Musings, politics and environmental issues

Archive for the ‘Pollution’ Category

Fireworks, tourists and air quality

It’s that time of year again. New Year’s Eve is approaching and in many countries fireworks are set off, either as organized displays by councils or by individuals. In Iceland, for example, the bulk of the funds from the country’s search and rescue service is provided by firework sales between 28 December and 6 January.

Fireworks are visually spectacular but have a drawback: when the weather is favourable for people to set them off, i.e. no wind or rain, the result can be a firework smog that is debilitating to people with asthma and breathing difficulties and can hang over a city for up to 12 hours, peaking in the first hour after midnight.

Iceland’s Environment Agency produced a report (in Icelandic) on air pollution from fireworks earlier this year. Although the only fireworks that may be sold are those that carry a CE quality label, this does not seem to cover the levels of arsenic, lead and other heavy metals, traces of which can be found in the particulate matter that often hangs over cities in the early hours of New Year.

Despite calls for limits on fireworks that may be sold to individuals in Iceland and other ways of funding the rescue services other than by fireworks, the Icelandic tourist industry has said that many tourists come to Iceland for New Year specifically to see the fireworks, and thus there should be no change to the traditional fireworks celebrations.

Over to Australia, where the traditional fireworks display over Sydney harbour is being questioned this year due to fire danger – Sydney is surrounded by fires and air quality is abysmal – the authorities are determined to go ahead, again partly due to pressure from the tourist industry.

Total madness.

Social impact assessment important in accessing perceptions of projects

Iceland’s environment ministry has just held a symposium on social impacts of energy projects in Iceland, in particular in relation to new power plants envisaged as part of the 4th Master Plan for Nature Protection and Energy Utilization. Key speakers were a couple now living in the Netherlands: an academic from the University of Gröningen, Frank Vanclay, and his practitioner wife, Ana-Maria Esteves, who works with the International Association for Impact Assessment (IAIA).

Much of the symposium was related to social environmental assessment itself, irrespective of country. So for instance when a fracking project is announced, there might be impacts from vehicle noise of various types, exhaust fumes, increased accident risk, injury or even death, costs of road repair from increased traffic, and changing character of the town (less peaceful, etc.). These are balanced by the potential for local income from spending by drivers, plus other services for drivers.

Everything is social, Frank said: landscape analysis; archeological and heritage impacts; community, cultural and linguistic impacts; demographic and economic impacts; gender issues; health and psychological impacts; political issues such as human rights; resource issues, and indigenous issues. Social impacts depend on project characteristics, as well as characteristics of the community, individuals and any proposed mitigation. Impacts cannot be measured in advance, but social impacts should be done before environmental impacts. Speculation starts as soon as there is even a rumour of a proposed development, he says. If there is no consensus, projects should not proceed.

As an activist, I found his slide on the different types of protest interesting.


Ana said that “the purpose of benefit-sharing is to retain part of a project’s economic benefits in the region where the project is located”. These may be voluntary or non-voluntary, monetary or non-monetary. Who decides, who distributes, who benefits? And how do people perceive negative aspects?

The Icelanders who spoke brought up local issues. Birna Björk Árnadóttir from the Planning Agency brought up the case of a proposed hydropower plant, Hvalár, in an isolated region of northwest Iceland where people have been divided into two factions: proponents (mainly locals) who say “this is our project, let us decide” and opponents, who say “to whom do the fjords belong”?

In line with some of what Ana said earlier in the symposium, developers of this project have promised various benefits for the local villagers.

In terms of social impact assessments for power plants, the following should be covered: access to electricity and electrical safety, population changes, land use, employment, property value, fringe benefits and perks, public health, cultural heritage, and tourism and recreation. Employment weighs heavily in the assessments, whereas tourism and recreation are usually the most-researched factors.

In Iceland, social impact assessment has only been carried out with large projects such as construction of the dam and aluminium plant in East Iceland. Given the proximity of the currently non-operating silicon metal smelter in Helguvik, south-west Iceland, to local communities, it would have been better if a social impact assessment had been carried out there first. Stakksberg, the company set up by Arion Bank to see to the amendments and potential sale of the smelter, could still decide to carry out a social impact assessment for the project – but I doubt they will.



Ban on heavy fuel use in the Arctic edges closer

A ban on heavy fuel oils (HFOs) in the Arctic could be expected in 2022/3, according to the Clean Arctic Alliance which held a seminar in the run-up to Iceland’s annual Arctic Circle Assembly.

A draft methodology for analysing impacts of a ban on HFO for the use and carriage as fuel by ships in Arctic waters was agreed at a February meeting of the International Maritime Organisation (IMO).

The Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEP72) held a meeting in April at which it was decided to move forward on developing an HFO ban in the Arctic. A ban already exists on HFO use in the Antarctic.

Out of eight Arctic states that are pushing for a ban, only Canada and Russia have not yet supported it – though they haven’t opposed it either – but Russia has been making suggestions and Canada wants a study done on the impact of a ban on coastal communities. They basically have not made their position clear.

Nevertheless, an important step will be achieved in January 2020 when sulphur content in fuel will be limited to 0.5%, down from 3.5%. Currently, most vessels use HFO with a sulphur content of 2.7%.

In Iceland, sulphur content of shipping fuel within 12 nautical miles of land must be limited to 0.1% from January 2020. However, HFO will be permitted if scrubbers are used. Anywhere outside of this area comes under the jurisdiction of the IMO. The reduction “will solve some problems but not all”, according to Árni Finnsson from the Iceland Nature Conservation Association, which organised the seminar.

Currently, 76% of fuel used in the Arctic is HFO. Vessels that spend long periods at a time in the Arctic are especially likely to be using the fuel. Some ships are fitted with scrubbers, which are designed to remove sulphur, but if vessels are using open-loop rather than closed-loop scrubbers – as 80% of boats do – the resulting effluent is also polluting.

Lighter fuel blends are being developed, but as these are mixed on board, HFO will still have to be carried, with the potential of oil spills that are hard to clean in the Arctic.

The Clean Arctic Alliance, a global body consisting of 18 organisations, is pushing for the use of the lighter distillate fuels, which already meet emission requirements for sulphur. When distillates are used, particulate filters could be installed to reduce black carbon emissions by over 90%. The Alliance points out that between 2015 and 2017, there was a 30% increase in the number of HFO-fuelled ships and 50% increase in black carbon emissions from HFO use.

Particulate filters cannot be used with HFO, as HFO contains too much carbon. The warming impact of black carbon in the Arctic is three times higher than over the open ocean.

“The ocean has been absorbing large quantities of emissions, equivalent to 20-30% of CO2 emitted by human activity since the 1980s. We need to achieve net zero emissions by 2050,” says Dr Sian Prior from the Clean Arctic Alliance..

Most of the area around Svalbard is already subjected to an HFO ban.

This blog was originally written for ENDS Europe.

Heavy industry in Iceland looks to CarbFix to become carbon-neutral

Iceland’s four largest CO2 emitters, three of which are aluminium smelters and the other a ferro-silicon plant, have signed a Letter of Intent with the Icelandic government to look for ways to become carbon neutral by 2040. The PCC silicon metal smelter at Bakki, which is another large emitter, is also expected to sign – “although our first priority is to get the operation running properly,” according to the environmental officer there.

The aim is to thoroughly investigate whether the CarbFix method for storing CO2 can become a viable option, both technically and financially, for storing CO2 emissions from these companies.

CarbFix was set up originally in 2007 in conjunction with the Hellisheidi geothermal power station, where CO2 is captured from steam and dissolved in water at pressure. The water is then injected into underground basalt rock at a depth of 500-800 m, where it forms carbonate minerals such as calcite within a few years. These carbonate minerals are stable on a geological time-scale.


Annual capacity at the Hellisheidi plant is around 12,000 tonnes CO2, which accounts for about a third of the plant’s CO2 emissions. The Hellisheidi plant also removes hydrogen sulphide (H2S) from the steam, but this will not be an issue with the companies intending to become carbon-neutral by 2040.

In 2017, a pilot-scale Direct Air Capture unit was added to the system: this process is independent of location as it mostly relies on energy in the form of heat, which is available as a by-product in numerous industrial processes. Unfortunately the technique is currently too expensive to be used  for making heavy industry climate-neutral.

The project with heavy industry, which is expected to span five to ten years, will involve analysing the concentration of CO2 in emissions, so that similar removal techniques can be applied to those at Hellisheidi. The next step will involve design and manufacture of experimental equipment for capturing and injecting CO2, followed by design and manufacture of similar equipment on a larger scale.

The standard method of carbon capture and storage (CCS) involves pumping oil into old gas fields or using some form of carbon capture and usage (CCU). Edda Sif Aradóttir, who is project manager of CarbFix, says there are both advantages and disadvantages to traditional methods.

“The CarbFix method transforms CO2 into minerals within two years through a chemical process that happens naturally in nature, while traditional methods store CO2 in gas or liquid form. The procedure is thus of a completely different nature and CO2 is permanently removed,” she says.

She says that the main disadvantage is that it requires a considerable amount of water to dissolve the CO2 where chemical changes occur between water and rock. “On the other hand, the water needed by the procedure may be reused, which we in fact do up at Hellisheidi … we are working at developing the process even more so that seawater can be used,” she explained.

Funding for the CarbFix2 project has come from various programmes within the EU, including Horizon 2020, with collaborators in Toulouse, Barcelona and Zurich. CarbFix2 is designed to move the project on from a demonstration phase to one which will lead to an economically viable, complete CCS chain that can be used within Europe and globally.

Future research involves exporting the method to new injection sites in Germany, Italy and Turkey as well as Iceland, and further developing the method so it can be used offshore for permanent mineral storage of CO2 on the sub-sea floor. CarbFix proponents say that there is far more storage available in porous sub-marine basalts than required for the geologic storage of all the anthropogenic CO2 that will ever be produced.

I also wrote about this for ENDS Europe Daily today.


Radioactive caesium in Danish district heating residues linked to Chernobyl

Repercussions are still being felt from the Chernobyl nuclear accident in 1986 in Ukraine, which at that point was still the USSR. See here for information in Danish.

Last year, radioactive caesium-137 was detected in ash from wood chips used in Danish district heating biomass plants. The wood chips were sourced from the Baltic countries, and the radioactivity is believed to have resulted from the nuclear accident. The burning process concentrates the radioactive material in the ash, which “might mean” that the ash must be treated as radioactive material according to Danish radiation protection law.

One of the district heating plants that use wood chips from the Baltics is Halsnæs Forsyning. There, about 30,000 tonnes of wood chips are handled annually, which results in approximately 800 tonnes of ash.

An Executive Order of the Danish Health Authority states that there are clear rules for how bio-ash should be handled and who is responsible. The individual district heating plant is obliged to know the ash content of radioactive substances.

The district heating organization District Heating DK have been researching the situation. Last year, a report that looked at 10 utilities showed that the radioactivity is so small that is is not likely to pose a health problem to workers or anyone else (!) but District Heating DK are doing another study that is designed to clarify the processes involved.



Call for Health Impact Assessment for Helguvik silicon smelter

I got a document yesterday from the Planning Agency (now available in Icelandic on the Net) because I’d made comments to a proposal for what should be covered in an environmental impact assessment concerning improvements to the closed-down silicon smelter formerly owned by United Silicon.

Besides allowing comments from the public (which they took no notice of, except to say that many residents had complained of health problems!), they’d asked for comments from bodies such as the Environment Agency, Directorate of Health, the local council, the Marine Research Institute, the Met Office and others.

Some of the information was particularly interesting. For instance, the Directorate of Health said that a Health Impact Assessment should be done because of all the complaints received from local residents. Stakksberg (the current owners) responded by saying that they were not aware of HIAs being done in Iceland, and until legislation was passed about HIAs, they were not going to do one!

When United Silicon was operating the plant, the temperature of the cooling water was 7°C and was discharged into the sea afterwards, when the temperature was not supposed to go over 10°C. Was this the case? No – the maximum recorded cooling temperature of the cooling water was 36°C! As a biologist, I was appalled by this. The draft EIA has to show how much area will be affected by the cooling water and what the temperature difference will be.

The Met Office were concerned about the aquifiers, which they said were very susceptible to disturbance in that area. They also said that there should be a scenario for when the worst possible weather conditions occur, i.e. calm weather/gentle breeze and also when there was high humidity.

They also had concerns about some of the substances emitted from the operation, some of which are bio-accumulative (or accumulate in soils) or do not change into less toxic materials. These substances include heavy metals such as arsenic, persistent organic compounds and sulphur compounds.

The Environment Agency said that because most of the odour problems occur when the smelter is not running at full capacity, a distribution model of pollutants should be done for volatile organic compounds (VOC) with different exhaust temperatures.

The EA also said that the option of not starting up the plant again should be considered.

Many other points came up too, and there were conflicting opinions from different agencies about whether a emergency chimney was needed or not.

I still suspect that the plant won’t start up again. Stakksberg announced long ago that they were trying to sell the plant, but they haven’t succeeded yet. They originally implied that they had no intention of running the plant themselves.

The document I received yesterday raised so many issues that I suspect it will take a long time to process them all.

Former United Silicon smelter rears its ugly head again

At a packed residents’ meeting last night over the future of the silicon metal plant in Helguvik formerly owned by United Silicon, Thordur Thordarson from Stakksberg said, in  response to a question about whether the thought had ever occurred to them to simply dismantle the plant, “Too much money has been spent on the silicon metal smelter already. If we abandon the aim of resurrecting the plant, it would be inexcusable handling of money.”

But the local campaigning group ASH say that they don’t want it to reopen.

Stakksberg is the company set up by Arion Bank to deal with the mess left by United Silicon. They intend to sell the plant when the extensive repairs and modifications have been completed. They say that the plant should be operational by 2020.

The meeting was called at two days’ notice. In the intervening period, considerable media attention was directed at the dormant plant, and the other silicon plant designed to be adjacent to the (Stakksberg) plant. The latter plant, which would be operated by Thorsil, had virtually disappeared off the drawing board as nothing had been heard about it for about two years – until someone from the local council said that the two silicon metal smelters would rescue Helguvik harbour.

The meeting, which lasted for almost three hours, consisted of explanations by Thordarson followed by powerpoint presentations by a Verkis engineer and a consultant from Norwegian firm Multiconsult. The first EIA for the Stakksberg/United Silicon plant was ostensibly prepared by Verkis, while Multiconsult were brought in last year to advise on problems – apparently, seven silicon metal smelters operate smoothly in Norway (though, unbeknown to the Multiconsult engineer, there appear to be health problems such as silicosis afflicting the workers).

Thordarson said that the “most able specialists” were advising Stakksberg. Note that United Silicon also said they had experts on hand to deal with any problems, and look what happened there.

Two of us brought up the matter of PCC Bakki, whose silicon smelter has been beset by problems and where start-up has not been easy, to say the least. Thordarson said he was not aware of the situation there, but “must look into it”. Unbelievable!!!

Other issues were brought up during question time. If Thorsil gets to operate with four furnaces and Stakksberg with four, how will anyone know which smelter is to blame if pollution levels rise sky high? No one knew the answer.

The Multiconsult person said that routine maintenance would mean that the furnaces would be shut down sometimes. Each time a furnace is restarted, there is the risk of burning odours. Multiply that by four (or eight) and there could be constant problems. One of the additions to the plant will be an emergency smoke stack that will operate during start-up. Some people are not convinced that this will make a difference.

Outside of the meeting, ASH is preparing a group lawsuit to call for a citizen’s referendum to try and stop the plant from becoming operational again.

A scoping document (in Icelandic) for a fresh EIA has been put forward and can be seen here.