Musings, politics and environmental issues

Posts tagged ‘Iceland’

Neither fin whales nor minke whales to be killed off Iceland this summer

Last week, it was reported that once again Iceland would not be hunting fin whales this year. Kristjan Loftsson, the man behind the killing, gave several reasons for his decision.

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One reason is that since Japan started to allow commercial whaling in 2018 rather than “research whaling”, the Japanese government now subsidizes Japanese whaling ships, which makes it difficult for Loftsson to compete commercially (plus of course he has to get the whale meat to Japan via a circuitous route as so few ports are willing to allow him in).

Loftsson also says that the Japanese have stricter requirements for chemical analysis for Icelandic whale meat than for their own whale meat.

But he also sees potential problems when processing the meat due to COVID-19. He says that the work involves staff working near each other. If one of his employees becomes infected with the coronavirus, all the others will have to go into quarantine for two weeks, which means it will be impossible to cut up the dead whales, etc. He actually has faced legal action for carrying out whale processing in the open air, but has wangled his way out of it.

Although he will not be killing more whales this year, Loftsson still intends to carry on with the university-based research on making gelatin out of whale bones, an iron-rich supplement for people suffering from anaemia, and using whale blubber for medicinal purposes and food production.

On 2018, 146 fin whales and 6 minke whales were killed off Iceland.

The minke whalers basically gave up in 2018, as  their main hunting grounds near Reykjavik had become a whaling sanctuary. That year, they stopped soon after they started.

Gunnar Bergmann Jonsson, who runs the company IP-útgerð that ran the minke-whaling operation, said this week that he does not envisage doing any more minke whaling.

Ironically, a report was produced last year by Iceland’s Institute of Economic Studies which concluded that whaling in Iceland would be profitable. That report was, however, subject to heavy criticism for the assumptions made.

 

Icelandic pension funds reduce shares in Iceland’s silicon metal plant

The Icelandic pension funds obviously don’t have much faith in the PCC silicon metal plant in North Iceland, as they have reduced the values of their shares in the plant by 75-100%. Íslandsbanki have also reduced the value of their shares “considerably”, without disclosing how much.

A company called Bakkastakki manages the billion kronur investments by the Icelandic pension funds. The five pension funds involved had acquired a 13.5 % share in Bakkastakki, with the German company PCC SE holding 86. 5% stake in the silicon plant. Icelanders can read about it here.

The reason for the action taken by the pension funds (which PCC had approached last year when searching for more funds) was the great deal of uncertainty about the operation of the silicon plant (i.e. delays and difficulties), coupled with harsh conditions in the commodity markets.

Meanwhile, two and a half years after it was closed down by the Environment Agency, Stakksberg is still trying to sell the beleaguered United Silicon smelter in Helguvik in southwest Iceland. And the PCC problems probably haven’t helped.

Coronavirus, foreigners and Air BnB

Last week, an Australian tourist died at a hospital in north Iceland. He was admitted when seriously ill, and it turned out that he had the COVID-19 virus but didn’t how typical signs of it. Initially, hospital staff said it was unlikely that he died of the virus but they have now changed their mind, saying that he DID in fact have a severe case of pneumonia, which virus victims may get if badly affected.

The tourist had been travelling around Iceland for a week with his partner. Was he aware of where to go for help? Has anyone has looked into the proportion of “foreigners” and tourists globally who may not know what to do/ where to go in crisis situations, let alone have constant access to hand sanitisers or soap. (Rough sleepers also are unlikely to have access to hand sanitisers or soap, let alone being able to self-isolate away from others, but that’s another story.)

If staying in hotels or guesthouses, the staff should be able to help tourists in trouble, telling them where to find help, etc. But in the case of flats such as Air BnB, there is no guarantee that any such information would be available for guests.

And migrants who do not speak the language of their host country – for instance, many Polish people in Iceland do not speak either Icelandic or English – may also have trouble finding out about latest developments such as bans on gatherings over a certain number, or whether or not to send their children to school. The Icelandic website that gives up-to-date information on the virus, covid.is, is in Icelandic, English and Polish, but is not much use for speakers of other languages.

Although this blog was sparked by COVID-19, it is actually applicable to any health crisis. Crucial information is often not available for everyone, and in some cases elderly family members come to join their family but do not go to school or work and have limited social opportunities and may only speak their heritage language – in which vital information may not be available.

Update 23 March: The Icelandic media reported today that in Sweden,  out of the 27 fatalities due to COVD-19, 6 occurred in people with a Somalian background. The Swedish association of Somalian doctors said that lack of information in Somalian had undoubtedly been partly responsible for the high number of fatalities.

 

Difficult silicon market hinders sale of Helguvik smelter

Iceland’s Arion Bank, which has a number of holding companies including Stakksberg, the company entailed with the task of trying to sell the silicon metal smelter in Helguvik originally owned by United Silicon and closed down by the Environment Agency (EA) in September 2017, has sent out a statement saying that they have reduced the value ascribed to Stakksberg from 6.9 billion kronur (USD 52.9 million) at the end of March 2019 to 3.2 billion kronur (USD 25.6 million) nine months later.

Stakksberg has been rectifying some of the problems with the smelter identified by the EA, and has been trying to find a buyer for almost two years. The smelter’s original owner, United Silicon, went bankrupt in January 2018, but in December 2017 they too were searching for buyers.

According to Stakksberg’s homepage, the idea was to have the smelter up and running in the last quarter of 2020.

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Arion Bank says that because of “uncertainty in the market, several manufacturers have reduced their production or closed smelters. Thus unused manufacturing capacity is available that might well have a negative effect on the sale of the silicon metal smelter in Helguvik”.

If they have done their homework, potential buyers – if there are any – would be aware of the problems faced by PCC Bakki Silicon in the north, who asked for more funding last year. PCC have also had unexpected problems with Iceland’s winter weather, and say that the problems they have encountered were not those they were expecting – despite using best available technology, etc. None of this would be of any comfort to prospective buyers of the Helguvik smelter down south.

People involved in ASH, the campaign group against the reopening of the Helguvik silicon smelter, are overjoyed however, as there was a lot of opposition by locals to the smelter during the short time that it was operating.

It’s not just the silicon metal industry that is facing problems. Because of worsening conditions in the aluminium market, which are “very demanding”, Iceland’s oldest aluminium smelter is going to operate at 15% reduced capacity in 2020, with a corresponding decrease in electricity use. The plant is currently Iceland’s second largest user of electricity.

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This smelter, which is situated on the outskirts of the capital city, is currently owned by Rio Tinto Alcan but was searching for a new owner two years ago. Norsk Hydro was going to buy it but the sale fell through seven months later.

Update, 12 February 2019: Rio Tinto has just announced that it will do a strategic review of its Icelandic smelter at Straumsvik, 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.

 

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.

Winter weather causes problems once again for PCC in Iceland

Every year has four seasons: spring, summer, autumn and winter. And houses, machines, equipment and the like should be designed to withstand/operate in all conditions.

This doesn’t seem to be the case for PCC Bakki Silicon, who run the silicon metal smelter at Bakki in the north of Iceland. Last winter – during their first year of operation – they said that the wintry weather was causing them problems, and now it’s happening again.

Earlier this week, Iceland suffered severe storms, the severity varying depending on location. Electricity was cut off in many parts of the north, including at the silicon smelter at Bakki. Initially the electricity supply was disrupted for about eight hours before being reconnected. However, other than news of the supply problem (which appears to have come from the electricity transmission company rather than PCC) there was no news of how the lack of electricity was affecting the smelter.

But it must have had an effect of some sort.

Then yesterday the electricity was disrupted again, allegedly because of “load” on the system. On their Facebook page, PCC said (in a translation from Icelandic):

Due to a breakdown in the Landsnet electricity substation, there is no power to the furnaces at the moment. The emergency chimneys are open, the furnaces are cooling down and thus people could become aware of odours. This breakdown is a result of the stormy weather that went over the country earlier in the week. Great emphasis is put on repairing the damage and we expect them to finish as soon as possible. We will look at the events of the last few days in more detail and report on them next week.

Is it not probable that the same thing happened on Tuesday, i.e. that the furnaces started to cool down and emit odours?

Note that the smelter also suffered problems in late November, when both furnaces were out of action for a while. Did odours occur then too? Quite probably.

This blog will be updated.

Iceland’s PCC silicon smelter in search of extra funds

The PCC silicon smelter at Bakki, North Iceland, is asking its owners and other investors, such as pension funds, for up to 5 billion kronur (almost $US 40 million) to provide a firmer base for its operations. The majority of the money is expected to come from the holding company of the PCC Group, PCC SE, which has an 86.5% share in the Bakki smelter. Pension funds currently have a 13.5% share in the silicon smelter. PCC SE already provided extra funds last year in the form of a shareholder loan, totalling $US 34 million.

Although PCC SE proudly states: “In the north of Iceland we have constructed one of the world’s most advanced and most environmentally compatible facilities for silicon metal production which was commissioned in 2018”, it has in fact suffered innumerable problems and has frequently, if not usually, operated at reduced capacity due to various problems.

Just this week, the first furnace had to be switched off due to a leak in the cooling system, which led to melting of part of the electrode (þrýstiklemma in Icelandic).  A new part has to be ordered. Note that the PCC website gives very little information about the plant’s problems.

Besides operating problems, the market price of silicon metal has been decreasing recently.

News of PCC’s financial problems must surely make it harder for Stakksberg to sell the former United Silicon plant in Helguvik, Southwest Iceland.

Update 22 September: They say that they have been running at much lower capacity for the last few weeks, and are only producing about 35 tonnes a day instead of 90. It also turns out that there was a second accident involving a “gun” last month, though this was not reported at the time.