Monday, 24 January 2011

Watchdog probes Gormley's refusal to back Poolbeg incinerator plan

Environment Minister John Gormley is being investigated by the Dail ethics watchdog over his opposition to a €350m incinerator in his constituency, the Irish Independent has learnt.

The Green Party leader tried to reject the probe by the Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO), claiming the allegations against him are politically motivated.

However, SIPO pushed ahead with a formal investigation on November 18 last year and appointed an inquiry officer to investigate the matter, just days before Mr Gormley sounded the death knell for the Government by calling for a general election.

SIPO is investigating Mr Gormley's two-year refusal to grant a foreshore licence to Covanta, the US company behind the Poolbeg development.

The probe was sparked by complaints that Mr Gormley was allowing personal and political concerns to expose the taxpayer to possible EU landfill fines and legal action from the company.

Mr Gormley dismissed complaints made by Fine Gael frontbencher Phil Hogan that he had broken the code of conduct for office holders as "political and vexatious". He told SIPO he had no case to answer.

"Essentially, what he was saying is that this is an attempt by Fine Gael to score political points and SIPO has no business getting involved," a source told the Irish Independent.

Geraldine Tallon, secretary general of the Department, also told SIPO she sought legal advice and was told any inquiry should be done in a formal manner.

The revelation comes as Mr Gormley faces renewed pressure to allow the incinerator to go ahead.

Covanta Europe president Scott Whitney recently hit out at a bill being rushed through by Mr Gormley in the final days of the Dail that will impose punitive levies on waste incineration of up to €120 a tonne.

"This measure will have very damaging consequences for the economy," Mr Whitney said in a statement. "Mr Gormley's behaviour has been prejudicial to the project and he has violated his duty as minister."

Mr Gormley has refused to grant the licence since becoming Environment Minister in May 2008, despite Dublin planners giving the incinerator the green light in December 2007.

Supporters of the project claimed Mr Gormley's opposition has thrown up to 600 new jobs into jeopardy.

Last July, US ambassador Dan Rooney lobbied Taoiseach Brian Cowen on behalf of Covanta to push the project through.

A spokesman for Mr Gormley refused to comment on the SIPO investigation. However, in a statement, he insisted the minister had upheld the highest ethical standards as a government minister and a public representative and that "any examination will bear this out".

Mr Gormley has insisted the project would cost the taxpayer dearly because it would be impossible to supply the plant with the 320,000 tonnes a year required under a 'put-or-pay' clause in the contract, exposing the taxpayer to fines.

However, recent waste projection reports revealed the incinerator was urgently needed. One such report pointed out that household waste will increase to 605,519 tonnes in 2020 and commercial waste to 981,605 tonnes.

The Irish Independent

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