Sunday Business Post - 15/01/06
The heat is on Dick Roche. The Minister for the Environment has the unenviable task of persuading a reluctant Ireland to turn to commercial incineration.
So far just two licences have been granted for commercial incinerators, one near Duleek in Co Meath and the other in Ringaskiddy in Co Cork. Already, the licences have met strong local opposition, with protest groups forming to fight the plans and denounce incinerators as dangerous.
But the debate on incineration is really just beginning - seven regions have provided for incinerators in their regional waste management plans, with two more regions saying incinerators would be considered.
Roche said the plans did not mean that we were going to have nine incinerators, but he hoped that we were definitely going to have more than two.
“If we compost more and recycle more then we will need fewer incinerators,” he said. “I am not going to put a number on the incinerators we need in Ireland.”
Opposition environment spokesmen have slated Roche for his willingness to bring incinerators to Ireland.
“We need more options than just burn it or bury it,’' Green TD Ciaran Cuffe has said on numerous occasions. Roche agreed - incineration, he said, was just part of the solution to Ireland's waste management needs.
“Incineration should not be the solution,” he said. “It is part of an integrated solution. You should have recycling, you should have recovery, you should have composting and you should have energy being recovered from waste.”
The Department of the Environment has been working on a number of waste initiatives, and the ultimate aim is to have 40 per cent of our waste recycled, 40 per cent converted to energy (incineration) and 20 per cent to be dumped in landfills.
Recycling is a key part of the initiative. Last Wednesday, Roche opened Ireland's 70th recycling centre, and there are also civic amenity centres nationwide which offer recycling services.
Last August, Ireland became one of the first European states to make electrical retailers responsible for electrical waste, a decision that industry responded “incredibly well'‘ to, Roche said.
Tackling waste in the home has also been a priority - in 1998, just 70,000 households had segregated waste collection. By the start of 2004, this had risen to more than 560,000.
Agricultural waste, the single largest producer of methane gas, has also been the focus of attention.
Last month, Roche introduced a grant system for treatment of large amounts of agricultural waste, which turns slurry into energy and fertiliser.
The progress has been encouraging, and the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) recently published annual report noted that Ireland had met all of the waste targets it set for itself in 2002. Despite these successes, the public focus remains almost exclusively on the dangers of incineration.
“The fear factor is very hard to deal with,” said Roche. “I have given a lot of interviews on incineration. Then somebody comes along the next day and says: ‘There was an accident at a plant in Belgium'.
“Yes there was an accident at a plant in Belgium - it had been built 20 to 30 years ago, it was very small, it was very badly operated, and it was closed down because it did not meet EU requirements. Anything that was built from here on out in Ireland would obviously have to meet EU requirements.”
Roche said the blame for the incineration hysteria lay firmly at the doors of opposition politicians.
“If somebody tells you that a plant is going to be built down the road and it is going to kill you, you are obviously going to react negatively to that,” said Roche.
“There has been a lot of dishonesty in the debate. A lot of politicians know that the truth is different from the way that they are trying to spin it or tell it. They are trying to make political capital in a way that is unprincipled.”
Cuffe rejected this. “I don't think that is what is happening,” he said.
“There are genuine concerns out there.”
A key concern of incinerator opponents is the potential for super-incinerators, which would take vast amounts of waste from all over Ireland.
The Department of the Environment has divided Ireland into ten regions and, until last May, waste had to be processed in the region it was collected in. Roche changed this rule when he issued a policy directive providing for inter-regional distribution of waste.
Incineration opponents said the new rule was introduced specifically to allow incineration firm Indaver, which has licences for the incinerators in Meath and Cork, to create super-incinerators.
Roche rejected these claim emphatically. “Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said.
“In Wicklow, we have this problem with huge illegal dumping.
“Wouldn't it be ridiculous if you knew the waste was from Dublin and you had to put it in a new landfill that you would have to create in Wicklow? In the case of Kildare, the argument was Kildare couldn't export its waste to Meath. However, Kildare could actually export its waste to Germany. How stupid is that?”
The fears of those opposed to super-incineration were confirmed earlier this month when Indaver announced that it was going to apply for planning permission to process 33 per cent more waste than originally planned. The EPA's admission that there was no legal maximum size for an incineration plant provided little comfort, but Roche said size really wasn't the issue.
“People said recently that they'd like a lot of small incinerators rather than a couple of big ones,” he said.
“That's grand, but then you've got to say where are you going to put the little ones?
“I am not a technologist. I am not equipped to say what the maximum or minimum size is. I do know that where there have been very small operations in a number of countries they have been problematic.”
Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment