Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for April, 2017

Fire in United Silicon smelter results in shutdown

I wish I didn’t have to keep blogging about United Silicon, but circumstances demand that I do.
The latest debacle started with a fire on Monday night on three floors of the building that houses the arc furnace. Since then, United Silicon has been under the spotlight of the Icelandic media. And now operations have been (temporarily) stopped by the Environment Agency (EA) – in fact, they tried to close the plant down before Easter, but United Silicon’s  CEO persuaded them not to. However, there’s a complication, as an engineering firm were going to start appraising the smelter the day after the fire, and to do this they’ll have to start up the furnace again for short periods.

The Administration of Occupational Safety and Health said that the fire could have been very serious and workers could have been in danger. They had previously criticized various aspects concerning health and safety, not all of which had been addressed. Sometimes staff had to work in areas with considerable pollution, with inadequate protective gear.

Workers complained to their union, saying that they sometimes had to work with equipment for which they had not been trained.

Bjort Olafsdottir, the Environment Minister, wrote on her Facebook page that operations must stop. She gave four reasons for her opinion, one of which is particularly alarming and concerns the high levels of arsenic that were measured: at a joint meeting of the parliamentary environment and communications committee,  the CEO of US said that a possible reason for the increased levels of arsenic might be that the workers were so hot that they opened the door. Because of this, the pollutants were released from the floor to the plant’s surroundings instead of being channelled through the gas cleaning system. Olafsdottir asks: how much contact do these workers have with undesirable chemicals? She has no power to close the plant, as it’s the EA that has to do so.

To top it all, the contractors that built the plant, IAV, are claiming 2 billion kronur in unpaid bills. This is to go before arbitration.

Plant officials have tried to put the blame on manufacturers of the equipment, saying it must be faulty, so much has gone wrong. But I don’t think anyone believes them.

UPDATE: The EA tried to close the plant before Easter as they’d received so many complaints by local residents, who said that the burning odour was worse than ever before. The EA put this down to pollution peaks which for some reason caused the furnace to malfunction.

The Chief Epidemiologist says that five chemicals could be causing health problems: acetic acid, formic acid, methyl chloride, methyl mercaptane and various aldehydes. None of these are monitored and none were expected.

Apparently the EA will decide today whether to close the plant or not. The management couldn’t operate it anyway after the fire. I very much doubt that United Silicon will be able to persuade the EA to allow operations to commence again.

If you click on the United Silicon link at the top of the page, you’ll see that “United Silicon was founded in 2014 by M.Sc. Environmental Engineering Magnus Garðarsson, M.Sc. Mechanical Engineering Helgi Björn and Supreme Court attorney Friðbjörn Garðarsson, together with the Dutch partners Silicon Mineral Ventures, which handles sales and marketing, through their partner company BIT Fondel in their facilities in the harbor of Rotterdam.” Magnus Garðarsson, who was the largest owner of the plant, resigned from the Board on 6 April. His deputy, Audun Helgason, has also withdrawn from the Board.

Say no more.

Update: There was another fire at the plant on Sunday July 16 due to “human error”, but both the company itself and various authorities do not seem to be taking the matter seriously. Smoke emanated from the plant , but I don’t know whether anyone has analysed the chemical components of the smoke.


Iceland, hydrogen vehicles and government reports

While writing my latest article about hydrogen-fuelled cars in Iceland, I came across two things I found disturbing. Firstly, the section on transport in the detailed report on Iceland and climate change was actually written in 2015, though the report itself only came out in February this year. This meant that at least some of the information was out of date.

I became curious when I read that it was assumed that two hydrogen-refuelling stations would be set up each year from 2015 to 2030. Um, none have been set up yet. The report also says that it assumes that hydrogen vehicles in Iceland would be of the Hydrogen Internal Combustion Engine type (HICEV) rather than Hydrogen Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (HFCEV). This surprised me as much of the article I wrote was based on a multi-fuels seminar at which the only type of hydrogen-fuelled vehicles mentioned were HFCEVs. However, Jon Bjorn Skulason from Icelandic New Energy told me: “As far as I know, no one is looking at the internal combustion engine for hydrogen in cars today.”

So I contacted the author, Darri Eythorsson, who is currently studying in the US. He confirmed that the section had been written back in 2015. Asked why hydrogen cars with fuel cells were disregarded, he replied: “At that time there were no grounds for measuring either the efficiency of the generator or the cost of the technique, as at that time there were no HFCEV cars on the market.” I feel the report, which was written for the Environment Ministry, is providing out-of-date information. And if the information on hydrogen vehicles is out-of-date, what about the rest of the section? This information is meant to provide the government with ideas on how to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases in Iceland, which are huge.

The other thing that concerns me is the lack of communication between ministries. An Action Plan on Energy Conversion (APEC) is currently being discussed in one of the parliamentary committees in Iceland and came into public domain last month. It was compiled by the Ministry of Industries and Innovation and includes information such as targets for renewable fuel in marine operations and such like. At the seminar I asked the Director-General of the ministry, Ingvi Palsson, about hydrogen vehicles, and referred to the Environment Ministry report. He said they might well be an option, but said he wasn’t the best person to talk to as he hadn’t read that report. That disturbs me.

United Silicon problems could have implications for other silicon smelters

The problems with the United Silicon smelter in southwest Iceland are unlikely to be solved immediately, the company’s CEO Helgi Thorhallsson told a meeting on Wednesday. The problem appears to be with the smoke filters, he said, which are too small and thus inadequate. It will take up to five months to get a replacement and set it up, while it could take two years or more for the plant to function normally. He also said that the computer equipment is much more complex than it was when he was in charge of a smelter once before. Note that this is the first time that Thorhallsson has been present at the start-up of a plant.

A local resident asked the meeting: “How on earth can anyone think of putting such industry so close to a residential area? … We’re not experimental animals.” The plant is just over one km from the nearest houses.

The divisional head of the pollution team at the Environment Agency, Sigrun Agustsdottir, puts some of the disgruntlement by residents down to the residents themselves, who should have been aware during the planning stage that pollution could result from the plant. They should have protested at the time, she says.

No dilution zone was needed because silicon plants don’t emit fluorides, and in general pollution from the plant was expected to be minimal. She concedes that perhaps putting heavy industry close to a residential area is maybe something that should be reconsidered in future.

The high pollution levels I blogged about recently turned out to be skewed due to sampling error and should not be taken seriously. The council members who had been calling for he plant’s closure withdrew their demand. The constituents of the burning odour have not yet been analysed.

The United Silicon fiasco has had a number of consequences, however. At the meeting on Wednesday, the council decided not to allocate any more polluting heavy industry to the site above that which has already been allocated. The other two industries are Century Aluminium, which has now decided not to continue building its aluminium smelter, and Thorsil, which intends to build a silicon smelter opposite that of United Silicon. However, funding of the Thorsil plant is now virtually back to square one: potential investors point to the problems with United Silicon and the fact that the licence for that plant has twice been appealed, and are now dragging their feet in committing themselves to funding. In October, funding was almost secure.

The supposedly non-polluting Silicor Materials plant in Grundartangi, West Iceland, has also had funding problems and have been given until September to pay the harbour dues that they owe. I get the feeling that the plant will never get built –  people and funders are becoming increasingly sceptical of heavy industry in Iceland.

The Environment Agency has said that similar problems cannot be excluded for Thorsil and the PCC silicon plant in north Iceland, which is currently under construction.