Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘Alcoa’

Are Iceland’s aluminium smelters in trouble?

Aluminium companies in Iceland have not been doing too well recently. The original smelter just outside the capital at Straumsvik, which was opened 50 years ago and is now owned by multinational Rio Tinto but is up for sale, had an “incident” 10 days ago when an arc flash formed within one of its pots. Luckily, it happened at a time when no one was present in the room, as otherwise it could have been fatal.

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For safety reasons, all of the 160 pots in that pot room have been switched off – this represents about a third of the smelter’s production and represents a serious dent in the company’s operations. Last year, the company made a loss of about $US 41.3 million, so this setback doesn’t help – and won’t make the smelter easier to sell either.

Don’t bother looking for information about the incident on the company’s Facebook page or their website, as it isn’t there!

What has sparked my curiosity is that both the CEO of  East Iceland Fjardaal aluminium smelter, Magnus Thor Guðmundsson, and the Icelandic Senior Vice-President of Alcoa globally, Tomas Mar Sigurdsson, have announced their resignations very recently. Tomas Mar started off at the Icelandic plant before becoming involved with Alcoa Europe. He only became Senior Vice-President in November last year – not long ago.

Magnus Thor has been in various positions of responsibility within the East Iceland plant.

So is it coincidence that both decided to leave at a similar time? Well, the mother company’s finances have not been good. In the first quarter of 2019, Alcoa corporation announced a loss of $US 199 million while the second quarter loss was $US 402 million. So possibly they sensed that something was coming.

Alcoa, however, always add a paragraph about “forward-looking statements” to their annual reports, which presumably prevents them from being sued. This term seems to be American in origin but I suspect can be used in a variety of industries. Check out this explanation that they give:

Forward-looking statements include those containing such words as “anticipates,” “believes,” “could,” “estimates,” “expects,” “forecasts,” “goal,” “intends,” “may,” “outlook,” “plans,” “projects,” “seeks,” “sees,” “should,” “targets,” “will,” “would,” or other words of similar meaning.

This concept is interesting in itself and can surely be applied to many companies who want to be somewhat ambiguous in their intentions.

The third aluminium company, Nordural, is owned by Century Aluminium and located at Grundartangi in West Iceland. Unlike the other smelters, this plant was operated with a profit of just over $US 94 million, though profits were down on the previous year by nearly $US 25 million.

Heavy industry in Iceland accounts for 82-83% all electricity produced. The Fjardaal smelter is the biggest user, and is responsible for 34% of the country’s electricity usage (and pays the lowest cost for it of all three smelters). Rio Tinto is responsible for 23% of electricity used and the Nordural plant uses 12%. Other heavy industry accounts for the rest.

Update, 12 February 2019: Rio Tinto has just announced that it will do a strategic review of its Straumsvik smelter, due to high electricity costs – which Icelanders consider are actually very low – and “historically low” aluminium prices. They may even close the smelter. The review is expected to be completed within the next few months.

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fluoride levels high near Alcoa’s Fjardaal smelter third year running

For the third summer running, fluoride levels in grass near the Alcoa Fjardaal plant in Reydarfjordur, East Iceland, are too high for some herbivores, even though levels are within limits when measured as emissions coming from the plant. The levels are likely to increase, as fluoride levels in plants tend to increase over summer and these readings come from the first measurements of six over the coming summer.
In 2012, Alcoa said the high levels were due to faults in the pollution control equipment and monitoring equipment, but they were confident that the problem would not reoccur.
It did. In 2013 they blamed the weather.
Now, they say they are puzzled, and will get experts within and outside Iceland to look at the problem. In some areas, the levels are 50% more than at this time last year.
Excess fluoride is a problem for sheep and accumulates in bones and ligaments but not meat.
Meanwhile, people who grow their own vegetables are being advised to wash salad leaves and the leaves of leafy vegetables such as kale in order to reduce the fluoride content before eating them. Fluoride does not accumulate in flowers, fruit or roots.