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Irish Times - 26-02-05
The burning issue

Residents of Cork Harbour fear the big picture will be lost in the detailed public inquiry into plans by Indaver to build an incinerator in the locality, writes Frank McDonald, Environment Editor.

Frustration is the only word to describe how objectors feel after two weeks attending a potentially futile public inquiry into plans by Indaver Ireland for a hazardous waste incinerator at Ringaskiddy, in Cork Harbour.

It's not that they think the whole thing is a charade. "We've put too much into it and we just couldn't keep turning up every day if we thought that," says Mary Hurley, spokeswoman for Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment (Chase). "But we're concerned that, in going through the process, there's so much attention to detail that the big picture is being missed. For example, we still have no idea why the Environmental Protection Agency [ EPA] issued its draft licence."

Chase has also had difficulty meeting up with the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Dick Roche. "We had been told he would meet with us, but after numerous communications he finally said he wouldn't and referred us to his civil servants," Hurley says.

This, she believes, shows "contempt for communities" and raises an issue of "basic democracy" because Chase "represents the views of over 30,000 people in Cork who have genuine, well-founded concerns in relation to the entire incineration debate".

Hurley says Chase has engaged with the democratic process from the outset, when Indaver unveiled its incinerator plan in 2001, by gathering petitions, calling for oral hearings and bringing in experts.

"We feel disenfranchised. We have been very let down by our Government."

Chase has every reason to feel aggrieved. In May 2003, Cork County Council decided by 30 votes to 13 to refuse planning permission for the proposed incinerator. But in Janurary 2004 An Bord Pleanála overturned this democratic decision.

The appeals board made its ruling in the face of a highly negative report by one of its senior planning inspectors, Philip Jones, who had presided at a lengthy oral hearing. His 300-page report rejected Indaver's scheme unequivocally on 14 counts - in effect, endorsing the case made by objectors.

But by a majority of nine to one, the board decided to grant permission having regard to the Government's national waste management policy framework, including its preference for incineration over landfill, and to the EPA's National Hazardous Waste Management Plan, published in 2001.

Then, last October, the EPA issued its draft licence for the €93 million incinerator.

Three months earlier, Laura Burke, Indaver's project manager for Ringaskiddy, had been appointed as a director of the EPA - though a spokeswoman for the agency says Burke took no part in the decision.

Indaver's draft waste management licence is for two incinerators on the Ringaskiddy site, one for hazardous waste and the other for municipal waste - each capable of burning 100,000 tonnes of waste per annum - as well as a waste transfer station with a capacity of 15,000 tonnes.

ACCORDING TO THE EPA, the draft licence is subject to stringent conditions that meet the highest standards set by the European Commission's directive on waste incineration; some of these conditions are being appealed by Indaver because they would limit what the Belgian-owned company could burn.

The EPA's favourable view of incineration is also well known. Its director-general, Dr Mary Kelly, who previously worked for Ibec, said in December 2002 the fact that it had licensed small incinerators for industry - including three in the Cork Harbour area - was an endorsement of the technology.

Dr Jonathan Derham, the senior EPA inspector who signed the draft licence, also presided at the oral hearing in Cork over the past two weeks.

Responding to Chase, he ruled that it would be "inappropriate" for the agency's directors to be called to give evidence on the issues involved.

As he explained, the primary purpose of an oral hearing is to gather information and evidence that might support an objection in more detail. "It is not a forum for the cross-examination of agency directors. If that is what some were expecting, you are mistaken," he said.

According to environmental consultant Dr Brian Motherway, who has done work for the EPA, its oral hearings "are being asked to do many things they were not designed to do, and are not capable of doing" - such as debating the merits or otherwise of national policies on waste. Neither could they address planning, social or developmental issues, Dr Motherway says.

"But people want to talk about these issues," he points out. "They want a wide debate on the merits of this proposal both in itself and in the wider context of Ireland's environmental and economic values."

One of the reasons such hearings are so fractious, he believes, is that "when people feel their power to influence decisions is weak, they concentrate on those few opportunities they have" - in this case, the oral hearings held by An Bord Pleanála and now by the EPA.

"Much is at stake and few are in the mood for reasoned discussion and seeking consensus. Opponents don't want to discuss the benefits and disbenefits of the project. They don't want to discuss terms and conditions . . . They want the project stopped," Dr Motherway adds.

DURING THE RINGASKIDDY hearing, objectors voiced serious concerns about public health and safety in the event of an accident at the Indaver site, which is across the road from the new National Maritime College. Did this put it in the "zone of sacrifice", one of its lecturers asked. The Minister for Defence, Willie O'Dea, also queried the incinerator plan last November. On his first visit to the college, which has 700 students and 70 staff, he said: "Just as an outsider coming in here for the first time, it looked to me a quite inappropriate location . . . It seems odd."

The chairwoman of Chase, Mary O'Leary, noted that the Indaver site was flooded last October and criticised the EPA for not properly assessing this risk. The company's plan to put a kerb around its waste transfer station "would be as useful as an umbrella in a storm force wind", she said.

The biggest fear relates to dioxins emitted by incinerators. According to evidence presented to the hearing by the Cork Environmental Alliance, in 1992 the county council was aware of high levels of dioxins in the area.

Indaver has repeatedly emphasised that its incinerator poses no risk.

However, it seems highly improbable that objectors will accept the validity of an EPA decision to approve the company's draft licence. Chase is already challenging in the High Court the validity of An Bord Pleanála's decision and might well take a similar action against the EPA.

According to Dr Motherway, the case raises questions that keep coming up about democratic participation in environmental decision-making. "The right place for the Irish people to decide how to deal with industrial waste is through national policies determined by our elected representatives".

But the politicians are pusillanimous. There was no mention of support for waste incineration in Fianna Fáil's manifesto for either the 1997 or 2002 general elections, while the FF-PD Programme for Government of June 2002 explicitly opposed "mass-burn incineration, with no energy recovery".

© The Irish Times

     

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