Saturday, 22 September 2012

The toxic hills of La Collette – DEFRA(nce) to the UK

It has been argued here before that St Helier gets dumped on in more ways than one. Swimming each morning in Havre des Pas pool, occasions me to look over at the incinerator and wonder how much of its leachate and dust is together with me in the sea. Consequently, it was with something of a personal interest that I attended yesterday’s Environment Scrutiny panel on ash, its management and disposal, in the company of the Ministers of Planning and TTS. What TTS creates in terms of ash, Planning and Environment regulate under the waste management law.

The day was filled with acronyms which the Chairman of the panel, Deputy John Young kindly explained to all in attendance lest the public fall into ignorance. “AVI” was bottom ash from the incinerator and “APC” was the gasses it produced. Both required management and risk assessment.

Pollution was there in its toxic glory – mercury, cadmium and other heavy metals. As pit number 33 at La Collette reclamation site fills up with bottom ash from Jersey’s consumer society, uncertainty grows about its ultimate disposal. One certainty is that burying a problem is no solution. The geology of La Collette is not suitable for long term storage. Disposal of AVI is subject to regulations and as yet there is no strategy for processing it locally.

“Burning waste is burning waste”

The new Minister of Planning and Environment, Rob Du Hamel, takes a fairly idealist approach on environmental issues in contrast to the more engineered and technical solutions over at Transport and Technical Services. Disposal of AVI from an incinerator in open or closed pits was the bottom of the waste management hierarchy said the Minister. Indeed the idea of burning all rubbish, including metals, was the primary reason he had long been opposed to construction of the incinerator. As he said “Burning waste, is burning waste”.

We found out from a later meeting with TTS that the main culprit for heavy metals was the Bellozane scrapyard, as a result of their not separating the constituent parts of cars. This would improve after the beginning of next year when a new operator took over.

The Minister of Environment acknowledged immediately there was a conflict between his role as regulator of ash management and as the authority that would have to make a decision on any future planning applications at La Collette regarding removal or processing. He did not wish to prejudice any decision by expressing an opinion in advance. That should have made the meeting very brief, but the Minister overcame any reticence and spent the remainder of the two hours lamenting the burial of waste and stressing the necessity for modern technological treatment solutions.

“We are where we are”

At the very least an obvious solution to decrease the toxicity of AVI was to improve material before it entered the incinerator by increased sorting and recycling. This practice appears to have been forced upon Guernsey by necessity as they only have an in-fill site for disposal and it was filling up. If Guernsey could recycle more then why not Jersey?

It was clear that government policy has been and remains not to inconvenience consumer lifestyles on a small island with finite resources by requiring anyone to take better care with what and how they throw away rubbish. The Minister pointed out the irony of a wealthy island able to afford proper technological processes and treatments, pursuing a policy that literally buried the problem instead of accepting responsibility and associated costs. What became apparent was the reluctance to spend money on new techniques and management when burn and dump sufficed as it has done throughout the postwar era.

Improving the waste stream now was one solution to the quality of bottom ash in the future, yet there remained the legacy ash from the past. The Bellozane incinerator had continued to operate when other similar plants elsewhere had long closed, producing large quantities of legacy waste now lying untreated in pits beneath the hills of La Collette.

The Basel Convention

It was slightly surprising in a meeting dedicated to technical issues of waste management that the ticklish question of Jersey’s constitutional relationship with the UK should arise.

A possible solution to the AVI accumulation is for Jersey to export it for treatment elsewhere. However, this is somewhat problematic since waste being hazardous is subject to international regulation as to movement and disposal. Jersey is bound by the Basel Convention, which as its website notes is “to protect human health and the environment against the adverse effects of hazardous wastes”.

The Basel convention was extended to Jersey by the UK in 2007, as the high contracting party, for whose international relations it is responsible, designating the Minister of Planning and Environment as the competent local authority.

The Minister was uncertain if Jersey had authority to export hazardous waste to the UK or another Basel signatory country, without the authority of the UK Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). He noted that the Isle of Man, to whom the Convention had also been extended by the UK, had exported waste via the UK to another country for treatment and that this strengthened his opinion that Jersey could act independently likewise.

The Minister believed that under the Jersey waste management law there was capacity for the island to act independently. The sticking point would be objection by DEFRA under the terms of the Basel Convention that there should be no movement of waste if it can be processed locally. Since Jersey was not attempting to process waste the grant a of a licence or derogation (a Duly Reasoned Request (DRR) for export by DEFRA was unlikely.

The Minister wanted to negotiate a contract directly with a willing party prepared to import Jersey’s waste for treatment, however he had to admit he was uncertain if he had authority to do so and was seeking legal advice from the Crown Officers regarding the Basel Convention. He had in mind exporting to France “because it was closer” than the UK.

This talk of obligations under international conventions had the Scrutiny panel confused and irritated; they wanted a simple solution. There was some comedy when panel member Constable Phil Rondel cited Lord Coutanche’s memoirs to the effect that “the less we have to do with the UK the better” and generally the island should not be “kow-towering” (sic) to the UK. He later had to admit that his quote from Lord Countache might not be strictly accurate. Misunderstanding completely the functioning of international conventions, the Constable asserted that Jersey “should take charge of its own affairs” and not allow DEFRA to “pull our strings”.

In a similar vein, but less histrionic, the Minister saw acting independently of the UK as a conscious assertion of Jersey’s “international personality” as an “Independent Nation”. It should be said that P&E’s Chief Officer intimated his department was keen not to give offence to DEFRA, with whom they had good relations it was stressed. Slightly embarrassed by all this nationalist rhetoric and claims to sovereignty over rubbish, the Chairman of the Scrutiny panel indicated he was keen their discussion should avert a constitutional crisis.

Guernsey’s waste

The delicate subject of importing Guernsey’s waste for burning in the incinerator was considered by the meeting. Importing their waste would help out Guernsey who had no current strategy for long term disposal. The Minister indicated he was sceptical about the import of waste, even though it was better sorted than in Jersey, only to then burn it to produce yet more IVA. The Basel Convention had also been extended to Guernsey, so it was possible DEFRA would have an input into the decision on the various waste movements between the islands. Potentially DEFRA could object to the export/import. Would Guernsey want to take back its IVA for ultimate disposal? Importation would require a licence from the Minister of Environment and when asked if he would be inclined to grant one, he merely replied “I am completely neutral”. That could be taken as a “No”.

During the meeting with TTS it was revealed that half of any profit from handling Guernsey’s waste would go to the Treasury. The Treasury it seems has a habit of creating revenue schemes. It was left to Constable Rondel to reminded the panel of Guernsey’s perfidious nature when it came to pan island cooperation, given their track record on the lottery, sea routes and fishing rights. Clearly Guernsey had better be looking to its own Salt Mines for waste disposal.

1 comment:

  1. According to the current and previous (2002) Island Plans Jersey "is subject to more than 350 international treaties, conventions and protocols, which carry legal and moral commitments as well as rights and obligations under international law...there are other agreements covering social and economic matters such as Human Rights..."
    But of course nobody at Planning, TTS or even ex Bailiffs really gives a damn about them until some outside expert says this might cost you lots of money or damage your reputation if you don't comply.
    I have been asking for decades for a list of the documents to be published and Senator Ferguson was supposed to be finding out this info... who cares?
    So don't get too excited about these things - worry more about what happened to all the poisons from the Gas Place site and whether you will be able to buy a second-hand starter motor or vehicle door panel when the new improved metal scrap yard is operating...