Monday 28 June 2010

Questions for Gormley on Poolbeg conflict of interest

Hundreds of millions of euro of taxpayers’ money could be at stake over hold-ups in granting a licence for an incinerator in Dublin

REBEL FIANNA Fáil TDs created a hullabaloo in the Dáil over John Gormley’s plans to ban stag hunting but a far more important policy of the Minister’s, which threatens to cost the taxpayer hundreds of millions of euro, has generated surprisingly little comment.

The issue is Gormley’s handling of the planned Poolbeg incinerator in Dublin’s docklands, or the energy-from-waste project as its promoters prefer to call it. At stake is the city’s future waste disposal system, its natural environment, hundreds of jobs, Ireland’s image as a place to do business and a potentially massive bill to the taxpayer.

The politics of the case, as distinct from its merits or demerits, is that Gormley is an inveterate opponent of the project, as are TDs from all parties in Dublin South East where it is located. On the other side the backers of the plan are the four Dublin local authorities who have a duty to develop the safest and most efficient waste disposal system for the capital in line with EU directives.

Gormley and the local authorities are locked in an increasingly bitter battle. Potential EU fines are starting to clock up, because the continuing over- reliance on landfill is in clear breach of an EU directive which came into effect at the beginning of this year. Meanwhile the commercial developers of the project may be lining up for a multi- million euro legal action over the delaying tactics that have blocked its development.

Gormley has made no secret of the fact that he is not going to allow the project to get off the ground under any circumstances while he is Minister for the Environment and one of his latest moves has been to employ a senior counsel to try to pick holes in the contracts.

The project, first mooted over a decade ago, has been approved by An Bord Pleanála, the Environmental Protection Agency, the National Development Finance Agency and the Department of the Environment itself. Site clearance work is complete but, before it can proceed, a foreshore licence is required for the construction of a water cooling system.

Dublin City Council first lodged an application for a foreshore licence almost two years ago and until it is issued the US developer of the project, Covanta Energy, will not be able to proceed. All the preliminary work on the licence has been done and the paperwork has been sitting on the Minister’s desk for months but no decision has emerged.

Questioned in the Dáil a month ago, Gormley told Fine Gael’s Phil Hogan that more than 700 foreshore applications were being processed. “As the licence application in question is one of a large number at different stages of consideration under the foreshore consent process my department will be in contact with Dublin City Council on the matter as soon as possible.” Gormley said.

He went on to say that his understanding was that the various processes had not yet been gone through. The whispers in the corridors of power, however, are that the Attorney General has told the Minister there is no legal reason for him not to issue the licence but so far it has not emerged from the department and there is no sign of it doing so.

To put the delay in context, a foreshore licence was issued within days to facilitate repair work when the Donabate to Malahide railway bridge collapsed a year ago. Of more relevance to Poolbeg, a foreshore licence application was made for the controversial Shell Corrib project in January of this year.

Significant work will be carried out in a special area of conservation and the Shell application had to go to a public consultation with hundreds of written objections being considered. Nonetheless, the permit was granted last week, five months after its initial lodgement. The sponsoring Minister for this project is Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources Eamon Ryan and the licence was granted by his Green Cabinet colleague, John Gormley.

The Shell decision shows how the system can work, even for a highly controversial project, if the focus is there at political and official level. The Dublin incinerator issue is clearly a matter of strategic national importance not only for the people of the city but for the taxpayers of the entire State.

Apart from refusing to sign the foreshore licence, the Minister has also moved to undermine the Poolbeg plan through the introduction of waste facility levies designed to penalise large incinerator projects. Forfás, the IDA and Enterprise Ireland have made a submission to Gormley opposing the measure and pointing out the damage it will do to job creation as well as the waste-energy market.

The agencies point out that the countries with the best records, like Denmark, Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands, have reduced landfill to minuscule proportions and rely heavily on incineration, while Ireland is bracketed with countries with poor environmental records like Poland, Hungary and Britain which still rely heavily on landfill.

It is extraordinary that one Minister can simply block the project indefinitely, regardless of national policy, EU policy and legal considerations. Given his clear conflict of interest on the issue Gormley should never have been put in a position where through the exercise of his official functions he could simply hold up the project for as long as he remained in office.

Either the Minister should have taken himself out of the equation in the exercise of his official functions on Poolbeg or the Taoiseach should have insisted that he do so. Gormley and the Greens have many fine achievements to their credit in office in terms of improved planning, alternative energy and political reform but that legacy is in danger of being tarnished by the handling of one major project in the Minister’s backyard.

Irish Times

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