Strong criticism for Icelandic Environment Agency

The Environment Agency of Iceland and the country’s Ministry for the Environment did not do their jobs properly when it came to waste incineration, a new report from the National Audit Office accuses.

The European Union issued a directive in 2000 which, among other things, set strong controls on maximum emissions from waste incinerators. Iceland was bound to enact the directive due to its membership of the EEA, but failed to do so, the report says.

Iceland obtained an exemption to the directive with three conditions: firstly that certain pollutants from Icelandic incinerators would have to be measured annually and fulfil older EU emissions guidelines which Iceland had already enacted; secondly that dioxin release from each incinerator would be measured once; and thirdly that the exemption would be re-examined after five years when cheaper technology would hopefully have become available which would allow the country to fulfil the new directive.

The results of the pollution measurements showed that emissions were high above levels permitted by the directive; but neither the Environment Agency nor the Ministry for the Environment carried out repeat tests or conducted further research into environmental effects of the pollution, Visir.is reports.

In 2007, dioxin levels were measured at three of Iceland’s four waste incinerators covered under the EU directive. Dioxins are persistent organic pollutants which build up in the landscape and in animals and people through food. They increase the risk of cancer and cause other serious diseases in animals and humans. One of the main causes of dioxin is unclean or incomplete combustion. In the case of dioxin, the National Audit Office also concluded that neither the Environment Agency nor the Ministry for the Environment carried out repeat tests or conducted further research into environmental effects of the pollution. The Environment Agency also failed to measure dioxin at the fourth incinerator, at Svinafell, at all.

The National Audit Office report states that one of the roles of the Environment Agency is to provide professional and ongoing expert evaluation of the results of pollution testing and to provide it to incinerator managers, the Ministry for the Environment and the public.

Incineration has been a hot topic in Iceland since the Funi burning station in Isafjordur was closed on 31st December after private research by the MS dairy showed dangerously high levels of dioxin in milk from a nearby farm. As dioxin builds up in the environment and remains dangerous for many years, the farmer has since been forced to cull his sheep and cows and give up. The Isafjordur town council reimbursed the farmer for losses, which in turn falls on the tax payer. Isafjordur has since started a two-bin landfill and recycling waste system; rocketing the town up the ranking of green waste management in Iceland and placing it not-a-million-miles behind the rest of Europe.

There is a deposit scheme on drinks containers in Iceland, which means that plastic, glass and metal drinks containers are usually willingly recycled by people. Glass, plastic and metal food containers, paper and card are, on the other hand, routinely thrown away in most of Iceland where recycling remains scant. This is a particular shame in a country with so many free newspapers and so few trees to make new paper.

(Editor’s note: the last part of this article contains unbalanced personal opinions and should therefore be flagged as editorial comment)

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