Irish Times - 13-12-05
The more serious industrial players have, correctly, chosen to deal on site with their own waste, writes Marcia D'Alton
'Why has it taken so long to get two incinerators, one toxic and one municipal, to virtual approval level?" asks Susan Philips in The Irish Times (December 1st). Let us get one fact straight. It is not two incinerators which have now got to virtual approval level, but three.
That at Carranstown, Co Meath, is as reported. But Indaver Ireland, the Belgian-owned company behind both projects, proposes to construct two incinerators at Ringaskiddy. One is permitted to burn hazardous waste, while the second is for non-hazardous waste only.
It hasn't taken "so long" to get incineration in this State. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has already licensed the operation of 10 hazardous waste incinerators. Six of these are in Cork Harbour. So, rather than packing their bags as Ms Philips fears, the more serious industrial players - and major waste producers - have, quite correctly, chosen to deal on site with their own waste. That we have taken so long to get a mass-burn incinerator - the toss it all in variety - to virtual approval level is an entirely different matter. Unfortunately, whether one is pro-incineration (as Ms Philips clearly is) or pro-zero waste (as she clearly is not), there is only one answer: we did not care enough. In the buzz of our booming economy, few gave a thought to the waste by-products of the new consumer age.
It all started to go wrong in 1999, when the Landfill Directive decreed that holes in the ground could no longer be treated as such. The usual ostrich stance was failing. In 2001, Ireland's poor landfill management was referred to the European Court of Justice. Acute landfill shortage highlighted the expense of proper waste management. Bin charges all over the country rocketed and landfill gate fees soared.
On the surface, the trends were good. Household recycling rates increased from 3.2 per cent in 1995 to 9.3 per cent in 2002. Commercial recycling rates more than doubled. But this was a knee-jerk reaction to increasing waste charges, not a sudden cry for sustainability. Below the surface, the more sinister reality was that waste from households had risen by 16 per cent, while commercial waste increased by a phenomenal 136 per cent.
What should a desperate government do? What can deal with all waste types, doesn't mind burgeoning volumes or recycling failure, is tried and tested and is not landfill? There is but one answer: incineration. Ms Philips was right about one thing: the scientific debate has indeed been lost. As the threat of the European Court drew closer, bulletins informing of the benefits and benign nature of incineration were produced post-haste by Government departments and the EPA. The only study approaching scientific analysis, published by the Health Research Board in 2003, said: "Further research, using reliable estimates of exposure over long periods of time is required to determine whether living near . . . incinerators increases the risk of developing cancer."
Do the Viennese know something we don't? The centrally-located artistic statement so highlighted by Ms Philips was not thus placed either out of deep scientific knowledge or because it "cuts down on the truck travelling". The Spittelau incinerator was constructed to provide heat for the New General Hospital, 2 km away. Unlike Ireland, Vienna boasts one of the largest district heating networks in Europe, with 900 km of pipeline serving more than 200,000 households and 4,400 industrial customers.
And did Spittelau rain dioxins down on the Viennese? Well, it may have. When the plant was constructed in 1971, it had no emissions control other than an electrostatic precipitator to catch dust. In those days, this was considered adequate. It wasn't until 1984 that Spittelau was fitted with flue-gas scrubbing. Dioxin removal wasn't installed until 1989.
Spittelau is one of three municipal incinerators in Austria. These provide a total burn capacity of 513,000 tonnes to Austria's population of 8.2 million. The Republic's 10 regional waste management plans envisage a total domestic incinerative capacity of 1.46 million tonnes. In other words, we plan nearly three times the incinerative capacity of Austria for a State with half Austria's population.
Waste prevention is not recycling, Ms Philips. Austrians started municipal composting in 1956. Source separation was introduced in the early 1990s. There are 520-odd plants in Austria for treating separately collected organic waste, 89 plants for separating recyclables and 38 material recycling plants. This puts three incinerators into perspective. Moreover, all residual waste is processed for recovery of the high calorific fraction. Only residual waste of high calorific value may be burned. But, while perhaps "way up on the scale of recycling", failure to adequately prevent waste generation is regarded as one of the greatest environmental challenges in Austria.
And what of that ever-esoteric hazardous fraction? The Austrians have their own "national hazardous waste incinerator" in Simmering, Vienna. Again, we have beaten them at the capacity stakes. The Simmering plant can treat 70,000 tonnes of waste each year, whereas that at Ringaskiddy has a licensed capacity of 100,000 tonnes. Oh, my - Ms Philips claims that "hundreds and thousands of jobs depend on us getting this right". Could we have made it too big? Let's sort out yet more misinformation. Ireland's "first toxic burner" (actually, 11th toxic burner, Ms Philips) is a co-incineration plant. It is licensed to treat both hazardous and non-hazardous waste. This is certainly not strategy as outlined in the EPA's National Hazardous Waste Management Plan and raises a second issue. Austria's Simmering plant uses a rotary kiln burner, perfect for hazardous waste destruction. According to the Inter -governmental Panel on Climate Change, anything other than a rotary kiln would be used for hazardous waste "only in exceptional circumstances". Guess what? Ireland's new national hazardous waste incinerator isn't a rotary kiln! It is a fluidised bed burner. This works beautifully - on waste-water sludge. Sludge in a hazardous waste incinerator? Clever rebranding! In fact, the only part of our new national hazardous waste incinerator with a design specifically recommended for hazardous waste is the post-combustion chamber into which 40,000 tonnes of liquid, high calorific value solvents will be directly injected annually. The rest of the hazardous waste stream will continue to be exported for disposal, just as the residue from Austria's incinerators is exported to Heilbronn, Germany, for disposal in disused salt mines. Export is an integral part of the international hazardous waste market.
So is incineration really part of an integrated waste management strategy or have we suddenly begun to care? Sadly, I don't think so.
Marcia D'Alton is a non-party member of Passage West Town Council, and an environmental engineer
© The Irish Times
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment