Give me a crash course in . . . the Poolbeg incinerator


The incinerator – or waste-to-energy facility, as Dublin City Council and Covanta, the US company contracted to build it, would rather it was known – is currently just a cleared site on the Poolbeg peninsula, near Sandymount in southeast Dublin. But if and when it’s built it will be a incinerator with the capacity to burn up to 600,000 tonnes of rubbish a year.

If and when? Hasn’t this plant had planning permission for several years?The council initially put forward plans for the incinerator towards the end of last century. However, the sustained opposition of local councillors and TDs of all persuasions – including Michael McDowell, Ruairí Quinn and John Gormley – meant that getting what would be one of Europe’s largest municipal waste incinerators to the planning stage was never going to be easy. In November 2007 the council finally secured permission from An Bord Pleanála, and in December 2008 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) granted it a waste licence.

So that was two years ago – surely they could have got a few bricks down by now?Construction did begin in December 2009, but was suspended last May, following initial site clearance, due to the lack of a foreshore licence, which had been applied for from the Department of Agriculture in August 2008.

Why did they need a foreshore licence, and why wait until 2008 to look for one?The council needed the licence for a water-cooling facility for the plant, and expected it to be a formality. For reasons that remain unclear, the licence was never issued. Responsibility for foreshore licences was transferred to the Department of the Environment last January. John Gormley cited a backlog of applications as the reason the council’s form was never processed.

But the council got over this obstacleYes. The council went back to An Bord Pleanála to get a compulsory-purchase order to buy the land it needed for the water-cooling facility. The application was granted by the board late last year, making the foreshore licence unnecessary.

So it was full steam ahead thenNot quite. While all legal obstacles to building the plant had been put to bed, one major obstacle remained.

John Gormley, then minister for the environment?Well, his proposed levies on incineration, anyway. At up to €120 per tonne they would have made the plant unviable. His Bill dealing with waste, which he signalled his intention to introduce not long after taking office, in 2007, was eventually published this month. Almost immediately, however, the coalition collapsed, meaning the Bill and the levies could not become law before the dissolution of the Dáil.

But why, when he was minister, didn’t he just call a halt to the incinerator?He couldn’t, at least not directly. Ministers can’t interfere with the decisions of organs such as An Bord Pleanála or the EPA.

So why is the incinerator in the news this week?What was essentially a local issue might have gone largely unnoticed were it not for a letter Gormley sent to his constituents, telling them that the incinerator “cannot go ahead” because of the new levies. A spokesman for Gormley has said the letters were posted before the coalition collapsed.

So the council must be crowingOnly a little. Assistant city manager Séamus Lyons told councillors this week that construction would proceed in short order now that a “major obstacle is gone”. It must be presumed he was just referring to the levies.