21 January 1999 Edition

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No easy answers to problems of landfill sites

Roisín de Rossa went to Laois to see how the County Council's lack of action is adding to a growing environmental crisis

Kyletalisha is the county dump for Laois and surrounding areas. In behind the flower pots, and a tall security fence, with large notices advertising Laois County Council's commitment to environmental standards lies 120 acres of raised bog land upon which municipal and industrial waste had been dumped for over 30 years. In through the gates there is a line of lonely hoppers labelled for waste separation - oil, plastics, glass, textiles, bottles and cans - placed there by Rehab, and a plethora of notices proclaiming the virtues of recycling., and calling on clients to separate their garbage.

Compacting machines trundle back and forth crushing the refuse and the bog below, squeezing out the toxic leachate into the surface water level down into the clay base of the bog.. Does Laois County Council have a licence for this?

Kyletalisha does not have a licence. Following the 1996 Waste Management Act, all landfill sites need a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Laois applied early last year, only to discover that in the act it is specified that where sites take more than 25,000 tons a year, an Environmental Impact Study is also required. Environmental impact studies take a while and money to produce, checking up on the birds and the bees, the flora and fauna.

Meanwhile garbage continues to be dumped. Legal or illegal, it makes little difference what you call it. The reality is that the garbage has to go somewhere.

  Laois County Council has to move away from the idea that the Tidy Towns competition every year is an adequate way of protecting the environment. Participation of the community is essential to evolving an adequate waste management strategy for the county  
Brian Stanley

Kyletalisha has been a sensitive issue over the years. So sensitive in fact that when the An Phoblacht reporter agreed with one of the engineers to visit the on-site research project into leachate treatment for a guided tour, the County Secretary and the County Engineer both wanted to be part of the proceedings, and were.

Seven years ago there was outrage over the dump, when it emerged that £200,000, which was to be spent on remedial works at the dump, had actually been spent on reports, including an impact study and legal fees. A further £700,000 at that time was required to implement the recommendations of the report, much of which has now been done.

The research project at the site to investigate peat as a natural treatment for leachate - the highly toxic liquid which runs out of landfill dumps. The project is being jointly run by Kerry (at the Dingle dump), Laois and the EPA at a cost of around £500,000.

Leachate is drained out of the bog, into an HDPE (High density poly ethylene) lined collecting pool - a `lagoon' - and is then pumped into one of several huge silos containing six foot deep peat beds. The leachate is monitored as it comes in and out to test the effects of treatment through peat, and various points in the outflow into the river Triogue, which flows into the Barrow, are monitored by computers.

Of course the drains into the underlying bog across the 120 acre site are not already there, but as the County Engineer, Gerry McGlinchey explained, the site is being `retrospectively drained' with a network of pipes under the dump. The research project is mid-term, and it is too soon for results. But a number of dedicated people are involved in the project which may have major implications, be they positive or negative, for Kyletalisha, Dingle, and even further afield.

On these results depend the acceptability of the Kyletalisha dump as a properly administered landfill site which meets the conditions laid down by the EU and the 1996 Act. `Retrospective drainage' for retrospective impact assessment. Meanwhile the dumping goes on - what else can it do?

``But,'' says Brian Stanley, who is involved with a local environmental group based in Portlaoise and will be a Sinn Fein candidate in the forthcoming local elections in Portlaoise, ``it's not a matter of where, or how, to build landfill sites. It's a matter of getting away from landfill altogether. You can't blame Laois County Council for the mistakes of the past, for indiscriminate dumping across the bog site. There is no doubt that considerable effort is going into researching how to make this landfill site acceptable, if not safe. The real question is how much is the local authority doing to promote waste practices which reduce the need for landfill sites in the first place. We're talking about the Three R's, reduce, re-use, re-cycle, and Laois County Council is doing very little to promote these.''

Last year two community groups applied for funding to carry out environmental awareness. They were turned down. The County Secretary, Louis Brennan, reaffirmed the County Council's strong commitment to the Three R's, and waste separation at source. ``But the practice is different,'' says Brian.

In 1988 the council agreed to privatise waste collection. At the time Liam Hyland, now MEP, then a county councillor, argued that it was important that people should have a choice in waste collection. ``As if it matters who collects your garbage, so long as it goes?'' says Brian. ``But privatisation has brought heavy costs to the community.''

Council Secretary, Louis Brennan, points out that under the 1996 Act, the Local Authority has power to insist on separation of waste at source. But Tom O'Brien, who is one of the executive directors of Erwin Cobbe's waste disposal company, which collects 30 tons of garbage a day in Laois, Kildare and parts of Offaly, points out that they don't collect recycled paper at the moment. There is no market for recycled waste: Smurfit's, which used to buy paper to recycle for £10 a ton, not only don't buy it any longer, but actually charge for the delivery. It's hardly in Erwin Cobbe's interest to make separate collection of paper. Has Laois County Council instructed Cobbe to continue?

One immediate result is that the collection charges have risen astronomically in the town. Erwin Cobbe now charges £1 a bag. It was 50p. They charge £11.50 per month for the loan of the wheelie bins which they collect, which is £138 per annum per household. The monthly rate started at $4.50. There used to be six or seven rubbish collectors. But now Erwin Cobbe and Midland refuse have become the main collectors in town.

With delivery charges into Kyletalisha dump now at £25 a ton, there is no reason to believe that Midland Refuse or Erwin Cobbe will keep the price steady. Yet waste, which is the responsibility of the local authority, in some counties is collected free at the kerbside. Why are the Laois community having to pay so dear for waste disposal which does not even encourage separation?

As Brian pointed out to the County Secretary, ``the only way that waste separation will happen is through education and through free provision of separate containers for separated waste at kerbside collection. The ball stops with the local authority. Hiving off the responsibility to private enterprise, and using the market, and Mr Smurfit's predilection for the rainforest trees, to determine prices, ends up as an excuse to ignore the Three R's, or an incentive to dump rubbish all over the place, as is apparent on the bog laneways around Kyletalishisha.''

The council cannot be condemned for the environmental mistakes of the past, but as Brian says, ``The council has to move away from the idea that the Tidy Towns competition every year is an adequate way of protecting the environment. Participation of the community is essential to evolving an adequate waste management strategy for the county.''

Louis Brennan spoke enthusiastically about the participation of local people with councillors and county council officials on their landfill monitoring group which meets nearly monthly. When asked if the local people were funded, to enable training courses to deal with complicated environmental issues, or even money for babysitting to enable people to attend these meetings, he replied that ``We are not here to discuss women and babies.''

Is this what the council's slogans of `Developing Laois in harmony with nature' or `Forward, in Partnership with the community' come down to?

A crisis growing every day

If waste sorting and recycling became standard practice, more than two-thirds of domestic waste could be re-used or recycled.

Shortage of landfill sites has reached crisis proportions in Ireland. Existing dumps are full up and have to close. Finding new ones is a major problem. Environmentalists are saying that no landfill site is safe, no lining can be 100% effective against the highly toxic leachates. No one wants a landfill site near them.

Last week over 100 people in Ballinasloe stood out in the freezing weather to block access to their local dump at Poolboy. Galway City refuse was going to Galway Corporation dump at Carrowbrowne, until it was forced, on high court order, to close. The corpo started to dump the garbage into the Ballinasloe dump. Poolboy is only licensed by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) to take 40,000 tons of garbage. With the closure of Carrowbrowne, Poolboy becomes the only dump in the county which needs to dispose of over 100,000 tons per annum.

Local UDC members in Ballinasloe said they believed that the UDC was acting illegally in allowing Galway refuse into Poolboy. The protest was summarily stopped by an injunction taken by the UDC against the Ballinasloe picketers, and Galway City collections, which had been stopped, resumed.

The protesters, determined to fight the injunction came back to court last Monday (17 January) where in order to facilitate them to prepare their case against the UDC, the matter was adjourned until 11 February. Meanwhile the injunction stands, and the dumping of Galway's garbage at Poolboy, illegal or not, goes on.

At a Galway council meeting last Friday, councillors were enraged to hear that plans for investigating three sites for a county superdump were known to the people before the councillors were informed. Reluctant to see the issue become a political football between councillors in the forthcoming local elections, some councillors were relieved at the plan for a £40 million `thermal treatment' plant (another word for an incinerator) near the city.

Environmentalists have argued that incineration is worse than landfill, because although it reduces bulk, burning waste pollutes the atmosphere and the remaining highly toxic ash, consisting of very small particles, offers a bigger surface area for toxicity to leach into its environment.

But landfill problems are not limited to Co. Galway. Cork city and county dump at Kinsale Road is scheduled to close next year. A replacement has to be found. Dublin, which has over one million tons of residential and commercial waste to dispose of, faces similar problems, with the Ballealy tip head at Lusk scheduled to close in five years.

Under the 1996 Waste Management Act, local authorities bear the ultimate responsibility. While the problem is seen in terms of choosing between political constituencies for super dumps, it has no equitable, legal or sustainable solution. As Brian Stanley, a Sinn Fein candidate in Portlaoise, says, ``the Three R's do not amount to `educating' households to take their plastic bags back to Dunnes Stores, or passing leaflets round the schools and doors calling on people to sort their waste. It requires at least that each local authority enables householders to separate their waste at source and collects the sorted waste, without penalising householders with increasing costs.''

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