John Twomey knew a chap in scrap metal recycling who one day saw a man’s hand coming in on the conveyor belt.
John tells me this by way of illustrating that you never know what people throw out in their waste.
“A man’s hand, cut off below the wrist. What I am saying is anything can be put into waste — there is no control over it,” he says.
John’s concerns surface at a round-table discussion with members of the community from Ringaskiddy and neighbouring areas who are opposed to plans for an incinerator on the peninsula.
John was a founding member of the Ringaskiddy Resident’s Association (RRA) 52 years ago and, to his mind, there has never been a more controversial proposal locally than the plan by Belgian company Indaver to build a €160m 240,000 tonnes-per-annum waste-to-energy incinerator in their back yard.
Not even the time in the 1970s, when Raybestos Manhattan went about creating an asbestos dump in their midst, a mess the taxpayer paid €1m-plus to clean up as recently as 2008.
“This is the biggest issue we have seen for the lower Cork harbour area,” John says.
It’s an issue that has dogged residents of the lower harbour since 2001 and one they hoped had gone away when Indaver was refused planning permission by An Bord Pleanála (ABP) on its second outing in 2011.
The company had been granted planning permission for its initial application in 2004 but years of legal wrangling meant that permission expired. However within 14 months of the 2011 refusal, Indaver was back in pre-planning consultation with ABP with the aim of having its proposal deemed a strategic infrastructure development (SID).
Being deemed a SID means the planning application goes straight to ABP, by-passing the local planning authority, in this case Cork County Council. The council had refused permission for the development in 2003 (later overturned by ABP) when the first application was made, even though the county manager supported it.
At the time, councillors refused to materially contravene the County Development Plan to allow incineration to go ahead. This time around, even though councillors again appear unanimously opposed to the development, it is no longer in their power to stop it.
Firstly, its SID designation takes it out of their hands (it was also deemed a SID on the second application). Secondly, the argument can no longer be made that incineration is prohibited by the Cork County Development Plan.
A ministerial direction issued by junior Environment Minister Paudie Coffey in March 2015 instructed the council to delete the reference to a ban on incineration in its plan and instead make provision for waste-to-energy recovery facilities (a.k.a incineration) in industrial areas designated as a strategic employment area — which Ringaskiddy is.
Indaver argues that Mr Coffey had no choice but to issue the direction because the council is obliged to make provision for waste-to-energy recovery in certain zones, but councillors had resisted this.
Opponents of incineration claim this direction, issued under Section 31 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, is potentially a gamechanger and the most fundamental change in circumstances since Indaver was refused permission in 2011.
It is this change that allowed senior planning officials at Cork County Council to determine that the most recent Indaver application is within the rules. In a report issued to members last week, the council’s senior planner, Paul Murphy, said the proposed incinerator is compatible with the County Development Plan which now allows for the development of “large-scale waste treatment facilities, including energy recovery facilities”. His report was endorsed by council chief executive Tim Lucey.
This, in the opinion of Indaver Ireland managing director John Ahern, is “the gamechanger”. However, environmental engineer and Independent councillor Marcia D’Alton, a staunch opponent of incineration, said that while the council’s report was “a blow”, it was “not a show-stopper”.
From the point of view of environmental group Chase, (Cork Harbour Area for a Safe Environment), there are a couple of potential show-stoppers which haven’t changed since the second application was made in 2008. They include coastal erosion and the risk of flooding.
ABP found last time out that Indaver had failed to properly address concerns about the risk of flooding on the road serving the site and coastal erosion of the site. Since then, the situation has inarguably worsened.
The day I travel to Ringaskiddy, Mary O’Leary, chairwoman of Chase, meets me down at Gobby Beach on the tip of the peninsula, adjacent to the eastern edge of the Indaver site, to demonstrate its vulnerability. It’s littered with uprooted vegetation, displaced by Storm Frank.
Indaver claims the rate of erosion at the site is 50cm per annum, but Mary has been down intermittently with a tape measure over the past couple of months and says this figure is many metres off the mark. She says the site is being eroded at a much faster rate.
Moreover, the site is saturated, she says, pointing out rivulets running off it which indicate the water table is right at the surface. Essentially, Mary says, the site is eroding from within as well as without, under attack along the shoreline from the sea.
Indaver has said it will dump more than 1,100 cu m of shingle above the foreshore at Gobby Beach as a coastal protection measure and that the shingle would be replaced every two to five years, but Mary believes this is inadequate. Ms D’Alton says her husband visited the beach on Sunday April 10, a day when storm raged, to see how the shoreline was standing up.
“The answer is it wasn’t. The water was brown with boulder clay coming off the cliff edge,” she says.
There are additional concerns that Indaver’s plans do not adequately account for sea level changes or increases in rainfall or storm surges.
Another potential show-stopper to emerge since the last oral hearing is the hugely ambitious plan for innovation, research, and development in Ringaskiddy. While the National Maritime College (NMC) — Ireland’s primary provider of training to those seeking careers in commercial shipping — opened its doors to students in 2004, there has been substantial additional adjacent development since then.
This includes the establishment of the IMERC (Irish Maritime and Energy Resource Cluster) campus, an incubator hub for start-up businesses partnered by the Irish Naval Service, Cork Institute of Technology, and University College Cork.
Then there was the opening last year of the Beaufort Building, UCC’s flagship presence on the IMERC campus, which houses MaREI (Marine Renewable Energy Ireland), a marine and renewable energy-based research, development and innovation centre supported by Science Foundation Ireland. MaREI, spread across five floors, has provision for 135 researchers and support staff and has multiple industry partners.
IMERC has a masterplan for the development of the campus, which includes a 2,000 sq m innovation hub or ‘incubator’, with room for 140 desks,as opposed to the current 22 housed in a temporary building. The focus would be on fostering green business spinouts and a knowledge-based R&D local economy. While IMERC cannot give its view on what the proposed incinerator might mean for them because it is not a legal entity, one of MaREI’s researchers, Gordon Dalton, gives his.
He says the MaREI centre is at risk of academic brain drain because people have health concerns about working in the shadow of an incinerator — the Indaver site is literally across the road from the campus. In fact, the masterplan for the entire campus is in jeopardy if the incinerator goes ahead, he says.
“Those plans are hugely in jeopardy if the incinerator plan goes ahead, so a huge R&D centre will be threatened,” he says. “I myself will probably not stay on. I will not continue to work as a senior researcher. I will be exiting.”
Jody Power, senior engineering lecturer at the NMC, which has capacity for 700 students, is of the opinion that the college’s international reputation will be tarnished by having an incinerator in the back yard.
“If you have a son or daughter who wants to attend college next door to an incinerator it becomes a huge concern and I know no matter how strongly my son or daughter wished to qualify as marine engineer or marine deck officer, there’s no way in the world I’d have them anywhere near a toxic waste incinerator,” he says.
Jody also has concerns in the event of an explosion at the plant and in this respect, Indaver’s copy is blotted. In February, local fire services described an explosion at an Indaver waste treatment plant in the Belgian port of Antwerp as a “municipal disaster”. The company said the incident originated in a road tanker and that an adjacent warehouse containing “small quantities of chemicals” caught fire. Locals were advised to close their windows and doors.
Jody points out that, from the point of view of an escape route or access for emergency services in the event of a fire or explosion in Ringaskiddy, “we have one road into the NMC where the incinerator is going to be”.
“For us to escape from the NMC, we either go into the ocean or up into the fire and back the road we came, so we are running into the fire,” he says.
Chase has raised concerns about risks to public safety, given the proposed location of the incinerator at the end of a peninsula and the ‘one road in, one road out’ scenario, which they say highlights the inadequacy of the emergency infrastructure.
In addition to environmental and health and safety concerns, there are worries that plans to boost marine tourism and leisure in the lower harbour will suffer if an incinerator is built.
Late last year, Marine Minister Simon Coveney announced the State’s intention to invest multimillions on the remediation of a toxic waste dump on Haulbowline Island, the legacy of Irish Steel/ISPAT, to transform it into a public park, and millions on the development of Spike Island as Ireland’s Alcatraz.
Mr Coveney said the State investment in Cork Harbour could top €500m over 10 years. “There is going to be a lot of marine tourism, and marine leisure, as part of that campus over the next few years,” he said.
He also put his opposition to an incinerator on the record, saying it was incompatible with the revamp plans.
“I just don’t think the Indaver proposal is consistent with that, and I think the site they are proposing to put a large commercial incinerator on isn’t suitable, and isn’t consistent with what is happening literally next door,” said Mr Coveney. “Ministers don’t normally put in objections to things, but, I think, given the time and political commitment I’ve given to delivering really positive development around the harbour, the idea that we would be seeing a commercial incinerator being built next door undermines a lot of what we’ve been trying to do.”
PDforra is also opposed to Indaver’s plans. The representative body for permanent Defence Force members has said it is extremely concerned about plans to build the incinerator close to the Haulbowline naval base.
PDforra president Mark Keane, who works on the base, said members of the navy had put up with toxic residue from the former Irish Steel/ISPAT plant for years.
“As an association we have made a formal objection to Bord Pleanála on a number of grounds because we have a duty to protect our men and women from any possible health implications,” Mr Keane said.
Paul Nash, lecturer at the NWC and Ringaskiddy residents’ representative, is concerned that recycling levels will drop if incineration is introduced. He claims this happened in Denmark where incineration is widespread.
“In Denmark, studies are suggesting that recycling has pretty much stopped since incineration came in because councils were getting money for burning the waste and if there wasn’t enough waste, the question was, ‘well what are we going to burn next?’,” he says. “I think recycling will take a dive because we have to feed this thing.”
He is also concerned that a wind turbine close to the proposed incinerator has the potential to interact with the incinerator plume as it passes the region of the turbine.
Gordon says the wake effect caused by a wind turbine can lead to the radius of the emission being “hugely amplified so that the particulates hit the ground”. (Particulate matter is a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets found in the air.)
Paul says the tiniest of particulate matter (PM2.5) cannot be trapped by filters in the incinerator stacks — a claim Indaver denies — and are the most dangerous because they penetrate more deeply into the lungs.
As the roundtable discussion draws to a close, I ask Mary, involved with Chase from day one, if she ever thought she’d still be fighting the fight 16 years later? It has cost Chase the bones of €280,000.
“No,” she says. “But I’ll tell you one thing — the community is very committed to stopping this because it’s been wrong from the word go.
“I don’t agree with mass incineration as a form of waste treatment. I think there are far better alternatives available, that we can be cleverer with our waste and we don’t have to copy Europe blindly.”
John points out they won the battle against Raybestos Manhattan in the 1970s simply by delaying the start-up of the plant by two years.
“By the time they started up, they’d lost their markets in Europe so all they could do was send it back to the States and they closed eventually,” he says.
It’s not as straightforward with Indaver. They’ve stuck to their guns for 16 years. The fate of the Ringaskiddy incinerator now lies with ABP and that oral hearing gets underway tomorrow.
Indaver boss driving Ringaskiddy incinerator plans ‘sorry’ for residents.
Indaver’s third attempt to build in Ringaskiddy.
Acquires site from ISPAT
Lodges planning application for hazard incinerator only
Cork County Council refuses permission and Indaver appeals to An Bord Pleanála (ABP)
Inspector recommends refusal. Permission granted. Indaver lodges waste application licence for hazardous and municipal incinerator with Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)
2005: EPA licence granted
Following pre-planning consultation with ABP, its deemed a strategic infrastructure development and a planning application for hazardous and municipal incinerator is lodged with ABP
ABP refuses permission
Indaver again engages in pre-planning consultation with ABP for a waste-to-energy plant and waste transfer station
ABP says it’s a SID on Dec 23.
Jan 20 - planning application made public and deadline of March 9 set for submissions
April 19 - ABP oral hearing due to get underway