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The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste spacer The Vacuum - Issue 18 - Waste
My Life as a Landfill Campaigner
by John Hoey
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I grew up on a small farm near Mallusk. Around the settlement there were still fields with cows grazing and chewing their cuds. And there were no street lights until Glengormley. But there was a quarry Boyd's quarry which had been steadily eating away Baird's Brae for fifty years. Destroying the 'dark planting' and all the other beautiful, special places that my father knew when he was boy.
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And the thing about quarries is that when you've finally stopped taking away tens of millions of tonnes of basalt to build the M1 and the M2 and much of Belfast you leave a big hole in the ground. And the thing about big holes people always want to fill them in again.
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Realising that there might be an opportunity to sell landfill to Belfast and surrounding municipalities, the quarry owner put in a planning application to 'restore' the land comprising part of his quarry complex by filling it with domestic refuse. This was back in 1988. A public enquiry was announced and in 1989 I, along with various other objectors, made our way to Newtownabbey town hall at that time located in Ballyclare.
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The only public enquiry I had ever heard of was the one about Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk. And that had lasted over two years. So it came as a bit of a surprise to me that this little local enquiry lasted all of one day. My recollection is of some commissioner bloke taking notes, chairing the event, and only begrudgingly allowing anyone who wasn't a barrister or a civil servant to say anything. Stephen Aston a civil servant with the Department of the Environment advised the enquiry that a modern landfill could be sited anywhere without causing the kind of problems traditionally associated with landfill sites. What were these we wondered? Unfortunate words as time was to tell. (Mr. Aston is now head of something or other in the DoE and a past president of the Chartered Institution of Wastes Management.) Needless to say, in 1990 the enquiry found in favour of the landfill proposal and gave James Boyd & Sons Ltd. five years to get started on dumping a million tonnes of rubbish.
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Nothing seemed to happen for most of the next five years. But with a European Landfill directive on the horizon and the cost to local councils per tonne of refuse disposed escalating, it was obvious that the financial value of a big hole in the ground with planning permission would shoot up. Lo and behold, UK Waste Ltd. entered the scene in 1995 when it leased the operation from James Boyd & Sons.
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And then something very significant happened. UK Waste submitted a new planning application for a second phase of landfill of about 300,000 tonnes a year for twenty five years, which would take over the entire quarry complex and turn it into a huge superdump large enough to contain the lion's share of domestic, commercial, and industrial waste from Northern Ireland. And at the same time it would create a nice comfortable monopoly on waste disposal all the better for jacking up fees and squeezing rate payers till the pips squeak. The size of this proposal is almost outside the scale of easy human comprehension. But in Belfast street terms imagine a heap bounded by the central library, the Waterfront Hall, and the Europa hotel and higher than the BT tower. A big pile of nasty, smelly stuff.
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But the really important point which is at the crux of the campaign against landfill in Mallusk is that this application for a second phase was made just before the previously approved smaller first phase started to operate. So any decision made by the planning service about phase 2 didn't take account of the actual effects of operating phase 1 on the lives of people living in the locality.
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By October 1997 when the planning service issued its opinion to approve phase 2 local opposition to landfill had grown strong on the back of windblown litter, debris falling from bin lorries, huge flocks of birds defecating, noise from machinery and ineffective bird scaring devices, and the most repulsively pungent, offensive odour from rapidly accumulating and leaking landfill gas. Public meetings were held; a campaign group established; public representatives brought in to lend support with the result that Lord Dubs the direct rule minister for the Environment refused final permission to UK Waste's proposal.
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Now you can't go and refuse planning permission to a subsidiary of the mighty US based Waste Management Inc. with the prospect of several hundred million pounds of landfill fees in its sights and expect it to just go away. This is the world's largest waste disposal conglomerate with an impressive record of repeated felonies and a long string of environmental judgements against it. Oh no! UK Waste went to the High Court to get a judge to review the minister's action. The judicial review found in favour of UK Waste and ruled that planning permission must be granted. Meanwhile however, the local opposition campaign had continued to grow in strength. There was substantial media coverage; newly elected MLAs were keen to make their mark; and questions were raised in Parliament. All of which pressure sent the minister back to appeal the judicial review.
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In May 1999 the Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the minister in so far as he had to make some decision either for or against. So, the planning service duly issued its second opinion to refuse planning permission on the grounds that the application was premature. This time UK Waste appealed through the mechanism of the Planning Appeals Commission.
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In October 1999 we all arrived at the Commission's offices in Belfast only to hear what we in the campaign group interpreted as a dodgy deal between the DoE and UK Waste to defer the hearing until a Northern Ireland waste management strategy had been published. Presumably in the expectation that Northern Ireland's local councils would conclude that they desperately needed a big landfill site and that Mallusk would be the ideal place for it.
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However, the Planning Appeals Commission by this stage a somewhat more autonomous entity as a consequence of the Good Friday Agreement and the resulting devolution wasn't in the loop. In March 2000 it set a start date of the following May to hear UK Waste's appeal. So in April the planning service issued opinion number three to grant permission for the superdump.
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We pulled out all the stops and organized our mass lobby of Stormont taking advantage of those ever keen MLAs to get our point across. We succeeded in getting Sam Foster the new local minister for the Environment to pay an extended visit to Mallusk and hear directly the concerns of local residents. The planning process got stalled yet again. Perhaps the political reality of increasing housing development down wind of the site began to figure in ministerial and senior civil service thinking.
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Things went quiet for a few months while UK Waste's landfill interests were bought out by Biffa Waste Services Ltd. On-going pressure from our campaign group backed up by MLA support and the recently established Assembly Environment Committee led to the planning service issuing opinion number four in March 2001 to again refuse planning permission on grounds of prematurity. Naturally Biffa appealed to the Planning Appeals Commission and a pre-hearing meeting was set for June 2001. Then, out of the blue, the appeal process was halted at Biffa's request.
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Understandably, we were quite miffed at the Planning Appeals Commission agreeing to accept Biffa's request for indefinite postponement. The idea of seeking judicial review of this decision on grounds of infringing human rights was considered. But at the end of the day we are a local residents group with limited resources of time and money. Better to save our powder for the big showdown when and if it eventually comes on the fundamental Issue of our rights as third parties to have our experiences of landfill fully taken in to account in the planning process.
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But back to the saga! It transpired that Biffa had effectively succeeded in by-passing the Planning Appeals Commission by wheeling in their big gun lawyers and going straight to court. Undaunted by a refusal from the High Court to allow judicial review of the latest planning service opinion, Biffa took their case to the Court of Appeal where they also lost. And from there to the House of Lords where they lost yet again.
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Now you or I might think that having taken your case all the way to the highest court in the land and lost then that would be the end of it. Oh no! With upwards of half a billion pounds in disposal fees at stake Biffa weren't just going to walk away with their tails between their legs. Remember too that the planning service opined to refuse permission on the basis of prematurity. If something is deemed to be premature then sooner or later it becomes timely. So Biffa were probably reluctantly content to sit back and wait for the DoE to finally agree.
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But we weren't happy to do that. In 2002 we succeeded in getting Dermot Nesbitt the new local minister for the Environment to visit Mallusk, to hear our presentation, and to see the proposed site for himself. We insisted that because the population of the locality had rapidly increased during the previous 6 years, the topography had been altered due to continued quarrying, the regulatory framework had changed, and landfill techniques and practices had evolved that a revised Environmental Impact Assessment should be requested. Perhaps intentionally unaccompanied by senior civil servant minders who might have interjected with a diplomatic rap on the knuckles Mr. Nesbitt did the right thing and promised in front of local journalists to order a revised Environmental Impact Assessment.
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That exercise was completed last year. We as local residents all lodged objections and the ball is now back in the DoE court. Sixteen years on and we are in the calm before the storm. Our day will come and we will insist be it by judicial review, via the human rights act, or through the Planning Appeals Commission that our voices are heard and taken full account of in the planning process.
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In the meantime, Belfast City Council needs somewhere to dump its annual 250,000 tonnes of domestic and commercial waste after May 2005 when its current contract at Dargan expires. At £65 a tonne (minimum including landfill tax) that would cost Belfast residents over £16 million a year to dump at Mallusk. So don't ever think waste is not important. In fact it could be said that Belfast City Council's main business is waste management with subsidiaries in leisure services and cemeteries.
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With enhanced environmental regulations applying to new landfill sites and residents’ groups like ours opposing other sites perhaps the easiest thing to do is just keep on building that small mountain on the north foreshore of Belfast Lough. Until somebody in Northern Ireland finally gets it together on reuse, recovery, and recycling and stops thinking of waste as something to throw away!
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Campaign Against Landfill in Mallusk:
www.no-more-landfill.com
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caption 1: This photograph shows our mass lobby of the Assembly at Stormont on 2nd May 2000. The image shows local Mallusk residents on the steps of Stormont along with four MLAs from the South Antrim constituency. (All six were there but I can only spot four at the front of the crowd!) caption 2: An image showing Sam Foster, Minister for the Environment in the Northern Ireland Executive, meeting residents in Mallusk on 30th June 2000. The Minister is listening to a local resident complaining about smell from the landfill site. The man with the Moses beard is John McAlleese, chairman of the Campaign Against Landfill in Mallusk. In the background are other local residents, a senior civil servant from the planning service and an MLA.
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