Toxic pollution breaches and an explosion at a new waste incinerator have triggered tough legal action and an investigation by government safety watchdogs, upsetting plans for a dozen more waste-burning plants across Scotland.
The Sunday Herald can reveal that the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) last week slapped an enforcement notice on Scotgen, a company that is trying to commission a pioneering “energy-from-waste” plant at Dargavel in Dumfries.
This follows an admission that the plant breached safety limits by emitting more cancer-causing dioxins than permitted into the air in October, and then failed to promptly inform Sepa. The company has been ordered to restrict the plant’s operations, and to ensure that future monitoring results are provided as soon as possible.
Scotgen is also under investigation by the Health and Safety Executive following a “pipe burst” at the Dargavel plant in August. According to a report by the company, nearby pipework and a roof were damaged by a steam explosion.
Environmental groups and local campaigners say that the plant is dangerous and are demanding that it be immediately shut down. They are also calling for plans for other waste incinerators in Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Renfrewshire, Lothian, Perth, Aberdeenshire and Invergordon to be halted (see table below).
Scotgen has been trying to get the Dargavel plant to work since 2009, resulting in repeated pollution breaches and breakdowns. It is meant to gasify more than 20,000 tonnes of hazardous and municipal waste a year at high temperatures to produce electricity.
But according to Sepa, emission limits have been broken more than 200 times and there have been 250 other breaches, complaints and issues, resulting in its pollution performance being officially declared “very poor”. Last July the Sunday Herald reported that parts of the plant were closed down after dioxin emissions exceeded permitted limits.
Despite assurances at the time that the problem was being dealt with, there was another dioxin breach on 16 October, which the company failed to report immediately to Sepa. As a result, Sepa launched an investigation and on 14 January issued an enforcement notice saying that two licence conditions had been breached and remedial action was required.
Dioxins are a group of highly dangerous and persistent pollutants produced by combustion that are subject to strict limits. The World Health Organisation says they can trigger cancer, cause reproductive and developmental problems, damage the immune system and interfere with hormones.
“The terrible goings-on at Scotgen’s Dargavel plant have reached a new level of farce,” said Dr Richard Dixon, the former head of WWF Scotland who this weekend becomes the new director of Friends of the Earth Scotland.
“This new design can’t meet its pollution limits, isn’t producing meaningful amounts of electricity and hasn’t dealt with much waste. Scotgen has had its chance: this plant should be shut down.”
Dargavel’s failings called into question proposals for similar plants around Scotland, Dixon argued. He was backed by the Dovesdale Action Campaign, which is opposing another incinerator near Stonehouse in South Lanarkshire proposed by Scotgen, but rejected by Sepa last year.
“It is time to close Dargavel and ensure companies such as Scotgen have no place in this industry,” said the campaign’s spokesman, John Young. “We need government and Sepa to protect our rights and the environment we hold in trust for the future of Scotland.”
Alis Ballance, chair of the Green Party in Dumfries and Galloway, has been campaigning against the Dargavel plant for years. “It has repeatedly malfunctioned from the start, exposing local residents to health hazards by releasing toxic emissions far above the permitted levels,” she said.
Scotgen, however, argued that calls to close the plant were “misplaced”. It maintained that the local community was very supportive of its operations, which supported up to 150 local businesses.
“We are working closely with Sepa in order to address the points raised and actions required and are confident these will be addressed in the timescales allocated,” said the company’s managing director in Manchester, Jim Hennessey.
“In the interim, the facility is fully operational as designed in accordance with its permit and is continuing to process waste.” Alternatives to landfill were needed, he argued, and Dargavel was “the natural progression”.
Hennessey confirmed that a “pipe burst” in August had been reported to the government’s Health and Safety Executive (HSE). But he denied that this had prompted an investigation, telling the Sunday Herald “the facility is not under HSE investigation.
This was, however, contradicted by the HSE. "We are aware of Sepa's actions and are involved in an ongoing investigation into pressure systems at the plant,” stated an HSE spokeswoman.
The incidents at the Dargavel plant were “clearly concerning”, said a spokeswoman for the Scottish government. “Sepa applies a robust and stringent enforcement policy that minimises any risk to public health or the environment.”
This was demonstrated by Sepa’s rejection of Scotgen’s plan for another incinerator in South Lanarkshire, she argued. But there was still a need for plants to turn residual waste into energy.
“Treating this waste to create energy helps Scotland in its journey toward securing a mix of renewable energy sources, while also creating much needed local jobs,” the spokeswoman said.
Sepa agreed that well-managed energy-from-waste facilities had a part to play in the management of Scotland’s waste. It was reluctant to take the “extreme measure” of closing the Dargavel plant.
“As it is still commissioning, and the operator continues to make necessary improvements, closure is not Sepa’s preferred enforcement option at present,” said a Sepa spokesman.
“However, the operator is being encouraged to finalise commissioning, demonstrate that the plant can comply with its environmental licence and generate power at the earliest opportunity.”
Waste incinerators in Scotland
Operator / location / statusScotgen / Dargavel, Dumfries / commissioning
Scotgen / Dovesdale, South Lanarkshire / currently withdrawn
Covanta / Greenhills, North Lanarkshire/ planning permission
Shore / Carnbroe, North Lanarkshire / under appeal
Lifetime Recycling Village / Renfrewshire / preparing to apply for permission
Peel / Bogmoor Road, Glasgow / planning permission
Viridor / Polmadie, Glasgow / applied for permission
Viridor / Dunbar, East Lothian / planning permission
Levenseat / Near Forth, West Lothian / planning permission
Edinburgh and Midlothian councils / Millerhill, Midlothian / outline planning permission
Dundee Energy Recycling / Baldovie, Dundee / operating
Grunden / Shore Road, Perth / under appeal
Sita / Binn Farm, near Perth / planning permission
Sita / Stoneyhill, Aberdeenshire / preparing to apply for permission
Combined Power & Heat / Invergordon, Highlands / under appeal
Shetland Council / Lerwick / operating