Irish Times - 01-12-05
The burning of waste with energy recovery is the only sensible system available to us now, writes Susan Philips
The recent decision by the Environmental Protection Agency to issue licences for incinerators at Carranstown on the Meath/Louth border, and Ringaskiddy in Co Cork may at last mark a change in our treatment of waste. Both projects will be operated by Indaver Ireland, a subsidiary of a Belgian company which specialises in waste management.
For those who continue to oppose incineration, only a successful challenge concerning wrong procedural practices in the planning process can reverse the decisions. The EPA states that it is satisfied that the operation of both facilities will not endanger human health or harm the environment, so why all the fuss? Unfortunately what should have been a scientific debate has sunk into a political point scoring exercise where fear is fuelled by ignorance, egged on by political opportunism.
Modern technology uses fancy names to define various disposal methods for the increasing volumes of waste brought by an affluent society, but they all fit into the slogan "reuse, recycle, burn or bury". Going back as far as 1998 the Government policy statement, Changing our Ways, endorsed the European model of "a hierarchy of waste" where incineration is placed above landfill which is shown at the bottom of the pile.
Since then, some strides have been made in the area of recycling, and the general public, faced with high refuse bag charges, have seriously bought in to the concept. But it is the burn or bury part of what remains of the waste which so exercises our imaginations.
Faced with this choice, Ireland remains the only EU member state prepared to ignore technological progress in favour of consigning to Irish fields and valleys billions of dirty nappies annually along with other disgusting unmentionables such as dead cats, soiled mattresses, scraped up motorway badgers, and every other form of household and municipal waste. The fact that waste takes decades to rot, that methane rises and poisonous leachate descends, seems not to bother the green lobby, transfixed as they are with the mantra "zero waste policy" and anti-incineration rhetoric. Yes modern landfills have made enormous strides with liners and operational procedures, and they are all we have, but the main beneficiaries include the local vermin, the lawyers and the operators.
But change could be on its way. At Carranstown, a municipal incinerator could burn the vast majority of the area's household waste, and in addition heat local factories and homes. A fair deal you would imagine, unless of course we fail to catch the dioxins, the by-product of any incineration process. All three basic components of chlorinated dioxins (carbon, oxygen and chlorine) are everywhere present in nature, but with incineration, dioxins are formed as a result of too low a temperature burn, or inappropriate gas-washing equipment.
The American Federal Environmental Agency reported recently that household trash burned in one backyard barrel may release more dioxins, furans and other chlorine-containing pollutants into the air than hundreds of tonnes of trash burned by a major municipal waste incinerator. So how do the Europeans assess their options?
It is unlikely that the Viennese would be sufficiently ignorant to allow dioxins to be rained down upon their highly successful parade yet they have chosen to embrace the latest technology available by placing their plant with its art deco chimney facade bang smack in the centre of their city.
"It cuts down the truck travelling" is their rationale and an electronic chart visible from the passing trams informs the public daily on what the vapour contains, information which the Viennese take seriously and believe. In complete contradiction to Ciaran Cuffe's recent opinion that incineration leads to the perpetuation of waste generation rather than elimination, Austria is way up the scale of recycling whilst goody two shoes Germany, the arch recycler of Europe, has banned any untreated substance from what few landfills remain.
Meanwhile, Switzerland the Clean dug up her remaining landfills in the 1990s and trucked the contents to incinerators rather than pollute their valleys further.
But when we turn our attention to the removal of hazardous waste, we do not have the luxury of running it into the Cork drains or countryside. In order to keep the pharmaceutical and industrial plants of Ireland open, the vast majority of these chemical byproducts are exported to Continental venues for treatment and disposal. Recent EU policy states that such treatment must be near to the source of supply, and since these directives now have teeth to bite, Ringaskiddy in Cork was chosen as the venue for Ireland's first toxic burner. Hundreds of thousands of jobs, mainly in the southeast of the country, depend upon us getting this right.
So why has it taken so long to get two incinerators, one municipal, and one toxic, to virtual approval level? Yes, we have a protracted method for obtaining permission for both planning licences, and we have An Bord Pleanála to settle the appeals.
But the heart of the answer lies in our election system which necessitates politicians being all things to all people, imbued as they are in the knowledge that to avoid an anti-incinerator meeting, or to attend and speak against the flow, might well lose them the all important 7th preference votes. The public knows this well, and fuelled by misinformation concerning severe health hazards, the lobby takes on a power and force of its own.
Why otherwise would so many local Cork representatives blatantly condemn the Ringaskiddy plant as "gambling with the health of the people of Cork" whilst hypocritically allowing the same toxic waste to be trucked off to inconvenience the townsfolk of Dusseldorf?
If recent legislation had not been initiated to transfer most waste management powers away from the councillors and into the hands of unelected managers, both proposed incinerators would have long since died a natural death in the chambers of elected power.
We must all face up to the reality that with waste treatment, tough political decisions have to be made. To assume that "zero waste" is the solution is about as ridiculous as telling Mary Harney that the answer to crowded hospital corridors is zero illness. The burning of waste with energy recovery is the only present sensible system available to us. No doubt in the due course of time, innovative systems will include enclosed plants.
Susan Philips is a former independent member of Wicklow County Council
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Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment