What a waste

The political infighting and policy inertia that have dominated the country’s waste policy have resulted in taxpayers being left with a multimillion-euro bill, writes Claire O’Sullivan

AFTER a decade of strident local opposition, the 250 acre Bottlehill superdump in north Cork was granted a licence by the Environmental Protection Agency in 2002.

At the time, the Cork region was generating 344,000 tonnes of municipal waste and it was predicted that the region would run out of landfill space within two years unless a sustainable solution was found. A sense of panic pervaded.

Fast forward nine years and the gold-standard landfill is in situ, and subject to daily environmental monitoring and maintenance.

However, not one waste truck has yet dumped its contents at the engineered site. The project, which cost taxpayers €47 million to develop, is on indefinite hold after a recent county council review declared it financially unfeasible. Nonetheless, Cork County Council is spending €170,000 per year maintaining and monitoring emissions at the site and making €3.5m per year in repayments for bank loans to build a redundant landfill.

In the east of the country, it’s a similar story. Again there was another bitter battle with locals fighting the Lusk superdump all the way.

It took a gruelling 14 years to get planning and licensing but now Fingal County Council has decided that its not going ahead with the project. However, over €33m of taxpayers money has already been spent by Fingal on the plans.

In both cases, how was this allowed to happen and whose fault is it? And where is our waste going to go in the future?

Both Fingal and Cork county councils have strongly defended the decision to initially develop the landfills saying the projects were in line with national policy at the time.

A November report on Bottlehill prepared for Cork County councillors stated: “The facility was developed in line with national policy at the time which promoted regionalisation of waste management planning, delivering high quality infrastructure based on the proximity principle”.

However, since 2004, the council say “there has been a lack of direction in national waste policy”.

In 2008, an international waste review was carried out by the Fianna Fáil/Green government but no national policy has followed. The sector has been in a vacuum for over seven years and, meanwhile, the economy has fallen apart.

According to Fingal council, the uncertainty around national policy was central to its decision to scrap Lusk. Under Environment Minister Phil Hogan, the Department of Environment has ordered a review of the waste management sector and until that it emerges, the future is anyone’s guess.

In the meantime, in September, Mr Hogan scrapped his predecessor’s incinerator levies and increased the landfill levy from €30 per tonne to €50 per tonne. It will further rise to €65 per tonne next July and up to €75 per tonne in 2013. This kind of disincentivisation of landfill, coupled with dramatic fall-offs in waste collected due to improved recycling and the collapse of the economy, have all played against the financial viability of the landfills.

Furthermore, the proximity principle is not seen to be enshrined in waste policy anymore and an “open market” approach is being taken in relation to transporting waste across borders — waste companies have no problem sending waste from Cork to Galway if they felt the price was right.

A sense of panic may have pervaded in 2002 but in 2011, the landscape is radically different.

Since then, local authorities have fled the waste collection market as they couldn’t compete with the efficiencies of the public sector. And latest figures show there are now 19,000,000 tonnes of landfill capacity across the country, enough to comfortably last until 2020. Gate fees at landfills have simultaneously nosedived, with fees dropping from €200 a tonne to €60 a tonne. There is little money to be made in the landfill game.

Indaver, which has built a 200,000-tonne capacity incinerator in Co Meath and is refusing to give up on its plans for Cork, feels quietly optimistic. It says Mr Hogan’s landfill levies are driving waste operators to its plant at Carranstown, claiming to be oversubscribed for the next five years.

So from the outside looking in, it looks like the political infighting and policy inertia that has dominated waste policy over the past seven years, has played into the hands of the proponents of waste to energy plant.

Jerry Murphy, a senior lecturer at UCC’s civil engineering department, worked in incineration in the 1990s.

“In theory”, he says, “incineration is an efficient method of dealing with waste”.

His fear, however, is that if Dublin’s 600,000-tonne Poolbeg incinerator gets the green light, it will be forced to take much more than just the dry residual waste from which recyclables have been removed.

He believes its gargantuan capacity means that it could end up taking the wetter waste material which ideally should be removed to a materials recovery facility.

“Incinerators are good when they are treating what they should. If the 600,000-tonne Poolbeg incinerator goes ahead, it will be one of the biggest in Europe and we do not have one of the biggest populations in Europe. We will then have to feed the beast.

“You just have to look elsewhere where incinerator companies have sued local authorities for starting recycling campaigns as it reduced their input. When you have an incinerator, you have to feed the incinerator.

“Yes, I think there is a need for more incinerators in this country but smaller ones. Cork could probably do with a 100,000 facility and Dublin too but not one the size of the current Poolbeg plan. Incinerators have to be sized properly so they allow the energy potential of material recovery facilities.”

Based on its current 600,000-tonne capacity, Poolbeg would need to take waste from three million people to make it sustainable — something that would suggest it could take waste from far outside Dublin.

Mr Murphy says: “There could also be that sense in Government of having to look after the Americans who are behind the project, a sense that we can’t renege on a contract with an American company as they look after us in so many ways.

“Another fear is that the Government has this idea that incineration is a silver bullet to solve everything and that yes, Poolbeg very well could take waste from all over the country.”

However, Poolbeg is a far from a dead cert. Covanta/Dong, the US company planning to run it, is having problems raising the necessary finance from the banks and so has put a stay on construction.

The lack of legislation and policy around waste management in Ireland has also caused the banks to be “extra cautious”, according to Dublin city assistant manager Seamus Lyons.

The Irish Waste Management Association, which represents the country’s private waste companies, say the situation in Ireland is a “shambles”. They estimate that by 2009, a massive €120m of taxpayers money was spent on the Poolbeg project.

“Without doubt, Minister Hogan has inherited a shambles. But at least since he came in, there has been a push further up the hierarchy by imposing landfill levies that will help us to meet our targets under the landfill directive,” says its chairman, Jim Kells.

“Landfill is an outdated technology but we will always need to have some. As for incineration, we need that but not at the size proposed. Poolbeg was too big during the Celtic Tiger, never mind now. The big difference now is that local authorities don’t own the waste. The private sector is a big player. In the past number of years, the private sector has driven the industry taking 200,000 tonnes of waste capacity at the incinerator at Carranstown, Co Meath, and another 400,000 at SRF facilities for making cement for instance.

“The private waste sector in the Dublin region is prepared to invest heavily in the development of a range of waste treatment alternatives, delivering a significant employment boost in the sector and solving thelocal waste management issues.

“However, this investment cannot go ahead if an oversized incinerator is constructed at Poolbeg.”

Mr Hogan has put together a forum of all those working in the waste management sector who will meet in January to help develop waste policy.

Mr Kells says he has no problems with landfill and incineration as part of the suite of waste solutions in the country but he says recycling and waste recovery need priority.

In the meantime, the taxpayer is just left sitting wondering how politicians have made such a mess of Irish waste management. Up to €120m spent on a Dublin incinerator which is now in limbo, €47m on a mothballed Cork landfill and €33m on a Dublin superdump that never was. Only in Ireland.

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