THE “MEXICAN stand-off” – as Fianna Fáil councillor Jim OCallaghan characterised it – between Minister for the Environment John Gormley and Dublin city manager John Tierney over the Poolbeg incinerator project shows no sign of being resolved. Essentially, Dublin City Council’s management is dug in on one side of the peninsula, unwilling to walk away from its contract with US waste-to-energy company Covanta, while the Minister snipes at them from the Custom House, using every weapon in his arsenal to frustrate construction of the controversial €350 million incinerator. And he is not a disinterested party: before he was re-elected in 2007 as a Green Party TD for Dublin South East, where the Poolbeg site is located, one of the planks of his platform was that he would oppose the project.
This undoubtedly is why he has taken steps as Minister for the Environment to ensure that it does not go ahead, by enunciating the terms of a new waste management regime that would favour mechanical and biological treatment of residual waste and put incinerator operators at a commercial disadvantage. It also explains why he has declined to approve the foreshore licence Covanta requires for its cooling plant at Poolbeg. This has led Dublin City Council’s management, acting on behalf of the four Dublin local authorities, to issue a compulsory purchase order (CPO) for the strip of land needed – thereby circumventing Mr Gormley.
The new element in this shambolic scenario is the “break clause” that apparently forms part of the contract between the councils and Covanta; as reported by RTÉ, it became effective on Sunday last because a number of requirements in progressing the project had not been met. However, instead of exercising its right to terminate the contract, Mr Tierney told a meeting of Dublin City Council on Monday that the council’s management had decided to opt for an extended “review period” until next May to consider what could, or should, be done. The main reason for this turn of events is that the council has already invested so much in the Poolbeg project – some €60 million and probably double this figure if land costs are taken into account – that it is not minded to walk away from it at this stage.
Mr Tierney is clearly buying time. The council’s application for a CPO will have to be considered by An Bord Pleanála and local objectors are likely to want to have their say. Even though the appeals board has already granted planning permission for the incinerator and the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a licence for it, this will inevitably open up the wider argument about whether such a large mass-burn unit is what Dublin needs. Even the narrower issues over the CPO itself are likely to take months to resolve. And by then, Mr Gormley may have steered through his new waste management regime, which would effectively make the project redundant. Or he may no longer be a minister. Whatever the outcome, it should not be driven by political ideology or administrative defensiveness but by hard-headed pragmatism and the need to meet EU environmental standards and to protect the public purse.