From Iceland — Gasping For Air: United Silicon's Enduring Problems

Gasping For Air: United Silicon’s Enduring Problems

Published September 8, 2017

Gasping For Air: United Silicon’s Enduring Problems
Andie Sophia Fontaine
Photo by
Art Bicnick

By the time you read this, the United Silicon plant in Reykjanes will have been closed. Temporarily, mind you, while “necessary upgrades and maintenance” are performed. If those two sentences sound familiar to you, they should; it’s the same situation that has popped up, time and again, since last November. Only this time, the community of Reykjanesbær has absolutely had enough, and more radical action against the plant might be right around the corner.

Absolute beginners

Last November, nurse María Magnúsdóttir sought medical attention after pollutants coming from the United Silicon plant had caused chemical burns to the mucous membranes of her mouth and throat. More residents subsequently visited local health clinics with similar complaints. United Silicon responded by saying this was a one-time “beginner’s mistake.” But then things got worse.

Videos taken within the plant itself were leaked to the media. These videos showed that the plant regularly unleashes unidentified emissions into the surrounding air. The plant says these emissions are composed of relatively harmless silica dust, but respiratory complaints from area residents still continued.

A follow-up conducted by the municipality of Reykjanesbær, where the plant is located, showed that arsenic levels in the air around the plant were approximately 20 times the acceptable limits set by the Environment Agency of Iceland. Calls for shutting the plant down began to get louder.

In April, operations at the plant were at last brought to a halt. Reykjanesbær residents began to breathe easier. In the interim, specialists from Norway were flown in to review the entire manufacturing process at United Silicon, and offer counsel with the help of the Environment Agency on how to improve matters.

For whatever reason, the chapter of heavy industry is still far from closed.

This process continued for several weeks. Then, late last May, United Silicon operations commenced anew, under the strict supervision of the Environment Agency. Not strict enough, apparently, as respiratory complaints and air pollution became a factor in the community again, prompting the group Andstæðingar Stóriðju í Helguvík (ASH), opponents of the plant who have long called for it to be shut down altogether, to redouble their efforts.

Qui bono?

One question that consistently arises about this plant is how it can continue to stay open, despite repeated and significant problems to the health of the community. Why the resistance? Who benefits?

United Silicon did not raise its plant on its own, and money has come from numerous big players in Iceland. Amongst them are three different pension funds that invested in the plant, but an even larger role is played by Arion Bank. Kjarninn reported last month that the bank, apart from owning a 16% share in the plant, is also a one of its major lenders.

In other words, if the plant goes under, a lot of other people stand to lose, too. At the same time, Reykjanesbær is in Suðurnes, a region of Iceland that has the highest unemployment rate in the country. Jobs are scarce, and the town council does not appear eager to turn down employment or investment, which may explain why it has hedged its bets for so long.

Residents “held hostage”

Minister for the Environment, Björt Ólafsdóttir, plays a key role in all this. In her position, she has the power to shut down the plant for good. In fact, many people thought this was going to swiftly be the case last autumn, when she told reporters shortly after the parliamentary elections that “the chapter of heavy industry in Iceland is closing”.

However, it appears that the chapter of heavy industry is still far from closed. While environmental authorities have been monitoring the plant closely, Björt has mostly been silent about the plant itself. That is, until last month, when she took to Facebook to accuse United Silicon of effectively “holding residents hostage,” saying, “People are deprived of their freedom as they close doors and windows, and don’t dare send their children out as they obviously find the air threatens their health and well being.”

“Isn’t time for us to take action, or should we just keep writing columns?”

This statement was made days before the plant was closed again, at the beginning of September, to allow for still more updates and upgrades, which Icelanders have been assured, this time for real and true, will put an end to pollution from the plant. Local residents, however, remain unconvinced, and are doing something about it.

“Are we going to keep writing columns?”

ASH has a Facebook group with some 2,800 members, which has become a sort of community organising centre for those opposed to the plant. There, residents have shared warnings with one another about air quality, posted videos showing pollutants flowing out of the plant, and organised community meetings with town council. It’s a place for sharing information and discussing tactics.

These tactics have included some quintessentially Icelandic forms of protest, such as turning up at community meetings wearing respirator masks, planting signs reading “Cough! Cough!” around town, and the perennial Facebook profile pic change (in this case, the coat of arms of Reykjanes stylised to look like a gas mask). Other forms of protest have been more direct, such as the aforementioned community meetings, the creation of a protest fund, and putting concerted pressure on elected representatives to shut the plant down.

But even all of this might prove to fall short of assuaging community concerns. As one member succinctly put it, “Isn’t it time for us to take action, or should we just keep writing columns?” The time for words, as far as the community is concerned, is decidedly over.

The turning point

As mentioned, the plant is currently closed while it undergoes sorely needed changes. Management of United Silicon has provided repeated assurances that when the ovens are switched back on, the residents will be able to breathe easier. Those assurances may be too little, too late and if another pollution incident happens again, all the bank money in Iceland may not be enough to prevent the community from stepping up their efforts to save the air they breathe.

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