An energy-from-waste plant at Dargavel in Dumfries has had its operations restricted by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) after it admitted releasing cancer-causing dioxins up to two and half times permitted levels into the air.
The company that runs the plant, Scotgen, is now facing difficulties getting a pollution permit for a second waste incinerator at Dovesdale Farm near Stonehouse in South Lanarkshire. This proposal has prompted 24,000 objections from local residents and others concerned about the health risks.
Scotgen’s problems are also likely to hamper plans by other companies for another 14 incinerators across Scotland. Most of them have run into fierce opposition from local communities.
Scotgen’s Dumfries plant, commissioned in 2009 to gasify more than 20,000 tonnes of hazardous and municipal waste a year at high temperatures, has had a troubled history. Its pollution performance has been condemned as “very poor” by Sepa.
Before the plant was shut down in April 2011, it suffered some 200 breaches of emission limits, two of which were because of dioxins. According to Sepa, it also had 100 “short term exceedances” and prompted 45 complaints about noise.
Problems began again soon after the plant was restarted towards the end of March this year. On 29 May, it emitted 0.25 nanograms of dioxins, compared to a permitted limit of 0.1 nanograms.
Sepa ordered the offending boiler to be closed down while the breach was investigated. During trials, there were a further two dioxin breaches on 21 and 30 June. After further investigations, the plant was allowed to restart last week, but prohibited from conducting any further commissioning trials.
Dioxins are a group of highly dangerous and persistent pollutants produced by combustion. As well as triggering cancer, according to the World Health Organisation they can cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system and interfere with hormones.
Sepa told the Sunday Herald that it will not grant a pollution permit for Scotgen’s Dovesdale plant until it has received “key information to demonstrate the viability of the technology” in Dumfries. “Energy-from-waste facilities must comply with stringent emissions standards,” said Ian Conroy, Sepa’s technical support manager for southwest Scotland.
According to Sepa, Scotgen has also had financial difficulties. The company was sold just before its previous owners, Ascot Environmental, went into administration on 18 May 2012.
John Young, from the Action Group Against the Dovesdale Incinerator, urged Sepa to shut down Scotgen for good. “This company has a failed track record in protecting both the environment and public health,” he said.
Dr Dan Barlow, head of policy at WWF Scotland, described Scotgen’s pollution as “unacceptable”. It cast doubt on the company’s “credibility in seeking to build similar facilities elsewhere in Scotland,” he said.
“We could of course avoid incineration altogether by stepping up efforts to cut the amount of waste we produce and boosting recycling levels, rather than letting valuable raw materials go up in smoke.”
The Green MSP, Patrick Harvie, argued that experience with the Dumfries incinerator confirmed the “worst fears” of residents. “This will be ammunition to the dozens of community campaigns all over the country fighting incinerator proposals,” he said.
Scotgen confirmed that there had been dioxin breaches in Dumfries, but pointed out that Sepa had approved the restart of operations last week. “Scotgen is continuing to work closely with its regulator,” said the company’s director, Lloyd Brotherton.
When asked about plans for Dovesdale and Scotgen’s former owners going into administration, he added that he had “no further comment to make at this time.”
Viridor, another company due to start up a waste incinerator at Dunbar in East Lothian later this year, pointed out that modern energy-from-waste plants were running successfully across the world. “They operate to stringent environmental standards,” said Viridor’s communications manager, Martin Grey.
Along with waste reduction, re-use and recycling, such plants were an important part of the Scottish government “zero waste” strategy, he argued. "Scottish zero waste won’t happen without thermal treatment as part of the sustainability jigsaw.”