Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 25 December 2014

Rubbish plans for dealing with waste disposal

Environment Minister Alex Attwood
Environment Minister Alex Attwood

What investigations are under way into the cost of the collapse of plans for waste disposal in the north? As reported here last week, a project intended to deal with municipal waste in eight council areas – the South Waste Management Partnership (SWaMP) – has been abandoned. Waste disposal plans for Belfast and nine other councils have likewise shuddered to a standstill.

Confusion and controversy surround the plans of the third enterprise, the North West Region Waste Management Group (NWRWMG), covering Derry and six other councils areas: the odds against that scheme seeing the light of day are not good.

How much public money has been spent so far on developing waste management projects which were never viable in the first place? What's the latest estimate of the size of the hit on the taxpayer? What investigatory unit is looking into this?

What alternative plans for handling waste are in place, or in the process of being put into place now that the original plan has been tossed into a refuse bin?

What are the chances now of the north meeting its commitment to the EU to reduce landfill to just over a third of the 1995 figure by 2020?

What penalties are likely to be imposed if targets are not met? How much can ratepayers and taxpayers expect to be billed for?

How come nobody at the DoE, or at any other Stormont department, appears to have noticed that something was going seriously awry until such times as two of the three projects were on their last legs and the other was staggering aimlessly around?

Did the business case presented to the DoE for any (or all) of the three schemes include the recruitment of civil servants with particular expertise to handle the procurement phase and then run the projects? To what extent has the department's knowledge of how the projects were coming along been based on reports from the same officials?

It was suggested here last week that there might be a legal problem with proposals to import waste from other areas into the north west to ensure that NWRWMG's planned gasification/ incineration plant had enough raw material to make it viable. One advocate of the NWRWMG plan branded this "rubbish" and suggested it had been "just made up".

Here's the thing: Under minister Attwood (right), the DoE agreed to subsidise the NWRWMG operation with £35m. As a result, the NWRWMG can retain some hope it is not about to go the same way as the other two plans, ie down the Swanee.

But this means that private operators in the other areas, who might have bid for contracts to deal with the same waste, could argue they'd been unfairly cut out by a state-subsidised enterprise. Which would entitle operators in question to take a grievance to court.

Maybe it won't come to that. But it could. And, if it did, the public purse would be dipped into again to cover the legal bills. The management of this matter has left everything to be desired.

In relation to an adjacent issue: what progress is being made in the investigation announced in June by Alex Attwood of the involvement of "organised criminality" in the illegal dumping of waste at sites just outside Derry over a period of at least four years?

How come nobody spotted the daily and apparently sometimes nightly convoys of trucks lumbering towards the Strathfoyle area, groaning with illegal cargo?

The cumulative load illegally dumped was to be measured in hundreds of thousands of tonnes, said Mr Attwood. If this volume of cross-country vandalism genuinely went unnoticed, what does that say about the capacity/ability/ willingness of statutory agencies to police and enforce environmental law and regulation? How much do they cost? Why are we paying them?

Mr Attwood, in a blaze of publicity, revoked the licence of a company operating at the scene of the supposed crime, City Industrial Waste Ltd (CIWL). The firm vehemently denies any wrong-doing. But 65 workers – mainly Polish – lost their jobs, anyway.

Are the various authorities still convinced that no company other than CIWL was involved?

Has it emerged during inquiries that the organisations which had – allegedly illegally – sent waste to the Strathfoyle site include the Department of Regional Development? Is any progress being made in investigating that dimension of the affair? And finally: why has there been no political hullabaloo about any of this?

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