Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Can we afford to breath easy over environmental controls?

So it turns out that the brand spanking new £1 billion power station in Pembrokeshire may breach emission breach laws. Who would have thought? Well, you can count among the doubters those who insist that under-resourced environmental regulators in Wales currently have the enforcement powers of a damp tea-towel.

A similarly glaring example of official soft-touch sanctions is at the £32m waste incinerator in Neath which has ‘agreed’ to stop operations after two breaches of its dioxins emissions limit. The plant re-started in June 2011 having been closed down the previous year after confirmation that cleaning systems had failed five out of 10 successive tests.

The plant, which first opened in 2002 in the face of widespread opposition, processes household waste for recycling and incineration from Neath Port Talbot and Bridgend. It is operated by Neath Port Talbot (Recycling) Ltd - a wholly-owned subsidiary of the local council

A few months ago, environmental campaigner Mike Ryan, who lived in the shadow of the plant, died of leukaemia. No-one has linked his death to the emissions but local feeling is that successive breaches at the plant are a long-term health risk to the community. GPs say the same but few in authority seem to be listening.

Across the Bay, Baglan residents thought that healthier times were ahead when dismantling work began on the giant chemical works. Those hopes were dashed as a new 525MWe gas-fired power station took form alongside the old site

Fears turned to anger when planning consent was also granted in November 2007 for a second and much more controversial power station. What is euphemistically described in the press as a ‘£400 million biomass facility’ is designed to burn wood pellets plus other materials.

Massive local opposition caused the normally acquiescent business-orientated council to rethink its support several times. The result is that planning permission was about to lapse but the company were advised to create a small section of road to keep the existing planning consent on the books.

It’s fairly easy to get all darkly conspiratorial about the ease with which potentially harmful processes seem to get the green light in south-west Wales. Nonetheless it has to be admitted that a common denominator in all three instances is the role of the Environment Agency. Whether it is down to a lack of stringency in setting standards or an inability to enforce them effectively is something that clearly needs to be established by the politicians.

What is remarkable is that none of them seem to be asking.

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