Proposed Incinerator in Limerick

The following is my contribution to the debate on the Motion below which I tabled. The Motion has been agreed to by Dáil Éireann.


Environmental Impact of Quarries and Incinerators: Motion [Private Members]

Deputy Willie O’Dea:

I move: That Dáil Éireann recognises:

  • the severe and worsening impact on wildlife, biodiversity and ecosystems of some commercial activities which are known to be harmful or potentially harmful to the environment;
  • that in September 2019, despite receiving over 4,000 objections, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) upheld a decision by An Bord Pleanála to allow Irish Cement burn used tyres, animal waste, sludge and other waste at its plant in Castlemungret and have claimed that the temperature at which tyres are burned will mean that there is no significant impact on the environment;
  • that since 2017, the EPA has received a significant number of complaints about dust deposition from residents of the Mungret and Raheen areas of Limerick City;
  • that in 2018 Irish Cement was convicted of two counts of breaching its industrial emissions licence;
  • that the maximum fine Irish Cement faced for these breaches was €4,000;
  • that electricity-only incinerators may emit more than 33 per cent more fossil carbon dioxide than gas power stations;
  • that this situation has caused considerable concern over Irish Cement’s ability to deliver on its claims that there will be no impact on the environment or public health as a result of its burning of tyres; and
  • that Irish Cement has consistently refuted any suggestion of a public health threat from its plans;

Further recognises that:

  • a recent survey of local authorities has found that out of 1,100 active quarries around the country, 150 are deemed to be unauthorised;
  • quarry operators are able to continue blasting and excavating without planning permission;
  • some local authorities are customers of these unauthorised quarries, having previously issued enforcement notices against them;
  • special areas of conservation have been placed under threat and damaged by these operations; and
  • it is clear that some quarry operators continue to operate with impunity despite the actions of both the courts and local authorities;

Acknowledges that:

  • communities have campaigned to raise awareness of both unauthorised quarries and the issuing of licences to companies who have previously broken with regulations;
  • local authorities and the courts have pursued some quarry operators; and
  • An Taisce has worked to pursue unauthorised quarry operators;
  • and calls on the Government to:
  • ensure that the right to public participation, including early and open consultation in decision-making, is respected in the context of incineration and quarrying developments;
  • ensure that planning applications in respect of incinerators and quarries take into account planning history, site suitability, visual and amenity impacts, health risks, climate targets and obligations to protect biodiversity;
  • revoke licences subject to the completion of investigations in cases where individuals or companies are found to have previously acted outside environmental regulations on multiple occasions;
  • bring forward legislation to remove the EPA’s absolute right to immunity;
  • allow appeals to the EPA to be considered on substantive grounds outside of the courts;
  • empower the EPA to use a more robust system of enforcement action against polluters whereby the scale of fines is based on a percentage of licensee turnover;
  • expedite the upcoming €5 per tonne Waste Recovery Levy for incineration in order to recover potential costs to society, public health and the economy of pollutants;
  • direct revenues generated from the levy and collected in the Environment Fund towards improved recycling infrastructure;
  • conduct a review of enforcement orders issued by local authorities which have not been effective to date;
  • ensure that any quarries operating without planning approval cease operation and undertake an analysis of any adverse environmental impacts;
  • assess the environmental impact of quarries operating without planning permission and ensure an immediate cessation of operations where they are not in compliance with environmental regulations;
  • implement a review of the planning process for quarries;
  • prioritise the prevention and recycling of waste over incineration;
  • implement a community-led zero-waste policy to reduce the consumption of plastic and to encourage alternative forms of recycling, waste disposal and measures to further encourage the development of the circular economy; and
  • ensure that plans for residual waste, left over after recycling or re-use, are prepared on the basis that the levels of such will be progressively reduced.

There was a time when incineration was seen as the perfect antidote or alternative to landfill when it came to the disposal of toxic waste. However, those days are long since passed. Public opinion has moved on and science has moved on. The arguments put forward in favour of incineration have been shown by numerous studies and reports to be both self-serving and simplistic. I could give examples but time does not permit me to do so. Incineration is not a very efficient way to produce energy. Three to four times more energy can be saved by a combination of reusing, recycling and composting. Trash cannot be regarded as a renewable resource and incineration cannot be seen as sustainable technology, because when something is burned, we have to go all the way back to square one and extract more virgin resources to replace it.

Another effect of incineration, as evidenced from studies of what has happened in various countries that have built large numbers of incinerators, is that the focus of policymakers shifts from how to dispose of waste to how to keep the incinerator operating. The net result of this, as we anticipate in Limerick, is that we would have to import other people’s waste. In other words, we will be moving from landfill to incineration but we will be burning not only our own waste but other people’s waste. As stated by Dr. Ludwig Krämer, former waste director for the European Union:

An incinerator needs to be fed for twenty to thirty years, and in order to be economic it needs an enormous input. So, for twenty to thirty years you stifle innovation, you stifle alternatives, just in order to feed that monster which you have built.

Even if incineration could be made safe, it could never be made sensible. It does not make ethical or economic sense to spend so much time, money and effort destroying materials that we should be sharing with the future. Professor Paul Connett gave evidence on behalf of an organisation in Limerick called Limerick Against Pollution during the recent An Bord Pleanála oral hearing.

He is a retired professor of environmental chemistry in St. Lawrence University in New York. He wrote a book on how we should proceed titled The Zero Waste Solution: Untrashing the Planet One Community at a Time. I recommend it to every single member of the Cabinet and certainly to every member of the next Cabinet. It shows how in places such as the United States, Canada, Australia, Italy and individual provinces in Canada such as Ontario and Nova Scotia, not only the state but cities, communities and individual corporations have tackled the problem of waste through composting and recycling.

There is increasing public resistance to incineration. A vote in the European Parliament supports the notion that no material can be burned in incineration if it can be recycled or composted. This amounts to more than 90% of waste, which would virtually rule out the building of new incinerators in Europe and force the closure of several existing ones. In the United States, not one new trash incinerator has been allowed for the past 25 years, since 1995. In that period, 300 proposals have been put forward for such incinerators and all have been rejected.

Incineration has a devastating impact on public health. Incinerators generate a toxic ash which is poorly handled, toxic air emissions which are poorly monitored and nanoparticles which are not effectively captured by air pollution control devices, travel incredibly long distances and penetrate deep into the lungs. As a direct result of the State’s policy on incineration, we have a very serious issue in my constituency. A licence for incinerating waste was granted to Cement Roadstone Holdings Limited for its plant at Templemungret in Limerick, right in the middle of a population of approximately 25,000 people in the southern suburbs of Limerick city. The company sought and secured planning permission from Limerick City and County Council. The decision went to An Bord Pleanála, which held an oral hearing lasting about ten days that many of us attended. An Bord Pleanála approved the planning permission. The company then applied to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, for a licence and despite receiving 4,500 objections, the EPA granted it nevertheless. Is the Minister aware of a single instance where planning permission was granted for a plant such as this and the EPA subsequently decided not to grant the licence? In my view, the EPA slavishly follows the planning authority and automatically grants the licence. That approach is completely bonkers. The planning authority deals with planning issues such as traffic, whereas the EPA is supposed to protect the environment.

The irony of the EPA’s decision was well summed up in a letter to the Limerick Leader last September by Dr. Angus Mitchell, a leading member of Limerick Against Pollution, who wrote that it was a devastating moment filled with cruel irony. Last week, he continued, as the Government declared a climate and biodiversity emergency, some 4,500 citizens of Limerick who had lodged complaints against the proposed plan by Irish Cement to incinerate vast amounts of toxic waste in their midst were notified by a cold formal email that their pleas had fallen on deaf ears. This is a natural consequence of the Government’s waste management policy. In a further irony, this licence is being granted to a company that has been polluting the environment in my region for decades. I recently turned up a case from 1940, almost 80 years ago, where a number of local people took a case against Irish Cement Limited for polluting the environment. Mr. Justice Gavan Duffy remarked that there was no excuse for the indifference to people’s rights demonstrated by Irish Cement Limited. He found there was a public nuisance in this case and granted damages. Unfortunately, things have not improved much since 1940; in fact, they have disimproved.

Time and again, Irish Cement Limited has been convicted before the courts of this country for violating its limited licence requirements. It has been convicted for polluting the environment but the fines are risible. According to Davy Stockbrokers, Cement Roadstone Holdings is projected to make a profit of €4.23 billion, an increase from €3.37 billion last year, yet the largest fine imposed on the company as a result of its pollution of the environment in Limerick has been €4,000. What is the significance of a fine of €4,000 to a company of that magnitude? It is now proposed to give Cement Roadstone permission to burn 90,000 tonnes of toxic waste annually. That is the initial permit but the figure will rise dramatically, as was the case in Drogheda. Incredibly, there is no system for collecting data on the implications of this incinerator for public health. In 1998, a report on the alleged consequences of pollution from the Aughinish Alumina plant in Askeaton recommended that such a system be put in place. However, 21 years later no such system has been put in place.

As I said, the Environmental Protection Agency tends to slavishly follow the decision of the local authority. Its attitude in this regard, to cite Dr. Mitchell again, belongs to another era of business, an era that itself should be extinct rather than propelling the planet towards extinction. When the EPA makes a decision it is possible to appeal but that appeal will be to the EPA. That it is akin to someone convicted of a crime by the district judge in Limerick being told he or she can appeal the conviction to the same district justice. What happened to the constitutional principle, one that has been repeatedly accepted by the Supreme Court, nemo judex in sua causa, or nobody should be a judge in their own cause?

It is amazing that in 2019, the EPA cannot, by law, be held accountable for any of its decisions. The legislation establishing the EPA made it immune from suit, in other words, it prevented it by statute from being sued. I tried to move a Bill in the House recently to end that immunity. I was ruled out of order by yet another Government misuse of the money message mechanism. In 2010, a report on the EPA was commissioned by the then Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Mr. John Gormley. One of the report’s strongest recommendations was that this immunity should be ceased forthwith. It pointed out that the statutory immunity enjoyed by the EPA was problematic from the point of view of the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the Government ruled my legislation out on the basis of a money message, it could have easily brought forward its own legislation, as I had done extensive research on the matter, but it chose not to do so.

The Minister of State is not a member of the Fine Gael Party but he should note that all parties and none in the Limerick area have vehemently opposed this proposal. They have done so publicly and privately and have spoken against it at public meetings. I have tabled this motion in an effort to halt this process and, at a minimum, delay, but hopefully avert, the calamity which faces the people of my city. It will be very interesting to see the Government’s attitude. If the Fine Gael Party takes a different view in here from its representatives on the ground in Limerick, who are promising to go to the stake on behalf of the people, what would that say about them? I look forward to the Minister of State’s response with eager anticipation.

Concluding speech:

I thank my colleagues and everybody else who spoke on the motion. I read Deputy Cullinane’s amendment and, given that I do not disagree with any of it, I am disposed to accept it. I take the opportunity to refer to a small group in Limerick, Limerick Against Pollution, that has stood in the ditch to resist the proposal. It is a small, dedicated group that has worked tirelessly on behalf of the people of its area, and every man, woman and child who is potentially affected by the proposal in Mungret owes it a great deal of gratitude. Even though the group is small in number and badly financed – it sells tickets and holds events such as raffles to raise funding – it is supported by thousands of people, including all the political parties in the area and none. I have attended most of the public meetings and rallies, where Fine Gael representatives were among the most vehement in their opposition to the proposal. They were fully on the side of the community and some were almost ready to lay down their lives to protect the community. It will be interesting, therefore, to see how their party colleagues in the House will respond to the motion and whether they will accept it. I am not playing politics but rather making a last-ditch effort to prevent a calamity in my community. I heard nothing in the responses of the Ministers of State, especially in that of Deputy Canney, that will afford any comfort or consolation to the people on whose behalf I am speaking.

The people of Limerick are watching the debate closely. The matter is in the heart of 25,000 residents, and 4,500 objections to it have been submitted. If the Minister, Deputy Eoghan Murphy, wishes to reflect on the matter overnight, he can, but the people are watching the debate carefully. If there is a marked difference between the approaches of Fine Gael in the House and Fine Gael on the ground in Limerick, people will naturally ask why. I ask the Minister and the Government to give careful consideration to the proposal. The Ministers of State outlined nothing in respect of incineration except for a vague promise that the Government is committed to a circular economy at some indeterminate time in the future, like St. Augustine, who wrote, “O God, make me good, but not yet.” We heard nothing about the proposal in Mungret. If, as the Ministers of State asserted, we recognise that change must come and the whole system has to be recast, why will we not pause the proposal for yet another incinerator that will have a lifetime of 20 or 30 years? Such proposals are now resisted by communities in other countries that realise they were mistaken, while we are aware of the problems yet seem determined to make the same mistake.

I ask the Government to accept the motion, as amended, to show good faith and to demonstrate that it and its representatives on the ground in Limerick are on the same wavelength.

Amendment agreed to.
Motion, as amended, agreed to.

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