11 January 2001 Edition

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The year of waste disposal


Waste disposal and charges were at the core of local politics throughout 2000. The issue has now reached crisis point, with Environment Minister Noel Dempsey threatening to close down Dublin Corporation this Friday if councillors do not vote the way he wants.

Under the surface of waste charges is the issue that has Minister Noel Dempsey threatening local government in every region: he wants incinerators, the people don't. The cost of incineration is high and open ended. The minister is anxious that householders should meet the bill.

The fight against privatisation

It all began in Drogheda between Christmas 1999 and New Year 2000. Out of the blue, Drogheda householders were told there wouldn't be any more corporation waste collections in the city, but Wheelie Bins Ltd., a Dundalk-based company, would be available to collect a £90 charge to householders in return for collecting their waste.

The Corporation management hadn't seen fit to tell the corpo bin men they had lost their jobs. Nor had they seen fit to put the contract for the city's waste collection out to tender. Similar moves to privatise waste collection were made in Bray and in County Wicklow.

The binmen fought for their jobs, the people besieged the councillors, and the councils backtracked. Then Cork and Limerick took up the gauntlet and the fight against the introduction of waste charges spread onto the streets, to Munster.

The Battle of the Burn

Alongside these campaigns, which are just beginning, the battle of the burn began. The minister, through regional waste management plans, usually drafted by consultancy M.C.O'Sullivans, proposed that every region get at least one incinerator. However, in every region at least one council rejected the proposed plans.

Wexford County Council rejected an incinerator last year for the South East Region, following on a great victory in Kilcock, where a whole community came together, from stud farmers to village residents, and successfully campaigned to throw out a proposal for an incinerator for hazardous waste.

The campaign to wake people up to the dangers of incineration really got into its stride in Galway, where campaigners collected 22,000 signatures. A mass meeting of over 1,000 people was held. Experts Paul Connett, Vyvyan Howard and Conchúr Ó Brádaigh explained that incinerators had disastrous consequences for human and animal health and that they were unnecessary. Rates of over 50% diversion from landfill or incineration of householders' rubbish could be attained by composting organic/kitchen waste, and by separate collection, door to door, of recyclables, cans, glass, and paper.

Despite phone calls from Minister Dempsey to every councillor prior to the vote, the councillors of Galway City and County threw out M.C.O'Sullivans' proposal for an incinerator in the Connaught Region.

Longford Council threw out the plan, as did Roscommon, Laois and Donegal, where the proposal was for a cross border incinerator based near Derry. Monaghan councillors amended their plan beyond all recognition.

Finally, a marathon battle took place in Louth, where Professor Paul Connett again came over from America to address the councillors, and after thousands of signatures were gathered across the county, the councillors rejected incineration for the North East area.


And then, the bombshell. Dublin Corporation put charges for waste collection into the Estimates for 2001. The Corporation's executive argued for the charges on the basis that an ``exciting and brand new waste management programme'' was to come into effect, which could concentrate on recycling and minimising waste, (and of course at least one incinerator for the city) and that householders were going to have to pay.

However, the new waste plan was of course purely aspirational. Kerbside, which collected, door to door, cans glass and plastic bottles, was closed down in March, apparently because they ran up an exorbitant debt and were dropping most of the recyclables off into landfill.

The aspiration for a ``New Waste Management Programme'' for the city appeared even more tawdry when it emerged that the company which was to carry out the separated waste collections of papers and cans, was a shell company called Oxigen, formed between Drogheda's old friend, Wheelie Bins Ltd. And the J.R. Bailey Paper company. Neither Wheelie Bins nor Baileys had any capacity to recycle anything much, but Wheelie Bins seemed set to get the monopoly interest to supply the wheelie bins and collect cans and paper for the whole of the North East Leinster area, with some half a million households.

Shady areas of Private Public Partnerships

Then, people in Togher, County Louth, started a campaign about a 50-acre site where a large amount of asbestos had been dumped, and the council, responsible in the last resort for dealing with hazardous waste, seemed oblivious to the site's dangers. And then it came out that the owner of this asbestos site was none other than one of the two directors of Wheelie Bins Ltd. Dundalk, the very partnership that Louth County Council manager had selected for their private-public partnership to gather up waste in the County. The asbestos dump site was scheduled to become a waste recovery/recycling complex.

Meanwhile, despite the vote by the County Louth councillors rejecting an incinerator, several meetings were held at the end of the year, with invited guests, to consider an application for an incinerator to be built by Indaver, just over the county border in Meath. It didn't look great for local democracy.

Belfast Assembly Proposal for zero waste

The battle over the year has thrown up major political issues, many of which were raised in the Sinn Féin proposal to the Six-County Assembly in October, where the Sinn Féin proposal for a zero waste strategy was rejected, with both the SDLP and Alliance voting in opposition, on the grounds that the proposal was too idealistic. The issue of siting an incinerator in Co. Down, or in Co Louth, is an issue, like Sellafield, which concerns all the people of the island. Dioxins don't respect borders.

Private-public partnerships are unsuitable to meet social needs. Market prices and profits don't reflect social benefit. Recycling and composting may not be profitable, at present prices, but they are a social necessity.

Crisis over Dublin charges

Waste charges as high as £150 per annum are proposed in the Dublin Corporation Estimates. The only trouble is that the councillors refused to vote these estimates through. Christy Burke, leader of the Sinn Féin group of councillors, has proposed a whole shopping list of alternatives ways to raise the revenue. The revenues from the new taxi plates (2,000 plates at £5,000 a go); bringing landlords, who are swimming about in the windfall gains from the contrived housing shortages, into the rates category; revenues from the city's new Conference Centre, or charging rates on Government buildings. But all proposals have met a blank wall with the Corporation executive.

Fianna Fáil minister Noel Dempsey has threatened to close the council down and appoint a commissioner in the place of the elected representatives, if they didn't oblige and vote through the waste charges. The councillors have until this coming Friday to oblige.

Whatever happens on Friday, councillors are worried. Shades of Joe Higgins' Leinster House by-election victory on the back of the successful water rates campaign haunt them if they vote for the refuse charges.

But where was the Section 4 motion directing the city manager to revise the proposed estimates to meet the councillors' views? Minister Dempsey's proposals for the reform of local government and increase local democracy clearly state that the councillors should concentrate on policy, the executive should merely implement the policies of the councillors. So why doesn't the executive do that, and more to the point, why doesn't the Minister enforce this division of powers? Perhaps Minister Dempsey didn't really want local democracy after all?

We'll see on Friday.

An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
Dublin 1

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