Friday, March 18, 2005

Fire

This is a letter I sent to Eddie Holt of the Irish Times following an opinion piece last Saturday where he rails against politicians imposing incinerators on the people of Meath and Cork. Basically, it pissed me off! I can’t link to it as it’s a subscriber site, but I’ll try and find a link.

Dear Mr. Holt,

I want to write to you to get a few things off my chest in light of your column on incineration and of ongoing protesting on the issue in Cork and Louth/Meath. I apologise in advance for the length of this mail but anyway… The first point I want to raise is regarding the “cheek, hypocrisy and sheer hard neck of Bertie Ahern and his minions” for opposing incinerators in their constituencies. You are, of course, right that this is rank hypocrisy but it is so because they should allow incinerators to be built in any location where there is a waste management issue to be dealt with. So, why the hypocrisy? Maybe comments after the recent Meath by-election give a clue.

Despite the pressure on Sinn Fein in recent months their share of the vote actually, and surely amazingly, increased. Yet the total number of votes they received hardly increased, so Sinn Fein, whose recent tribulations could have led their voter base to at least stay home in apathy, still managed to mobilise their vote while the rest of the county, with two major, local and divisive environmental issues receiving large-scale media coverage, still couldn’t be arsed voting. So how did Sinn Fein in Meath mobilise their vote? Because, as one caller to Matt Cooper’s Last Word stated – “We don’t care about… they get things done”. The fact of the matter is that (whether one thinks it’s a “good thing” or not) Irish people vote short-term and vote local, if they can be bothered to vote at all (and sacrifice principle in the process).

When Irish voters display such complete indifference to national issues then how can you expect any TD to risk political suicide by flying in the face of populist opinion and actually attempt to lead the people on points of principle, to do the right thing even if it’s not popular? Politicians didn’t get populist on their own. We, the people, have made them that way. We, the people, send men and women to the Dáil (to the national seat of government, to debate national issues) who we think will best represent our own, selfish, parochial interests – not because the people of, say, Kildare care that some party’s social policy improves the lot of the disadvantaged throughout the country. So why, Mr. Holt, don’t you have a go at the great Irish people for its rank hypocrisy?

Second, you have stated that Munster ministers have “rightly opposed” locating an incinerator in Ringaskiddy. Well that’s news to me – I’m looking at one outside my window as I type and, actually, it’s called a “thermal oxidiser” without the slightest hint of irony because, at the temperatures at which it operates, there is no flame; no burning as people would typically visualise it. There are a number of Pharmaceutical plants within a very short distance of each other in Ringaskiddy and each has to incinerate Volatile Organic Compound (VOC) processing emissions. Yet the population in nearby Carrigaline is increasing at an exponential rate despite full knowledge of this.

One trip to Douglas, Carrigaline, Crosshaven or Carrigtwohill would give you an idea of the huge incomes being earned in Cork solely because of the pharmaceutical industry. As you wander around these mini-towns seeing traffic clog-ups composed of single-person occupied 04 and 05 registered BMWs, Mercedes and assorted mud-free SUVs, you may wonder if these people are bothered by the cocktail of carcinogenic chemicals that their mini-incinerator engines are releasing into the local airspace. Probably not seeing as we, the great Irish people, seem likely to kill at least 8,000 of our fellow citizens by creaming them with lumps of metal at high speed in the “25 or 30 years” it might take to work out how many of us are suffering the ill effects of “burning garbage”. So who are the hypocrites that object to a waste incinerator? The politicians or the people? Or will the mention of all those in this country who smoke, releasing carcinogenic chemicals (including dioxins) into their local atmosphere for others to breathe, while simultaneously knowingly and deliberately putting a strain on our health services, go further to answering that question?

By the way you don’t need a PhD in any scientific discipline (I have a lowly BSc in Chemistry, with a minor in Statistics) to know that the more data any scientific study requires to make a hypothesis, the more that study can be manipulated to produce the results that those carrying out the study (or those paying for it) desire. A quick glance at the history of the MMR vaccine / autism scare, global warming, population trends, etc. shows that. Just look at how often the Ringaskiddy and Duleek protestors dismiss scientific findings refuting their claims and how often they promote any scientific findings in support of them.

However, you make a claim that “common sense suggests burning… may cause health problems for people living closest”. That’s not common sense, actually. I don’t know that it won’t (I won’t pretend I’m an expert, either) but I do know that the physical properties of gases (rapid expansion to fill available space) and more rapid airflow at increasing altitudes means that the emissions are diluted across a very wide area, not concentrated locally. It’s a simple analogy but reasonably effective – acid rain damage in northern Europe was as a result of gaseous emissions from Britain’s coal-burning industries, while it was the solid particulate matter (soot) that affected the local areas. The line you take that Trim and Dundalk don’t suffer but Drogheda does is just appallingly ignorant of science, regardless of any other point you make.

Speaking of fossil fuel burning, incinerators are designed for efficient burning – the complete decomposition of complex compounds to simple gases (mostly CO2 and water). It would not be in Indaver’s interests to have “dirty” burning as this requires much more fuel and is, therefore, more expensive. This is in stark contrast to home fires, garden fires, agricultural fires etc., which are grossly inefficient and are the true causes of the release of particulate matter, dioxins and other carcinogenic compounds with less memorable names into the local atmosphere (lower or non-existent stacks means the fume-flows are more likely to be localised).

Maybe Indaver’s John Ahern won’t live beside an incinerator but plenty of people, including executive managers and people who have actually been trained on Environmental Management (and even know what they’re talking about) will choose to work in them and, therefore, live in close proximity to them. But you have (wittingly I’m sure) hit the nail on the head – “the value of homes… will suffer”, and what will our rural middle-classes do then? “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” they cry to divert attention from their true motives, while their kids are busy sneaking their first puffs of the tobacco plant behind a bike shed and dreaming of driving Daddy’s new beamer when he’s not looking.

Two weeks ago I witnessed the surreal situation in Cork city-centre where two groups were petitioning passers-by for signatures. One was against the incinerator, the other against bin charges. At our factory (as well as every shopping centre in the area) recycling facilities are provided for paper, glass etc. The other day I watched a bloke, an immigrant worker on minimum wage no doubt, sift through one recycling bin to try and remove ash from a fire and sanitary waste (shitty nappies, actually) dumped by one of the great Cork public refusing to pay bin charges. To his great credit I don’t have to add “his own vomit” to that list.

What, exactly, Mr. Holt, would you propose we do with sanitary waste, rotting meat, ash from fires, batteries, pressurised containers and all the other things that can’t be recycled? Bury them like we have been doing? But then, surely, some other part of Ireland (every part, actually) would be getting dumped on in a far more visible manner, with greater potential to, for example, pollute groundwater and drinking supplies. Maybe we should export such waste to our European neighbours who will… incinerate it. But we already do that without a whimper. Does that not make us, well, hypocrites again?

And so what are the people of Cork actually saying? Effectively “I reserve the right to generate as much waste as I like, choose whether or not I want to try and recycle any of it, have it removed from my door for free and disposed of… where? I neither know nor care as long as it’s nowhere near me”. Yes, actually, Mr. Holt that is NIMBY-ism. So who’re the hypocrites now? Every single one of us. Our politicians’ biggest failing is being too cowardly to give it to us straight.

By coincidence, I worked in Duleek for CRH at the cement plant before I worked in Ringaskiddy. There’s an incinerator already there as well. A cement Kiln is an incinerator, burning hundreds of thousands of tons of petroleum coke (effectively “garbage” from the oil industry) annually to make cement. The people of Duleek needn’t worry about the Sulphurous and Nitrous Oxide emissions from that factory, but northern England can. Revenge for Sellafield perhaps? Speaking of which, you mention Dermot Ahern not living beside incinerators either. But he does live about 50 yards from the beach in Blackrock, Dundalk where, apparently, Sellafield is responsible for increased cancer rates in North Louth. You’d think he’d move given the risks, except he probably knows those claims don’t stand up to any genuine scientific enquiry either.

I have two little anecdotes for you. In Duleek I was accosted one particular lunchtime by a woman who saw my uniform and was told how we in the cement factory were deliberately turning off dust-filters at night – she could see the dust cloud on a clear night. I patiently explained that we never turn the filters off as the resulting dust would extinguish the kiln flame and that what she was seeing was steam (the mills boil off tens of tons of water per hour). As this was against her perceived wisdom she simply called me a liar. In Ringaskiddy an American TV crew interviewed locals who insisted that birth-rates (for people and pets!) were up because they were breathing in “fumes from the viagra factory”! It was explained that there is no such thing as pharmaceutical compound fumes. Do you think they were believed?

My point is that, while people may have genuine fears (and in some cases I’d question that), they are often ignorant fears. That’s one thing, but when they have ignorant fears and refuse to be educated on them in case they don’t like what they hear, that’s quite another. As someone who has been on the receiving end of EPA audits and licensing procedures I can assure you their officers are independent, very knowledgeable, and dogmatic and stick rigidly to the rule of law. In fact they strike the fear of God into executives in Irish corporations and we have jumped through hoops to ensure compliance.

Mr. Holt, the incinerator plan is not “vile” and is, currently, the only logical solution to what is a crisis of waste. Recycle what we can and incinerate what we can’t is the only logical and honest approach in a country where “dump everything in a hole in the ground (for free) and hang the consequences” is the prevailing attitude. Have you seen the Simpsons episode satirising public attitudes to waste management in the US, complete with musical routine “Can’t someone else do it?!”? It should be shown all day every day here for a month.

As a post-script, just to clear it up - I am from Dundalk, which has no bearing on anything. I’ve never voted Fianna Fáil, Green the last time (hilariously). My job is very junior and I’m no spokesman for either company I’ve worked for (neither would they want me to be) and I have no particular vested interest in whether an incinerator is built or not. And I do recycle. All I can say is I hope those who “turn up the heat” have their ignorance and selfishness blasted into the atmosphere with the rest of their emissions.

Regards,
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