Great waste management debate
BY ROISIN DE ROSA
High on the hill above Galway Bay, on a beautiful sunny evening last Sunday, 14 May, hundreds flocked into the Corrib Great Southern Hotel to hear the `great debate' when opponents of incineration put their arguments directly to M.C. O'Sullivans - the consulting engineers which have drawn up most of the draft plans for waste management for the regional authorities throughout the 26 Counties.
These draft plans have all proposed `thermal treatment', incineration, as a necessary step if we are to meet EU targets for waste reduction, re-use and recycling (the three Rs) in the next decade and to divert waste away from landfills, which in many regions are near exhausted.
P.J. Rudden, from M.C. O'Sullivan, supported by Danish Waste Management consultant Gunnar Kjaer and Nicklas Johansson from the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency, lined up to justify this position.
Opponents of incineration have argued that the choice of `burn or bury' is a false choice. Present recycling technologies allow targets of well over 50% of waste to the three Rs. These targets can only be achieved through widespread door-to-door separated waste collection and community -centred waste management where local authorities retain control.
Privatised waste collection, they argue, is a licence to print money through gaining a monopoly position to meet a social necessity. What is privately the most profitable to the business sector conflicts with what is socially, economically and environmentally most advantageous for the country.
The opponents of incineration had a team of experts to put their position, including Dr. Vyvyan Howard, an expert in foetal and infant toxicopathology from Liverpool University, Dr. Conchúr Ó Brádaigh, a mechanical engineer from NUI, Galway, and Professor Paul Connett, from St. Lawrence University, New York.
P.J. Rudden opened the debate with a summary of M.C. O'Sullivan's position, claiming that emissions from incineration were down to 99% safe. Quoting the Department of the Environment, he claimed that ``incineration is safe, tried and tested, and has no environmental impact''.
In response, Dr. Ó Brádaigh claimed there were many flaws and mysteriously disappearing statistics in the draft plan's figures. In particular, he said, the Plan underestimates the toxic ash which must be disposed of in landfill. The incineration enthusiasts claimed this ash, at least the bottom ash, was not toxic. Their opponents pointed to a case last week in Newcastle, England, where public health officials had to ban children from 27 allotments and footpaths and issue public warnings not to eat foodstuff produced there because of the high level of toxicity in the soil from incinerator ash which had been dumped there.
There was heavy contention over international dioxin levels, over the costs of incineration, and over the claims made that many areas, including California, Seattle, Ontario, and Australia were really achieving their claimed targets of over 60% of waste recycling. P.J. Rudden claimed these recycling figures were spurious, as waste went out to landfills in other areas. Professor Connett appeared to settle the matter when he talked of how he had been there and had seen what was going on in many of these areas.
Dr. Howard referred to low testosterone levels and near sterility amongst a high proportion of males in Denmark, which he claimed were the probable effects of dioxins from incineration. Gunnar Kjaer mentioned that there were several children in his family and they weren't sterile. Dr. Howard retorted that this was scarcely a representative sample.
Conchúr Ó Brádaigh asked why the plan proposed a target for the diversion of waste to recycling by 2003 of 43%. (At present 4% of waste is recycled.) But after 2003, there is no further plan to increase recycling. Could it be, he asked, that the incinerator was intended to come on stream at that date? PJ Rudden replied that the draft plan was only a five-year plan.
Paul Connett talked of the exorbitant costs of incineration. The American experience of incineration technology, which has become outdated, include the closure of incinerators because they could not meet their debts. Gate fees became exorbitant. But the monster has to be fed, which presented a barrier to recycling.
The debate ended with a heartfelt plea from Dr. Howard that our present environment without incinerators is `gold dust' by comparison with the rest of Europe. ``Look after your fishing industry, your sea, your farming, your peoples' health. Nurture it. Don't throw it away.''