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As the clock ticks on a decision about a disputed rubbish incinerator, a growing community in its shadow stands steadfast in the belief its approval will risk their health unnecessarily.

Arc 21, which represents a group of NI councils, has been working on proposals for the £240m energy from waste plant at Hightown Quarry in Mallusk for almost 20 years.

They have long argued for its need, saying Northern Ireland needs a solution to landfill and the rubbish we export overseas.

Read more:Civil service boss wants clarity on decision making following Arc21 row

But down through the years, the public and politicians have questioned the viability of the proposed plant because of residual waste figures and increased recycling.

Colin Buick, chairperson of community group No-ARC21, told Belfast Live they will keep fighting plans for the incinerator near his home “until it is confined to history”.

No-ARC21 chair Colin Buick (Image: Shauna Corr)

“There is no safe level of PM2.5,” Colin said.

“When you are in the UK and you are talking about air pollution - you are talking about twice what the World Health Organisation is advising."

Colin said the group’s main reasons for opposing the project include “a flawed procurement process, lack of value for money, outdated technology as well as many environmental issues linked to visual impact, traffic, pollution and health due to the unsuitable location”.

In its long and speckled history, the project was first refused by Mark H Durkan as Environment Minister in 2015, after which the Planning Appeals Commission said it should be approved.

Civil servants later followed PAC advice and gave it the go-ahead when Stormont was down, to the horror of politicians. Belfast High Court then ruled the move by Department for Infrastructure officials to be unlawful, as a minister was not in post.

Computer generated overhead view of the Becon project sited in Hightown Quarry Mallusk

“We’ve produced reports on the lack of need... the visual impact on the area and we’ve also produced reports on the air pollution and the effects of the air pollution on people,” added Colin.

“Within one mile of it you have thousands of homes, people who have invested heavily in their property and the surrounding area.”

We asked Colin how he thinks NI should tackle its waste. He said: “There is an incinerator in Full Circle [Belfast Harbour Estate] and they maintain they can treat black bin waste.”

The Co Antrim man also pointed to a recent application to transform already existing, currently coal-fired Kilroot power station, into a power facility that feeds off “pre-treated non-recyclable waste material and biomass”.

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Councils across Northern Ireland collected a total of 1,031,169m tonnes of waste in 2020/21, according to the latest DAERA figures.

Just over a fifth (22.8%) of that was sent to landfill - down from 24% in 2019/20. Recycling, meanwhile, dropped from 51.1% the same year to 50% last year but some councils are doing much better than others.

Belfast, an Arc 21 partner, was bottom of the pack at 43.1% and trailing behind leaders Mid Ulster (58.9%) which isn’t linked to the plan.

Acting CEO of Arc 21, Tim Walker
Acting CEO of Arc 21, Tim Walker (Image: Shauna Corr)

Arc 21 acting CEO and self-professed environmentalist Tim Walker said: “We risk stumbling into a waste crisis from having a lack of facilities for dealing with our own residual waste - which currently relies on land-filling and exporting to European countries where it is incinerated to produce heat, power and jobs over there.

“The problem is not going away,” he added.

“They’re our materials and we are missing the opportunity to realise the value of those wastes.

“Without addressing this issue we have no chance of addressing climate change because ultimately waste is an absolute primary issue of our consumption patterns.”

If approved, Tim says Hightown incinerator will deal with around 300,000 tonnes of black bin waste a year, which is biologically and mechanically treated then burned to create energy, leaving 13,000 of fly-ash.

He also told us it will improve recycling levels, as anything reusable in the rubbish collected can be separated out.

In relation to PM 2.5 emissions, he added: “The issue of PM2.5 emissions was specifically addressed by the Planning Appeals Commission previously which concluded that there was no demonstration ‘the proposal would result in harm to human health’.”

Department for Infrastructure Minister Nichola Mallon is yet to decide whether Arc21 will be given the green light but we‘re told her officials are working ‘at pace’ on it.

A DfI spokesperson said: “Officials are continuing to process the application at pace and in line with policy, with a view to bringing forward a recommendation as quickly as possible.”

Read more: 'Damning' report finds there's 'no need' for Hightown incinerator

Read more: Department under fire for green-lighting waste plant without Minister

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