Sixteen years later and €12m poorer, Indaver is no less committed to building an incinerator in Ringaskiddy. On the eve of yet another oral hearing and with a third planning application under scrutiny, Indaver Ireland chief John Ahern tells Catherine Shanahan that he’s upbeat about their chances of success.
Q: Why, 16 years after you acquired the site from Ispat, and despite unremitting opposition, are you still determined to build an incinerator in Ringaskiddy?
A: Because the facility is still needed. The problem of Ireland not being self-sufficient in its waste hasn’t gone away. It’s actually gotten worse. When we started this process, Ireland was exporting its hazardous waste. Now it’s exporting hazardous waste and household waste.
Q: But why Ringaskiddy?
A: We did a site selection process at the very beginning. Each time we’ve applied we’ve had to ask — is it still that site in Ringaskiddy? We can’t say it is just because we own it. We have to justify every time that it’s the appropriate site. When you look around Cork and look at where you might go — and we’ve been to all the different places — Ringaskiddy, because of zoning and concentration of industry in the area, is where a big building like an incinerator fits from a planning perspective.
Q: But does it only fit from a planning perspective because of a ministerial direction from junior environment minister Paudie Coffey last year to make provision for a waste-to-recovery facility in the Cork County Development Plan?
A: There is more to the story than that. The first part of the story is that when Cork County Council was developing the County Development Plan (CDP), they zoned our land as well as some others as suitable for large scale waste-to-energy plants.
Then the plan was put before the council members and at that point the councillors said “Hold on a minute, that’s going to be of benefit to Indaver” — and there was a row.
And there was a vote and they said they wanted to change it. And the chief executive said: “I will change it, but we will be told when it is checked by the Department of the Environment to change it back”. Why was the department doing that? Because they have to follow the rules too.
There are things the council must do when drawing up a plan. So the council follows those rules and a part of that, all the way down from Europe, is that if you are having a development plan, you must make provision in it for waste management.
So the executive followed the plan, the councillors said ‘we want to break the rules’, just like they did when they said they wanted to build houses on flood plains, and the executive said “I’ll do what you’re saying but we’ll be back here because you’ll be told to change it”. What else was Minister Coffey supposed to do?
Q: You have a 200,000 tonnes-per-annum waste-to-energy plant in Meath. What profit did that turn last year?
A: I think it was somewhere between €10m and €11m.
[I checked the company accounts, it was €10.8m in 2014, after tax, for the Indaver Ireland Ltd group, while pre-tax profits rose from €10.7m in 2013 to €12.4m in 2014. The directors attributed the improvement in profitability to “the satisfactory performance of our Meath waste-to-energy plant”. John goes on to say that Indaver didn’t come to Ireland of their own accord, that he, and like-minded individuals “who wanted to change things” invited them.]
When myself and my colleagues were in Meath we were having exactly the same conversation as we are having now: “Get out of town, we don’t want your project” — and worse. And we said “No, no, no you need it”, and we stuck to our guns. And the State said “It’s needed” and if it didn’t, we wouldn’t be here. You see, we are committed. We don’t just do this because we get paid. So we were in Meath and we were told to shove it and we now have it operational. The people up there have no problem with it. We can go into any pub up there, people know us and know us extremely well.
I don’t know if we are popular or not, but I know we’ve been asked from time to time could we make a bigger one because they get a community fund [as a condition of planning set down by An Bord Pleanála]. The people moved on and are using the facility.
They’ve kind of forgotten what goes on there. And it was just as controversial.
Q: What do you think of a minister, Simon Coveney, publicly objecting to your proposals?
A: I’d prefer if he hadn’t, but I understand it, coming up to election. And I’m sure he has a vision of Cork Harbour and he doesn’t believe that we fit in there.
We have invited him up to see our plant in Meath. In fact, we took 150 people from Cork and from Meath to Belgium to see our incinerators [Indaver is a Belgian company] and they came over. We didn’t have to drag them. But we have been out since May this year trying to get people to come up from Cork to see Meath and not one of them has.
Why has no-one come up to see it working well? It is just a bit strange. I mean we have one in Meath, it’s not causing any difficulty, the public seem to like it, the local community are benefiting from it and it’s been impossible to get anyone from Cork to come up and see it.
Q: What about the impact your plans may have on the nearby IMERC campus? There are concerns that marine researchers and businesses will go elsewhere and that it could create difficulties for the National Maritime College in attracting students?
A: But where is the proof of that? Expanding the IMERC campus isn’t going to solve the waste problem. And I have no reason to believe that if we build, it won’t expand. I don’t believe that is the case. Because I have never seen it happen anywhere. So people might have views, opinions, fears, which they are entitled to, but we have proved that what we are doing is not going to damage peoples’ health.
Q: Have there been withdrawals of industry from any other Indaver locations? Have people moved away?
A: The opposite. In Meath, three houses have been built immediately adjacent to our site after we went there. When it was built and when they saw it working all that stuff — “we’re all going to be dead and we’re all going to move away” — went away. It stopped and that’s why we keep going. We know there’s an end. It can be painful to get there, but we know there’s an end.
Q: What about concerns that incineration can detract from greener waste management measures, that it can lead to reduced recycling rates?
A: Integrated waste management has to be done right and you’ve to get the right capacities. Integrated waste management includes prevention and we’re not great at that. You know when we were best at it? 2007, 2008, 2009. You know why? We stopped wasting money.
We were in the WEEE (waste electrical and electronic equipment) recycling business and you should have seen what we were receiving as a company in 2003, 2004, 2005. You know why? People were throwing out stuff and it wasn’t that it wasn’t working. The colour wasn’t matching. We were wasteful. Then we ran out of money and everyone stopped, the amount of waste dropped.
But now, it’s on the up again. But there is prevention and the plastic bag tax was a good example. We wouldn’t be good at it without a policy measure. Left to our own devices, we are not good at it and that’s where the State has a role to play.
Q: Are you going to have enough waste coming in on an annual basis to feed the incinerator?
A: Well we are prepared to spend €160m of a bet that we will have. Last year, Ireland sent 500,000 tonnes to landfill. That’s a lot of waste and a lot of trucks. In addition to that, Ireland exported 600,000 tonnes.
Every 10 days down here in the harbour we bring in a ship and it’s full of families’ waste. Not hazardous waste, household waste. And we take it to Sweden or to Holland every two weeks. All of the big guys have to get rid of their waste when they collect it from your house. It has to go somewhere.
They package it up into bales and we find homes for it because there is no home in Ireland. So 1.1m tonnes of residual waste was either exported or landfilled last year and that’s the problem we have to solve.
Q: Will you be taking it from the nine counties that come in under the Southern Region Waste Management Plan?
A: It’ll be predominantly from Cork. We know the markets — we expect that there will be enough in just Cork. Otherwise we’ll go into parts of Kerry and Limerick.
Q: Is there any question of you importing waste?
Q: Never ever?
I can’t put my hand on heart and say I will never ever ever do anything, except I will say this: First of all I don’t see the sense in anyone sending it [waste] here and secondly it would be hard to build it and then to start bringing waste from other countries.
I don’t need to bring it in. Although I do have one small problem. When I’m not in Cork or Meath, I spend the rest of my time in other countries begging them to take our waste. I have a small bit of a problem then when I come back here and say but “if we build this, we will never take it”.
That’s a bit ironic. But from a company perspective, we will never take any waste from abroad, it just doesn’t make business sense.
Q: How much has Indaver spent to date on the Ringaskiddy site, including planning applications, oral hearings, judicial reviews etc.?
A: €12m. That includes the land. It doesn’t include the oral hearing that begins tomorrow.
Q: How many homes will the Ringaskiddy plant be able to power?
A: Circa 30,000. In Meath, the equivalent of Drogheda and Navan are powered by our waste all year round. Houses, factories, shops, everything. Waste that used to go into landfill and you got nothing out of it is now producing electricity.
Q: What about health concerns — can you reassure people that no toxins will be emitted? Some scientists say particulate matter emitted by incinerators is too small to be caught by a filter and that it goes out into the atmosphere?
A: They are wrong. Some scientists are wrong.
Q: So there is no particulate matter emitted that people need to be worried about?
A: Not that they need to be worried about.
Q: What about the 19 breaches of emission limits in Co Meath in 2014?
A: Yes but you see, people pick out one sentence. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report goes on to say they were of no environmental consequence. Yes, there were 19 breaches. And we had 14,000 measurements. We are allowed a 3% error because everything has a limit without impacting on people. But all we hear all of the time is “19 breaches”.
Q: What about coastal erosion and the site being saturated?
A: If you drive around GSK and the other [pharma] plants [in Ringaskiddy], they are not falling into the sea. We’re going to have to try and persuade our board to spend €160m on a site that’s going to fall into the sea?
I know people think we are mad, but we are not that mad. Why would we build something costing that much money on a site that’s going to fall into the sea and why would ABP let us? If it’s a danger, it can be remediated.
Q: What about the emergency infrastructure — one road in, one road out?
A: If you look at the pharma down there, they’re not concerned. It’s not an issue. It makes great radio, but it’s not an issue from a chemical engineering or firefighting point of view.
Q: Did you ever receive any threats on foot of your plans?
A: No, I wouldn’t call them threats! I’ve been told to bugger off a couple of times!
Q: It’s your third planning application. Do you think it will be third time lucky?
A: There’s a big, big, big difference [this time]. And that’s why we were waiting for what the council officials were going to say, it was important to us. [A report from the council’s senior planner circulated to members last week essentially said incineration was acceptable in Ringaskiddy from a policy perspective].
When we came down here first we went to Cork County Council and said we were thinking of building a waste-to-energy plant and they said “Fine”. We said “We are going to take industrial and hazardous waste” and they said “Fine” and we said “We will do household waste” and they said “Not fine”.
I remember the first time they said that to me, I said “You mean the other way around don’t you?” And they said, “No, we have our own strategy for municipal waste”.
That’s what has held us up for years. Not any of the objectors. Cork City Council had said they were building their own mechanical biological treatment plant [a type of waste processing facility that combines a sorting facility with a form of biological treatment] on the Kinsale Road and that they were going to put the residue in Bottle Hill [built by the county council].
And we said “We don’t think that’s a good idea, we think you should use thermal treatment”. And they said “Nah, we’re going to build it”.
They never built it. People are talking about game-changers. That’s the game-changer. Now they don’t have any solution [for their waste].
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