Sensible scientists to the rescue?

Yet once more, TPA supporter John Martin reports on the latest developments in relation to Norfolk County Council’s incinerator project.

The past few weeks have been filled with gloom in this part of the world. The day when Norfolk County Council (NCC) makes it final decision – 7th March – draws ever closer. Before then, however, we shall know the result of a referendum currently being held by King’s Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council, very much at its own cost, to test the views of those who are going to be directly affected by the proposed incinerator.

Cllr Derrick Murphy, the leader of the ruling Conservative group at NCC, refuses to be drawn on the question whether NCC will take any notice of the result. If, as many suspect, it reveals widespread opposition to the incinerator, the Conservatives will need pretty thick hides to ignore it altogether. But then, that is something many of them have.

So where do the sensible scientists come in? Well, many of us have been concerned by the inaccuracy of some of the statements that have been issued by NCC in relation to the incinerator, and in particular in respect of the emission of dioxins. If local people believe those statements, then the vote will be skewed. That would be entirely unreasonable. Now a group of eight distinguished scientists have written to the local newspaper urging NCC to ensure that various statements are corrected promptly and publicly. Good for them!

Even better, enter stage left Dr Chris Edwards, a Senior Fellow at the University of East Anglia. He is an economist with over thirty years experience of teaching and research who, in 2009, gave evidence to the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee on the Private Finance Initiative. He has also published a detailed case study on the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital PFI contract entitled – in my view for very apposite reasons – “Private Gain, Public Loss”. Dr Edwards has just produced his own research report on the NCC incinerator project. What does he think?

Dr Edwards recognises that waste authorities are facing higher and higher levels of landfill tax, but he considers that incinerators have become attractive to waste authorities as much by reason of the government bribe of PFI credits. DEFRA set aside £2bn in 2007 for this purpose. The NCC incinerator will attract a total of £169m in PFI credits over the twenty-five year life of the contract. But we all know that this will still leave local taxpayers finding at least £500m over that same period.

He has also looked at the sums that the preferred bidder will be spending. The actual cost of the incinerator is estimated at £150m. He believes that 85% of that sum will be financed by fixed interest capital borrowing. The preferred bidder will put up the balance, i.e. £22m. He calculates that it will then make a profit of more than £17m a year on that investment.

Dr Edwards then turns to the issue of safety. He quotes NCC as recently saying, “We have relied upon the assurances of government departments and independent agencies including DEFRA, the Health Protection Agency and the Environment Agency that well-run modern energy from waste plants are safe”. That sounds good to me. But he then points out that in Parliament in 2009, the Health Protection Agency admitted that it had not conducted health studies around incinerators, and that the DEFRA report, which dates from 2004, has been heavily criticised by the Royal Society. That doesn’t sound so good.

What was even more of an eye-opener for me is Dr Edwards’ summary of the alternative methods of avoiding so much waste going into landfill. Obviously, the primary exercises must be to reduce waste and to increase recycling, but thereafter there are viable alternatives to incineration. He points out also that the NCC incinerator would discourage both of those exercises, because NCC would be paying the preferred bidder for a minimum amount of waste to be incinerated irrespective of whether that waste was delivered.

Dr Edwards stresses that, in his opinion, the NCC incinerator project should be cancelled now before huge penalties have to be faced. NCC should go back to considering either Advance Thermal Treatment (gasification and pyrolysis) or Mechanical Biological Treatment combined with Anaerobic Digestion.

Of course, as he points out, what would kill off the NCC incinerator project would be the government withdrawing the PFI credits. I think that I am going to write to George Osborne. Didn’t he say, when in opposition, “Labour’s PFI model is flawed and must be replaced”? And wasn’t he the chap who reportedly signed a petition against an incinerator in his constituency in Cheshire?

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