Poolbeg war is incinerating any search for alternatives


THERE IS a war going on, over waste – the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of it we generate every year. At stake is who controls this waste, how it is to be treated and which of the many vested interests now punching for position will profit from whatever waste management regime is finally imposed, writes FRANK McDONALD

On one side is Minister for the Environment John Gormley and many of his constituents in Dublin South East, who oppose the construction of a very large (600,000 tonnes a year) municipal waste incinerator on the Poolbeg peninsula, as well as the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA), which represents major players such as Greenstar and Panda.

On the other is Dublin City Council and its joint venture partners, a US-Danish consortium made up of Covanta Energy and Dong Energy. Their contract for the €350 million project is “confidential”. All we have been told is that it’s for at least 20 years and that the council is obliged to supply the operators with a minimum of 320,000 tonnes of residual waste annually. If it fails to do so, the council would face financial penalties under a “put or pay” clause.

According to the council, some 735,000 tonnes of residual waste from the metropolitan area were dumped in landfill sites in Dublin, Wicklow, Meath, Kildare “and further afield” in 2008 – despite an impressive recycling rate of 41 per cent. As a result, there should be no problem keeping the fires burning in Poolbeg, to fuel electricity generation and district heating.

Except for a High Court judgment last December 21st, in which Mr Justice Liam McKechnie ruled the council had abused its dominant position in the Dublin waste market by adopting a variation of its 1998 Waste Management Plan, decreeing that waste would only be collected by the city’s four local authorities or their chosen contractors.

Both Panda and Greenstar challenged the March 2008 variation, claiming that it breached the 2002 Competition Act. Judge McKechnie agreed, ruling that it would “substantially strengthen the position of the local authorities . . . to the detriment of competition”. It had also been impaired by “bias and prejudgment” by former assistant city manager Matt Twomey.

The purpose of the variation, in effect, was to assert ownership by the Dublin local authorities of the waste generated by their citizens. Panda claimed that the reason for seeking such control was to ensure that there would be sufficient “raw material” to be fed into the furnace at Poolbeg – thereby fulfilling the council’s contractual obligation.

Not surprisingly, Gormley saw the judgment as a poor omen for a project he has opposed from the outset. Since taking office, Gormley has tried everything to stop the project. He wrote to Dublin City Council signalling Government policy on waste management was likely to change and that incineration would no longer be its “cornerstone”. But the council was undeterred, and signed the contract with its partners from Covanta and Dong in September 2007.

Gormley retaliated by commissioning British consultants Eunomia to carry out an international review of best waste management practice; it favoured an expansion of mechanical and biological treatment and heftier levies on waste going for incineration. Gormley has now proposed a “cap” on incineration, so it would be used to treat no more than 30 per cent of residual waste.

He is being cheered on by the IWMA, which has described Poolbeg as a “grossly oversized facility”. It has taken its case to the Competition Authority, claiming the plant would swallow up most of the waste generated in Dublin, thereby putting its members at a disadvantage. It wants the authority to rule the contract null and void or, alternatively, that the plant should be scaled down.

The council maintains that it has acted in accordance with Government policy. In an effort to validate its case for the Poolbeg project, the council paid €103,000 (plus VAT) to the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) for a report which concluded that there was “no underlying rationale” for Gormley’s attempt to change the policy. It also claimed the Eunomia review was “seriously flawed” – a charge Eunomia countered by saying the same about the ESRI’s effort. Embarrassingly for the institute, it has had to admit some errors.

The council has spent an awful lot of public money in progressing the Poolbeg project, including €34 million on site acquisition, plus a staggering €22.5 million in fees for consultants. No wonder the Minister is appointing an “authorised officer” to examine the council’s contract with Covanta and tease out its financial implications. Clearly, compensation would have to be paid if the contract was repudiated or the massively overblown project scaled down – as it should be.

Who would pick up the tab? Hard-pressed taxpayers, of course. And who will have to pay the fines levied by the EU if we fail to meet the increasingly onerous terms of its landfill directive, by not having alternative means of waste treatment or disposal available? Ditto. All of those now bleating about the dastardly plan to build an incinerator at Poolbeg – including Gormley – need to address that.

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