Thursday, 4 November 2004

Questions (17, 18, 19, 20)

John Perry

Question:

14 Mr. Perry asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government his views on the research report on adverse pregnancy outcomes around incinerators and crematoriums in Cumbria between 1956 and 1993, in particular the finding that there was a significantly increased risk of lethal congenital anomaly, specifically spina bifida and heart defects in relation to proximity to incinerators. [27580/04]

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Damien English

Question:

62 Mr. English asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if, in view of the findings of the health research report, Health and Environmental Effects of Landfilling and Incineration of Waste, commissioned by his Department there was a lack of available information on the health status of residents residing near waste facilities and a lack of baseline human health data at national, regional and county level, the EPA will consider and have available such data before the next stage is reached in relation to landfilling and waste incineration. [27577/04]

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Arthur Morgan

Question:

95 Mr. Morgan asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government if he will take action to prevent the construction of incinerators until a full review of the health effects of incineration on communities has been carried out; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27382/04]

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Eamon Gilmore

Question:

99 Mr. Gilmore asked the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government the status of the report he has received on the health implications of waste incineration; the part of this report which plays in the formulation of the Government’s waste policy; if incineration forms part of his waste management strategy; the locations at which it is proposed to place municipal waste incinerators in the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [27315/04]

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Written answers (Question to Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 14, 62, 95, and 99 together.

As members of the House will be aware, the clear policy direction of the Government is set out in two policy statements, the 1998 Waste Management: Changing Our Ways, and the 2002 Preventing and Recycling Waste: Delivering Change, and has been updated in this year's Taking Stock and Moving Forward statement.

Thermal treatment with energy recovery has an important role to play as one element of the Government's integrated approach to waste management. This approach is firmly grounded on the internationally accepted hierarchy which places the most emphasis on waste prevention and minimisation, followed by re-use, recycling and energy recovery, so as to leave the least possible residual amount for disposal to landfill.

Those European countries which are recognised as among the most environmentally advanced, such as the Netherlands and Germany, combine high rates of recycling with the extensive use of modern, highly regulated thermal treatment facilities.

This integrated waste management policy is underpinned, and was foreseen, by the Waste Management Act 1996 introduced by the then Minister for Environment and Local Government, Deputy Howlin. Consistent with this, Fine Gael has until recently, accepted thermal treatment "as an integral part of a waste management strategy .... properly located, operated and monitored high-temperature incineration can be consistently operated ... with no significant pollution."

The Government has ambitious targets for waste management by 2013 including: diversion of 50% of household waste from landfill; recycling 35% of municipal waste; and 85% recycling of construction and demolition waste. We have made major progress in the last few years including: recycling 21% of municipal waste in 2002, which is up from 13% in 2001; a significant slow down in municipal waste growth to less than 1% in 2002 with a 4% drop in waste going to landfill; and a 25% increase in material being accepted at local authority recycling centres.

However, even when we meet our targets for diverting waste from landfill it is likely that we will still have to treat up to 1.7 million tonnes of municipal waste per annum. The provision of a suitable network of thermal treatment plants will significantly reduce the waste we will have to landfill and lower our dependence on the most unsustainable waste option. Regarding hazardous waste, our heavy reliance on the export of hazardous waste has been recognised as a potentially serious deterrent to future industrial development in Ireland. All these factors have informed Ireland's waste management policy, and if the Deputies opposite were honest, they would accept this position.

There has been some mis-reporting surrounding the health effects of thermal treatment and their consideration in the environmental licensing process. The EPA may not grant a waste licence unless it is satisfied that the activity concerned, carried on in accordance with the licence conditions, will not cause environmental pollution. The agency operates to highest EU and WHO standards.

The EPA takes the view that if the licensed emission limits are complied with, then human health is protected in line with best international practice. I would like to take this opportunity to reject the recent comments of Deputy O'Dowd regarding the EPA's consideration of health effects. In this regard, I received yesterday a letter from the director general of the agency on the matter which I will be pleased to forward to interested Deputies.

In relation to the Health Research Board study, the preparation by my Department and the Department of Health and Children, of a response to this desk-based research has taken longer than originally anticipated. The delay arose due to the need to also consider a more recently published report by the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on the Review of Environmental and Health Effects of Waste Management. This study looked at cancer, respiratory diseases and birth defects and found no evidence for a link between the incidence of the diseases and the current generation of incinerators.

It is often forgotten that nine hazardous waste incinerators are already in operation in Ireland. The EPA estimates that these have contributed a fraction of 1% of national dioxin emissions to air. Even assuming that 1 million tonnes of municipal waste might be managed by way of incineration in 2010, the report projects that dioxin emissions from waste incineration would account for less than 2% of total dioxin emissions to air.

I am aware of the concerns of local communities regarding the development of thermal treatment and other major waste management facilities. I will do all that is possible to assuage these concerns. In particular, I will examine best practice in ongoing environmental monitoring of such projects including, in particular, ensuring that the local community is involved in overseeing such monitoring.