Setback to Waimate waste-to-energy plant plans at resource consent stage

7:39 pm on 30 October 2022

A proposal has been made to build a large rubbish disposal plant at Waimate. Photo:

A plan to build a waste-to-energy plant to dispose of South Island rubbish has been set one step back after two Canterbury councils returned its resource consent application.

South Island Resource Recovery Limited (SIRRL) officially proposed the one-of-a-kind plant, called Project Kea, to the South Canterbury township of Waimate last year.

If constructed, it would truck in 365,000 tonnes of non-recyclable waste to the town annually. The rubbish would then be incinerated by the plant, producing electricity and toxic ash.

SIRRL sent the plant's consents and 18 supporting reports to Canterbury Regional Council and Waimate District Council on 21 September.

But last Friday, both councils returned the consents because "fundamental information was missing".

More information was needed on cultural values, groundwater, surface water, air quality, stormwater discharge, and odour - as well as the scale and significance of the plant, the councils said in an official response.

Canterbury Regional Council consents planning manager Aurora Grant said the proposed plant was the first of its kind and scale in New Zealand.

"[The proposal] includes many activities that could impact the environment [such as] significant discharges to air from the burning of large volumes of plastics and other municipal, construction and demolition waste.

"We require more information to understand these effects," she said.

Some Waimate locals were concerned about the lack of information supplied by SIRRL from the outset.

Why Waste Waimate, a group of more than 150 members, formed after SIRRL directors struggled to answer questions at a community information meeting last year.

Group spokesperson Robert Ireland said they had tried to get further information for the past year without success.

"The fact that this has been seven years in the making now, from when SIRRL first tried [to unsuccessfully construct a plant] on the West Coast, we just feel that they should have all the answers by now," he explained.

"And if they're not providing them, then what are they trying to hide?"

"They come and offer jobs and fanciful claims of economic growth to try [to] target vulnerable councils with no experience of this sort of proposal," Ireland said.

SIRRL director Paul Taylor denied those claims and said past and present locations proposed for the plant were chosen based on their proximity to railway tracks, main centres across the South Island and access to the national electricity grid.

An artist's concept  for a waste-to-energy plant proposed to be built at Waimate by South Island Resource Recovery Limited.

An artist's concept for a waste-to-energy plant proposed to be built at Waimate by South Island Resource Recovery Limited. Photo: Supplied/ SIRRL

But Taylor admitted the company had not engaged with Waimate locals since the community information evening more than a year ago.

"We understand that people have been frustrated, and we would have loved to be able to provide more information early but we've had to be very, very thorough. And 18 reports, three experts up and down the country, takes quite some time to prepare," he said.

SIRRL had asked for the consent process to be publicly notified, so anyone would be able to have a say during the council consent process, Taylor added.

Community concerns

Why Waste Waimate also had concerns about the proposed budget of the plant, its location, and environmental and health impacts, and many thought SIRRL was not being honest about how the plant would operate, Ireland said.

"[SIRRL directors] keep making the point that they're going to use carbon emissions in horticulture and carbonating drinks. They're going to produce hydrogen and recycle aggregates to roading and provide electricity for the community."

"But none of these concepts were actually part of the resource consent application. I think they're just future faking comments," Ireland said.

Why Waste Waimate had to trawl through Official Information Act responses, read resource consents and get in touch with international experts to try get a better understanding of what waste-to-energy plants were, he said.

Overseas waste-to-energy experts he had spoken with did not believe all the programmes listed as part of Project Kea could be done with SIRRL's proposed budget of $350m, Ireland said.

"They said if they were to do what [SIRRL] is proposing, they'd budget double what they have."

According to Waimate District Council zoning, the land purchased for the plant was also part of a flood plain.

SIRRL purchased 15 hectares of land near Glenavy to build the proposed plant, with the final land sale subject to a resource consent being granted.

Why Waste Waimate was concerned about the impact the plant would have on the surrounding environment, including the storage of hazardous materials on the flood plain and the health risk from the emissions and ash created by the plant.

Five Waimate GPs also wrote a letter to the local paper about the health concerns they had about the discharge of emissions and toxic ash.

Extensive research on the potential risks and benefits of the waste-to-energy plant had been undertaken as part of the consent process, SIRRL's Taylor said.

"If those reports had come back and suggested that there was any negative effect on the health of people or the environment or the waste minimisation strategy of local and regional community groups then we would not have gone ahead with launching the resource consent application," he said.

The proposed plant would be able to carry out all the programmes detailed in the brochure handed out to the Waimate community, by using state of the art technology not yet used in New Zealand, he said.

The plant would also be constructed on a site raised up above the flood plane, and all materials and facilities, including hazardous products, would be safely and securely stored above a one-in-500 year flood level.

The toxic fly ash would be caught and processed on site, with technology converting the toxic ash into a plasma that could be used in concrete, Taylor said.

Industry concerns

Locals were not the only ones with concerns.

An artist's concept  for a waste-to-energy plant proposed to be built at Waimate by South Island Resource Recovery Limited.

An artist's concept of the waste disposal plant proposed for Waimate. Photo: Supplied/ SIRRL

WasteMINZ, a waste industry organisation which represents councils, waste businesses and not for profits, has called for a moratorium on waste-to-energy plants.

There are currently five plants being proposed across the motu, but Project Kea was the only one in the South Island, and if constructed, it would use different technology to plants proposed for Te Ika a Māui, the North Island.

Waste Management Institute New Zealand (WasteMINZ) behaviour change group's Ingrid Cronin-Knight said not enough was known about the plants yet in New Zealand.

"What we're asking for is that the government does comprehensive research and takes the time to make sure that it considers what the role of waste-to-energy is in Aotearoa's low carbon and circular economy future," she said.

This included research from a Te Ao Māori perspective.

With reduced waste predicted in the future as society shifts towards being more renewables, the longevity of waste-to-energy plants was also a key concern, Cronin-Knight said.

"From an economic perspective, once you build these machines, you have to keep feeding them with waste... As you start reducing your waste, it starts impacting on the volumes coming into the machine, so you start importing waste in from other regions."

SIRRL's Taylor said the plant would have an estimated lifespan of 30 years and only process specific types of waste.

"We've been very clear that we don't want to take recyclable materials... What we're doing is proposing a solution for our waste crisis in Aotearoa New Zealand. We have a number of old, burdening landfills that are being exposed through climatic events, by rivers and oceans," he said.

"And in our view, it's no longer acceptable to be continuing to put waste in the ground."

He was confident there would be enough waste across the South Island to keep the plant going for that time.

"We fully expect in time, and I think it's great, that we will recycle more. We expect [the percentage of waste recycled] will increase, but with population growth and industry growth in New Zealand over time, there's more than enough waste in the South Island, probably for more than one plant."

SIRRL has until 11 November to object to the joint decision by Canterbury Regional Council and Waimate District Council to return the consent applications.

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