Norfolk incinerator - special report

Controversial proposals to build a waste incinerator just outside King's Lynn will feature heavily on the news agenda this year. Environment correspondent JON WELCH kicks off a week-long series of features by looking at what is proposed, how we got here and what happens next.

The statistics are staggering. Last year, Norfolk produced 395,000 tonnes of household waste – enough to fill one-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools each day.

Although 43 per cent of this waste was composted and recycled, some 230,000 tonnes remained to be put into landfill.

But landfill space across Norfolk is running out and this method of waste disposal creates significant quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas contributing to climate change.

With strict targets laid down by the European Union and the government to reduce the amount of waste that can be disposed of by landfill, local authorities are under pressure. Landfill tax is currently �48 per tonne, and increasing by �8 per tonne each year. It will cost Norfolk �11m this year, and that figure is set to rise by almost �2m a year. For every tonne of waste above its allowance that the council puts into landfill, the council faces potential fines of �150.

The so-called 'waste hierarchy' promotes the principles of 'reduce, reuse and recycle', and while rates have improved in recent years, there will still be a large amount of residual waste that needs to be dealt with.

During 2007/8 the county council reviewed 260 potential sites across Norfolk for suitability for a waste facility and in January 2008 its cabinet approved the purchase of land at The Willows Business Park, Saddlebow, on the southern edge of King's Lynn, and bought the site last March before applying for PFI (private finance initiative) credits from the government.

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That grant, which works out as �169m of support over the life of the 25-year contract, was confirmed in the government's comprehensive spending review last October, and the following month Anglo-US waste consortium Cory Wheelabrator was announced as the council's preferred bidder with an incinerator scheme.

The total cost over 25 years was initially estimated at between �525m and �668m, but the council believes this has now reduced to less than �500m. It estimates the scheme would save at least �200m in landfill costs over the same period.

Norfolk County Council would supply 170,000 tonnes of household waste per year, with a further 98,000 tonnes coming from businesses. Recycling would continue, and some waste would still end up in landfill.

The plant would also generate electricity and heat that could be used to power local homes and businesses, including the nearby Palm Paper mill. Cory Wheelabrator says that about 55,000 tonnes of ash could be recycled each year for use in construction, and that about 5,000 tonnes of metals could also be recovered for recycling.

According to the council, the plant would support between 300 and 350 jobs during construction, creating about 40 new jobs once up and running and another 100 in linked businesses.

Now the company has embarked on a series of public meetings and presentations as part of the community engagement process ahead of its application for both planning permission and an Environment Agency permit, due to be submitted in the spring.

First, however, the recommendation to award the contract to Cory Wheelabrator must be approved by the council's cabinet. If all goes according to plan, construction work would begin next year with the plant becoming operational in 2015.

But already there is disquiet about the proposals, with two protest groups Farmers' Campaign and KLWIN (King's Lynn Without Incineration) forming to fight the scheme.

Objectors argue that microscopic specks of dust, called particulates, emitted from the incinerator pose a health risk, causing cardiovascular disease, heart attacks and other related conditions. Highly toxic substances called dioxins, linked with cancer, would also be emitted, they say.

Opponents also say the prevailing wind will blow emissions from the plant directly over Lynn, and that they could be spread over 15-mile radius, potentially contaminating agricultural land, the cockle beds of The Wash and other environmentally sensitive areas, including Roydon Common and the Nar Valley.

They claim the plant, with its 85m (279ft) chimney stack, could devalue homes and affect tourism, and that lorry movements to and from it would be excessive.

They also claim the choice of incineration shows a lack of ambition over increasing recycling rates, since the council would be contracted to supply a fixed amount of waste for the plant.

While it will not be determining the outcome of this planning application, West Norfolk Council is a statutory consultee and will next month take the unusual step of organising a poll of 116,000 people across the borough to seek their views.

The county council, however, maintains that the incinerator will not damage health, citing a statement from the Health Protection Agency that well-run incinerators do not pose a significant threat to public health.

'The evidence suggests that any potential damage to health of those living close to incinerators is likely to be very small, if detectable,' it said.

Tomorrow: we examine the cases for and against the incinerator, looking at the health implications and asking whether it is the best option to deal with our waste.

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