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4 August 1999 Edition

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Councillors under fire over South East incinerator

By Roisin De Rosa
     
People have this idea that burning up means that it all disappears in a puff of smoke. But that isn't so. In physics, nothing whatever disappears. It merely changes its form, leaving highly toxic waste

``I didn't vote for incineration - no way did I,'' Fine Gael Councillor Dick Dowling said.

``You voted for the South East Regional Plan, which recommends incineration, didn't you?'' replied one of an audience of over 500 at the Rhu Glen Hotel two weeks ago. The meeting was organised by the Waterford-Kilkenny Incinerator Study Group in Slieverue.
Far from the catch cry `waste-to-energy', it is waste of energy. Recycling the materials typically burned up in an incinerator saves three to five times the energy that would be generated by burning them up
 

People at the meeting wanted to know how the councillors in five of the six constituent local authorities in the South East Regional Authority (SERA) area had voted to accept the so-called Strategy Study commissioned by SERA to consider a waste disposal strategy for the region. The study recommends incineration.

The strategy study outlines different options for dealing with garbage. But it comes down in favour of a `thermal treatment of combustible fraction' (an incinerator by any other name) to be placed in what it calls the `SKEWWW Box', an area comprised of South Kilkenny, East Wexford, West Waterford.

Of the six regional authorities, only Wexford County Council held out. At their council meeting, the councillors had asked for more information. They still haven't voted on the strategy study from the South East Regional Authority.

On the very spot


ESB International, Iarnród Éireann and a French waste management company, SAUR Utilities, have also weighed in behind the proposed incinerator. Not surprising, really, when one sees that the ESB has a power station at Campile, below New Ross in West Wexford and Iarnród Éireann runs a rail-line to the suggested location.

The estimated cost of construction is between £70 million and £80 million, to fry up to 400,000 tons of waste a year.

According to the director of SERA, Tom Byrne, no one in SERA knew anything about this until January of this year. An amazed Michael Prendergast, a member of the Research and Information Group based in Campile, asked incredulously:

``So how was it that this consortium got to make a proposal in the first place? Who asked anyone to tender for an incinerator at Campile, well before Wexford County Council had even considered the Strategy Study, still less agreed it?''

According to Wexford Fianna Fáil TD John Browne, who says he is totally opposed to the incinerator idea, it was the Wexford County Council Manager, Seamus Dooley, who asked for it.

But a spokesperson for Wexford County Council denies asking for a proposal from the consortium. The spokesperson said that the ESB - ``which is very committed to renewable energy policy, given the shortage of fossil fuels'' - was aware of the SERA interest in waste-to-energy and, without invitation, presented the proposal to the county council.

County Manager Dooley is quite involved in environmental issues, as he is one of the two local authority representatives on the Environmental Protection Agency's Advisory Committee. But SERA views this proposal as ``premature'', according to Tom Byrne.

`I didn't vote for incineration'


``Yes, I voted for the plan. There were lots of good things in it,'' Fine Gael Councillor Dick Dowling admitted at the public meeting in the Rhu Glen Hotel. ``But I didn't vote for incineration. I'm against it.'' Dowling added that councillors can only do so much. ``I am just representing the views of the people.''

``Well, he certainly didn't do a great job representing them when he voted for incineration,'' John Dwyer, Sinn Féin councillor for New Ross told An Phoblacht. ``It was quite clear to the whole meeting that any of the councillors who had voted for the strategy had no clear idea at all of what they were voting for.''

But, as one speaker at the Rhu Glen Hotel pointed out, the strategy study doesn't actually mention `incinerator' at all, still less `toxic ash' or `dioxins', or where the strategy study suggests these would like to put this stuff. Instead it talks about `eco-parks', `energy-recovery', `integrated planning', `innovative technologies', `sustainability' and, of course, `renewable resources of waste-to-energy'.

And that is the strategy that the Department of the Environment announced in its policy statement `Changing Our Ways', championed by Wexford TD and one-time Environment Minister Brendan Howlin at the Wexford Chamber of Commerce waste management seminar in June.

It seems that a lot of political representatives think incineration is a good idea.

`Changing Our Ways'


Deputy Brendan Howlin explained how previous targets in waste management had not been met. Over the next 15 years, the government has to reduce the disposal of municipal waste to landfills by 50 per cent, and to recycle 35 per cent of municipal waste and 50 per cent of construction waste. In the shift away from landfill sites, we will be down to 20 ``state of the art'' facilities, with energy recovery, in the next six years.

The people in the South East Regional Authority area would seem to be less confident about the 20 ``state of the art energy recovery facilities'', especially if this is another euphemism for incinerators.

They might be right. The EU has imposed targets for waste management. It requires member states to stop dumping all the garbage into a hole in the ground (landfill) and instead start to reduce, re-use and recycle as much waste as possible. Some states have reached percentages of well over 50 per cent already for the 3 Rs (reduce, re-use and recycle) of waste disposal of municipal rubbish.

But disposal of our waste through the 3 Rs stands at some 5 per cent. Burning it up would appear to be the ideal solution. Burning reduces the bulk by some 70 per cent, which means that much less to put into landfill. And if you can get power off the incinerator, then you have a sustainable, waste-to-energy cycle, renewing resources all the way. And everyone knows that sustainability and renewable resources get brownie points in today's world of waste.

Well, that's the theory. But it was clearly explained at the Rhu Glen meeting that it is nonsense.

Waste doesn't disappear toxins


``People have this idea that burning up means that it all disappears in a puff of smoke,'' Michael O Cadhla, a local environmentalist, explained to the Rhu Glen meeting. ``But that isn't so. In physics, nothing whatever disappears. It merely changes its form, leaving highly toxic waste in the form of ash and so-called fly ash, the ash that is captured in the stack before going into the air.''

Numerous highly toxic metals - like lead, cadmium, arsenic, mercury and chromium, all highly toxic - are released in the process of incineration. Incineration breaks down the toxic metals into tiny pieces: particulates. Garbage starts off as fairly large items. Inside the combustion chamber, garbage breaks down into billions of small pieces, called ash.

The internationally authoritative Rachel's Hazardous Waste News points out that a one-pound lump of garbage has a surface area of about 44 square inches, the size of a large post-card. But if you burn it up, you will increase its surface area to 9,900 square yards - about the area of two football pitches! So, when the ash is deposited in landfill sites, its leachate surface is far greater, and it therefore leaches all the more rapidly.

You can put the ash into glass. The costs of this process are, of course, high but here's where the `polluter pays' principle comes into play.

The Department of the Environment's policy statement says that it is very important that all local authorities consult each other because regional consistency in gate fees is essential if waste is not going to be redirected towards the cheapest facility. In other words, prices have to be standardised.

And then there are the dreaded dioxins, part of the emissions. Dioxins are some of the most dangerous chemicals known. They are known to cause birth defects, cancer, and damage to the immune and nervous systems. They are produced when ordinary plastics are burned. At high temperatures they may break down, but reconstitute on cooling. An incinerator which is to produce power must draw off the heat, through boilers, to generate steam to drive turbines. This has to have a slow cooling of these gases. Slow cooling allows the dioxins to recombine.

Waste of energy


Incinerators mean very few jobs from a massive investment, the costs of which rise all the time. Standards for emissions get tighter and tighter as science races to find out more about the characteristics of emissions, which in many cases are little understood.

Far from the catch cry `waste-to-energy', it is waste of energy. As already pointed out, recycling the materials typically burned up in an incinerator saves three to five times the energy that would be generated by burning them up.

It is for these reasons - as well as the `Precautionary Principle' that says, `If you don't know for sure that something won't do damage, then don't do it' - that building incinerators in the United States has come to a standstill.

Speaking last October, Professor Connett, a chemistry professor from St Lawrence University in New York, pointed out that there is not one active proposal to build a trash incinerator of any significant size in the United States. Most major incinerator companies, including Westinghouse and General Electric, are pulling out of this business entirely. Incinerators in the U.S. are a dying breed. There are only three companies left in the business, one of which is Wheelabrator, owned by Waste Management Inc; this company is looking to develop a mega-landfill at Silvermines in North Tipperary.

``The point,'' Michael Prendergast of the Research and Information Group argued at the public meeting in the Rhu Glen, ``is that the choice is not essentially between landfill as against incineration; it's about reducing waste, recycling and re-using. Where materials cannot be dealt with in these ways, then it is a matter of the polluter either paying for their disposal or changing the technology of the production process. Above all, it's about nurturing resources which are in limited supply on earth.

``Waste-to-energy is neither sustainable nor an example of renewing resources. It is merely destroying resources such as the heavy metals, the land, the rivers, and the health of human beings and their children. `Waste-to-energy' is a misnomer.''

Many people feared the warnings given at the Rhu Glen meetings that an incinerator might be just around the corner if councillors do not genuinely represent the electorate's views by rejecting the waste strategy study of the Regional Authority.

The Department of the Environment's policy statement, `Changing Our Ways', talks grandly of the need to plan in an `integrated way', by which is meant, by regions, not counties. It also refers to `economies of scale' to be attained by regional planning.

``What economies of scale does the policy statement intend if it isn't the minimum economic size of an incinerator which, for efficiency, must take in at least 100,000 tons of waste a year?'' Michael Prendergast asked. ``The consortium looking to build at Great Island, Campile, envisages 400,000 tons of waste throughput per annum.''

Economics dictates that incineration could never be seen as a one-county solution, but when several are considered, then some people are hopeful that incineration comes into its own.

People at the meeting asked what the local action group advised. Michael Prendergast asked people in the area to go back to their councillors, tell them the dangers of incinerators, and ask them to raise the matter again in their councils - before it is too late.

Reading the resolutions


One person at the meeting asked: ``Can the councillors go against the manager?'' There was a silence. Despite the presence of several councillors at the meeting, no one answered. Then, quietly, a voice came from nowhere: ``No, they can't.'' Not one of the councillors chose to mention the powers of councillors, which extend to sacking their manager, to Section 4s, or Section 30s, or even just plain not following the manager's advice on how councillors should vote.

``There is nothing to stop councillors looking for separate legal or scientific advice,'' Michael Prendergast said, pointing out that County Cork councillors did this when it came to voting on pylons across Cobh; they rejected the idea, using a Section 30 motion.

Sure, there is nothing to stop councillors, if they want to represent the views of the people, from reading what they have in front of them to vote on - before they vote.

``It's the function of each council and corporation individually or jointly, to agree to and adopt a waste management plan.'' It's a pity the councillors didn't seem to know what the plan was. Or did they?
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