The anti-incinerator campaigners were detecting some positive signs, with the warming wind of public approval at last beginning to stir in their favour.
The numbers putting their names to the Sutton Courtenay Against the Incinerator campaign had reached 16,000, with the shoppers signing up outside Abingdon’s Waitrose store the previous Saturday suggesting the issue is no longer viewed as one only affecting their village.
Even Abingdon’s cricket club had begun emailing parents, alerting them to the £100m incinerator that could be soon burning 300,000 tonnes of waste a year, just down the road from where their children would be playing.
But more significantly, the campaigners had secured the backing of their local MP, Ed Vaizey, who after months of agonising about the issue, had publicly called on Oxfordshire County Council to rethink its position.
Instead of burning waste, County Hall should go back to the drawing board and look at cleaner and better options, he told The Oxford Times.
The fact that the Tory MP for Wantage was questioning one of the most far-reaching and costly policy decisions of the ruling Conservative group at County Hall on the eve of a local authority election campaign merely served to give his comments extra weight.
For it meant that Oxfordshire MPs from all three main parties were expressing concerns about County Hall’s intention to have an incinerator built at either Ardley, near Bicester, or Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon.
The Labour MP for Oxford East, Andrew Smith, had already been putting questions to ministers in the House of Commons about the potential health risks of incinerators, while Lib Dem MP for Oxford West and Abingdon Dr Evans Harris warned that the county had failed to go for the most environmentally-sound option to get rid of its waste.
The Spanish-owned Waste Recycling Group (WRG) has already submitted a planning application to build a large incinerator in the heart of its landfill site at Sutton Courtenay, while the other shortlisted company, Viridor, is expected to submit its application to build an incinerator at Ardley shortly.
But, to the relief of campaigners in both the north and south of the county, the council has delayed considering the two bids until July, not mid-May, as had been expected.
It means incineration will be a significant issue in the county council elections, which take place on June 4.
For once the issue of waste will not be about wheelie bins, rats and fortnightly collections. People now want to establish whether burning such huge quantities of waste will affect the quality of the air they breathe and represents a real health risk. Or is energy from waster incineration, a tried and tested method of waste disposal common right across Europe, really the best alternative to burying waste in landfill sites, as the county council claims?
Health is inevitably the anti-incineration campaigners’ strongest card.
Once built, the county council will have signed up to the technology for 25 years, but Dr Angela Jones, a GP from Appleford, the next village to Sutton Courtenay, argues the reality is that it could take years before the impact on local people’s health becomes apparent.
She said: “You need a long-term study to be able to categorically prove the long-term effects of the new incinerators. We presently have an information gap.
“My basic position is that there is no incontrovertible proof, but a reasonable doubt. Therefore, the county council should have only considered an incinerator as a last resort. It was wrong for the council to simply say all the technologies available were equal and then see what the market brought in.”
In her view, scientists are only just beginning to evaluate the impact of the first generation of incinerators built in Europe, with some research linking them with increases in cancer, cardiovascular disease and even impacting on children’s intelligence levels.
The GP added: “They must have known that the kind of people who live around here were never going to simply sit back and take this, without fighting for their quality of life and the health of their families.”
Edmund Rowley-Williams, of the Sutton Courtenay campaign, paints an even more alarming picture: “Anyone living in and downwind of Sutton Courtenay is potentially at risk. This brings in Didcot, Abingdon, Appleford, the Wittenhams, Dorchester and Wallingford and even Oxford.
“The problem is that the effects are not instant but insidious and cumulative, building up over a period of years. We do not want to later find that this becomes the asbestos of the 21st century.
“Increasing evidence is emerging on the higher than national average incidence of cancers, leukaemia, respiratory disease and embryonic defects among populations downwind of incinerators.”
Oxfordshire County Council, however, has consistently pointed to the fact that Europe is already covered with energy-from-waste incinerators, including countries with the best recycling records, with 128 in France, 65 in Germany, 30 in Denmark and 29 in Sweden, and incinerators in the centres of Paris and Vienna.
Andrew Pau, the council’s head of waste management, said: “There are three incinerators just down the road from Oxfordshire in Hampshire — at Marchwood, Chineham, near Basingstoke, and Portsmouth.
“The Environment Agency and Health Protection Agency must say that an incinerator is safe before it can be given a permit to operate. The same applies with the equivalent environmental and health protection bodies in every other country with incinerators.
“Given that so many countries have incinerators, and expert organisations in each have allowed permissions, there is evidently a huge body of scientific and technological expert opinion to say that they are safe. If protesters believe they have evidence to the contrary, they must convince this global body of scientific and technological expertise that they are currently offering the wrong advice and guidance.”
He also points to the fact that permits have also been granted for incinerators in Kent, Dundee, Bolton, Coventry, more than one in London, Lincolnshire, Dudley, Nottingham, Kirklees in Yorkshire, Sheffield, Stockton-on-Tees, Stoke, Birmingham and Wolverhampton, as well Hampshire.
“Oxfordshire is not breaking new ground. This is, therefore, proven and established technology,” he said.
The main arguments revolves around the potential harm wrought by POPs (persistent organic products), especially dioxins and particulates.
The Sutton Courtenay campaigners have not been slow to draw on the high proportion of scientists and researchers who live in the area, like retired Harwell chemist Dr Ron Dell, who lives in Sutton Courtenay.
He said: “My concerns are, first and foremost, with the projected formation and release of gaseous toxins, specifically polychlorinated dibenzodioxins. PCDDs are reported to be teratogens (substances that cause foetal abnormalities) and possibly human carcinogens.”
Local campaigners like Marcus Mackenzie say more attention should have been paid to incinerators’ air emissions impact on the “existing local micro-climate” created by the two neighbouring Didcot power stations. Failure to investigate the accumulative impact of the combined emissions was, he said, “a major oversight”.
For Oxford East MP Andrew Smith, the serious concern is about the safety of the ash that comes out of incinerator. Having pressed the Government on this through a series of Parliamentary questions, he remains far from assured.
“Amongst the information I have flushed out is the fact assessments for hazardous waste by waste producers are not submitted to the Environment Agency and there is no requirement for producers to do this, and hence no inclusion in regional waste registers.”
Yet, ask WRG about the safety of energy-from-waste plants and they will fire off details of reviews by Enviros, the independent environmental consultancy, and reports from eminent professors of toxicology from across Europe.
A WRG spokesman said: “It is important to recognise that emissions from EfW facilities account for less than one per cent of the UK total emissions for all substances with potential for adverse effects on human health.”
Ironically, Wantage MP Mr Vaizey said health was not the issue that has led him to come out against the incinerator.
“I’ve looked into it carefully and I’m yet to be convinced that there is any health risk. But I have come to the conclusion that there are better alternative ways of dealing with waste, and the county council could provide a non-incineration solution at the same, or lower cost, within the timeframe required.”
Oxfordshire is not alone in having to face the challenge of meeting the demands of a European directive to slash the amount of waste buried in landfill sites, like the ones at Sutton Courtenay and Ardley. The alternative is to hand over millions in fines.
But Mr Vaizey has joined the camp that believes County Hall made a massive miscalculation by going out to tender without specifying what type of technology it wanted.
The MP says this resulted in waste companies simply coming forward with what was the easiest and cheapest option for themselves — incineration.
He said: “My constituents in Sutton Courtenay are perfectly right to say ‘enough is enough’. They have got the power station, landfill site, Hanson Agricultural site and now an incinerator. People talk about ‘nimbysim’, but we have had our fair share.”
He urged County Hall to follow the example of West Sussex which was opting for mechanical biological treatment of waste.
Andrew Wood, of Oxfordshire Friends of the Earth also supports MBT, which involves waste being shredded, recyclable material removed, and a biological process in which the residue waste is either composted or digested, usually in an enclosed system.
For him, the key advantage of MBT is that it is more flexible.
In the years ahead, as recycling levels improve beyond 50 per cent (with areas like Oxfordshire soon benefit from separate food waste treatment centres), sections of MBT plants could easily be “retired”, he argues, pointing to the fact that councils like Bournemouth who have signed up for MBT are only tied to contracts that last five years, not 25.
Mr Wood said: “The council is investing in yesterday’s technology. It is crazy investing so much in a capital-intensive plant when the ground is changing under our feet. An incineration plant could end up being known as ‘Kaiser Keith’s Folly’,” he said referring to county council leader Keith Mitchell.
It might even be ‘follies’. For, Banbury MP Tony Baldry believes County Hall’s decision to invite both shortlisted waste companies to submit planning applications could ultimately land the county with two incinerators — one in the north and the other in the south.
Only one of the two shortlisted companies will get to sign a 25-year-contract with County Hall, but the Banbury MP says that the company that failed to win the contract, if it had secured planning permission, could well still build an incinerator and simply take waste from other parts of the country.
Robert Ryan, project manager for Viridor, did not dismiss such a prospect. He said: “We are very much focused on delivering a robust solution that meets the council’s procurement criteria. We have not assessed at this stage the viability of the facility as a purely commercial enterprise.” But he added: “If our proposals were unsuccessful in winning the contract, but achieved planning permission, we would have to assess how viable the project is and then make a decision.”
For people living near Bicester there is also the prospect of being wedged between two incinerator, as Buckinghamshire Couny Council is currently considering the idea of an incinerator being built at Calvert, just ten miles from Bicester.
Callum MacKenzie, of Sutton Courtenay, sees merit in the campaigns from the north and south coming together. He has already given up his job as an artist to concentrate on the campaign, insisting that he would not have been able to face his young son if he had not fought the incinerator.
Planning inquiries, judicial reviews and, of course, local elections may all lay ahead.
But by the time he picks up his paintbrushes again we should know how great a mark he and his friends have really made on the environmental and political landscape of Oxfordshire.
The SCAI would like to thank Reg Little (Oxford Times)