Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘Grundartangi’

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.


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.



Fluoride poisoning in horses confirmed

I wrote an article almost two years ago for Al Jazeera on fluoride pollution from accidents at aluminium plants in West and East Iceland and their effects on horses and sheep respectively. The horse owner, Ragnheidur Thorgrimsdottir, had been saying for almost 10 years that her horses were affected by the nearby Century aluminium plant but her concerns were dismissed by the smelter officials as well as by the Food and Veterinary Authority staff.
Nevertheless, a specialist group was set up to investigate the matter by the Ministry of the Interior of the previous Icelandic government and they have just come to the conclusion that fluoride pollution was probably to blame for the horses’ health problems. Seventeen horses have had to be destroyed because of health problems stemming from the pollution.
However, Century officials and the FVA still stand by their previous convictions and say that fluoride is not to blame.
Hmm… I think they won’t change their beliefs, no matter what the evidence.

One of the affected horses

One of the affected horses

Pollution from Grundartangi

As someone trained in environmental impact assessment, I have complained before about how the Icelandic Planning Agency has often decided that a project doesn’t need an environmental impact assessment when I  feel it should do. Maybe they will rethink this in future.

A metal recycling company called Geothermal Metal Recycling (GMR Endurvinnsla) was set up in 2013 in Grundartangi in West Iceland, near the Century aluminium plant. It is a small company and the Planning Agency decided that it didn’t need an EIA done on it. But in the 2.5 years since it started operating, 23 incidents regarding pollution prevention, pollution and other factors relating to their operating licence have been reported to the Environment Agency, which monitors the operations of polluting companies. Of these, 11 came last year. Apparently some of them were the same, and related to things that were apparently fixed but obviously weren’t.

Twice, emissions from the plant exceeded maximum allowed levels. In February 2014, emissions of sulphur dioxide were 3 times over the level stipulated in the licence, while in October last year dioxin was recorded over the permissible level stipulated in the licence. Air pollution is only recorded once a year. Waste piles up, which could lead to soil pollution. Etc.

The Planning Agency has also decided that the proposed Silicor Materials solar silicon plant at Grundartangi does not need an EIA done on it.  This decision is controversial, amongst locals and others. Let’s hope that a similar situation does not arise – though it may well do.

Silicor Materials plant controversial

The proposed solar silicon plant in Grundartangi, West Iceland, is proving controversial. The plant will be located on the north side of Hvalfjordur fjord, within the dilution area of the existing Elkem ferro-silicon plant and Century aluminium factory. The Planning Agency decided it did not need to be subject to an EIA but recently various individuals, municipalities and campaigning groups have spoken out about it and expressed distrust in the proposed development. Umhverfisvaktin have, for instance, said that Silicor Materials are intending to use a production method that has only been used on a small scale up till now and there is no guarantee that the method will work flawlessly in Grundartangi, where production is intended to be a lot more. Musician Bubbi Morthens, who lives near the south side of the fjord, has expressed his distrust in the matter, while at a meeting organised by the Planning Agency on environmental impact assessment a local authority representative pointed out that the plant would employ 460 staff and the fact that they would all need to be housed somewhere (presumably in new developments) is a matter of concern in itself.

The company say that some of the staff will be Icelandic, some foreign. Unemployment in the local area is negligible, so staff will have to move to the area.

Environmental effects of silicon metal manufacturing plants

Until recently I was taken in by the propaganda that silicon metal manufacturing plants were relatively benign and produced metal that would be used for solar panels and the like. But having now read an environmental impact assessment for the proposed Thorsil plant in Helguvik, I have now changed my mind. They pollute. And in Helguvik, on the southwest tip of Iceland near its international airport, there will not be just one silicon metal plant but two, coupled with a second Nordural aluminium smelter if that ever gets finished (which I doubt). There is also a waste incinerator nearby and various other industries that pollute to a greater or lesser extent.

The Thorsil EIA admits that pollutant levels will sometimes exceed the limit values set in regulations, but says this will happen within the “dilution area”, where concentrations are expected and allowed to be higher. But what they appear not to have done and should have is to carry out a GIS (Geographical Information System) and overlay what is actually within the dilution area and the dilution area together. The northernmost edge of the local town of Reykjanesbaer is less than 1.5 km from the plant. And the local horse-owners are up in arms because the local stabling area (and summer pasture for horses) is within the dilution area (1 km from the plant), and they are concerned because of what happened to horses just outside the dilution zone of the Century/Nordural aluminium smelter in Grundartangi, West Iceland. Here is a link to the protest by horse owners and locals who descended on the local town hall to demand a local referendum about the influx of polluting industry in Helguvik. The main pollutant of concern is said to be sulphur dioxide, SO2.

Silicor Materials are also planning a solar silicon plant up at Grundartangi where the Nordural aluminium smelter and Elkem ferrosilicon plant are based. The Planning Agency said that its environmental effects would be negligible as it is not supposed to release sulphur dioxide or fluorides, and so it would not need an EIA performed on it. But not everyone is in agreement. The local conservation group, Umhverfisvaktin, is up in arms. Grundartangi does not need any more polluting industry either.