THE competition watchdog is to launch a formal investigation into arrangements for the €350m Poolbeg incinerator plant, the Irish Independent has learned.
News of the investigation comes following a long line of controversies surrounding the plant, including its size and location.
Lawyers for the authority spent time assessing anti-competitive complaints about the incinerator before deciding on a formal investigation, sources confirmed.
While the Competition Authority screens every complaint it receives, it only conducts formal investigations if there is "solid evidence" that rules have been broken, according to its most recent annual report.
The probe comes following submissions to the body from private waste management companies who allege that the arrangement between the combined operators of the plant is anti-competitive by favouring Poolbeg as the facility to treat waste from the wider Dublin region.
US waste giant Covanta Energy is the main company behind the Dublin Waste to Energy plant at Poolbeg, while Danish firm Dong is its private partner in the plant.
Dublin City Council (DCC) is the public arm of the operation. The Competition Authority has written to DCC informing it of the investigation. The monopolies division of the watchdog will conduct the probe following the allegations by the operators.
In criminal cases, the authority can refer its findings to the Director of Public Prosecutions for judgment.
In civil cases, the watchdog can bring a case to the High Court, which can impose fines ranging from €3,000 to €4m for more serious breaches.
The decision by the authority to go ahead with the investigation comes just months after the High Court ruled that Dublin's four local authorities, including Dublin City Council, abused their dominant position in the household waste market in a bid to oust private operators.
In December, Mr Justice Liam McKechnie quashed changes to the Dublin waste management plan whereby only the councils, or contractors appointed by them, could collect household waste in the region. It was also claimed in court that the reason for wanting this control was so there would be enough raw material for the 600,000-tonne a year facility at Poolbeg.
DCC has committed to supplying at least 320,000 tonnes of waste to the incinerator each year. Covanta Energy is already in talks with private waste operators around the country to supply the 280,000 additional tonnage required to fill the plant, the Irish Independent reported last week.
The High Court case arose from a challenge by firms Panda and Greenstar, which took separate cases against the councils claiming the change to the plan was an abuse of dominant position and contrary to competition law.
In his judgment, Mr Justice McKechnie said the change to the waste management plan would substantially strengthen the position of the local authorities and substantially influence the structure of the market, to the detriment of competition.
If a private company collects waste, it can then own it and can determine where that waste goes, the judge said.
He added that the Poolbeg incinerator, which is due to start processing waste in 2013, was not free from uncertainty.
DCC confirmed yesterday that it had received notification from the Competition Authority that it intended to assess a complaint received from the Irish Waste Management Association.
It added that while it would respond to the authority, work would continue on the site.
Ailish O'Hora, Public Affairs Correspondent