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The news this week is making my head spin. As it turns out the dioxin emissions from Funi in Ísafjördur was nothing compared to the emissions in the Westman Islands and Kirkjubaejarklaustur, which measured 84 and 95 times over the authorized limit in 2007, respectively.

As if that wasn’t outrageous enough, the waste burning station in Kirkjubaejarklaustur is located in the same building as the town’s elementary school.

Is the potential hazard of dioxin pollution being downplayed—apparently, not much is known about the effects of such pollution—or are we looking at an Erin Brockovich scenario here?

Now medical examinations will be conducted on people living in these areas. Just to be on the safe side, they say. Dioxin in people is mostly caused by consumption of the chemical, not inhalation.

According to national broadcaster RÚV, possible consequences of dioxin pollution are cancer, liver damage, impotence and development problems in fetuses and children. Just minor ailments…

The worst part is that people already knew in 2007 that these waste burning stations were emitting far more dioxin than allowed, yet nothing was done. The public wasn’t even informed of the risks. Why? This environmental catastrophe could have been prevented.

In an interview on RÚV’s radio station Rás 2 on Wednesday, Environment Minister Svandís Svavarsdóttir (who took office in 2009), explained that she didn’t have the authority to shut down the polluting waste burning stations.

Apparently, this whole story has been an administrative blunder from the start.

As I’ve understood it, everyone but the municipalities who operate the waste burning stations and/or whose financial interests lie in their continued operation lack the authority to close them down and the local authorities prioritized the municipality’s financial interests above public health.

They were informed of the risks and given advice on how to avoid them but chose to turn a deaf ear, a decision which has blown up in their faces.

To quote Alanis Morissette: “It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take. Who would have thought… it figures. […] Isn’t it ironic?”

But Svavarsdóttir is set on vacuuming under the rug.

She has notified the municipalities in question of her wish that they shut down or at least significantly reduce the operations of the waste burning stations until further testing has been conducted.

There is also a bill pending, stating that those who cause damage to the environment take responsibility for it, an independent commission will investigate who was responsible in the dioxin pollution affair and the minister has called for a clause on the public’s right to information and a healthy environment be included in the Icelandic Constitution.

Our constitution is so obviously flawed… who said we didn’t need a new one?

Right now the Constitutional Assembly elects are fighting for their rightful authority to review the constitution. Fingers crossed.

Unlike many of her predecessors, Svavarsdóttir seems to actually care about the environment. Some of the previous environment ministers would think along the lines of: “Our country is so clean that it’s safe to pollute some more.”

I kid you not. This blunder can all be traced back to the time when Iceland asked for an exemption from a European directive adapted in 2003, one which includes strict guidelines on pollution and which Icelandic authorities took part in fighting for.

The irony of the ordeal would be hilarious if it hadn’t been so tragic.

I can only hope that Icelanders—all Icelanders—take this as a wakeup call and realize that if they want Iceland to remain pure and clean, they have to contribute. If it isn’t already too late.

Eygló Svala Arnarsdóttir –

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