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An incinerator for Norfolk - the case for and against

PUBLISHED: 11:25 25 January 2011

THE CASE FOR

Norfolk County Council may be supporting the incinerator scheme, but the authority insists it is “technology neutral” and only chose it as the preferred option after considering other schemes and methods of dealing with waste.

Mike Jackson, director of environment, transport and development, said the council had carefully assessed 17 bids, including technologies such as mechanical biological treatment (MBT), anaerobic digestion, gasification, pyrolosis and autoclave, as well as incineration. Criteria used included quality, affordability, costs and commercial considerations. “We haven’t decided incineration is the best-value solution: we have decided this particular proposal, which happens to be incineration, is the best proposal,” he said.

“We had two very good proposals, both using incineration. Cory Wheelabrator’s bid was slightly ahead on points. The others were some way behind on value for money. We have been looking at the issues for a long time. We know the market, we know the techonologies inside out.

“We have ended up where we are, with the best proposal against the criteria the council set. We have ruled nothing out.”

The problem the council is attempting to solve is what to do with the residual waste left over after recycling. This totalled 225,000 tonnes last year and with strict government targets on how much can be sent to landfill, along with increasing financial penalties, the authority must find other ways to deal with it. Under the incinerator proposals, the council would be contracted to provide 170,000 tonnes of waste a year.

The most recent figures show Norfolk recycled or composted 43pc of its waste, putting it 13th in the league table of English counties. The council aims to increase this figure to 63pc, and argues that an energy-from-waste (EFW) incinerator at Saddlebow will help its efforts.

“We believe recycling rates of 75pc can be achieved... There’s a residual amount of waste that just can’t be recycled and there always will be. Landfill is an awful way of dealing with the problem. This is positive and will deliver enhanced rates of recycling. Even if we get to the point where our own household waste is not enough, we can look at commercial waste, and look at waste from the offices of the council and district council and look at putting that through.”

The council points out that the facility will recover about 5,000 tonnes of metals for recycling, and provide about 55,000 tonnes of ash for recycling as aggregates each year, as well as producing enough electricity to power 36,000 homes, plus steam and heat which could be used in the paper-making process at nearby Palm Paper.

Mark Allen, assistant director of environment and waste, said: “The site hits all the key planning criteria. It takes a lot of the risk out of the proposal for the bid. It’s very close to the trunk road network; it’s very close to the National Grid; it’s a former industrial site.”

Now that Cory Wheelabrator has been chosen as the council’s preferred bidder for the PFI (private finance initiative) scheme, estimates of the total cost have fallen from between £525m and £668m to less than £500m over the course of the 25-year contract. The council estimates it will save at least £200m in landfill costs over the same period.

Leaked details have revealed the council could have to pay up to £20.5m in compensation should the deal fall through.

The council has dismissed health fears over the incinerator, citing advice from the Health Protection Agency and Defra that well-run and regulated incinerators do not pose a significant threat to public health.

Mr Jackson said: “The levels of emissions are so low they are not measurable. Objectors say we can’t demonstrate there’s not an impact. Modern well-run EFW facilities produce such a low rate of emissions we’re not capable of measuring it. It’s safe, proven technology that operates safely all over England.”

THE CASE AGAINST

A campaign against the proposed incinerator is already up and running in and around King’s Lynn and is focused on two main groups, KLWIN (King’s Lynn Without Incineration) and Farmers’ Campaign.

Their arguments centre on health concerns related to emissions, and they also say the incinerator will lead to increased traffic and will hamper efforts to reduce, reuse and recycle waste.

The groups have already held a series of public meetings, and will be stepping up their campaign ahead of a poll being organised by West Norfolk Council for Feburary 14.

“As people have come and listened and discussed it with their neighbours, and understood the pros and cons, the vast majority of people are going away thinking it’s not a good idea,” said Michael de Whalley, of campaign group KLWIN.

While the authority itself will not rule on planning permission – that decision will be taken by Norfolk County Council’s planning and regulatory committee later this year – it is a statutory consultee. The county council has said that while the numbers of people who vote for or against the proposals will not make any difference, any planning considerations raised as part of the process will be listened to.

Mr de Whalley added: “The idea of landfill tax was meant to be to stop us throwing things away and burying them. It’s hotly debated whether incineration is better than landfill... Lots of other things – reducing, reusing and recycling waste – are much better. I accept that landfill is the wrong thing to do. I’m saying incineration isn’t any better.”

Opponents of the incinerator cite two main health concerns: particles (or particulates), and dioxins. The former are microscopic specks of dust linked with cancer, heart attacks and asthma. While pollen-sized particles are mostly trapped by filters, smaller bacteria-sized particles are released. Campaigners cite European law detailing their “significant negative effects on human health” and requiring their reduction in urban areas.

Environmental consultant Richard Burton, who is working on the anti-incinerator campaign, said the smaller particles covered by the European law reached the lower lung and were absorbed into the bloodstream.

“Norfolk County Council says the emissions of particles from incinerators are small, compared to those from traffic and other sources,” he said. “But they are comparing totals for England, and therefore comparing 25 energy-from-waste incinerators to emissions from 34.5 million vehicles, and millions of household boilers. Locally, an incinerator does make a big contribution, and it is from a single concentrated location with King’s Lynn immediately downwind on many days.”

Dioxins are among the most carcinogenic chemicals known to science. They are created when materials are burnt, and in particularly large numbers when plastics are burnt.

Mr de Whalley said: “It’s not something we want to add into the environment. Once it enters the food chain it stays there for generations.”

Mr Burton said council claims that technology in modern energy-from-waste incinerators stopped the formation of dioxins were incorrect. He said while they were destroyed in the furnace, they reformed at 300-400C later in the incinerator, and that while some were trapped by pollution filters, others were released into the atmosphere. He said Cory Wheelabrator’s monitoring of dioxin levels, while in accordance with the law, would be insufficient to give an accurate picture of dioxins entering the air.

He also challenged the council’s reliance on advice from the Health Protection Agency that modern, well-run incinerators posed no significant threat to public health. He said it was based on a 2003/4 report written for Defra which predated the latest knowledge about particulates and EC law, saying it had been co-written by a consultancy that delivered planning permission for incinerators.

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