Last week’s decision by the Health Protection Agency (HPA) to revisit the issue of whether waste incinerators pose a health threat looks set to stoke waste industry fears that such development will stagnate for years to come.
The £11bn waste and recycling sector frequently faces setbacks across the country - most often because of the perceived potential negative health impacts of living close to a municipal waste incinerator (MWI).
Residents fear that emissions from such facilities could affect their health and hit property prices, a view backed up by anti-incinerator campaign groups supported by environmental lobbyists.
The result is that many schemes have been left in planning limbo and caught up in lengthy judicial reviews.
However, government policy at national and local level remains committed to increasing incinerator use within energy from waste schemes.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) is also committed to them because of their contribution in dealing with the 45M.t of waste produced annually.
And proponents of the technology used in modern MWIs say it is no worse for a person’s health to live near one than it is to live close to a busy road.
The HPA attempted to reassure the public in 2009 with a review of scientific evidence that led it to state that incinerators which are well run and regulated “do not pose a significant threat to public health”.
However, from this latest decision to revisit the issue it is clear that the public needs further convincing.
“There’s too much debate over energy from waste schemes”
Adam Read, AEA
As a result HPA is paying scientists from Imperial College London and Kings College London to investigate whether residents living within up to 15km of an MWI suffer from health problems relating to waste incineration.
The study will begin in April with preliminary results expected in 2014.
“There’s too much debate over energy from waste schemes,” says energy consultant AEA waste management and resource global practice director Adam Read.
“Something has to be done to move the debate on from the health eff ects of incinerators.”
Read hopes that the new research will help inform planning bodies when deciding the future of such schemes and help speed up the process.
Consultant MWH waste business director Marcel Goemans is also positive about the extra research and the hope that it will speed up the planning process.
“The biggest risk for energy from waste schemes is the planning risk,” says Goemans.
The issue of time is even more important because many local authorities have already signed multi-billion pound private finance initiative contracts with private companies to provide waste management services and facilities which often feature incinerators.
“The biggest risk for energy from waste schemes is the planning risk”
Marcel Goemans, MWH
And there are numerous examples of troubled and stalled energy from waste schemes across the UK. The Cornwall Energy Recovery Centre incinerator at St Dennis ended up at the High Court in October (NCE 27 October 2011). Then there is the Belvedere incinerator in South London which got planning permission in 2006, 14 years after submitting its original planning application.
Goemans and Read suggest that the UK is behind its the rest of Europe, where the public more readily accepts major energy from waste schemes.
“These plants are covered by stringent European Union regulations,” adds Read.
But Friends of the Earth (FoE) believes that incinerator based schemes are an unacceptable method of waste disposal and maintain that is “impossible” to say they are safe.
FoE believes efforts should be focused on saving energy and resources, for example by recycling or through restraint in using resources. This argument often feeds the reasoning behind many anti-incinerator campaigns.
Read accepts that in the UK, getting approval to build any energy from waste scheme near a residential area will always be difficult.
“When you’re talking about a project that could affect children’s health and house prices, people have a right to be worried,” he adds. “But we have to construct them somewhere.”
Read adds that early stakeholder engagement is key to ensuring an energy from waste scheme is likely to gain planning consent, but that does come at a price.
“Early stakeholder involvement costs money,” says Read.
“It’s a lot better if the scheme is developed with the local community but that could have effects on the business case - such as selection of [waste] delivery times.”
With many planning decisions for energy from waste schemes being taken at a local level it is clear that greater clarity about planning decisions is needed.
And the Localism Bill, which is due to be enacted in April, aims to bring more decision making powers down to local level. This could introduce even more uncertainty to the planning process.
No doubt backers of MWIs will be even keener to obtain reassurance about the speed of decisions. Experts hope HPA’s study will offer help nothindrance.