Home European News ‘Privatising profits but socialising losses’. Three tales of Nordic ecological negligence

‘Privatising profits but socialising losses’. Three tales of Nordic ecological negligence

‘Privatising profits but socialising losses’. Three tales of Nordic ecological negligence

Miranda Bryant in The Guardian calls it “one of the worst environmental disasters in the country’s history”: a landslide consisting of two million tonnes of contaminated soil is slowly advancing on the village of Ølst in Denmark’s Jutland region, threatening to devastate the local ecosystem, including the Alling Å river. Local residents fear that their village, as Rasmus Karkov puts it in Danish daily Berlingske, “risks being buried in sludge, slag, contaminated soil and sand, permeated with the rot of dead mink”. The landslide originated from a plant run by Nordic Waste, which, as The Local explains, processes waste coming “mainly from Denmark’s mink farms, which were ordered to shut down during the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as some imported waste from Norway.” 

So far, so scandalous, but what comes next is perhaps the real reason this affair has come to be known as “The Nordic Waste Scandal”. Following injunctions from the Ministry of the Environment in January, Nordic Waste promptly declared bankruptcy, leaving Danish taxpayers with an initial bill of around 27 million euro. The Danish consultancy firm COWI estimates that cleanup could in fact end up costing over two billion kroner (over 268 million euro). This has led British earth scientist Dave Petley to describe the affair as “a classic case of privatising profits but socialising losses”. It’s an even more bitter pill to swallow when we learn from the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland (GEUS) that the landslide actually began back in 2021, but only started accelerating in recent months.

The largest shareholder in Nordic Waste, Torben Ostergaard-Nielsen, is Denmark’s sixth richest man, with a net worth estimated at over 5.5 billion euro. As Lone Andersen and Jesper Høberg write In Finans, another Danish billionaire, Bent Jensen, is less than impressed with Ostergaard-Nielsen: “If you own so many billions, does it matter if you spend 2 billion kroner to clean up after yourself?” The sentiment is echoed by Denmark’s social-democrat Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen. Asked about Nordic Waste’s bankruptcy while visiting the site of what she called an “ongoing disaster”, Frederiksen said to The Local Denmark that “I can’t think of anything good to say about it. The bill could easily have been paid if [Nordic Waste] wanted to”.

Andersen and Høberg also reached out to the other nine richest people in Denmark (including the Lego family), and asked if they would see it as their “moral and social responsibility to contribute to cleanup and prevention”.  Several of these billionaires responded that they didn’t want to answer the journalists’ questions, while the rest didn’t even bother to respond.

One final irony in all this is that Nordic Waste’s founder, David Peter York, was boasting on Amtsavisen of making the region affected by the landslide “Denmark’s leader in sustainable environmental and waste businesses that focus on recyclability”, right when reports were already suggesting the imminent threat that his facility posed to the local environment. As Rasmus Karkov explains on Berlingske, York is fluent in all the “buzzwords” of ecological responsibility, and collaborated with several green companies in the area. In the end, a slick, greenwashed facade finally gave way to a torrent of filth. 

The Nordic Waste scandal is not the only impending ecological disaster that Denmark has to worry about. Mads Lorenzen and Kresten Andersen in Finans discuss the “ticking environmental bomb that sails Danish waters every day”: namely, the so-called “shadow fleet” of Russian and Greek ships transporting sanctioned oil through the Danish straits. While many are concerned, Newsweek reports, with the fact that Russia is using a variety of tricks involving shell companies and tax havens to obfuscate the oil’s connection to Moscow (thereby circumventing sanctions), for others the primary concern is ecological.

Besides the murkiness of their origin and ownership, the tankers in question are often old and not fully insured, and they often contain crews who have little experience with Denmark’s busy and turbulent waters. This has led Denmark’s National Audit Office to publish a report exposing the Ministry of Defence’s lack of preparedness in the event of an oil or chemical spill. With a darkly amusing example, Lorenzen and Andersen explain just how slow a cleanup operation can be: “three years ago it took 27 hours for a response vessel to reach the scene of an accident. Luckily, it was just a drunken captain on a relatively intact ship filled with fertiliser.” Less amusingly, the Ministry of Defence’s fleet of response vessels was already obsolete in 1996 (the National Audit Office had already issued such warnings back in 2016). Michelle Bockmann of Lloyd’s List Intelligence calls the situation “a disaster waiting to happen”.

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The shadowy provenance and shaky insurance status of these ships is also a financial liability. In the case of catastrophe, Danes could very well end up (once again) footing the bill. Among other short and long term solutions, Danish author and centre-left politician Christian Friis Bach wants Denmark to abolish its opt-out so that European Union law can be used to fight environmental crime with stronger penalties, and help the country to pursue criminals across national borders, The Local Denmark reports. “It doesn’t help much against Russians who are not in the EU, but it’s a good start,” Bach told Finans. 

Further north, Norway is at risk of committing what environmentalists (and an increasing number of national and international institutions) call ecocide. Members of Seas at Risk and Ecocide Alliance, among others, warn in EUObserver that the Scandinavian country’s decision to allow deep-sea mining in the Arctic will cause “long-lasting disruption to climate stability and marine health.” For the authors, Norway’s decision meets the legal definition of ecocide: “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” On this basis, the authors argue that the European Union and the international community should demand that Norway reverse its decision.

In fact, as Reporterre reports, on 7 February the European Parliament adopted a resolution demanding that Norway protect the Arctic ecosystems and call a moratorium on deep-sea mining. Greenpeace France have called the resolution a victory. It remains to be seen whether Norway cedes to international pressure. After all, they have already ignored the concerns of scientists, civil society, the Norwegian Environmental Agency, and a petition signed by over 500,000 people. 

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