Belfast incinerator inquiry exposes waste policy failings

A planning inquiry into a proposed municipal waste incinerator in Belfast has focused attention on Northern Ireland's institutional and legislative shortcomings in the waste management field - though some are to be addressed in a new waste management strategy being prepared by consultants.

The proposed incinerator, to be built by Nigen alongside its Belfast West power station, would burn 220,000 tonnes of municipal waste annually, generating 15MW of electricity. Belfast City Council needs to move fast to find a new disposal route because its landfill contract with UK Waste ends in 2000.

But the size of the plant compared with Northern Ireland's entire household waste arisings of around 700,000 tonnes per year has made it a target for environmental groups. They object to the impact it would have on a waste strategy now being prepared for the Northern Ireland Department of the Environment (DoE).

Nigen's proposal is one of four bids shortlisted by Belfast City Council following a tender exercise in late 1995. The others are from Associated Energy Projects, which is proposing a 225,000-tonne incinerator on the site of the council's old plant; UK Waste, which plans to extend its Cottonmount landfill; and Haul Waste, whose landfill proposal awaits the outcome of a planning inquiry.

Belfast council collected only 153,000 tonnes of household and commercial waste in 1996, so Nigen would have to seek waste from neighbouring authorities. "If the incinerator goes ahead there will be less incentive for councils to look at recycling schemes," argues Robin Curry of Northern Ireland Friends of the Earth. "And this is a sufficiently large proportion of the Northern Ireland waste stream to predetermine the waste strategy."

However, Robert Wheatley, a director of Nigen Environmental, points out that Belfast council is only guaranteeing the supply of 100,000 tonnes. He foresees no problem in winning contracts from neighbouring councils, and says that Nigen - a joint venture between the Belgian and US utility groups, Tractabel and AES - could also build a materials recycling facility in Belfast.

According to a DoE(NI) submission to a recent planning inquiry into Nigen's proposal, the six councils in the greater Belfast area collect 297,800 tonnes of household and commercial waste per year. Nigen's plant could burn 74% of this. But a further 186,000 tonnes of commercial waste is collected by contractors, and some of this could also be incinerated.

A waste-to-energy plant around half the size of the other two projects was originally proposed by a group involving the French water utility SAUR - and unlike them it won a subsidy under the non-fossil fuel obligation. But because of its size it was unable to compete against landfill or the larger incinerators, and failed to make it onto the council's short list.

Contrary to normal practice in England, Belfast City Council is putting pressure on all the bidders to secure planning consent before it awards the contract. This means it can be sure that its contractor will be able to deliver the service.

However, the outcome of the bidding process may effectively be determined by the DoE(NI), exercising planning powers which were taken away from local authorities in 1972.

Meanwhile, the choice of the Belfast West site gave Nigen a bumpy ride at the planning inquiry. The powerful Northern Ireland farming lobby opposed the project because it is on harbour land next to grain silos through which more than one million tonnes of animal feed is imported annually.

"The risk to us is of spillage of material from dustbin lorries," says Derek Hyland, Operations and Engineering Director of animal feed business W&R Barnett. "It would undoubtedly bring a microbiological hazard that doesn't exist at the moment."

Nigen commissioned consultants ADAS to investigate the microbiological risks. They concluded that "as long as good operating practices are followed, and barring major incidents, none of the hazards are considered to be significant." But Barnett's consultant, David Shillito, argued that the consequences of contamination for the agricultural industry would be "immense". The industry is particularly worried about outbreaks of Newcastle disease in poultry which can be transmitted by seagulls.

Belfast Harbour Commissioners also oppose the project because they want to retain the site - currently used to import and stockpile coal for the power station - for trade uses. And Northern Ireland Electricity, the electricity distribution company, wants the site to be used for power generation - possibly for a replacement coal-fired plant once the existing Nigen facility is scrapped in 2001.

Some of the difficulties faced by Belfast council and its would-be contractors illustrate Northern Ireland's structural and legislative problems on waste management, as highlighted in a new report.1A waste strategy is being prepared by Environmental Resources Management (ERM) on behalf of the DoE(NI). For the first phase of its work, ERM interviewed the province's 26 local authorities and concluded that there is inadequate coordination between them. Each council, the smallest of which has a population of just 15,100, arranges its own household waste services.

"There are essentially too many waste collection and disposal authorities in Northern Ireland and this is likely to be adversely impacting on cost effectiveness," the report says. "The point was made repeatedly that local authorities would not cooperate on a voluntary basis and that there must be a statutory requirement."

The lack of any statutory development plans is also identified as a key problem. There is no equivalent of the waste local plans in which English county councils, for example, identify requirements and potential sites for waste management facilities in their area.

The report also notes that delays in introducing environmental legislation have led to a "loss of credibility" for the DoE(NI). Among long-promised measures yet to be implemented are many provisions modelled on the Environmental Protection Act 1990 and the Environment Act 1995 which have brought a sea change to waste regulation and the provision of local authority waste services in Britain - and some of which are needed to comply with EC law (ENDS Report 265, pp 32-33 ).

The 1990 Act separated councils' waste regulation and disposal functions and introduced a new licensing regime. Collection authorities were required to prepare recycling plans, and disposal authorities were enabled to select contractors on the basis of environmental as well as financial criteria. The 1995 Act contains provisions on producer responsibility for waste recovery and the preparation of national waste strategies.

In Northern Ireland, the Government has proposed the transfer of waste regulation from local authorities to the DoE(NI). But ERM found that there are only 20-30 full-time personnel involved in waste regulation across the province, raising serious questions about future resourcing.

Landfill standards in Northern Ireland are often poor, and ERM says that the cost of developing engineered sites makes cooperation between councils necessary. Councils are also too small to sustain the cost of materials recovery, composting and incineration plants.

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