Burn out: Incineration was a problem then as it is now

Former Resources Minister George Pullicino is gloating on social media, with posts saying the Labour government made a U-turn on incineration and took on his grand idea after criticising it harshly, but what he fails to realise is that an incinerator on an island the size of Malta was a bad idea then just as it is now.

We are talking about a plant that, if not maintained and operated to perfect standards, would release a host of toxic problems on the island. And this is being discussed in a country where the recycled waste stored at the Sant’ Antnin plant caught fire last May, releasing a black toxic cloud covering the island, and the health authorities needed to be reminded to issue a statement on any precautions the public could take considering it was plastic being burned that is known to release cancer-causing dioxins.

They eventually issued a warning, telling people to stay indoors and close their windows. Enough said.

Another ‘small’ fire broke out in January, according to news reports based on the official statement: “Preliminary investigations show that the fire was caused by industrial tools that were being used in an area that was previously used to collect waste for processing”. Hello?

These standards provide such peace of mind when it comes to operating an incinerator that requires meticulous standards if hazards are to be avoided (sarcasm, if you hadn’t noticed).

Pointing to incinerators in Germany and Nordic countries as an example of their safety does not hold ground in a society that cuts corners to make a quick buck.

Former Labour Environment Minister Leo Brincat went from his financial  expertise to environment on a roll call on the hazards of incineration. He bashed the PN plan continuously by pointing to the malfunctions of the existing incinerator at Marsa.

News of the incinerator’s malfunction stopped after Labour came into power. Did the plant work perfectly after that? Fat chance.

Pullicino is right on one point: Why is a Labour government falling back on a PN idea it criticised so harshly? Prime Minister Joseph Muscat hitting back at the Opposition, asking what alternatives to incineration exist, is a soul-searching exercise the Labour Party should have done in its own time criticising incineration plans so it could come forward with its own alternatives.

When the Labour Party was elected in 2013, one of the first things Brincat did was stop plans for an incinerator at Ghallies. He called me in for a meeting within a few days of the Party’s victory to explain the government’s stand was to move away from incineration.

Why me? I have been campaigning against incineration since my time with Greenpeace more than 20 years ago. I was criticising the PN in government, just as I do the PL in government.

Within weeks of his appointment, Brincat held a press conference at Casa Leone to say PN plans for an incinerator had been scrapped and promised Labour would do better.

Ian Borg, then Parliamentary Secretary for EU Funds, was roped in to say that funds ‘wasted’ by the PN in government would be used to to commission studies on the export of waste and waste-to-energy (a form of incineration that generates energy). The outcome of those studies was not published.

Five years later, the government announces that the plan it has slammed was the one to be adopted. There may be other corporate contenders and advisors but it remains the same plan they slammed. They were right to do so. The question is, why have they not taken the country forward despite their promises?

Jose Herrera, who took the helm of the Environment Ministry two months after Brincat was nominated to the European Court of Auditors, turned to incineration in one of his first comments to the media. He acknowledged the technology was controversial and nobody wanted it in their backyard.

In his first interview, he proposed an incinerator on some disused oil rig platform. It was an immediate sign he had no idea what he was talking about. I had challenged him, and he did not have the answers. He backtracked to maybes and studies and misunderstanding. This is hardly the one to convince us he has everything under control.

Residents in the areas surrounding the incinerator are right to voice their concerns. Our mistake would be to think the problem only affects them. We are all hit by this proposal. The recommended buffer zone for an incinerator is so large it extends beyond Malta’s land surface. We are all trapped within.

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