Hightown incinerator plan: Academic warns of potential health risks

Prof Vyvyan Howard (second from left) gave the NoArc21 campaign group a presentation on the potential dangers of waste incineration at their meeting last month. He is pictured with group representatives Craig Goodall, Colin Buick and Richard Gregory.
Prof Vyvyan Howard (second from left) gave the NoArc21 campaign group a presentation on the potential dangers of waste incineration at their meeting last month. He is pictured with group representatives Craig Goodall, Colin Buick and Richard Gregory.

Local councillors have voiced serious concerns about the possible health risks posed by plans to build a huge waste incinerator near Mallusk.

The proposal by the Becon Consortium and arc21 to construct a multi-million pound Energy from Waste (EfW) plant at Hightown Quarry has already met with considerable opposition from local residents and political representatives.

On Monday night (October 7), at their monthly Environment Committee meeting, councillors heard from Professor Vyvyan Howard, a leading toxicologist from the University of Ulster’s Biomedical Sciences Research Institute, who claimed that toxic particles expelled from waste incinerators could pose a serious risk to public health.

Prof Howard stated that while waste incinerator operators do use enhanced engineering solutions to try to reduce emissions, they can’t prevent the smallest and most numerous particles from escaping into the atmosphere.

The academic claimed that even the most modern EfW plants - facilities which burn waste to produce electricity - emit an aerosol of ultra-fine particles that could have a negative impact on people’s health, particularly those living in the local area who already have existing arterial or respiratory conditions.

“There will be harm if this plant goes ahead,” he told the meeting. “What we are arguing about is how much, and that is where the homework hasn’t been done.”

arc21 - an umbrella group of 11 local councils - is hoping the plant will help it meet strict waste targets set by the European Union over the next 25 - 30 years. However, according to councillors and council officers at Monday’s meeting, it is still unclear as to how arc21 will be affected by the Review of Public Administration and planned council mergers.

Prof Howard, who has submitted evidence to a number of public inquiries into proposed incinerators, described EfW plants as “fail-dangerous technology”, adding: “I’m not convinced that it’s safe, and in my opinion it’s not the best way to approach the problem of waste.”

He also claimed that given the significant increase in recycling levels in recent years, EfW plants are “not sustainable”.

The meeting heard the academic outline the potential dangers of breathing in microscopic particles with high levels of dioxins, to which, he claimed, “there is no safe level of exposure”.

Cllr Noreen McClelland described the professor’s claims as “exceedingly worrying”, while Cllr Mark Cosgrove said the presentation had outlined “very serious health issues”.

Sinn Fein’s Gerry O’Reilly said that he had “serious concerns” about the plan to site the waste plant so close to a heavily populated area, while the DUP’s Billy DeCourcy said that the government has a duty to protect the health of the population.

Councillor Victor Robinson questioned if Prof Howard’s claims were “a prediction” about unknown dangers, to which the academic replied that it was “safer to assume” that the particles given off from EfW plants would be more toxic given the type of waste being incinerated. But he admitted that the necessary research hasn’t yet been done.

Following the meeting, UUP councillor Mark Cosgrove commented: “In addition to the other concerns of traffic and in effect mortgaging our ratepayers for 30 years, the information supplied by Professor Howard was extremely concerning on a number of levels.

“Given the very serious risk to the health and well being of my constituents it must be clear that this is simply not an acceptable risk to the people I represent.”

Several members of NoArc21, the campaign group fighting the incinerator plan, were in the public gallery at Monday night’s meeting.

This week the group released a statement claiming that the Becon Consortium’s proposals are “not safe, not sustainable and not sensible”, reinforcing their concerns about potential health risks, increased HGV road traffic in the area and environmental damage.

The statement quotes Dr John Barry from the Centre for Sustainability and Environmental Research at Queen’s University Belfast, saying: “Energy from Waste plants in general, and this one in particular, are second or even third best options in terms of modern waste management. Burning our waste is not a 21st century solution.

“Apart from the many documented environmental and health problems of such technologies, energy from waste sends out precisely the wrong signals to industry and the public. At the very time we need to reduce and recycle more waste this proposal indicates a direction of travel which allows, and indeed demands, the production of more waste to make it economically viable. There is a real danger of waste streams being increased and recyclable waste streams diverted.”

However, the Becon Consortium has stressed that the £240m facility would help divert waste away from landfill, and that a Mechanical and Biological Treatment unit at the site would recover more recyclable materials from the waste stream.

Responding to Prof Howard’s submission, Ian Smith, Project Director with Becon, questioned the validity of his claims, pointing out that his position is at odds with that of the Health Protection Agency. And he offered an assurance that the EfW plant would have “no unacceptable impact on the environment or air quality”.

“Professor Howard’s comments do not relate specifically to the arc21 planning application and do not reflect an accurate picture of actual risk associated with this project. His position is also at odds with the evidence base on the health effects of waste management and the UK Health Protection Agency’s position, that modern, well run facilities present a negligible impact on local air quality and no measurable risk to health. As part of the planning process, a voluntary Health Impact Assessment has been commissioned to test the HPA position, and confirms that the proposed development would remain significantly within all air quality standards set to protect health, and not of an order to quantify any measurable adverse health outcome,” he said.

“Energy from Waste is a tried and tested technology that ensures the safe and environmentally responsible treatment of waste. EfW plants have operated throughout continental Europe for decades, with over 450 plants in operation today. Many of these are located in countries with long established ‘green’ credentials such as the Netherlands, Denmark, Switzerland and Germany.

“The proposed EfW plant will incorporate the latest emissions technologies used successfully across continental Europe. All emissions from the facility will be tightly controlled and monitored 24 hours a day, and will go through a state of the art cleaning process to ensure there is no unacceptable impact on the environment or air quality.”

It’s understood that a planning application for the project is likely to be submitted by arc21 within the next few weeks.

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