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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
Sam Boal/

Feel it's too late to do anything about the Poolbeg incinerator? Not so

Fear of an incinerator in the city of Dublin is not irrational – and we need to demand better controls and monitoring before it begins to burn.

LIFE GOES ON as normal in Sandymount, Dublin, where the sea front bustles with life, people jogging, children running around on the beach when the tide is out.

Such a beautiful spectacle of nature, one you would hardly find in any other capital’s city centre.

But for me, an Italian who has been an environmental activist for many years and has recently moved to this part of the world, the Poolbeg incinerator is a very ominous presence. In my country incinerators have been around for a couple of decades and a few more are in the pipeline. Almost everywhere, the presence of incinerators has generated widespread protest among the local population. I remember visiting one in Acerra, in the South of Italy, while I was accompanying a delegation of international activists. Local protestors were escorting us, recounting the experience of their fight against what they considered a serious danger to their health.

Theirs was not an irrational fear, nor an example of the NIMBY syndrome. There are national and international studies that link the presence of incinerators to an increase in a series of pathologies, ranging from respiratory diseases to tumours. A study conducted in Tuscany confirmed the epidemiological evidence on health effects and the increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Similar studies also confirmed increased risks of miscarriage and preterm births among local populations exposed to incinerators in different sites in Italy. According to Patrizia Gentilini, an oncologist with the organization ISDE-Medici per l’Ambiente (Doctors for the Environment) the link between incinerators and tumours cannot be denied, especially for those tumours primarily affecting women and children.

That is why, sadly, many of the protest groups fighting these plants are called “Moms against the incinerators”.

Cocktail of toxic elements

Despite this incontrovertible data, incinerators are presented by governments and local authorities, desperate to find a solution to a growing waste disposal problem, as the green alternative for a bright future.

The reality however is that they release into the air a cocktail of toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, nickel, chromium, and even more worryingly dioxins and furans, whose effects on human health can be transmitted to future generations. Dioxins in particular get into the soil and water, entering the food chain, and take decades to be eliminated from the environment. It is estimated that they remain in the soil for 100 years and in the human body for seven years.

The problem of incinerators and the conflicts they have generated is in no way confined to Italy. The case of Detroit, the largest solid waste incinerator in the United States, is one of the most iconic environmental and social justice fights in the country. In France, the Association for Research and Treatments Against Cancer (ARTAC) has also linked incinerators to cancer and its President Dominique Belpomme even went as far as describing environmental pollution, including chemical air pollution, as a crime against humanity.

storm doris Sam Boal / The new Covanta plant seen here to the right of the iconic Poolbeg towers. Sam Boal / /

Grave concern

All this explains my total dismay when I found out, accidentally, that an incinerator had been built in the centre of Dublin. I felt even more dismayed when I realised how little awareness exists in Ireland around the dangers of incinerators. I found out there had been some protests before the plant was built but now that it is set to be fully operational by August and will start burning some waste next month, the prevailing attitude has become one of resignation, a feeling that nothing can be done.

This is far from true. There are a series of issues surrounding the Poolbeg incinerator that should be a grave cause for concern for both residents and the wider population.

Firstly, the issue of emissions controls. At the moment, Covanta, the company that runs the incinerator, has agreed to publish the following data on its own website: Furnace Temperature, Total Dust, Total Organic Carbon (TOC), Hydrogen Chloride (HCL), Sulphur Dioxide (SO2), Nitrogen Oxide (NO2), Carbon Monoxide. However, no continuous publications on dioxin and furan level, the most dangerous particles, will be provided.

Independent monitoring needed

Secondly, there needs to be an independent body in charge of the monitoring, a body that has yet to be appointed. Strangely enough, the EPA licence allows the company itself to appoint independent bodies in charge of monitoring emissions and verifying their engineering in the plant. How independent can these bodies be if they are appointed by the potential polluter? The local Social Democrats have asked for an independent monitoring site to be opened at Poolbeg with an emphasis on the monitoring of furans and dioxins, but so far they have not received any concrete assurance from the EPA.

The third issue is Covanta’s track record. Last year, the company had to shut down one of two of its stacks at its plant in Durham Yorke, Canada, as the dioxins released in the air had surpassed the limits by 13 times the legal limit. The company defended itself by saying that the Canadian laws in terms of emissions are too stringent. The ones set by Dublin City Council on the other hand are almost certainly too loose, which means that if pressure does not mount, the company could easily release the same amount of dioxins in the air with no legal consequences.

I would like to believe that this won’t happen, but my own experience suggests that without a movement of citizens that forces the authorities and the company to be transparent and accountable, these measures are very unlikely to happen spontaneously. I am not comfortable with the idea of an incinerator sitting in the middle of a city, in a densely populated area and right across from an area with a cluster of schools.

I think there is enough international evidence against these plants, but even for those who remain sceptical, the precautionary principle should be enough. The precautionary principle dictates that, unless proven otherwise, things that can be dangerous for human health are to be avoided. The risk of finding out too late that the substances released in the air are highly toxic is too big a risk to take.

Laura Fano is a social anthropologist and translator based in Dublin. She has been a long-time activist on issues ranging from global inequality, environmental justice, feminism and education.


Laura Fano Morrissey
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