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Impasse in Limerick

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World Cement,

Irish Cement’s proposals to cofire waste at its Mungret Cement plant have garnered significant local opposition. Local reporter, Nick Rabbitts, explains the background to the opposition movement – and how Irish Cement has not helped its own case.

When Irish Cement first announced plans to switch its process at its plant in Mungret, there was a broadly positive response from some politicians. Independent councillor for the area, John Loftus, pointed out that its reforms were to be welcomed – not least because of some welcome investment in the area, but also the fact it would create new jobs.

There was also welcome from some parties for the lower carbon alternatives, when the plans were initially released late in 2015.

At the unveiling of the plans, Irish Cement held only a small information session at the South Court Hotel on the outskirts of Limerick. Poorly advertised, it only attracted a handful of people.

Once residents began to realise what was being planned, however, opposition grew. From early 2016, a petition was launched attracting hundreds of signatures in opposition to the plan.

Unprecedented opposition

It is fair to say that Irish Cement has never faced this level of opposition to its plans before. There was only limited resistance when it introduced plans to burn lower-carbon initiatives at its sister plant in Platin, Co. Meath, which is a more sparsely-populated area.

The irony of all this is that the same company had tried to introduce these reforms at Mungret back in 2009. The planning application passed by almost unnoticed. It was only because of the breakdown of the Irish economy that it didn’t proceed, as there was reduced demand for cement due to the collapse of the building industry.

Once the economy picked up, however, the plans were reactivated. But in the time that had passed, Mungret had 'grown up' a lot, with the population in the area increasing dramatically.

There had also been a huge increase in young families, with parents concerned for the welfare of their children. This is what has probably led to increased awareness of what the firm is planning, and increased opposition.

An issue of trust

The group set up in opposition to Irish Cement's plans, Limerick Against Pollution, has rallied opposition to the cause. This small committee has brought in US experts, held huge public meetings in the area, and rallied 1000 people to attend a march through Limerick City Centre back in March. Were it not for their efforts, Irish Cement's plans would certainly not have garnered as much attention.

Irish Cement’s community outreach has been a target for criticism. According to the campaign group, the company only agreed to let small groups take tours of its plant. They wanted to tour the factory en bloc.

Moreover, its public meetings on the plans were poorly advertised, say campaigners, leading to a general sense the company was trying to sneak the plans in under the radar.

Irish Cement has disputed this, saying that, for safety reasons, it can only take small groups into its plant. It says its reforms will secure the futures of 80 staff working onsite, as well as creating 60 temporary building jobs. It also says its lower carbon initiatives are better for the environment than burning fossil fuels.

There have been some dust blowouts from the cement plant, which has seen local houses - some further afield - coated in a thick grey powder. Residents have been up in arms over this.

After initially denying liability for these blowouts, Irish Cement eventually owned up and said the dust did emanate from its plant. The company offered free car washes and window washes for residents. But the damage was already done - there was a breach of trust there. As a consequence of this, residents are far more skeptical as to what the firm is doing overall.

Heading for the courts?

As for the planning process, An Bord Pleanala (Ireland's national planning appeals body) will adjudicate on the physical nature of the cement plan. This basically involves the construction of new buildings and the storage of materials at its plant. It is not expected a verdict will be reached on this until the new year, due to the sheer number of parties that have registered opposition.

Whatever way An Bord Pleanala rules, I would anticipate a High Court challenge from whichever party on the wrong side of the inspector's recommendation.

After this, all eyes will switch to the environmental regulator (the Environmental Protection Agency). It is up to this body to decide whether or not Irish Cement is awarded a licence to burn tyres and solid recovered waste. Irish Cement can only start operating once it has received the green light from planners and the environmental regulator.

It promises to be an interesting few months ahead!

Nick Rabbitts (Twitter: @Nick468official) is Business and City Reporter for local newspaper, Limerick Leader. Edited by Jonathan Rowland.

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