Poolbeg waste plant can only be good for Ireland
OPINION:Those who oppose the project cannot deny it will create jobs and help Ireland meet its waste and energy targets, writes SCOTT WHITNEY
THE POOLBEG energy-from-waste (EfW) plant will produce 56 MW (megawatts) of electricity; enough for 80,000 homes and 20 per cent of Dublin’s household electricity needs. It will provide district heating for up to the equivalent of another 60,000 homes. It will enhance Irish waste management competition, and reduce householders’ waste disposal costs. It will help Ireland meet its renewable energy targets.
Poolbeg will move Dublin away from over-dependence on landfill, currently the disposal method for about 60 per cent of the country’s waste. Landfill is the most environmentally damaging waste disposal method, and this is reflected in EU waste management policy. Since January 1st last, if Ireland does not substantially reduce its dependence on landfill, it becomes liable for fines that could run to millions of euro annually.
Nevertheless, there is a high-profile campaign of opposition to this project, from the Irish Waste Management Association (IWMA) and from others with vested interests in maintaining the status quo. It is their unsubstantiated claim that the plant is too big.
Let’s look at the facts. More than 700,000 tonnes of waste from the Dublin region alone are being landfilled annually (the figure was 735,000 tonnes in 2008), and large quantities of waste in other parts of the country are also being landfilled. There will be more than enough residual waste for Poolbeg, even when Dublin achieves its ambitious recycling target of 59 per cent.
There were no objections from IWMA, or any of its members, at either of the two lengthy oral hearings (with An Bord Pleanála and the Environmental Protection Agency) that were held in relation to Poolbeg. Had it participated in those hearings, the IWMA would have had to substantiate its objections on the record, with facts to back up its claims.
Covanta is the world’s largest EfW company, owning and/or operating 45 plants. Since 1983, we have constructed 21 plants similar to the Poolbeg facility, and have studied waste capacity issues for more than two decades. That experience and expertise satisfies us that 600,000 tonnes is the correct size for the Poolbeg plant. Bear in mind too that Covanta, a publicly quoted company in the US, answerable to its shareholders, has agreed to provide financing for the €350 million to build Poolbeg. Yes, we are putting our money where our mouth is!
As for the criticism of the so-called put-or-pay clause requiring Dublin City Council to provide 320,000 tonnes of material (just over half of the facility’s capacity), the reality is that this public-private partnership (PPP) arrangement is standard procedure for dozens of similar projects throughout Europe. In fact, under the vast majority of PPP agreements for similar projects in the US and the UK, the public partner is required to supply closer to 100 per cent of the facility’s capacity.
At Poolbeg, the private partner (Covanta) is responsible for obtaining waste for a significant portion of the facility’s capacity. In exchange, the citizens of the Dublin region receive significant benefits in the form of lower fees attainable through economies of scale. This arrangement will provide the best value for money for Dublin City Council and Dublin’s householders. Covanta, not the council, bears the risk of securing the remaining waste, a risk we would not willingly assume if we had doubts about the need for a 600,000 tonne-per-year facility.
It has been suggested by some opponents of the Poolbeg EfW project that a plant sized at half the proposed capacity would be appropriate. Of course, the people who are making that suggestion are fully aware that any such alteration would require a new planning application, lead to further delays for the project and increased waste treatment costs, benefiting their self-serving interests to the detriment of the public interest.
Covanta shares the concern of many in Ireland about the incredibly long time it takes to get major strategic infrastructural projects from the drawing board to being shovel-ready. We are finally at that stage with Poolbeg after 12 years in the preparation, competitive bidding, planning and permitting process. Along the way, all aspects of the project, including the PPP contract, the size of the plant and the environmental standards, have been rigorously assessed and approved by An Bord Pleanála, the EPA, the Department of the Environment and the Government’s National Development Finance Agency, which is charged with ensuring such projects represent good value for the taxpayer. Further, the recent report by ESRI, Ireland’s leading think tank, confirms the need for this plant at its current size. Engineers Ireland in its February 2010 infrastructure report endorsed the economies of scale provided by regional EfW projects such as Poolbeg.
Irish taxpayers will also be aware of the significant problems that recently arose from under-sizing other vital infrastructural projects. This happened with the new sewage treatment plant, also on the Poolbeg peninsula, while upgrading the M50 motorway is now being completed at a cost of more than €1 billion.
Work has now begun at the project site. Over the next three years, approximately 500 people will be employed in construction and, upon completion, permanent jobs will be created and local businesses will benefit both directly and indirectly from the economic activity associated with this project. In addition, a community gain fund will provide up to €20 million over the next 25 years for community projects in the local area.
Almost all other EU countries, including the most environmentally advanced, such as the Netherlands, Belgium and the Scandinavian states, have decided that recycling, combined with thermal treatment and efficient energy recovery (EfW) for the residual waste, is the most effective and lowest-cost waste management strategy. The Poolbeg plant sees Dublin joining that league and abandoning excessive dependence on landfilling, recognised by the EU and countries around the world as the most environmentally damaging disposal option.
This project represents an inward investment of €350 million in the Irish economy that will create substantial additional employment; assist Ireland in meeting its alternative energy goals; help Ireland meet its commitments to reduce the production of greenhouse gases, and solve its waste management issues, while reducing cost and minimising the imposition of financial penalties under the EU landfill directive of 1999. How can that be bad for Ireland?
Scott Whitney is president of Covanta Europe