There is more than a whiff of "We know best" about the apparent determination of unelected officials to go ahead with the long-delayed Poolbeg municipal waste incinerator, in defiance of the the democratically-expressed wishes of elected members of Dublin local authorities that the project should be dropped. Not for the first time, Dublin City Council voted overwhelmingly against proceeding with plans for the "energy from waste" plant, while councillors in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown rejected it by a significant margin. Only Fingal County Council has backed the proposal, which would involve US waste management company Covanta constructing an incinerator with a capacity to process 600,000 tonnes of municipal waste per annum.
The National Development Finance Agency has certified the €500 million public-private partnership scheme as "value for money" on the basis that Poolbeg would be burning waste from a much wider catchment area than Dublin itself; in effect, it would be a national incinerator. This runs counter to the entire thrust of waste management policy which for nearly 20 years has emphasised the need to a regional approach. However, when councillors in other parts of Ireland voted against proposed incinerators in their areas, then minister for the environment Noel Dempsey amended the 1996 Waste Management Act to vest decision-making powers in county managers, rather than elected representatives.
It is no wonder that so many Dublin city councillors complained about the “anti-democratic” nature of the current debate that could end with the chief executives of the four local authorities involved simply deciding to proceed with the Poolbeg project, regardless of the deep and widespread opposition it has engendered. Part of the rationale, undoubtedly, is that €100 million has been spent so far on land acquisition, compensation and far-too-generous consultancy fees, and there is an unwillingness to write it off by abandoning the incinerator at this stage.
What the situation now demands is a judgment worthy of Solomon: If the project is to proceed, the capacity of the incinerator should be reduced by half to 300,000 tonnes – as rival operator Indaver Ireland has maintained. This would be more in line with the scale of municipal incinerators in other European countries and would also be more tailor-made to deal with Dublin's waste, rather than having trucks trundling into Poolbeg from other parts of Ireland or even importing waste from abroad to keep the fires burning continuously. Such a compromise might still be unacceptable to the local community in Ringsend, Irishtown and Sandymount, but it would be a reasonable city-wide solution, particularly if the incinerator provided fuel for a district heating scheme.