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The La Chaumière Waste-to-Energy Project Criticized


The Environment Impact Assessment hearing on the Gamma-Covanta project at La Chaumière moves into an interesting phase this week with the evidence of expert witnesses from the Global Anti Incinerator Association, brought in by the Plateforme Anti-Pollution, which groups together local NGOs and is supported by some more powerful local vested interests. Dr. Eugene Cairncross from Cape Town is one of the expert witnesses due to give testimony, and Prof. Peter Orris from the USA is another.

The La Chaumière project to produce energy by incinerating rubbish poses all sorts of key questions of an environmental and general political importance: First, a multiple issue of "how do we decrease the amount of waste we produce", "How do we compost and recycle some of what's left, and "How and in whose neighbourhood do we get rid of the rest, including toxic waste"? Second, in itself a double issue, how do we, as a society, produce energy without polluting the air? And how does the State resist the threatened sugar companies' monopoly on the production of energy, a monopoly which will have effects on the price of electricity to households, instead of the State supporting this creeping monopoly? It can be a grave mistake to limit the debate to the issue, important as it is, of "emissions or not" of toxic substances like dioxin and furans into the air, when there are so many other issues that are crying out to be addressed.

Waste Disposal
Of course, nobody wants waste disposal near their own home. The poor people of Mare Chicose didn't. They got it anyway. They got a land-fill. Which over time infected the whole area which became uninhabitable, and they had to be re-housed elsewhere. The underground water has suffered from the leeching of toxic waste. The poor people of Roche Bois don't want a rubbish dump near their homes either. But, till now, they've got it.

We have to look at the problem in a holistic way that is fair to everyone and caring of the environment for everyone, not just for the rich and powerful and their capital.

The La Chaumière Gamma-Covanta project will pollute the air. However, its effect on the environment has to be measured not against zero pollution, but against, for a start, the alternative rubbish disposal that will replace the project if it does not go ahead. Is the air pollution from burning rubbish worse than the land and water-table pollution from a land-fill? We have to bear in mind that Mauritius, unlike vast countries with small populations, has not much land to spare. Are there other alternatives, like the methanization referred to by Joel De Rosnay? Others? These alternatives need to be discussed urgently and openly by all of us, including environmentalists, so as to inform our opposition to specific projects. The Joel de Rosnay's video clip criticizing the La Chaumière scheme ended up reducing the debate to the question of whether there were filters or not in the plans, and once it was established that there are, the debate fizzled out.

The air pollution of the La Chaumière project has to be measured in the light of the second component of the project, in addition to the waste disposal element, that is to say, its energy component. Is the air pollution less or greater than the air pollution from burning bagasse for 6 months and burning coal for the other six months each year to produce energy? This is what the sugar estates Fuel, Savannah, and Belle Vue already do, without many environmentalists opposing their projects. Are the sugar companies too powerful to oppose?

We also have to bear in mind the trade winds blow fairly constantly from the south-east towards the north-west: the coal-and-bagasse burners are situated in the South-East, the East and the North respectively, and the La Chaumière project is in the West. In a larger view, what are the relative effects on carbon emissions and thus on global warming of these two polluters?

We are aware that the inhabitants of Roches Brunes and Albion are rather more well-off than those of Mare Chicose and Roche Bois, but that does not mean they are not entitled to oppose the La Chaumière scheme. We are also aware that Médine Sugar Estate, which has not gone in for energy production like the other cane clusters, has plans for an Integrated Resort Scheme (IRS) just down-wind from the planned La Chaumière project. Clearly the Sugar Estate has not been un-interested in the protest movements against the La Chaumière project. As we said, no-one wants waste-disposal near their homes - or near their planned luxury housing project. And this time the most powerful forces are on the other side of the fence: they are opposing the project. Just because Médine - and the other sugar clusters that ardently desire high prices for their electricity - oppose a project does not mean the project is good, though. It means there are vested interests both for and against the project. Everyone must be aware of these.

The La Chaumière project poses other more insidious environmental problems: The project demands a lot of rubbish. It is "greedy" for rubbish. In fact, the State will stand to lose money if the project gets less than the contracted 300,000 tons of rubbish a year. This kind of contract has produced problems in other countries. The need to guarantee rubbish, in turn, undermines the important political pressure from us environmentalists to cut the amount of rubbish we, as a society, produce. It also decreases important political pressure for sorting waste for composting and re-cycling. These are important environmental reasons for putting this kind of project into question. But they do need to be weighed against the likely alternatives.

Electricity monopoly
All private enterprise businesses love a monopoly. It permits monopoly pricing. With the end of the protected regime for sugar, the three main Sugar Estate clusters (Fuel, Belle Vue and Savannah) are producing electricity by incinerating bagasse and coal and selling it to the Central Electricity Board at notoriously lush guaranteed prices. The CEB is gradually being reduced to a meter-reading outfit, as private production of energy gets off the ground and heads towards a monopoly control situation.

So, it is important that environmentalists also factor in the important issue of preventing a private monopoly (the MSPA) from becoming the main producer of energy. This monopoly could have terrible consequences for the human beings of the country.

At the same time, the setting up of a "waste-to-energy" private project at La Chaumière will involve long-term contractual and financial commitments by the Mauritian State towards a large American multinational, Covanta. Perhaps the present disastrous situation around France Telecom/ Mauritius Telecom - as made clear by the sacking of two trade unionists, and the refusal to re-instate them without conditions - should make us say "beware" of the role of multinationals.

Lalit's Program for the Environment and Energy
In LALIT, we are in favour of comparing the bad effects of different forms of waste disposal and energy production, rather than opposing a single scheme without weighing up the alternatives which we will, in the case of "victory", be saddled with and rightly blamed for. We refer to our Program lor Ekolozi ek Lanvironnman and Agriculture, Agro-Industry and Electricity booklets which outline our stand. (Also available on our website which is now back on-line after two months of being hacked.)

We are in favour of the State subsidizing and controlling the production of genuinely renewable energy, from a bouquet of sources including solar panels, wave, tidal and sea temperature differential energy, wind power. Money from the Maurice Ile Durable fund could be used. As it is now, the Gamma-Covanta project will benefit Rs 250,000,000 from the fund. The State should aim to maintain control over essential services, a reasonable demand now that the private sector world-wide has shown up its total irrationality, the chaotic consequences of its de-regulation and its in-built fragility. The world over environmentalists and socialists are using the present crisis of capitalism to push for greener and more caring development politics. If the State invests in clean energy production, we will gradually see the public production of clean energy increasing its share in the long term, and in the short-term prevent a sugar barons' monopoly control over electricity and its pricing, and at the same time decrease the proportion of energy reliant on oil, coal and bagasse, which pollute the air.

We are in favour of immediately decreasing the amount of waste we produce, as a society, and of encouraging the sorting and re-cycling of as much of the rest as possible. This involves a conscious attack on the profit motive, which does not factor in waste production, nor pollution. And this is what concerns us most about the La Chaumière project. We are, however, concerned about the alternative disposal of toxic waste into the earth in land-fills, and the pollution by burning bagasse and coal. We are also concerned at the mass scale pollution by commercial agriculture and industry.

We oppose IRS schemes as socially, politically and economically short-sighted, and a total waste of good capital and arable land, which could otherwise create jobs and food, food for consumption and export.

We are in favour of the State subsidizing a number of large-scale schemes like those pioneered by the now world-famous Mauritian Prof. George Chan. These projects see agriculture (food production), energy production and waste disposal as a whole. They do not need new input nor produce waste. Their aim is towards a total "ecological-type" balance in "man"-made activities.

Genuinely clean, renewable energy and this kind of "ecological" agriculture-energy-waste concept are the developments for the future. This is what we should be fighting for.

Ram Seegobin and Lindsey Collen
19 April, 2009