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White-knuckle weekend

It’s been a tense few days here on the southwest corner of Niceland [Reykjavík and environs]. Yesterday it was finally upon us – the referendum I wrote about in this post, in which the residents of Hafnarfjörður – a small municipality adjacent to Reykjavík – voted on whether to allow the enlargement of the Alcan aluminium smelter in the town, from 180,000 tons a year, to 450,000 tons.

It’s been pretty remarkable watching the two sides battle it out. On the one hand there was Alcan, with its bottomless fund of cash to use for propaganda and/or bribery, and on the other the opponents, Sól í straumi, a grassroots organization made up of volunteers who relied solely on donations. Like David up against Goliath. When Alcan opened a referendum information office at the beginning of March, staffed morning to evening with smiling, happy Alcan workers offering visitors propaganda with their coffee and danish, Sól í straumi did the same – setting up shop at one of the restaurants in town. When Alcan splashed out on full-page adverts in the main dailies, Sól í straumi started a blog. It was quite wonderful to see the dedication and hard work of those volunteers who wanted nothing more than a future that did not involve being choked by smog.

And choke in smog they would. The increased pollution caused by the enlargement would have been equal to exhaust from Iceland’s entire fleet of automobiles on an annual basis. Yet Alcan maintained that pollution levels were ‘oh, far far from any levels dangerous to humans.’ The smelter, which evidently has been doing very well and turning a handsome profit year to year, would after the enlargement have become Alcan’s third-largest aluminium smelter in Europe and would have turned the southwest corner of Iceland into the largest aluminium production area in the continent. How Alcan’s spin doctors were able to maintain that pollution from the enlarged smelter would be ‘negligible’ is beyond me.

The enlargement would have required added power – which would have meant harnessing yet another glacial river, with the resulting destruction of land and disruption to the residents. Props to the people who live near the Neðri Þjórsá river, who sent a letter to every Hafnarfjörður residence last week, asking people to please consider what would happen to their land if the enlargement were to become a reality.

Alcan’s trump card was their overt and frequently-vocalized threat that they would have ‘no choice’ but to close the smelter [despite the profits] unless they were permitted to enlarge. In other words, the approximately 500 people who work there – most of whom live in the town – would be out of a job. Obviously this put a lot of people on the spot – not only were they voting on whether they wanted a pollution-spewing smelter in their town, but also on whether they should put their neighbours or relatives out of work.

I’m aware that I’m painting a very limited picture of everything that has gone down in connection with this referendum. I am sometimes quite beside myself with fury over how our ‘fearless leaders’ have systematically worked to sell our beautiful country cheap to evil corporate giants over the last decade or so. I’m currently reading Draumalandið, [The Dreamland – a self-help book for a frightened nation’] which won the Icelandic Literary Prize for nonfiction earlier this year. It is brilliant and eye-opening … can you believe, for instance, that ten years ago the Icelandic government sent a pamphlet with the huge headline LOWEST ENERGY PRICES!! [see the Draumalandið website] indiscriminately to hundreds of heavy-industry corporations throughout the world, including those who are the lowest of the low in terms of abuse of human rights and exploitation? And that they practically groveled to get them over here [using taxpayers’ money of course] so they could show them around and offer them LOWEST ENERGY PRICES!! by harnessing any and every beautiful river or waterfall or geothermal area that we have? I see red when I even think about it!

But anyway – back to the referendum. It was held yesterday, and voting stations closed at 7 pm. I think much of the nation waited breathlessly for the results, particularly we who live in the Greater Reykjavík Area [which brings me to another digression, which is that it’s ridiculous to maintain that the enlargement is/was a private issue for Hafnarfjörður even though the smelter is within their town limits, because the entire area would have been severely affected].

Anyway, around 11 pm the final figures were in: 50.3 percent opposed, 49.7 percent in favour.


We were giving a dinner party last night, and as soon as the results became clear we literally whooped for joy. Personally I am so, so relieved. And I truly hope this indicates a shift in thinking, because Icelanders have been walking around in a daze about these matters for far too long. It’s time to wake up and smell the 21st century – and not the smog from endless aluminium plants!

Hardly any wind, thin cloud cover. Occasionally the sun peeks out. Right now it’s 7°C [45F] and sunrise was at 6.46, sunset will be at 20.18.



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