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The community group that took on a giant

Vice-chair of NoArc21, Charlie Thompson Vice-chair of NoArc21, Charlie Thompson
By Michael Jackson

MONEY breeds power, or so the idiom goes, but five years ago when plans were revealed for a quarter-billion pound waste incinerator in Glengormley, it sparked a grassroots community campaign that would go on to take on big capital and even the government.
The NoArc21 campaign started when a small group of concerned residents called a public meeting to voice their concerns about Becon Consortium’s plans to build an incinerator near homes on the Hightown Road.
Vice-chair of NoArc21, Charlie Thompson, said the danger posed by the incinerator and the anger caused by it was enough to mobilise the community.
“The anger was bad because at that stage there was problems with the dump in Mallusk and the smells coming from the incinerator down there,” he said.
“This area was very much seen as a dumping ground. It was like we were living in the middle of a tip. The actual incinerator would be right outside my windows. I would be looking at it every day if it was to go ahead.
“We were told lies about the size of it too. We were told it would be all hidden and that we wouldn’t even notice it. This thing is going to be the size of Wembley Stadium or Croke Park and it’s supposed to be less than a half a mile from my front windows – I think I would see the thing.
“I was very angry at the size and scale of it, but there is evidence out there now that these things cause cancer. The size can’t be underestimated either – it will be the single biggest freestanding building in Northern Ireland.
“It will have a chimney stack that’s over 90 metres long. The evidence all says anyone living up to a kilometre-and-a-half away will be those worse affected. This thing is going to be pouring toxins over my family, my neighbours and everybody within a kilometre at best, but at worse the catchment area could be 15k. Almost all of the Belfast basin will be inhaling this and it’s already one of the most polluted cities in Europe, in terms of air pollution. This is just going to make it worse.”
He continued: “As soon as I got involved there was a small committee set up and we identified all the problems that could be associated with it.
“After the waste is burned there is a substance left over called fly-ash, which is extremely toxic. If any of the lorries carrying it were involved in an accident, and this is a busy road, then all of that would be released into the air.
“This is in an expanding residential area. The impact on that is huge.
“We have evidence as well that it would reduce house prices. We estimated that it would reduce house prices by ten to 20 per cent, but we now have people who have come forward who can’t get a mortgage on their homes because there is a negative equity risk.
“The evidence is very, very clear this causes lung infections, cancers, and lung conditions. While the incinerator complies with existing legal policies and regulations, they have never ever said it was safe.
“Any opportunity I have had with Arc21 I have asked them if they could stand up in front of the public and say that the facility is safe. They have never said that – they have said it complies with existing policies and regulations, but those are already out of date, and are being reviewed as we speak.”
While the anger amongst residents was palpable during the foundation of the NoArc21 campaign, Charlie said that channelling those energies and sustaining the group has been “extremely tough”.
“Because of the threat it was easy at times to get people on board, but the issue is sustaining the campaign,” he explained.
“We had a problem with apathy. When Mark H Durkan was environment minister he shot dead the application, and people thought it was dead in the water. We then had to go to the Planning Appeals Commission and we lost.
“That said, in the history of Northern Ireland this has had the most objections to any planning application – over 4,000 people have gone to the trouble of submitting an objection.
“The other thing that has helped us is that we are cross-community. We have been approached by all parties who have offered us assistance, but we have been very careful that we don’t side with one over another. Our group is mixed in terms of background. It doesn’t just impact on any one side of the community. This has been key to us.
“We have secured funding through online crowdfunding, and people have been very good on that, people have thrown money in buckets for us – it all helps.”
By being able to recruit a legal team, NoArc21 were able to challenge the legality of the decision to grant planning permission for the incinerator earlier this year. The High Court ruled the Department for Infrastructure did not have the authority to grant permission in the absence of a minister. Charlie said that the group were “happy and shocked” by the decision, but said that they still might have a fight on their hands.
“We’re a small community group, so this is all new to us,” he stated.
“We didn’t think for a minute that we would win – we were hoping that we would win and we were fighting from every angle. We pulled in experts who were offering free advice and services.
“When we heard the High Court Ruling we were delighted. We had a very strong legal team, but we were still very surprised. We always knew that this facility was wrong in this area.
“Fighting it legally for us was a big challenge for us and we may have to do it again. The Department for Infrastructure won’t appeal, but the Attorney General submitted a series of questions that could affect the High Court decision.
“I’m not going to say that we didn’t expect the decision to have huge ramifications, but we didn’t think that it would stall the governing of Northern Ireland. There are so many things that are held up because of this. With the Attorney General submitting those questions, there’s a chance that this will go to the Supreme Court in London, and that’s something that we have to prepare for.”
He added: “We are optimistic, however, if we lose on one issue this could be enough to put this back to a decision for a minister to take, whether that be a direct rule minister, or if Stormont is back up and running.”

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