Enviroparks ... a better way to deal with waste

I have to admit to being dismayed by two posts yesterday from Dafydd Trystan Davies on the proposal for a waste handling plant at Hirwaun by Enviroparks.

     Enviroparks - open letter to councillors
     If you tolerate this your children will be next

As a society, we produce a lot of waste and need to reduce it. The first way of doing it is to reduce it at source, in particular to reduce unnecessary packaging, and to make the sort of goods which last and can be repaired or upgraded rather than thrown away. The second way is to increase the amount of waste we recycle. I'm sure there is broad consensus that we need to do both. The first is something that is rather harder to do because we buy products from all over the world, but the second is something we can deal with at local and national level. We have set ourselves targets for recycling, and we are gradually increasing the amount we recycle as a result. That's good.

But, even after doing those things, we are still left with lots of waste. The traditional way of dealing with it has been to put it into landfill sites. However we cannot continue to do that on the scale we have been doing, and there are now considerable disincentives to doing so in the form of landfill taxes which rise steeply year-on-year.

Because of that disincentive, we need to look for new ways of getting rid of waste, and the next obvious solution is to burn it, and to generate electricity from it. This explains why there has been a spate of planning applications for waste incinerators not just in Wales, but everywhere. Now yes, I would agree that burning waste is a better option than burying it. But it is not a good option ... it is simply the "next worst" option.

The reason it is bad is because it is very difficult, if not impossible to ensure that what is burnt can be burned cleanly. Therefore waste incineration produces a host of nasty emissions which are dangerous to people's health. The companies that operate such incinerators are also put in the invidious position of producing less electricity if they filter out the more dangerous waste before burning it, and of being left with waste that they can only get rid of by putting into landfill sites. They lose money if they don't burn it, and it costs them money to get rid of it. So of course the temptation will always be to burn it.


Now, rather than talk only in general terms, let me make things more specific and more local. In the valleys next door to Cynon we have two examples of what needs to be avoided. Trecatti is a landfill site just outside Merthyr. It was a big hole in the ground, and some bright spark thought it would be a good idea to fill it. However it is far too close to residential areas in Dowlais Top and Caeharris, and the shape of the valley tends to hold the smell rather than allow it to be blown away. The same is true for the dust that the Ffos y Fran opencast mine produces ... but that's another story.

However, just a few miles south, there are plans for a huge waste incinerator (there has been talk about it taking waste from all over south Wales) by the name of Brig y Cwm at Cwmbargoed ... and the preferred operator is the American firm Covanta, which has been repeatedly fined for breaking environmental laws in its waste incineration plants over there.

So, right on Cynon's doorstep, we have two examples of what not to do.


Let me now turn to project proposed by Enviroparks. The process is multifaceted, but involves recycling, the separation of food and non-food waste with food waste going to an anaerobic digester to produce gas to be used as fuel, the plasma gasification (as opposed to incineration) of other waste to again produce gas, and burning the gas from both sources to produce electricity. This animation shows how these processes work together:


The crucial difference between this and incineration is that burning the gas is clean, whereas burning waste directly gives rise to high emissions of dioxins, nitrous oxide, toxic metals and particulates. The plasma arc breaks these down into individual atomic elements.

The Wiki article is here, including a list of projects planned or already operational. Enviroparks own website is here.


When election time approaches, politicians might be expected to say things motivated more by political rivalry than an objective analysis of any particular proposal. But this is an issue which is far too important to be treated in a partisan way.

I simply cannot see what is particularly "dangerous" about this proposal. Yes, there is waste water, but it is produced by a controlled process and is therefore as treatable as any other water waste. The danger of polluted water seeping from landfill sites is much greater. The Penderyn Reservoir is above rather than below the site, therefore it would be almost impossible for any leak to pollute it.

But if Dafydd and others think these risks are understated, then I urge you to discuss this in objective terms. Please don't resort to language like, "If you tolerate this, your children will be next." It is horribly sensationalist, if not downright offensive. You insult people's intelligence by resorting to cheap headlines of this kind. It is not the way to foster debate on an issue that concerns everyone in Wales, not just one valley.

To the Plaid councillors that voted against it and to Plaid supporters in general who read this blog, I would ask that you look at the merits of this proposal rather than just treat it as if it were just another waste incineration scheme. It is not, the process is many times more environmentally safe than ordinary incineration.

I cannot think of a better way to deal with waste. So if people are so opposed to this, I have to ask what alternative you have in mind. For me there is only one thing wrong with the Hirwaun scheme, namely that waste is brought in by truck. For all its other faults, the Brig y Cwm scheme envisages waste being brought in by rail. But that can be very easily fixed; the rail link for the old Tower Colliery stops only a hundred metres or so from the site, and is due to be upgraded for passenger use anyway. If the Enviroparks scheme was redesigned to allow waste to be brought in by rail I think it would be just about perfect.

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Penderyn said...

Thanks for your comments MH. I'll respond in detail over the weekend.

The comments are a direct quote from a Councillor who spoke at the meeting last evening. and identified his long term health problems and their link to previous polluting industries in Cynon Valley.

CR said...

I thank MH for his comments on the Enviroparks issue. Maybe he should have considered attending the meeting last night if he felt that this was indeed a positive thing for the people of this area.
I am fully aware of the benefits of recycling etc, and the obvious unacceptable nature of landfill. I also have folders of Enviroparks literature as bed time reading in order to convince me that this proposal, which is within walking distance of my home, is a good idea. I would like to ask MH where he lives in relation to this proposed site?
It would be foolish of me to take everything I read in the Enviroparks folders as gospel. Fancy graphics, diagrams and projected figures don't give me peace of mind. I am sceptical about the science especially when every case I hear about seems to be fraught with breakdowns and problems, and also in the monitoring and regulatory measures which they say will be put in place. How can an EPR and S106 truly safeguard our health? How can the public have confidence in the monitoring process considering recent incidents on the estate?
The councillors who spoke for the proposal in the meeting last night offered no new argument save to hide behind Welsh Water and The Environment Agency.It was scandalous that one speaker was allowed to continue for almost 10 minutes when we were asked if we would consider curtailing our argument!
On behalf of my family, and others in the village I would like to state that our fears have not been alleviated by this decision.

MH said...

Clare, Thanks for your comments. I should start by saying that I'm not local and I accept that the concerns that you have are much more relevant because what is being proposed is on your doorstep.

My perspective is more general. As I explained, we can't carry on dealing with our waste in the way we have. Landfill taxes mean an alternative must be found, and that's why there are now so many projects to incinerate waste to produce electricity. I accept that this is one step better than burying it, but it gives rise to a number of other problems because of the emissions. Plasma gasification is much better as a process and, even though it is relatively new, the process has been tried and tested elsewhere.

As I see it, the only potential source of pollution is from the water effluent. But that is true of many industrial processes, and for the authorities (Welsh Water and the Environment Agengy) this is an "everyday issue". There is nothing untested or new about water treatment. So I am fairly convinced that the process is good, although of course I will welcome any evidence to the contrary.

As to whether Hirwaun is the best place for this plant I have no particular opinion. To my mind the plant could be almost anywhere, but for you and other local people I understand that any degree of uncertainty will be a worry. However the meeting has been held and, as I understand it, your local representatives have taken the pros and cons into account and voted to go ahead with it. I have my own opinions, but the decision has to be made locally.

Unknown said...

When I first read about this scheme, my automatic reaction was, like DTD's, that it was yet another exploitation of the local area (which I know and love, having worked there in in the past). The other schemes you mention, MH, are examples of this disregard using the valleys as an expendable dumping ground for other people's problems, with little benefit, and much risk to the area. No wonder locals are suspicious.

However, after reading the literature, and doing some research of my own, it seems to me that there is nothing really to go wrong here. The plant is either working, and is clean, or it is not working at all. It will bring jobs, that will probably be in a relatively clean and pleasant environment.

I agree 100% with the need to use Rail as the transport vector, and I would suggest to councillor Davies, now that he has lost the battle to scupper the scheme, he makes this his priority. It should be a popular cause as it would bring additional benefits to the community by enhancing the argument for upgrading the big pit line.

LC said...

I agree that we need to reduce the amount of waste we produce at source i.e the amount of packaging that is used. However, there was significant doubt raised by the presentations at the planning meeting not only from the well researched views put by the residents but significantly from Welsh Water. They stated that the independant consultants they had employed had concluded that there was a low risk of contamination to the water supply at Penderyn Reservoir. I'm sorry but low risk is not good enough when you are considering water which supplies over 1200 homes in the Cynon Valley. Enviroparks are a very slick operation with an excellent PR machine. There is a similar model in use in Canada and it is causing serious concerns by consistently producing emissions over and above the agreed acceptable levels. We should not be taking any risks with our water supply. I do not believe that DTD's view point was politically motivated and the quote "if you tolerate this...." was actually used by the independant councillor when expressing his viewpoint.

MH said...

LC, I'm not sure that anybody could ever say there was "no" risk of something happening but, as I said before, I find it very difficult to see how any discharge of untreated or improperly treated waste water could affect the drinking supply. The reservoir is above the site and, as I understand it, drinking water is taken directly from the reservoir. If a leak occurred it would discharge into the river below. Now of course that would be bad, but it wouldn't affect the drinking supply.

As for the plant in Canada, I guess you're referring to the Plasco plant in Ottawa. I would really appreciate it if you could give a link for these consistent emissions over the agreed levels (though perhaps Dafydd will beat you to it).

There will be some emissions as result of burning the gases to generate electricity. The gas from the anaerobic digester will predominantly be methane, and so it will only be as clean as any natural gas generation ... but this is much cleaner than burning coal or oil. And of course burning methane produces CO2, which is not harmful to health but is a greenhouse gas. However that's OK because if the waste were to be buried the methane would still be produced by natural breakdown over time, and unburnt methane is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. So it's better to burn it and get some electricity (and heat) from it too.

The gases from the plasma chamber will vary according to the waste fed into it, but the important product that will be burned to generate electricity is hydrogen. If anything, this is even cleaner than burning natural gas. Burning hydrogen doesn't produce CO2, and that's a big bonus.

CR said...

Thanking everyone for their comments on the Enviroparks issue.
Yes, particular reference can be made to the PLASCO plant in Canada. That is a well known case which has been fraught with problems. However you would struggle to find any examples where these processes have operated successfully. Therefore, I challenge the comments that 'there is nothing to go wrong here' and say that there are a number of very real threats. You should not base opinions on Enviroparks literature because it reads like some sort of fairy tale. It is very difficult for the lay person to get to grips with the processes and terminology. It has taken me months of reading to get through it all.
The local press did a very foolish thing in labelling this plant an 'Energy Park'. It is nothing of the sort and gives totally the wrong impression to Cynon Valley residents. They should be ashamed of themselves. The amount of electricity that would actually be generated is questionable. If the processes used do not work exactly by the book, there wouldn't be enough electricity generated to boil a kettle never mind 40,000 homes.
Furthermore,I also challenge the comment that this plant could be placed anywhere. I would say that next to a reservoir would be the exact place NOT to put an experimental operation because there is simply no way of knowing what could go wrong. Obviously, nothing is without risk as MH states, but surely to gamble with the water supply to the Cynon Valley would be very foolish.
If it really was the case that it could be placed anywhere, we could take our pick of suitable locations! It could be down in Cardiff docks but as one resident pointed out, that would be too near the assembly.The fact of the matter is that they want to put it here, out of sight out of mind, and their cavalier attitude to the health and safety of the people of the Cynon valley is disgusting.
I wonder if residents are fully aware of what their labour councillors have let themselves in for in backing this plan??

MH said...

CR, you talk about Plasco being a "well known case which has been fraught with problems" but, as I said to LC, you need to provide some evidence. If you've done the reading, tell the rest of us where to find it. Post some links.

On the subject of the amount of electricity it will produce, I agree that plasma gasification probably won't produce as much energy as direct incineration, but what it does produce will be produced much more cleanly. For me, the main point is that this is a solution to safely deal with waste ... in fact I do not know of any safer way to do it. The fact that the various processes will produce a surplus of energy to either be used locally or fed into the grid is a bonus.

I would like to see a number of plants like this in Wales, taking waste from the surrounding area and feeding not only electricity but surplus heat to industries on the same site that can make use of it. That is what "energy park" means. Instead, it seems that local and national government is still thinking in terms of much larger, but more harmful, incinerators such as Brig y Cwm in the valley next door, or this proposal for north Wales, not to mention a number of others.

We need a much better model for dealing with waste ... and plasma gasification is, in my opinion, by far the best and cleanest solution on offer.

Syniadau said...

Dafydd has posted this response on Cynon's Future today:

Enviroparks - the Hirwaun Advanced Incinerator

My previous posts on the ‘Enviroparks’ development in Hirwaun led to debate both on the blogs, particularly on the Syniadau Blog and on twitter. I found myself in the rather strange position of disagreeing with a number of people I normally agree with 100%. In response I agreed to write a more detailed post of my views as to the problems with the plans in Hirwaun.

Let’s kick off with a more general point about waste management. We continue to produce far too much waste as a society. There are examples of countries across Europe where waste has been reduced significantly before the discussion begins about effective recycling of the waste that is created. The Enviroparks proposal relies on a steady stream of waste to keep it in business – and a stream of mixed waste, some of which could and should be recycled rather than incinerated.

But I’m getting ahead of myself a little.

The plant involves in the first instance sorting various waste categories and subsequently a series of processes including anaerobic digestion, pyrolysis and plasma gasification.

The suggested jobs benefit is 200 jobs – however the plan relies on ‘the high-energy user.’ (Page 7 Non-Technical Summary).

You may well ask who is this high-energy user? The plan (or more accurately the business plan) relies on the siting of an additional plant / factory nearby that uses high levels of electricity to minimise losses from transmission of electricity to the grid. The ‘high-energy user’ is unspecified through the documentation and one can only speculate as to what kind of potentially polluting business would join this plant on the Hirwaun Industrial Estate. There are two possibilities looking from the outside here. One is that the identity of a potential high-energy user is known – hence the accuracy of the jobs figures, but that the inclusion of such detail might deter the planning authorities from agreeing to a proposal that requires both a new polluting factory and the Enviroparks plant. Alternatively there are no identified high-energy users and therefore major questions emerge about the proposed jobs figures,

Of the technologies involved, anaerobic digestion is a proven technology, though, linked to my first point above, surely we should be encouraging people to compost organic waste in their own homes?

Pyrolysis, gasification and plasma are less proven technologies. Though they have been around for some time, they have not been viewed as commercially viable until now. They are classified as incineration according to the EU’s Waste Incineration Directive and therefore the Hirwaun plant will be an incinerator (albeit an advanced one).

The difficulty with assessing these technologies is that, as reported in an excellent Friends of the Earth briefing (September 09) on these technologies, the data on performance comes almost exclusively from companies seeking to build advanced incinerators.

I am particularly concerned about the mix of materials needed for such plants to operate effectively. Precisely those materials that should be recycled, e.g. plastic, paper and food waste, may be used as part of the incineration processes to secure efficiency, thus undermining genuine efforts at recycling and reduction.

Syniadau said...

Dafydd's response, continued:

Given the lack of large-scale commercial operations using plasma gasification and pyrolysis, we do not know the impact on emissions. We have data from the companies involved but no independently verifiable data.

The Enviroparks report itself states:
‘The overall risk from the emissions to air is considered to have a medium negative impact.’ (Page 16)

The Friends of the Earth briefing helpfully lists the likely emissions from such processes:
• acid gasses
• dioxins and furans
• nitrogen oxides
• sulphur dioxide
• particulates
• cadmium
• mercury
• lead
• hydrogen sulphide.

These emissions could all emerge in close proximity to the Penderyn reservoir – which provides water for the Cynon Valley!

I hope the above comments are enough to persuade people that we need to be very careful indeed about approving a plasma gasification and pyrolysis plant.

There are a few more points to be considered:
i) Is this plant commercially viable with maximum recycling of plastics, paper etc (and therefore potentially inefficient incineration)?
ii) Is this plant reliant on the high-energy user being located in close proximity? If so, why do we now know more about the second proposed development?
iii) And, more broadly, why has there been apparently no consideration to transporting the waste to the plant by rail rather than road? [The transport impact alone raises a major concern in my mind]
iv) Finally, if we are genuinely trying to develop the Beacons / Heads of the Valleys as a sustainable tourism location, which I believe we can do, how is a large incinerator visible for miles around going to help?

I have therefore a range of issues / problems with the Hirwaun Advanced Incinerator – the Enviroparks development. There may well be elements of the proposal that should be supported, but the package stands or falls as one in my view and, given the very real concerns, I cannot support the development as currently planned.

MH said...

Thanks for the response Dafydd. Like you, I believe there is nothing wrong with disagreement among friends. So let's carry on a constructive discussion.

On the subject of energy, I must admit to being sceptical about the scale of energy benefits. As I said in one of the comments on Syniadau, I think it important to view this primarily as a proposal to safely deal with waste, and consider the surplus energy a bonus.

The need for a neighbour will be a factor in the viability of the project. This isn't really a question of how easy it is to transmit electricity because it's actually very easy to feed electricity into the gird, it's much more a question of what to do with the heat. But in this respect it is no different from any CHP (combined heat and power) installation. If suitable partners were easy to find, we'd have CHP all over Wales, but it isn't so easy to find them. Enviroparks appear to be in a "chicken and egg" situation: without planning permission they could not find partners; with it, they can try ... and their success in doing do will affect the viability of the scheme. However there is no reason to think that the partner would be particularly "polluting".


The FoE briefing is good, but my one criticism of it is that it does not sufficiently differentiate between pyrolysis, gasification and plasma gasification. You and I agree about anerobic digestion, but the list of emissions you quote from the FoE briefing does not apply to plasma gasification. The essence of plasma gasification is that it breaks down molecules, releasing gasses which can either be burnt for energy or safely discharged to the atmosphere, or solids in the form of an inert slag.

As I said before, the emissions of concern will come from the process of burning gasses from the anerobic digester (methane) ... but this is no different from any other gas fired power plant. Burning the hydrogen from the plasma chamber will be cleaner.


I do agree with you about the mix of materials. The more that is recycled, the less there is available from which to get fuel to burn. But this is one area in which plasma gasification scores very highly against incineration. The plasma arc requires energy to break down the material fed into the chamber, so it is therefore in the best interests of the operator to minimize what goes in. That means recycling everything that can be recycled, and putting the organic material that can't be recycled into the anerobic digestor. As I see it, the electricity produced by burning the methane from the digestor is what keeps the plasma chamber going (though there will still be a surplus) and the hydrogen from the chamber is then a bonus from safely dealing with the other waste. But it all depends on what is fed in. Plastics are a perfect example because they are hydrogen rich ... I would hope most plastics are recycled but some can't be, at least not economically.

But, that said, the pressure on the operators of straight incinerators is precisely the opposite, because the temptation will be to throw as much as possible into the incinerator rather than recycle beforehand. If it doesn't burn, so what? If it burns, but with harmful emissions, it's too late.


In short I think this is much too important a project to reject. If we don't deal with waste in this way we will end up incinerating it directly, as the current spate of proposals for bulk incineration shows all too clearly. We know that such incineration releases all sorts of harmful substances into the atmosphere, so I think we should support this as a far better and safer way of dealing with waste rather than think of it as just another form of incineration.

CR said...

I appreciate all of the comments placed on this blog about the Enviroparks proposal. I can also understand that we have to look at alternatives to landfill. However, I remain sceptical about the sciences involved in the proposal for Hirwaun, and feel that important issues have been glossed over or missed out. The worries and questions which were raised by residents in the RCT planning meeting remain unanswered. Some of these were highlighted by Dafydd in his recent post on the subject.
With reference to Plasco Canada, there are many sources of info on the web which Pauline Jarman, Plaid Cymru used to make her presentation before RCT. This information is not difficult to find.
I am a mother to two girls, and as such it is my duty to voice my concerns over something which I feel could pose a threat to their health and well being. I also feel that the people of the Cynon Valley have a right to know the details about this plan which could affect their drinking water. Would you want it to be placed next to your supply of water?? I for one don't want it next to mine.

MH said...

Thanks CR. If that's what Pauline said, I'll try and find out where she got her info from, though I'd have thought Dafydd would have mentioned it in his response.

I had already looked and can't find anything as negative about Plasco as you suggest. And if you could find it, I'm sure you'd have posted the links.

StephaniePumphrey said...

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Anonymous said...

Don't know if anyone will read this, but I am sitting in Deeside - which shall henceforth be known as Dumpside. Yes, the chief executive of the County Council has decided that we can enjoy the privilege of burning everybody's previously 'landfill' waste. He is salivating at the thought of all that filthy lucre. Consultation was rubbish (yes) Didn't even ask us do we want it? Whilst sitting here, contemplating all this carcinogenic smog, I shake my head in utter despair at what they are going to do to Mon, Mam Cymru.

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