Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for May, 2017

Ongoing problems at United Silicon plant

Just over a month after the fire in United Silicon’s smelter, they started up the process once again last Sunday (21 May) in order to ensure that everything will work as it should do in future. In order to do so, they need to operate it for a month or so. The Environment Agency is keeping a very close watch on the company, receiving daily updates and sending staff to monitor it as well.

Nevertheless, it was shut down again on Tuesday after electrodes broke. “That sort of thing can be expected during start-up,” the company said. Once again, complaints about odour streamed into the Environment Agency and two residents sought medical attention. Most complaints arose after the furnace was stopped, and one resident said the odour was worse than ever before.

It was restarted on Thursday morning.

Consulting engineers have allegedly found the reason for the odours: the temperature of the exhaust gas was too low. Today, however, the company say that the odour is due to insufficient burning of woodchips. “When operating at full capacity, the chemicals should burn out and the odour will not develop, ” an official told a reporter today. Note the use of the word “should”. He also said that there were more irregularities than the Environment Agency had expected.

I suspect we’ll keep hearing about more problems. If so, I’ll keep blogging about the company.

Update: I didn’t expect to update this blog so quickly! A problem cropped up on Friday night (when the plant was supposed to be functioning normally, according to the above-mentioned official) which meant that they had to run the furnace at reduced capacity. Then on Saturday an axle broke at lunchtime, so they turned off the furnace at 5.30 p.m. to fix it. The process was supposed to take a few hours.

More complaints have been sent to the Environment Agency since the problem on Friday night. Residents are encouraged to seek medical attention rather than report ailments to the Environment Agency, but it takes time and money to do so.

Update: It is now June 12, about 3 weeks since the smelter was started up again for tests. Since then, 3 incidents have occurred which have meant that the plant was switched off again and started up with accompanying odours – which have still not been identified. THIS IS NOT ON. The plant should be shut down permanently.


Whales as ecosystem engineers

At a symposium in Reykjavik late last month, Joe Roman from the University of Vermont talked about whales as ecosystem engineers, as he called it. Commercial whaling decimated around 85% of whale stocks, and the moratorium that was adopted in 1982 has led to research opportunities as whale populations are now recovering, albeit to varying extent. I’ve just written about it, here.

Whales often feed at depth but defecate near the surface. According to Roman, this pattern promotes the movement of deep-water nutrients to the surface, where they become available to algae, which rely on the sun for photosynthesis. This whale pump can provide nitrogen, iron, and other nutrients essential to the growth of phytoplankton. These phytoplankton provide a food source for krill and other tiny marine organisms, which subsequently provide a food source for fish, whales and other marine mammals.

Redistribution of nutrients also occurs when whales migrate from high-nutrient feeding areas to low-nutrient calving areas, which he calls the Great Whale Conveyor Belt, as they continue to release fecal plumes along the way.

Furthermore, whales contribute to carbon sequestration, which is one of the main mitigation factors for combating climate change. The biological pump focuses on phytoplankton, invertebrates, and fish sinking to the bottom. When a whale carcass sinks it brings a large pulse of carbon to the seafloor and provides a unique habitat, known as a whale fall.

Carcasses change over time and undergo four different stages of decomposition. Besides sequestering carbon, whale carcasses provide a habitat for more than 60 endemic species that are not found anywhere else. This has a positive impact on biodiversity at great depths.

I remember protesting against whaling in the early 1980s, calling on the International Whaling Commission to set a moratorium on whaling. At that time, the IWC was the enemy. But the situation has obviously changed since then, and last year they adopted Resolution 2016-3 on Cetaceans and Their Contributions to Ecosystem Functioning, which acknowledges the increasing volume of scientific research data that shows that whales enhance nutrient availability for primary productivity in feeding grounds rather than decreasing fishery yields. It was proposed by Chile, with support from Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Uruguay.

A high-level Oceans Conference will be held in New York 5-9 June. Topics at the conference will include marine pollution, the blue economy, ocean acidification, increasing scientific knowledge, ocean literacy and many other aspects related to Sustainable Development Goal 14. However, although the programme covers a wide range of topics, whales are hardly mentioned. Apparently it’s a sensitive topic, which “should be dealt with at the IWC”, as Arni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conversation Association told me.

Test startup in United Silicon smelter expected soon

The United Silicon plant in Helguvik, southwest Iceland, has not operated since the fire there on 18 April. The management there hired a Norwegian engineering company, Multiconsult, to go over the problems while the Environment Agency has hired another Norwegian engineering company, Norconsult, to go over the two reports from Multiconsult and the process as a whole.

Apparently there were a number of minor problems. Multiconsult say that odour pollution shouldn’t occur. United Silicon infer – without actually saying so – that there may be problems during the test start-up as the furnace has not been operating for a while. This is supposed to happen very soon,

Meanwhile, it turns out that two buildings are higher than that laid down in the land-use plans for the area and the height specified in the environmental impact assessment. Buildings are not supposed to be higher than 25 m, but one of the company’s buildings is 30 m and another 38 m. It is unclear whether the extra height of two of the plant’s buildings will have an effect on pollution or noise emanating from the site.

The Planning Agency is not pleased. Due to this and the plant’s other problems, the Agency sent a letter (in Icelandic) to United Silicon on Friday, saying that they had to report changes that were not in the EIA to the Agency, including changes to structures, the operation itself and environmental issues (for instance, no mention was made of odour pollution). They also have to describe the appraisal that is now being done and measures taken to address the problem. On the basis of these, the Agency will decide whether a new EIA has to be carried out.

On a side note, but one that may reflect the company’s ethos, which could possibly be called lackadaisical or irresponsible: one of the company’s founders, Magnus Gardarsson, who was until very recently (April 6) part of the company’s management, had use of a powerful Tesla electric car and has been charged a number of times with speeding, both in Iceland and in Denmark. Recently he was charged with driving at over twice the speed limit after causing an accident in December. The police have impounded the vehicle. He has complained, saying that external conditions (read bad weather) were to blame for the accident.