forever. When Ross Beaty, CEO of Magma Energy (now a part of Alterra Power Corp.) made the specious claim that geothermal energy lasts for centuries, scientists such as Stefán Arnórsson and Sigmundur Einarsson were quick to point out that geothermal power in the Reykjanes area — where Magma sought to drill — only had enough power to last about 60 years at best. Although this point was seldom, if ever, brought up in any previous discussion about geothermal power in Iceland, more recent events have shown that geothermal energy is not just non-renewable; it can even pollute. Read More

Sep 11 2011

Iceland’s Energy Master Plan Allows for Three More Kárahnjúkar Dams – Þjórsárver Protected, Þjórsá and Krýsuvík Destroyed


The equivalent of three Kárahnjúkar dams will be built in Iceland in the near future if the parliament will pass a proposition for a parliamentary resolution on Iceland’s Energy Master Plan, which the Ministers of Environment and of Industry presented three weeks ago. Despite this, Iceland’s energy companies and parliament members in favour of heavy industry have already started complaining – arguing that way too big proportion of Iceland’s nature will be declared protected, will the proposition pass. Among the power plants allowed for in the proposition are three dams in lower Þjórsá, which for years have been a topic of heavy debate and in fact completely split the local community and are more than likely to become the bone of contention between the two governmental parties as the Left Greens (VG) have, along with other environmentalists, voiced their opposition to the damming of Þjórsá.

The Energy Master Plan is a framework programme, meant to result in a long term agreement upon the exploitation and protection of Iceland’s glacial rivers and geothermal areas. Its making, which since 1999 has been in the hands of special steering committiees, established by the two above-mentioned ministries, reached a critical status in July this year when its second phase was finished and presented to the ministers who in mid August presented their proposition for a parliamentary resolution. Before it will be discussed in parliament the proposition will be open to comments and criticism from the public, as well as interested parties, energy and aluminium companies on the one hand, environmentalists on the other. Read More

Jul 23 2011

Mixed Feelings About Iceland’s Energy Master Plan – Landsvirkjun Presents its Future Strategy


The making of Iceland’s Energy Master Plan, a framework programme concerning the exploitation and protection of the country’s natural resources, which has been in the making since 1999, has reached a critical state as a report on the process’ second phase was published in the beginning of July. The report includes a list of more than 60 areas, arranged from the perspectives of both protection and exploitation, which is supposed to lay the foundation for a final parliamentary resolution concerning the Master Plan. While those in favour of further exploitation, parallel to the continuous build-up of heavy industry, seem generally happy with the report, environmentalists are both sceptical and critical, stating that the exploitation value was always in the forefront of the process.

Like explained on the project’s official website the process was “split into two phases. The first phase, 1999–2003, evaluated and ranked 20 large-scale hydro-power options, mostly located in the highlands, and the same number of geothermal options in 8 high-temperature areas.” The second phase was supposed to “rank all the options to produce the final result,” including “an evaluation of whether some areas should be conserved completely, without any energy-harnessing activities.” Proposed power projects were said to be “evaluated and categorised on the basis of efficiency, economic profitability, and how they will benefit the economy as a whole,” while the “the impact on the environment, nature, and wildlife” was also supposed to be evaluated, “as well as the impact on the landscape, cultural heritage and ancient monuments, grazing and other traditional land use, outdoor activities fishing, and hunting.” Read More

Jul 16 2011
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Reykjavík Energy in Deep Water: The Untold Story of Geothermal Energy in Iceland


By Anna Andersen, photos by Alísa Kalyanova. Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine.

Overrun by Viking ambition, Reykjavík Energy built headquarters fit for Darth Vader, expanded ambitiously, dabbled in tiger prawn farming and flax seed production, went into the fibre optics business, invested in a new geothermal plant, speculated in places like Djibouti, and finally managed to run itself so completely into the ground that foreign investors will no longer offer the company loans.

In hopes of rescuing its multi-utility service company from the depths of abyss, the city of Reykjavík stepped in this March with a 12 billion ISK (105 million USD) loan, which is nearly its entire reserve fund set aside for the company, but still only a fraction of the company’s massive foreign debt of 200 billion ISK (1.7 billion USD).

With thousands of captive lifetime subscribers and a means of producing energy at very little cost, the company had all the makings of a cash cow. So what happened to Reykjavík Energy, an entity that less than a decade ago was a perfectly viable, municipally owned company providing the city with basic utilities: cold water, hot water and electricity? Read More

Jun 10 2011
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Increased Sulphur Pollution in Reykjavík Due to Geothermal Expansion in Hellisheiði


The Public Health Authority of Reykjavík is highly critical of the recently published preliminary Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) for a 45 MW construction of geothermal power plants at Gráuhnjúkar on Hellisheiði. The reason is that the EIA, carried out by engineering firm Mannvit, hardly mentions the possible effects of the project’s sulphur pollution on the human population living in the capital area of Reykjavík. “They mention the impacts of increased amount of hydrogen sulphide at the power plant area, but hardly mention the capital area where a high proportion of the population lives” said Árný Sigurðardóttir from the Public Health Authority in an interview with newspaper Fréttablaðið. The power plant in Hellisheiði is only about 30 km away from Reykjavík.

Since October 2006 Orkuveita Reykjavíkur (Reykjavík Energy) has produced geothermal energy on Hellisheiði, predominantly for the Norðurál/Century aluminium smelter in Grundartangi, Hvalfjörður. Since then increased sulphur pollution in the power plant’s surrounding area, as well as in the area around Reykjavík, has regularly become a topic of discussion and Sigurðardóttir says that the pollution’s impacts are systematically underestimated. Instead of using recent researches into the issue, Mannvit bases the EIA on prediction-models, but new studies by the University of Reykjavík indicate that the increased use of medicine for asthma and heart disease angina pectoris is directly linked to increased sulphur pollution. Read More

Jan 31 2011
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Century Aluminum Energy Questions


Century Aluminum (Nordural) intends to build an aluminium smelter at Helguvík for producing 250.000 tpy, using 435 MW of electricity. At one point the intended size grew to 600.000 tpy and 625 MW of electricity but those plans have been cancelled. The first phase of the smelter was expected to start in 2010 and the 250.000 ton should be reached in 2013. Now there are already some big structures at the smelter site but no energy has been produced and moreover, there is no energy available.

Sigmundur Einarsson, a geologist at the Icelandic Institute of Natural History, has written some articles on this matter (in Icelandic). He has tried, amongst a number of other environmental scientists,  to warn the Icelandic government about a new kind of collapse, an energy collapse due to following far too optimistic speculation of irresponsible people. Read More

Jul 13 2010
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Saving Iceland Mobilisation Call-Out


Join our resistance against the industrialization of Europe’s last remaining great wilderness and take direct action against heavy industry!

The Struggle So Far
The campaign to defend Europe’s greatest remaining wilderness continues. For the past five years summer direct action camps in Iceland have targeted aluminium smelters, mega-dams and geothermal power plants.

After the terrible destruction as a result of building Europe’s largest dam at Kárahnjúkar and massive geothermal plants at Hengill, there is still time to crush the ‘master plan’ that would have each major glacial river dammed, every substantial geothermal field exploited and the construction of aluminium smelters, an oil refinery, data farms and silicon factories. This would not only destroy unique landscapes and ecosystems but also lead to a massive increase in Iceland’s greenhouse gas emissions. Read More