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Limerick has had enough

Plans by Irish Cement to burn toxic waste at Castlemungret have galvanised a city poised for re-development, and ready for better

When the first bag of cement left the Irish Cement plant in Castlemungret on the outskirts of Limerick in 1938, it was perceived as a symbol of independence and modernisation.

Progress. Jobs came to the region. Cement built the Free State. People ignored the grey dust covering the trees and undergrowth across the south-western side of the city. After all, cement fed expansion. In time, Irish Cement Ltd (ICL) became part of the multinational conglomerate Cement Roadstone Holdings (CRH) which, as this magazine has shown at considerable length (e.g ‘CRH; A History of Scandal’, November 2012), aggressively asserted anti-competitive position from the earliest days, becoming Ireland’s largest and most successful company. The Castlemungret plant now rises from behind a tall fringe of trees on the fastest expanding side of Limerick – symbolising it all: 80 years of history, travail, muck-and-brass, the elusiveness of progress. The site enshrines the battle for standards that will colour the next generation of development of Limerick, a city now officially poised for renewed greatness.

At the end of August, however, ICL’s senior management sat awkwardly through an oral hearing convened by An Bord Pleanála. Their planning application to burn industrial waste, euphemistically termed “alternative fuels”, had been granted in March 2017 by Conn Murray, the chief executive of Limerick City and County Council.

Murray’s executive order overrode solid opposition Plans by Irish Cement to burn toxic waste at Castlemungret have galvanised a city poised for re-development and ready for much better Limerick has had enough by Angus Mitchell Symbolic Castlemungret: site for proposed toxic incineration. With trees. October 2017 6 9 The moment that captured the public imagination was when codes in ICL’s EIS were decrypted to reveal a Gothicsounding cocktail of ‘hazardous’ materials including ‘animal tissue waste’ – exposing citizens to ‘safe’ daily doses of dioxins and heavy metal nanoparticles from a majority of elected councillors and TDs. A local campaign group, Limerick Against Pollution (LAP), organised a 1000-strong protest march and other awareness-raising events. Rumours spread that ICL’s claims to be cutting CO2 emissions in the name of environmental responsibility seemed like a severe case of greenwash.

Irish Cement Factory Limerick
The Castlemungret site where Irish Cement propose to burn

The moment in the four-day hearing that captured the public imagination was when codes in ICL’s Environmental Impact Statement were decrypted to reveal a Gothic-sounding cocktail of toxic materials on their “alternative fuels” list. These included “animal tissue waste” and “red mud from alumina production”. The descriptor ‘hazardous’ appeared in fourteen of the 115 specified types of waste. If the plans go ahead, Limerick citizens must prepare to be exposed to ‘safe’ daily doses of dioxins and heavy metal nanoparticles.

At the end of the hearing Dermot Flanagan SC, representing Limerick Council, admitted that, when the decision was made by the LCCC, there was a deficit of technical information. LAP’s intervention from various experts had highlighted failures in the approval process.

The conversion of cement kilns into incinerators or waste-to-energy facilities has taken cement production into another dimension of profitability. Rust-belt cement production can be cheaply converted and fuel costs turned into massive revenue streams. At the market rate of €250/tonne of waste, the stakes are high. In their initial application, ICL (Mungret) are requesting a licence to burn 90,000 tonnes of rubbish annually. If the regional waste strategy hikes its dependency on incineration, it will disincentivise consumers from cutting back on waste, as is the case with the Poolbeg incinerator shortly to come into operation in Dublin. The fundamental equation for ICL, in the teeth of best environmental practice, is that more rubbish equals more profits.

The moment in the four-day hearing that captured the public imagination was when codes in ICL’s Environmental Impact Statement were decrypted to reveal a Gothic-sounding cocktail of toxic materials on their “alternative fuels” list.

The logic of this is that Ireland’s perennial problem of landfill risks mutation into an air-quality hazard. One indication of how seriously this matter is being received locally was evidenced by the appearance of billionaire philanthropist JP McManus, who sat through the entire hearing. With his luxuriously refurbished Adare Manor and golf course about to reopen, reputational risk is running high. Nearby, Aughinish (Co Limerick) and Moneypoint (Co Clare) are already big polluters. If the Shannon valley and Wild Atlantic Way become an ecosystem of toxicity, how will this impact on tourism and trade?

The oral hearing highlighted other gaps in joined up thinking. The ambitious 2030 plan for Limerick is being driven by executive control.

As Emma Gileece pointed out, in a Village article about Limerick last October (that was circulated during the hearing), the fathers of Limerick are selling it short: there is nothing second-rate about Limerick – historically, or environmentally. “Limerick is a Lady, not a Dame…”

If smart business is to be attracted to the area then innovative thinking must prioritise ‘sustainable development’ that protects the environment and not ‘sustainable development’ that is all about boosting the bottom line of one multinational corporation.

Irish cement hearing with people discussing toxic waste at Castlemungret
The Irish Cement hearing in Limerick at the end of August 2017.

Limerick City has the highest levels of pulmonary disease and colon cancer in the country; illnesses connected to air quality and cement dust levels. The HSE has carried out no health risk assessment and there is a suspicious lack of air quality monitoring and base line data – a deficiency highlighted by health policy expert, Professor Anthony Staines (DCU). This lack of crunchable data is only surpassed by the habitual light-touch regulation, haphazard enforcement and patchy monitoring.

Claire Keating, a LAP organiser, who has been petitioning the EPA for months over dust emissions and excessive noise levels from the ICL plant has stated that “The EPA is clearly more worried about protecting DFI, than either the people or locality”.

The international advocate of Zero Waste, Paul Connett, flew in to give expert testimony at the oral hearing. He dismissed Irish Cement’s plans as dangerous and deceptive. If Limerick really has vision, then a zero-waste policy is the future. Incinerating scarce resources is a declaration of nineteenth-century technological political illiteracy.

Like nearly all development in Limerick, whose city the recently published draft National Planning Framework says should increase its population by 55% in the next 23 years, the Castlemungret development bespeaks: lack of joined-up thinking; low environmental standards and short-termism; a vision that belongs to a few and not to the many; no real public consultation; and institutional deference and inertia.

In short, the governance of Limerick, City and County lacks imagination or a mature feel for the common good.

In the city-centre Opera site, corporate Limerick has just submitted a scheme plugging under-designed resident- free monoliths to oversail the historic city; and in Castlemungret they’re burning industrial waste. It’s not good enough.

Interestingly, however, its superannuated fathers are underestimating this city. Limerick’s grassroots organisers are finally largely in place. Proud Limerick, for so long a development pariah, stands on the cusp of a revolution in standards. Putting an end to the toxification of Castlemungret by International Cement, will just be the start.

Dr Angus Mitchell, representing Limerick Against Pollution, is a historian and cultural critic who lectures in the Kemmy Business School, the University of Limerick.