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Environmental Atlas is a collection of articles of environmentalist groups at Hamburg, offered in an uniform format of text and maps. Its first edition appeared 1992, edited by "Foerderverein Umweltschutz Unterelbe", an independent environmental library. In 1997 an internet version was launched, which at the time is prepared to appear under its own URL:


4.1 Norddeutsche Affinerie




Streetnames like "Copper Mill Way" give hints to the Hamburgian tradition of copper trade and copper processing. When Hamburgian ships began to sail tropical seas, the vessels' hulls were plated with copper sheet, to protect them against fouling. Public buildings, churches, and merchant buildings often got a copper roof because of its durability.

The precedent of Norddeutsche Affinerie was a gold and silver smelter, operated by Salomon Beit. A fire in the year 1780 is noticed on the city's record. Beit's heritage was expanded, to include copper smelting in 1846, and the factory relocated from the city to the opposite bank of the river Elbe. The new factory "Elbe Copper Works" was permitted by the Hamburgian authorities under the condition, to dilute the smelter smoke through an 85 m chimney, the tallest of its time in Germany. Smelter smoke was known as hazardous because of its arsenic content. After going bankrupt, the company was resurrected, changing its name to "Norddeutsche Affinerie" in 1866. The word "Affinery" signifies, that the utility does not merely produce raw copper, but purifies it and applies a variety of metallurgical processes. The factory was relocated again in 1908, to the most remote eastern corner of the Hamburgian harbour at that time, where it remained till today. Chimneys grew taller.

The company today

In 1998 2,200 workers produced 365,000 tons of copper. 245,000 t came from copper ore concentrate, 120,000 t from scrap. 500,000 t sulfuric acid are an inevitable byproduct, when sulfidic ores are roasted. Gold, silver, and minor quantities of platinum metals, that accompany ores and scrap, are recovered from the electrolytic purification of raw copper, and yielded 17 t gold and 370 t silver. Sales in 1998 reached US$ 1.25 billion, the net profit paid to shareholders was US$ 26 mill.
100 Mio m3 of surface water, mainly for cooling, taken from the river Elbe, and an area of 50 hectares, indicate the size of industrial operation of that company.
Aerial foto of NA site (source: NA; delineation added by author)

Impact to Environment

In the course of decades, Affi applied a large variety of production schemes. Because of their skill to recover valuables from scrap, Affi people called it "the metallurgical ashtray". Besides the bulk of copper and its byproducts, various smaller production lines left their footprints to enviroment, to air, water, and soil. 15 years ago, 50,000 tons/year of lead were part of Affi's offers.

The largest weight of emissions has been, and still is, sulfurdioxide from the roasting of coppersulfide ores. When roasting gas has passed the sulfuric acid assembly line, 1,500 tons/year of SO2 leave the chimneys today. 15 years ago, efficiency of this device was poor, so more than 3,000 tons/year were emitted. Sulfurdioxide forms acid rain, that detoriates trees, buildings, and even copper sheet roofs. Various trace metals accompany copper ores. Some are recovered completely, like silver and gold, but some are not worth the effort. Thus lead, cadmium, and arsenic were discharged to water and air in considerable quantities.

The "Environment Protection Group Physics/Geosciences", abbreviated the "Geos" (wantoks of "Save the Elbe") conducted a large research program of metals contamination in the Hamburgian harbour from 1978 till 1981. As students at Hamburg University, they had access to analytical laboratories. A small channel in the Hamburg harbour systems was the first target of Affi's discharges. There, the Geos found the typical residues of Affi's in the sediments. Concentrations are displayed as 10fold units (copper 20fold) of standard background of unaffected sediments. Some concentrations reach the level of ore deposits.

By numerous publications of the Geos, the problem was brought to knowledge of the public, and even to Hamburgian authorities. First, the Geos were blamed, to work not scientifically sound. Then, the Department of Buildings and the Department of Environment ordered their labs, to investigate the contamination of soils throughout the state area. The result was frustrating, because the findings of the Geos were more than confirmed. Following the dominating direction of wind, highest concentrations of arsenic and copper were found in soils. It seemed not advisory, to grow certain crop, that accumulate copper and arsenic, in an area northeast of Affi. However, authorities tried to keep their findings secret. But the news leached to the leftist newpaper "die tageszeitung", that launched an extra edition titled "Deadly Threat by Northgerman Affinery".

Solid waste is formed from exhaust gas purification, and slags. Exhaust gas scrubbers have the purpose to remove sulfuroxides, and preciptitating this by addition of lime. Trace contminants like arsenic are removed, too. The resulting sludge of former years was disposed on an area, where now utility east has been built. Affi is founded firmly on its own toxic waste, which means, it will remain there, and possibly spoil ground water, because it cannot be transferred to a safe place. Slags, iron silicates with traces of copper and its companions, are turned from waste to products, that may be sold. Slag stones serve to fix river banks, because of their high specific weight. Organisms like algae and hydrae, that grow on slag stones, show significant aberrations.

It's all legal

Any operation of a company has to be permitted by state authority. So does Affi. Any permit, given long time ago, will last till more stringent law will require better performance. However: new legislation must not lead to economically undue restrictions of utilities, that already exist and are permitted. When federal goverment and parliament imposed more stringent laws on emissions from utilities, Affi and most Hamburgian companies rejected the orders of the Environmental Department. It took negotiations, to move companies to improve environmental performance. Affi was subsidized with US$ 20 million by state government, to refurbish its plant.

Control of permits is poor. Through 50 pipes waste water is discharged. From only few of them, samples are taken by the Environmental Department. 15 times a year, for two hours, waste water is sampled, which means 30 hours of 8760 hours of the year. Sampling occurs stochastically, but not at night nor on sunday, and is not correlated to the state of production process. Discharge values published by the Environmental Department. are by no means reliable or representative. Emission to air values depend on what the company declares to the Environmental Department, there is no independent check.

Water quality control by the Environmental Department. never aimed at sources of contamination. Till today, the measurements of "Geos" come most close to the discharges of Affi. The Environmental Department. always kept a distinguished distance to any discharge pipe.

Never trust a company!

1988 people in Billstedt, a quarter of Hamburg 8 km northeast of Affi, frequently complained about the smell of burned plastics. The Environmental Department knew no answer, but the "Billstedt Environmental Noses" followed the track, that lead to one of Affi's smelting ovens, were electronic equipment scrap was added. Slowly burning plastics, especially polyvinylchlorides, do not only produce bad odour, but highly toxic byproducts like dioxins. Confronted with this finding, the Environmental Authority admitted, they had given a preliminary permit to Affi for a trial phase. Affi had to stop its dirty practice, applied for an unlimited permit to burn electronic scrap in a hotter and more modern furnace, and finally got it. If not for the "Noses", Affi would have continued with the old device till its technical breakdown.

Any company wants to make as much profit as possible, environment gone, money come. State authorities are always supportive to business. This explains the need for control by independent environmentalist groups. May Affi declare to be the most environmental friendly copper smelter of the world, we will check that first.

Klaus Baumgardt


  • Umweltschutzgruppe Physik/Geowissenschaften: Gl”nzende Gesch”fte - Umwelt hin, Geld her; (Environment Protection Group Physics/Geosciences: Bright Business - Environment Gone, Money Come) Hamburg 1985
  • NA Business Reports

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