Why incinerator plan has inflamed so many in Cork

 

Lack of consultation on the important issues surrounding waste disposal has raised serious concerns, writes Mary Hurley

Susan Phillips's recent article confirms that the only option now open to the objectors to two incinerators proposed for Cork is by way of judicial review proceedings of the planning and licensing processes. Ms Phillips takes great comfort from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) being satisfied that the facilities will not endanger human health or the environment. We in Cork, as the host community of such facilities, are less sanguine.

It is not unreasonable for the public to ask why people in Cork are so exercised by this particular facility. It is not as if they have no experience of incineration. They have. There are already six incinerators operating within pharmaceutical industries in the harbour.

What is it then that has drawn such an eclectic group together to oppose this facility? The objectors come from all walks of life - housewives, dentists, teachers, mechanics, environmental scientists, doctors, farmers, solicitors, tour operators and business people. The one thing they all agree on is that the two proposed incinerators and the waste transfer station (where 15,000 tonnes of the most dangerous, hazardous chemicals will be stored) will have a major negative impact on the area for the next 30 years.

Before looking at the problems with the proposal it is important to know that the application has two parts: the planning permission and the waste licence. These are treated as completely separate applications. And, while consultation options were open to the various "competent authorities" (Cork County Council, the Health and Safety Authority, An Bord Pleanála and the EPA), none of these have availed of the option to consult, to make a more informed assessment of the application.

This has had a profound effect on people's confidence in the ability of the different authorities to do their work comprehensively.

The lack of consultation between the various authorities has also raised serious concerns. The objectors were shocked to discover that the monitoring of human health is not the responsibility of the Department of Health or the Department of the Environment. A March 2003 letter from Dr Mary Kelly, director-general of the EPA, to the Department of Health starkly illustrated this. In her letter, Dr Kelly acknowledges the findings of the report that serious health issues have not been dealt with and states that these should be dealt with by the Department of Health. She also states that implementation of these findings "would help alleviate the legitimate public concerns about the health impacts".

It appears that the Department of Health, to date, has not answered her letter.

The involvement of community groups at the oral planning hearing helped to identify significant problems with the application, as a result of which the senior planning officer who conducted the hearing on behalf of the board found 14 substantial planning reasons as to why the application should be refused.

He found that the facility posed a threat to public safety due to its proximity to the National Maritime College and to other plants. The inadequacy of emergency infrastructure and the location of the structures at the end of a peninsula could, he concluded, pose significant risks to public safety in the event of a major accident. He found that the development would endanger public safety by way of serious traffic hazard and obstruction of other road-users. He also concluded that the site was significantly unsuitable: the topography, climate conditions, geology, hydrology and the risk of costal erosion made it fundamentally unsuitable for the proposed development.

More alarming still is the fact that the HSA did not know when it gave evidence at the hearing that a mains gas pipeline runs through the part of the site where the company would be storing highly-flammable waste. The authority was also unaware that the site is susceptible to flooding, which is particularly relevant in the event of an accidental spillage into the harbour. It did not even know what type of incinerator the company was proposing to build.

The planning inspector's recommendation to the board was that the HSA's advice could not be relied on in relation to the safety of the proposed development in the event of a major accident hazard.

The EPA decision to grant the waste licence in spite of expert medical evidence advising against it compounds the ostrich mentality adopted by the "competent authorities". Dr Anthony Stains, senior lecturer in epidemiology and co-author of a Government-commissioned report on the health effects of incineration, explained to the hearing that Ireland was in a poor position to monitor such waste facilities. He also maintained that the company had not undertaken an assessment of the impact on human health of its activity. As a result, the application was deficient and a licence should not be granted.

Ms Phillips is lucky to have such faith, but she has not had to deal with the "competent authorities" at first hand.

Mary Hurley campaigns with the Cork Harbour Alliance