Tuesday, 17 August 2010

Avonmouth biofuel plant: appeal to Secretary of State

Copy of email to Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Govt and Chris Huhne, Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change:
I made a statement to a Bristol City Council planning committee on 09/03235/F, the application for a 50 MW biofuel power station to be built in Avonmouth, Bristol by the company W4B. The application was rejected by the council but W4B have since appealed and a Planning Inspector has therefore been dealing with the matter during August 2010 (ref APP/Z0116/A/10/2126342). I urge you to fully consider my view on this matter as part of your deliberations.

It is my personal and professional opinion that the facts show that permission for this biofuel power plant should be refused. Proper public consultation and debate, with full and accurate environmental information, should take place before this proposal and any similar ones are even considered.

Bristol City Council and the applicant W4B have not supplied, early in the environmental decision making procedure, adequate, timely and effective environmental information and therefore provision for public participation has been inadequate – in fact completely absent for lengthy periods. The council has not complied fully and properly with either the letter or the spirit of Environmental Impact Assessment regulations, in particular as modified by the various EU Directives which enact the Aarhus Convention (see note 1 below). The council’s Green Capital/Green City policies clearly aim for best practice in this area but in this case at least it has not been forthcoming.
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The Aarhus Convention is a relatively new kind of environmental agreement and enacting it enables a decision making body to deal well with the interconnected, interrelated nature of environmental, economic and social issues, such as those posed by this planning application. The Convention: links environmental rights and human rights; acknowledges that we owe an obligation to future generations; establishes that sustainable development can be achieved only through the involvement of all stakeholders; links government accountability and environmental protection; focuses on interactions between the public and public authorities in a democratic context.
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Public authorities such as Bristol City Council are obliged, under the Convention and related EU Directives, to actively disseminate environmental information in their possession – but this has not happened for the whole of this application as there are many months when the only people who knew of the potential planning application and the planning officers opinion on environmental impact assessment are the officers themselves and W4B (who went away with privileged information and prepared a planning application).
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The Area Planning Coordinator said this in an email to me on 16 Dec 09,
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‘The applicant made a formal request to Bristol City Council as theLocal Planning Authority in February this year, to which Bristol indicated in April that it did not consider the proposals as set out inthe request to be EIA development. Whilst the applicant has proceeded inpreparing their planning application on this basis, this position wasnot however formalised until earlier this month (11 December 2009) whena formal Screening Opinion was issued in accordance with the EIARegulations. I have therefore attached a copy of the formal ScreeningOpinion of Bristol City Council as Local Planning Authority, for your information.’
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The council made no attempt to actively disseminate the fact that a formal request (note: formal request) had been made. It made no attempt to disseminate the fact that it was minded not to consider the proposals an EIA development. Yet the environmental decision process has very clearly begun and the applicant has had the benefit of early information from council planning officers! Opportunity for public opinion and participation, including non-council experts, early on in the decision process were thus lost.
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In fact, there was no opportunity for public participation in the screening process, the first stage in the Environmental Impact Assessment procedure, at all. The council gave what it says was its ‘formal’ opinion on December 11, identical to the opinion it gave the potential applicant in April 09, and only released the relevant letter to a very small selection of members of the public like myself on 16 December 2009 after we made a nuisance of ourselves through repeated phone calls and emails. So much for actively disseminating environmental information!!
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Almost a year passed by (ie Feb 09 to mid-Dec 09) with no opportunity for public participation. Keep in mind the fact that the planning committee was close to having this application on its agenda in January!! As a result the many contributions people have been and are still making - a huge glut of observations and arguments – were all presented over a very short period of time, dealing with complex, interlinked, possibly unresolved issues. Properly abiding by environmental impact assessment procedures, as modified by the Aarhus Convention, taking on board the principle of early, environmental information and public participation is I believe what the council in obliged to do, is what its Green capital policy says it should do, and it’s the best practice way to have proceeded. Both council and company should be proactive in this regard.
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Just some of the complex and interlinked issues (referred to above) are listed below:
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*how to define what a renewable fuel from plants is (potatoes for human consumption are a renewable fuel source from plants if grown properly but another plant product like mahogany certainly would not be, or at least not on anything like the same basis);
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*how to guarantee that any fuel supplied is renewable in practice (certification standards, inspection, independent verification…are in my view absent for the fuels proposed by the applicant);
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*what a total carbon footprint is and how the carbon accounting is best done (the carbon footprint figures supplied by the applicant are not a total carbon footprint as this would require all direct and all indirect carbon emissions to be accounted for – but there are no figures supplied for land use changes and methane emissions associated with the fuels proposed, a major omission, and in fact several processes);
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*whether cumulative air pollution impacts on people’s health and on the health of nearby designated sites is sustainable and would allow the Environment Agency to permit any power station given planning permission to operate (Avonmouth is already heavily polluted – see below).
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The council view that no Environmental Impact Statement needed to be prepared is incorrect as well as being established with zero public participation. Officers wrongly concluded that were no impacts of significance. Even within the council officers narrow and irrational system boundary which does not acknowledge that the world’s ecosystems are interconnected, this fails to account for the effects of the power-plant on the Severn Natura 2000 Marine site, which are in fact of significance.
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This area was selected against rigorous scientific criteria to protect the most threatened and important species and habitats in Europe, as described by widely respected organizations like the RSPB. The site is of international significance (UN RAMSAR listed, up to 100,000 birds over-winter there, Slimbridge Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust is just upstream). It is 450 yards from the power-plant site. It is protected with tough international limits for nutrient nitrogen deposition. Those limits are already exceeded in Avonmouth because of the traffic on the M5.That means only insignificant levels of nutrient nitrogen can be permitted by the Environment Agency if they are to give W4B’s power station an Operating Permit. Insignificant is defined as less than 1% of the Environmental Quality Standard.
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The Environment agency have written to me on this matter saying:
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> “There are some areas of Natura sites within 10km of the proposed installation> where the background deposition already exceeds the critical load. In this> case it would be difficult but not impossible to justify emissions above 1% of> the critical load. It is the responsibility of the applicant to provide such a> justification. The figures in the planning application suggest that there may> be such potential impacts but this is not certain at this stage."

I look forward to your reply (please note that I have published this email on my blog and would like to – and plan to - publish your reply on my blog).

Yours sincerely

Glenn Vowles, MSc, PGCE, BA
Associate Lecturer in Environmental Studies and Environmental Decision Making
http://vowlesthegreen.blogspot.com/

Notes
1. Two Directives concerning the first and second "pillars" of the Aarhus Convention have been adopted by the EU; …. implemented in the national law of the EU Member States by 14 February and 25 June 2005 respectively:
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Directive 2003/4/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 28 January 2003 on public access to environmental information and repealing Council Directive 90/313/EEC
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Directive 2003/35/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 May 2003 providing for public participation in respect of the drawing up of certain plans and programmes relating to the environment and amending with regard to public participation and access to justice Council Directives 85/337/EEC and 96/61/EC
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Provisions for public participation in environmental decision-making are furthermore to be found in a number of other environmental directives, such as Directive 2001/42/EC of 27 June 2001 on the assessment of certain plans and programmes on the environment

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