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Irish Times - 19-03-05
The debate burns on

Connect: One e-mailer, among many reacting to last week's column on the proposed incinerator near Drogheda, summed up: "My point is that, while people may have genuine fears (and in some cases I'd question that), they are often ignorant fears.

That's one thing, but when they have ignorant fears and refuse to be educated on them, in case they don't like what they hear, that's quite another." That, quite clearly, is as true as it is succinct. Fears in relation to science are often ignorant fears: fear of flying (statistically about 60 times safer than driving); fear of the MMR vaccine; fear of all use of pesticides. On the other hand, the records of, for instance, cigarettes, asbestos and thalidomide are such that scepticism towards science is necessary.

As regards incineration, who can know? I certainly don't and it appears science doesn't either.

Scientists who are pro-incineration argue that some European cities - Vienna, Hamburg, Rotterdam, among others - use incinerators responsibly.

Scientists who oppose incinerators produce startling reports rebutting the arguments of the pro-burning lobby. Who can we believe? Even the most open-minded are likely to believe what they want to believe. That doesn't make it right but it does mean it's always tempting to "refuse to be educated". After all, if "experts" differ so widely, then the default position - Nimby ("not-in-my-back-yard") - means it's practically impossible to be educated. Thus is self-interest rationalised and justified.

Still, it is fair enough to demand of an objector a suggestion as to how to deal with waste that cannot be recycled. Perhaps incineration is the best method. No more than you, I don't know and can't know so long as "experts" differ so hugely. What is clear, however, is that the language, hypocrisy and PR strategy of politicians wishing to impose an incinerator on people are abject.

They are abject for the reasons outlined last week: gross dissembling, Nimby-ism and an arguably compromised agency (the EPA), which the anti-incinerator side suspect and proffer reasons for doing so. Furthermore, they are abject because political guff about "the polluter pays" is shown to be air as hot and noxious as any generated by incineration.

The e-mailer agreed that it is "rank hypocrisy" that politicians should oppose incinerators in their own constituencies yet attempt to foist one on other people. However, he continued: "But it is so because they should allow incinerators to be built in any location where there is a waste management issue to be dealt with." Well now, that's another matter entirely.

Dublin, being by far the biggest city in Ireland, naturally generates the most waste. If incineration becomes the chosen method to dispose of un-recyclable rubbish (and who can know if it ought to?) then Dublin city should have two incinerators - one for northside rubbish and one for southside rubbish - and each set on its own side of the Liffey. That's closer to logic than to politics.

That is the problem, is it not? It's not just Dublin but every region which must pull its weight in managing waste. Even within regions, there remains the problem of the location of incinerators.

Whether fears are unfounded or legitimate, nobody wants to live near one. To minimise the political element in decision-making, rational criteria should be established for siting.

Clearly, regional centrality, access and a limited time of having one of these facilities/monstrosities are necessary criteria. A minimum of half a dozen sites might be identified per region and - to maximise the logic and minimise the politics - a draw could be held.

Otherwise, it will always be a case of dumping on people.

Any area which drew the booby prize could be compensated with cheap electricity for the duration of its housing an incinerator. No area - whether represented by Taoiseach, ministers, the wealthy, the middle-class, the working-class, the most lumpen of lumpen proles - should be exempt. Fair is fair and it does not involve dumping on others. Politics does enough of that already.

The e-mailer asks why I "don't have a go at the great Irish people for their rank hypocrisy".

Certainly, there are hypocrisies enclosing other hypocrisies on the issue of waste management.

Most people simply want to dump their rubbish and leave the problem of its final disposal - burial or burning - to others.

Yet those who would lead us must take the frontline flak - especially when they dissemble ("thermal treatment" is unacceptable PR guff). Still, the e-mailer argued, politicians "risk political suicide by flying in the face of populist opinion".

This is true, but if they always refuse to oppose populist opinion they really are abject.

Pragmatism, in politics as in science, goes only so far.

Everybody has a stake in this argument. However, the incinerator plan for Drogheda is, I still believe, vile. It is so because of plans for a "superdump" landfill 10 miles away near Balbriggan and because it's underpinned by political stroking, not - as should be the case - by logic. The incinerator may or may not be a good idea. But the process of getting it in place stinks. It's vile, alright.

© The Irish Times


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