Sunday 21 February 2010

Cowen must push on with incinerator

It is time for the taoiseach to intervene in the increasingly messy and expensive row over the construction of an incinerator in Poolbeg. Why? Because his environment minister, John Gormley, is hopelessly compromised on the issue and his self-serving meddling could eventually cost the state hundreds of millions.

Mr Gormley admitted last week that he had a “No Incinerator” sticker in the front window of his house. The incinerator in question is not the private facility being built in Meath, of course. It’s the one about to be constructed near his house in Dublin South East.

Mr Gormley’s tenure as a TD in that constituency has long been fragile — for example he was the last deputy to make it past the winning post in 2007. The incinerator is the most contentious local issue and every politician in Dublin South East has decided that loud and ostentatious opposition is in their electoral best interests. This is essential political context in analysing how Mr Gormley has dealt with the waste-treatment facility since he came to office. He dare not go before the people of his constituency again unless he can show that he moved might and main to stop it.

Since he has no legal powers to do so, and because the incinerator has full planning permission, a licence from the Environmental Protection Agency, and was approved by the Department of the Environment as being in accordance with the government’s waste policy, Mr Gormley cannot stop it by straightforward means. So he is resorting to a series of roundabout measures.

He talks about putting a cap on the amount of rubbish that can go to incinerators, about changing government waste policy (although this would have to be agreed by Fianna Fail ministers) and about hiring an inspector to examine Dublin city council’s contract with Covanta, the incinerator operator, on competition grounds. One of the most unseemly features of the tussle between Mr Gormley and the council is the commissioning of “expert” reports by both sides to bolster their positions.

The Economic and Social Research Institute may argue that its report on waste was an independent piece of work, but there is no avoiding the fact that it was commissioned, at a cost of €125,000, by the council. Sceptics would say this is a case of he who pays the piper getting a tune that’s music to the ears. Mr Gormley commissioned an “international” review of waste-management practice that, sceptics would say, was always going to have only one outcome. He then held this up as independent evidence against the incinerator.

While all this wrangling continues, the bill mounts. The Department of the Environment has paid €7.5m towards an incinerator which its minister opposes. The city council has contrived to pay €59m before a sod has been turned, and still doesn’t own the Poolbeg site. If it ever gets built, this is likely to be a real public-sector incinerator — hugely expensive and massively delayed.

Brian Cowen must intervene. If he doesn’t, we will be treated to two more years of squabbling and report-commissioning, until either Mr Gormley moves from the environment department or Covanta moves on. The incinerator is a public project of national importance, so it is legitimate for the taoiseach to decide whether it is to proceed. If not, the state will have to write a cheque to Covanta as compensation.

If Mr Cowen decides the incinerator should go ahead, he must tell his environment minister to abide by government policy or move to another department. Of course the incinerator should be built. Either way, the issue must be resolved by the taoiseach — and soon.

Sunday Times

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