Thrill of the CHASE — Fighting fire with fire

MARY O’Leary would like to clear up all the things she is not.

“I am not a tree-hugger,” she says. “I am not anti-development. I am not bored. I am not a housewife with nothing to do. I am not filling in time.”

And most of all, she is not “one of these people who object to everything”, to quote a put-down she has heard all too often since she became involved in CHASE (Cork Harbour Alliance for a Safe Environment).

So what is she? A 48-year-old mother-of- four and science graduate, fronting a campaign against plans by one of Europe’s biggest waste management companies to build Ireland’s first toxic waste incinerator at Ringaskiddy in Cork Harbour.

And her motivation? “I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do.”

Mary is originally from Youghal, Co Cork and studied science at University College Cork, before undertaking a postgraduate in environmental science.

“I got into science thinking I was going to be another Jane Goodall,” she says, referring to the pioneering British adventurer who became the world’s leading authority on chimpanzees. As it turned out, the closest she got to working with animals was setting up an oyster farm on Poulnasharry Bay in Co Clare.

Before that she worked as an environmental officer with Longford County Council and in between she travelled with her GP husband, George, to medical postings in England and Australia.

The family left Co Clare for Cobh in 1999, moving to a 19th century house atop the town’s famous hills with views right across Cork Harbour.

It was little more than a year later when Indaver made known its intentions to apply for planning permission for the incinerator on the Ringaskiddy site on the far side of the water.

The company organised a public presentation of their plan and a group of local residents held a public meeting in response. Mary went along to both, out of curiosity as much as concern, as she hadn’t made her mind up about the proposal, but what she heard set alarm bells ringing.

“The whole thing didn’t add up for me. I knew the pharmaceutical industry would use incinerators — that’s what companies dealing responsibly with the waste they produce do. But that’s why the idea of mass incineration for everyone did not make sense.

“It just struck me that if you have tried everything else to dispose of waste and you’re still faced with a problem, then maybe incineration is the only way to go. But how could you even think of putting in an incinerator as a first option when, if you are really committed to reducing waste and recycling, you might find that you didn’t need an incinerator?”

The more Mary read up on the issue, the more she became convinced the incinerator was unnecessary and undesirable. She cites the National Hazardous Waste Management Plan which was to be the blueprint for responsible practice for industry and public bodies.

The plan was published in 2001, the same year Indaver submitted its planning application for the incinerator. “The cornerstone of that [the waste management plan] is meant to be prevention. So on the one hand we had a policy of minimising waste and on the other we had this big plan for a facility that would encourage the creation of waste or at least remove the incentive to reduce it. Humans are lazy and will take the easy option. Incineration is the easy option.”

There were other public documents Mary believed backed her stance. Neither the Cork Area Strategic Plan nor the Cork Waste Management Plan envisaged an incinerator in the city or environs. In fact, some of their goals were in direct conflict with an incinerator.

“It didn’t make sense to have councillors and public officials wasting taxpayers money and time drawing up plans and strategies and then it’s all struck out for a private industry.”

Mary added her name to a list of people interested in being kept informed of developments. A short time later, she got a call to say a campaign group was being formed and her support would be welcome. She hesitated but then decided to join in.

“I’d never been involved in anything like that in my life but sometimes things feel wrong and you can’t not get involved. I wasn’t bored or stuck for something to do. I’m the practice manager for George and I’m the one with chief responsibility for the children on a day to day basis so I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs wondering what will I do today.”

The group had to get their act together quickly. The first job was to amalgamate the various local interests — the Cork Environmental Alliance and the residents’ groups in Ringaskiddy and Carrigaline — into one unified force which became CHASE.

Their next tasks were to prepare an objection to Indaver’s planning application, lodged in November 2001, and raise as much public awareness of their plan as possible. Through leaflet drops, press releases and meetings, they got 30,000 letters of objection sent to Cork County Council.

“It was fantastic,” Mary recalls. “It felt like, now they know how serious we are and how strong the public can be. We really felt like we were off to a good start.”

Indaver had obstacles to overcome before it could get a decision on its planning application even without the opposition of CHASE. The 30-acre site chosen by the company was zoned for port-related industry and an incinerator had no inherent port-related features.

The new county development plan was being drafted in 2002 and throughout the lengthy process, all eyes were kept peeled for references to Ringaskiddy and incinerator. Campaigning and lobbying continued on both sides and the final plan in February 2003 contained no specific provision for an incinerator.

It seemed like CHASE had won but within weeks it became clear that council officials, as opposed to the elected members, were in favour of Indaver’s plans and were going to propose a material contravention to the newly adopted plan which would enable the planning application be considered.

In May that year, members of the Cork County Council voted against the material contravention and refused planning permission to Indaver.

Indaver appealed the refusal to An Bord Pleanála and CHASE lodged a counter-appeal and requested an oral hearing. The hearing was granted and began in September, running for two-and-a-half weeks.

By now, Mary had been elected chairperson and was thrust into the spotlight in way she could never have imagined. “If somebody had told me when we moved to Cobh that three years later I would be on television, it would have been my greatest nightmare. I did three days teaching in Clare once — a classroom is as big an audience I’ve ever addressed — and I thought ‘Never again!’ It was a baptism of fire.”

The oral hearing was an endurance test of early mornings of preparation, full days of evidence and late nights of analysis. The campaigners were frustrated that they could not raise issues relating to public health or the environment which, at the time of Indaver’s application, were outside the scope of the planning authorities. It still remains difficult to bring health and environmental issues to the fore in a planning dispute.

“What became obvious was that there are huge gaps in the procedure for adjudicating on planning issues. An Bord Pleanála looks at planning, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) looks at waste licensing and the Health and Safety Authority looks at the likelihood of an accident.

“People think the EPA protect the environment but they are a licensing authority who give licences to companies to emit pollutants into the atmosphere.”

Mary felt CHASE put in an impressive performance during the hearing and the planning inspector who chaired it seemed to agree. His report, published in January 2004, stated 14 key reasons why the incinerator should not go ahead. The board of An Bord Pleanála disagreed, however, and granted permission.

Mary was at home waiting apprehensively for the An Bord Pleanála to phone with news of their decision.

The phone never rang. She heard the decision on the Pat Kenny radio show, where an Indaver representative was in studio ready to welcome the outcome.

Mary was stunned. She contacted the other CHASE members, took the inevitable media calls and left to spend the night with her son, hospitalised that morning with meningitis and septicaemia.

“It has been a personal sacrifice. It does take over your life. I stood in the driveway watching an ambulance drive away not knowing if I would see my son alive again.”

Indaver successfully applied for its operating licence from the EPA but that decision, and An Bord Pleanála’s decision are both the subject of judicial reviews in the High Court.

Mary is using the waiting period to further research public health policy, waste management practices and scientific studies on incineration.

” I never objected to anything before — I just happen to believe that there is a planning process and it should work.

“I’m not anti-development. We all have to earn an income, we fully understand the need for industry and we want the country to prosper, but it’s how you do things that counts.”

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