Heavy Industry, Heavy Times: Silicon Plant Proves Controversial - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Heavy Industry, Heavy Times: Silicon Plant Proves Controversial

Published June 1, 2017

Photos by
Art Bicnick

This January, newly appointed Minister of the Environment Björt Ólafsdóttir caught the attention of the media when she made some bold and unequivocal statements about heavy industry in Iceland: “The government will no longer make concessions to large companies with tax money to pollute this country. […] This chapter in Icelandic history is closed.”

The reason why she felt the need to make such a statement was mostly due to one thing: the United Silicon plant in Suðurnes. While Icelanders have always had a mixed relationship with heavy industry, this silica metals plant has had immediate health effects on the community around it, and has opened a larger discussion about heavy industry in Iceland that has reached the top levels of government.

Troubled from the start

Initially, it seemed like a great idea: the plant would make use of Iceland’s clean and renewable energy sources to produce silicon for the making of solar panels—a doubly green idea. It would take about two years to build the plant, but almost immediately after the plant went into commission last autumn, problems began.

“United Silicon said this was a one-time ‘beginner’s mistake.’ But then things got worse.”

Last November, nurse María Magnúsdóttir sought medical attention after pollutants coming from the plant caused chemical burns to the mucous membranes of her mouth and throat. More residents 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.

So much for “beginner’s mistakes”

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 relatively harmless silica dust, but respiratory complaints from area residents still continued.

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.

It’s not easy being green (apparently)

Iceland is often thought of as a model country when it comes to green energy, which is why it was surprising to many of our readers when it came to light that Iceland burns over 160,000 tonnes of coal yearly—and a large portion of that at United Silicon’s plant in Helguvík. In fact, the amount of coal Iceland is burning is increasing, making the plant’s purpose of supplying materials for the manufacturing of solar panels at least somewhat ironic.

In all this, United Silicon repeatedly denied they were polluting the area, which not even the Environment Agency of Iceland was buying, and the area residents certainly aren’t, either. Björt told reporters that shutting the plant down was now on the table, but would not offer a more definitive answer as to what action would be taken.

“I think that [shutting the plant down] is an acceptable option,” The Environment Minister told public broadcasting network RÚV in March. “I want to assist the Environment Agency in applying the strictest possible requirements so we can create conditions where these kinds of things can’t go on.”

Shut down, but then not

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.

“Breathing clean air, it turns out, is more important to Icelanders than the jobs that polluting industries might provide.”

This process continued for several weeks. Then, late last month, United Silicon operations commenced anew, under the strict supervision of the Environment Agency. It is as yet unknown how much the Environment Agency’s involvement in getting the plant operational has costtaxpayers, but it does raise the question: why wasn’t the plant shut down altogether?

It’s about them jobs

Suðurnes, the southwest region of Iceland where Reykjanesbær is located, has had the nation’ s highest rate of unemployment for over a decade now. When the NATO base closed and left in 2006, the government had no plan in place to replace the jobs the base provided. The region has been struggling to bring in more jobs ever since.

The area is very geothermally active, however, and foreign companies had their eye on Suðurnes for possible exploration. This included a Canada-based company called Magma Energy (later Alterra Energy), who signed a 65-year contract with Reykjanesbær for exploration purposes in 2010. Two years later, the town would sell its shares in the company for the purpose of paying off debts.

As such, it’s easy to see why the national government would go to such lengths to help United Silicon find its legs: Suðurnes needs jobs, United Silicon provides them. However, it should be noted again that it was Reykjanesbær residents who pressured the government to shut down the plant in the first place. Breathing clean air, it turns out, is more important to Icelanders than the jobs that polluting industries might provide. Whether United Silicon can, from here, produce in a greener, healthier fashion remains to be seen, but in the meantime, the Environment Agency is overseeing all operations, and Reykjanesbær residents wait with bated breath to see what happens next.

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