Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for July, 2018

High fluoride levels recorded again near Alcoa aluminium smelter in East Iceland

Routine measurements of fluoride in grass near Alcoa’s Fjardaal aluminium smelter in East Iceland have shown higher than permissible levels for June.

In East and Northeast Iceland, the summer of 2018 has been unusually warm and still, which causes thermal inversions in the fjord, Reydarfjordur, where the smelter is located. The thermal inversions can cause higher fluoride levels.

A 2013 report (in Icelandic) by the East Iceland Nature Research Centre (EINRC) and Innovation Centre Iceland mention thermal inversions and their effect on pollutants. The increase in concentration of pollutants is rapid and substantial when little or no vertical air mixing occurs. The lower the height of the inversion, the more rapid and greater is the concentration of pollutants. They say that the likelihood of thermal inversions is considerable. Also: “The effect of these conditions is probably greater than any other single factor in the measurement of pollutants in Reydarfjordur and affects all parameters as well as sulphur dioxide, such as air-borne particulates and fluorine/fluorides in the air, precipitation and vegetation. Special attention should be paid to the effects in the locality of the smelter.”

Alcoa say that it is important not to read too much into individual results as they can vary considerably for various reasons, including weather conditions. Measurements are taken twice a month by EINRC during the summer months of June, July and August. The average for June 2018 was 46.1 µg F/g, whereas the reference limit for sheep is 40 µg F/g – for horses, the level is much higher, Alcoa say. They say that sheep should not be affected unless they feed for a long time on grass or hay over the reference limits, based on consumption over a year.

However, “Fluoride is a cumulative poison, meaning that animals and plants often register higher levels of the element as they age,” I wrote in an article in Al Jazeera on fluoride pollution and farm animals. Levels of fluoride 12 times more than the reference limit were found in 2016 in the bones of lambs owned by Sigurdur Baldursson, a farmer I talked to for the Al Jazeera article. No doubt they will increase even more this year. He says that although he’s not concerned about the health of his animals because they are closely monitored, there are no Icelandic guidelines for fluoride in sheep bones.

Apparently hay samples did not show increased fluoride levels when samples were taken after the accidental release of fluorine from the plant in 2012, so maybe hay won’t be a problem this year either. However, it’s quite possible that fluoride levels in grass will be higher in July, too, due to the good weather in East Iceland, not to mention May which was also warm and sunny there but when recordings are not made.

We’ll see.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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That rare whale killed by Icelanders was a hybrid …

Genetic analysis of the rare whale killed by one of the Hvalur crews on July 7 showed that the whale was definitely a blue whale/fin whale hybrid (blue whale mother, fin whale father) rather than a blue whale. Some of the early coverage of the “whoops, what sort of whale is this” affair stated that it was a blue whale, and some experts in the UK concurred.  The whaling team at the Iceland’s Marine and Freshwater Research Institute (MFRI) were completely sure that it is a hybrid, and the MFRI employee present when the whale was brought in took samples and measurements, as well as reporting it to MFRI.  Kristjan Loftsson, the man responsible for Iceland’s killing of fin whales also observed the dead whale closely and concluded it was a hybrid whale when it was dragged into the whaling station.

Initially samples were going to be sent abroad for testing at the end of the season, but the MFRI decided to ask for fast service due to the severity of the matter.

Fin/blue hybrids are rare but not unknown around Iceland. For instance, one was reported to visit Skjalfandi Bay off Northeast Iceland year after year a few years ago, and a skin sample was taken to make sure. Gisli Vikingsson from MFRI told RÚV, Iceland’s state broadcasting service, that six to seven such hybrids had been seen off Iceland over the years (and been caught), and that instances of a protected being caught had been previously brought to the attention of the International Whaling Commission, who also see to the problem of hybrids on a one-by-one basis.

If there are few enough blue whales that they are considered endangered, it’s obvious that hybrids of blue/fin whales are even rarer. Probably it has not been thought necessary to focus on them specifically in the legal sense because of their rarity – but that doesn’t make it OK to kill them. In the general sense, Icelandic law says it’s illegal to kill any animal if permission has not been given (it has been in the case of fin and minke whales).

Like with fin whales, CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) prohibits the selling of meat from hybrid whales.

So what will Loftsson do with the meat from this whale? Will it be lumped with the other fin whale meat he is trying to sell? Or will he keep it separate and eventually dispose of it because it’s in a class of its own?

Loftsson says it’s impossible to tell a fin whale from a fin whale hybrid unless it breaches out of the water. If it’s impossible to tell the difference, it is even more reason to stop all whaling.

Iceland’s PM, Katrin Jakobsdottir, was confronted by many reporters at the NATO meeting which she was attending in Brussels, at the time when news of the “whoops, what sort of whale is this” affair was at its peak. She must have been made acutely aware of the attitudes of other countries towards Iceland’s whaling. Her party is against it, and she has said that a committee is looking into the economic, environmental and social consequences of whaling. A decision will be made at the end of the season.

Maybe the death of this particular whale will make a difference.

It looks like minke whaling is on the way out, though. After getting only 17 whales last year, whaler Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson says he’ll be satisfied with getting 10 this year as their main hunting area is closed to them.

Update: Another hybrid whale has  been killed (on August 24), again a male blue whale/fin whale hybrid. It was whale no. 98.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Micro-plastics from artificial turf prove problematic in Norway

Making use of recycled car tyres has its problems, as Norway has discovered.

Norway’s Environment Agency (EA) is proposing a new regulation to prevent the spread of micro-plastic from artificial turf into the environment. The regulation will call for the collection of rubber granules from artificial turf and will come into force in January 2019.

The granules, known as crumb rubber or styrene-butadiene rubber (SBR), are derived from used car tyres and are used as filler on synthetic ‘grass’ mats to get the grass to stand upright and to provide grip and damping. About 2 mm in size, the granules are used extensively in Norway’s many playing fields and are said to represent the country’s second-largest source of micro-plastic discharge, or up to 1500 tonnes annually.

The granules can be picked up by clothing and footwear and get carried down the drain when the clothing or shoes are washed. When snow is removed, crumb rubber is often removed too.

The EA propose that instead of removing snow and storing it outside of the field, the snow is stored in special snow ponds within the sports complex.

One of the proposals in the regulation is the requirement for a physical barrier around the course. The measure is effective, but can be expensive to implement.

The EA say that 10 percent of plastic infill is lost each year. “Many sports clubs are already making an effort to prevent micro-plastic discharge, but more needs to be done. It is possible to reduce emissions by up to 98 percent from such courses,” Ellen Hambro, Director of the EA, explains.

Crumb rubber is widely used in Europe for artificial turf. It has mostly been studied for its effects on health, as the granules can contain pollutants like PAH, phthalates, heavy metals and phenols, and is generally considered as safe, although a Norwegian report in 2006 concluded that it could have a significant impact on the indoor environment. Very little attention has been focused on its environmental effects up till now.

Some alternatives to crumb rubber, both chemical and organic, are already available but have their own problems. Others, such as sugar-cane granules, are currently under development and should be available soon.

Two interesting reports have been produced on the subject in the last year, one by the Norwegian EA on alternatives to crumb rubber and the other, environmental impact of artificial football turf, by the consultancy Eunomia for football association FIFA.

A modified version of this blog appeared in ENDS Europe Daily today.

Fire at PCC silicon smelter

The Icelandic media have just reported that a fire broke out last night at the PCC silicon smelter at Bakki, Husavik. The fire was in the furnace building and lasted about three hours. No one was hurt.

PCC have not put any news on their website since 8 June, so I don’t know whether it’s actually been operating as their last news said that they intended to start up the furnace again after midnight, i.e. June 9. I emailed them two weeks or so ago to ask if the reason nothing new was on their website was because nothing newsworthy was happening, but they didn’t reply. They had generally reported when the plant was being started up again but this time they didn’t.

Perhaps now the Environment Agency will start looking more closely into the operation at Bakki.

Today is the deadline for comments on the scoping document for improvements to the United Silicon plant which the company Stakksberg are overseeing. Stakksberg was set up specifically by Arion Bank for the process, as it is intended to sell the plant and get it operating again, though probably this will not happen before 2020. Karen Kjartansdottir, who was in charge of publicity for United Silicon, is now doing the same for Stakksberg.

Fire in silicon smelters is not unheard of, at least not in Iceland, as three fires occurred in the United Silicon plant at Helguvik, southwest Iceland, before the plant was eventually closed by the Environment Agency. Activists from ASH, the group opposed to heavy industry at Helguvik, are not surprised by the fire at Bakki – the best possible technology was supposedly being used at Bakki but STILL a fire can occur.

Problems with the United Silicon plant were partly attributed to the owners using a mismatch of equipment. But it appears that silicon smelters are proving more of a problem than the Icelandic authorities – not to mention the Icelandic government –  originally thought.

Stay tuned – this blog will probably get updated.

Update: PCC Bakki are on Facebook.  They have news (in Icelandic) there, including about the fire. They want to start up the other furnace as soon as possible while the other is getting repaired/checked. They have also now (mid-afternoon Tuesday) updated the news page on their website with information about the fire.

Update 19 July: They have still not started up the smelter again. “It is clear that changes have to be made,” they say.

Update 25 July: They began to start it up again yesterday morning (the process has to be done gradually), but shut it down 8 hours later due to a leak in the cooling system. They warned that villagers might be aware of odour.