Belvedere incinerator ignites fierce debate

A storm of controversy has been whipped up by the DTI's decision to allow the building of the UK's biggest incinerator to go ahead. Katie Coyne reports

The DTI’s decision to give the go-ahead for what will become UK’s largest incinerator has sparked fierce controversy, with those in the ‘for’ and ‘against’ camps both laying claim to green credentials.

So inflammatory is the decision that Bexley Council in Kent, in whose borough the plant is due to be built, is seeking to appeal against the DTI’s decision. Leader of the council Ian Clement told LAWR that it is joining forces with the Mayor of London’s office to apply for a judicial review.

If the energy-from-waste facility does go ahead, exactly who will build and run the plant will be decided in the next few months. Cory Environmental is the firm behind the incinerator although the planning application was put in by Cory subsidiary Riverside Resource Recovery, set up specifically for this purpose.

Cory has a 30-year £700M waste contract with Western Riverside Waste Authority and plans to tender-out the ‘turn key’ contract for the new facility. This term means loosely that while Cory won’t be running the site, it will take over all responsibility for it as soon as it is operational.

Cory will seek private investment from banks as well as from its own holding company, Montagu Private Equity, to build the 72MW plant which is expected to cost in the region of £250M and will have capacity to incinerate over 500,000 tonnes of waste a year.

The Belvedere facility will be London’s first river-served energy-from-waste incinerator and waste will be floated up the River Thames on tugs and barges to the site (see News, p5, LAWR July).

According to John Boldon, Cory’s group planning & communications director, this will save around 100,000 lorry journeys a year.

In June when energy minister Malcolm Wicks announced the DTI’s decision to give the plan the go-ahead, he noted London’s “serious waste problem” and said the plant would make an “important contribution to tackling” this. And closer to home, Bexley’s local landfill – appropriately named Mucking – is scheduled to close next year.

Bexley certainly is proactive when it comes to tackling waste and has one of London’s highest recycling rates of 37.5%. So why is it so opposed to the Belvedere incinerator?

Bexley Council leader Ian Clement says residents are seeing red. They are asking angrily why, when they have recycled so successfully, should they should have to dispose of waste from other London boroughs who have not put in as much effort.

Concerns mount over air quality

Clement adds that there are real concerns about the possible ill health effects from breathing in emissions from the plant. He says the borough suffers from historically poor air quality and that the geography of the area means pollution tends to sit over the south-east borough.

“I understand the need to make strategic decisions that are sometimes unpopular, but in the long run this is going to effect the quality of life of all residents, forever,” he points out.

Anna Watson, waste campaigner for Friends of the Earth, adds: “It’s a myth that this a green alternative. Waste incinerators that produce electricity produce more CO2 than the energy you get out of a gas-fired power station. It’s going to be the largest incinerator in the UK and it’s going to prevent these London boroughs from really getting to grips with recycling and looking at their waste managing systems.”

Welcome news for some

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Kensington & Chelsea Borough Council said it was “relieved” when Belvedere got the green light. Councillor Nicholas Paget-Brown, cabinet member for environmental management, says: “This decision provides the borough with the assurance that it can dispose of its non-recyclable waste in an environmentally friendly manner, and that we will no longer depend so heavily on landfill.”

Colin James, general manager of the Western Riverside Waste Authority, argues that it is committed to environmental waste disposal and that Cory has spent £5M on raising recycling awareness. It says Cory also plans to build a MRF in Wandsworth, south London, capable of processing 84,000 tonnes annually. James adds: “Emissions from these modern plants are negligible. The plant is designed to more than meet EU regulations.”

That said, real concerns remain around the potential health risks – a report published by the British Society for Ecological Medicine in February suggested that pollution released by waste incinerators “damages health and increases mortality”.

Of the 500,000 tonnes of waste which will processed annually by the Belvedere plant, around 152,000 tonnes of bottom ash will be produced which can be reprocessed and used in construction. Some 23,400 tonnes of fly ash – the material that campaigners fear could cause health problems – will be produced and treated before it is disposed of, although the disposal method has not yet been agreed.

As for the case against incinerators, James points out somewhat wryly that much of Bexley’s waste is currently already going to an incinerator in Deptford. He suggests that when the Belvedere site is opened in 2010, Bexley might like to divert its waste a bit closer to home. “We will have the spare capacity,” he adds.

Katie Coyne is a freelance journalist

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