Poolbeg incinerator to fire up after 20 years of opposition

Waste-to-energy plant fitted with latest fire detection technology, says director

Dublin’s Poolbeg incinerator developed by US waste firm Covanta will be fully operational by August. We take a look inside. Video: Bryan O'Brien / Drone footage courtesy Covanta / Shannon Images


Twenty years after it was first proposed, and a decade since it was granted planning permission, the Poolbeg incinerator in Dublin will start burning waste from next month.

The massive building, which is the length of three football pitches and four metres taller than the Aviva Stadium, has taken less than 2½ years to build and is expected to be operating at full capacity by August.

Developed as a public-private partnership between US waste firm Covanta and the Dublin local authorities, the plant’s completion follows two decades of opposition from residents, city councillors, and local TDs from all parties.

One of the central objections to the plant was that it was oversized and would never fill its 600,000 tonne annual waste capacity. John Daly, managing director of the Irish division of Covanta, said this concern has proven to be unfounded. “We have already contracted out 540,000 tonnes with the main waste operators for an average period of 9.1 years,” he said.

Those agreements are “put or pay” contracts, meaning that if the operators do not bring the waste, they still have to pay.

A previous put or pay clause had required Dublin City Council to pay Covanta if it could not deliver 350,000 tonnes of waste annually to the incinerator, but this was dropped in 2013.

While the plant may have no financial viability problems, there remains disquiet among the local community about its safety.

A Covanta plant in the US state of Virginia has been closed since February 2nd due to extensive damage from a fire at the facility. This follows a fire last December at another Covanta incinerator in Maryland which lasted several days.

“Fires are an inherent risk in the business,” Mr Daly said. “In the summer people put in barbecue coals in tinfoil in the bin, in the winter they clear out wood burning stoves.”

Fire prevention

The new plant is fitted with the latest fire detection and prevention technology, including heat monitors, he said. “On the waste-tipping floors, there are two isolation bays for any load we are concerned about, as well as two water cannons at the waste acceptance area in addition to a sprinkler system.”

Joe McCarthy, a Sandymount resident and one of the most resolute opponents of the incinerator, agrees that fires are an unavoidable aspect of the industry.

“Small fires are generally not an issue, but in Fairfax, Virginia, the bunker was completely full of stored waste because it had taken in too much and a fire on the tipping-room floor led to the entire bunker catching fire,” he said.

“In Dublin, Covanta is now boasting 90 per cent of its capacity is already allocated, so I would be concerned about what procedures will be there not to overload the bunker.”

Perhaps of even greater concern to Mr McCarthy, a physicist, is the issue of dioxins, a byproduct of burning waste which can damage human health.

Last May, Covanta had to close one of the two boilers at its newly built Durham York incinerator near Toronto after emissions exceeded limits set by the Canadian ministry of environment for dioxins.

Dioxin emissions

Mr Daly said the technology installed at Poolbeg would allow dioxin emissions to be kept at less than 10 per cent of EU permitted levels.

“We won’t be operating on a borderline situation, there’s a lot of headroom and people should take comfort from that.”

Ireland has run out of landfill space, and has been “totally dependent for the last number of years on the export of waste” Mr Daly said. The incinerator or “waste-to-energy” plant – also providing electricity and local heating – is the standard method of dealing with waste across the EU, he said.

“The waste has to be collected it has to go somewhere. We are the best solution.”