The proposal for an Energy from Waste (EfW) incinerator to be built on the Isle of Portland, is an environmental injustice against the people who live there.

If you were a company executive, looking for an ideal location across the stretches of Dorset where your council will approve a new hub of waste activity, you probably wouldn’t go for the wealthy suburbs of Corfe Mullen, or among the bucolic settlements of North Dorset.

No, it would be better placed in an area where residents already experience the disruption and environmental encumbrance of other industrial installations and their clamour. It would be built where the most deprived people in your county reside. It would be built where many of your county’s minorities live.

Or so that’s what a Greenpeace Unearthed report found when it looked at the places where existing incinerators are sited across the country. The investigation identified that waste incinerators across the UK were three times more likely to be located in deprived areas.

And the proposal for a new incinerator on the Isle of Portland does not buck that trend. Ten out of eleven of the most deprived areas in Dorset, that rank within the top 20% nationally, are found in Weymouth and Portland. Six of those fall inside the top 10% most deprived.

The new waste incinerator will bring in up to 40 heavy goods vehicles every day, each way, filled with 121 tonnes of refuse-derived fuel, chemicals and bottom ash. It will emit a cocktail of nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, carbon dioxide and heavy metals. All inside permit regulations, but it’s hard not to see the potential health and wellbeing toll this could have on local residents.

The ‘Stop Portland Waste Incinerator’ campaign group hired air quality and ecology consultants to assess the application. They found a number of shortcomings where sources of pollutant emissions have been omitted from Powerfuel’s impact assessment and as a result, likely vastly underestimated the effects on local air quality.

Is there a precedent of waste incinerators impacting the health of local populations living nearby? The picture is complicated. Public Health England published their position on Municipal Waste Incinerators (MWIs) in October last year, based on the findings from two studies conducted by researchers at Imperial College London. The studies from 2018 and 2019, found little evidence that MWIs caused an increased risk of congenital anomalies or higher infant mortality for children living close to incinerators.

But the UK Without Incineration Network has argued that one of the government’s own briefings for directors of public health states that the “main outcomes of PM [Particulate Matter] air pollution are cardiovascular (CVD) and respiratory diseases. There are no safe levels of PM and impacts are observed below levels permitted by current legal limits.” They also raise the fact that the World Health Organisation have stated that the “health effects of PM10 and PM2.5 are well documented. There is no evidence of a safe level of exposure or a threshold below which no adverse health effects occur.”

PM10 and PM2.5 refer to Particulate Matter up to 10 and 2.5 microns in diameter respectively and are composed of a number of pollutants including nitrates, sulphate, ammonia, black carbon, sodium chloride, mineral dust and water.

The European NGO Zero Waste Europe, in which UKWIN is a member, identified that the average annual concentration of  PM2.5 and PM10 allowed under the EU Air Quality Directive are double the levels recommended by the World Health Organisation. These particulates are associated with an increased risk of respiratory infections, reduced lung function and asthma, as well as a number of other adverse health impacts. It’s also the case that the UK government has lobbied the EU and succeeded in watering down the regulations on emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) from waste incinerators.

If EU limits on certain pollutants for the waste incinerator industry were already over the levels that the World Health Organisation consider to be a danger to public health,  a weakening of these regulations raises real questions over the safety of members of the public living in close proximity to the UK’s 90+ existing waste incinerators and proposed new sites.

Powerfuel Portland’s decision to submit an application for a waste incinerator in the middle of a viral pandemic that attacks the respiratory system, in light of the possible health impacts, demonstrates a cognitive dissonance of dire proportions.

Air quality in Weymouth and Portland might well be under legal limits, but the introduction of additional pollutants that will worsen air quality could still have an impact on those suffering with already poor health and COVID-19.

A number of studies across the world have linked areas affected by high levels of air pollution with increased risk of COVID morbidity. A study by the Office for National Statistics however, was inconclusive, but acknowledged that this was partially due to the limitations of their research. But a more recent piece of research has found that long-term exposure to air pollution can be attributed to 15% of worldwide deaths by the virus.

Should we be building new polluting infrastructure and placing an extra health toll on local inhabitants in the middle of a pandemic? No, absolutely not. Instead, policy and decision-makers should heed the calls for a just and green recovery – especially when only 6% of the UK public want to return to a pre-pandemic ‘business as usual.’  New waste incinerators are not a direction to that green and fairer future.

And part of that fairer, more equitable future will be a UK that reckons with its structural racism.

The Greenpeace Unearthed report also found that more than 40% of incinerators were situated in areas more diverse than their local authority average.

This holds true for Powerfuel Portland’s application, reflected in both the town level as well as in the specific location on Portland where the proposed incinerator would be built.

The Dorset Council area is extremely non-diverse, with white British residents accounting for a huge 95.6% of the populace. However, the last census in 2011 revealed that just 16,217 people from non-British minority ethnic groups lived in the Dorset Council area and over 20% of this ethnic minority population lived in Weymouth and Portland, when only 17% of Dorset’s total population is found there.

The census data shows that in 2011, nearly half the black Caribbean population of Dorset lived in Weymouth and Portland (125 out of 268 residents), while black African’s in the area make up nearly a third of the local authority’s total population of black Africans residents (153/468). Black residents of other ethnicities living in Weymouth and Portland also make up over 40% of the Dorset Council population that identified as ‘Other Black’ in the 2011 census. Other minority ethnic groups are also overrepresented in the Weymouth and Portland area.

In Underhill, the area that covers the residences in the immediate vicinity of the proposed location for the incinerator, black African, black Caribbean and people of other black ethnicities are also, you guessed it, overrepresented. White British inhabitants are 90% of Underhill’s population of 4,013, meaning that minority ethnic groups are 10% of the local area’s population compared to Dorset’s 4.4%. Around 2% of Underhill’s residents are black African (79 residents) while Dorset as a whole has just 0.13% black African inhabitants as a percentage of the total population.  Underhill also has 1.3% black Caribbean residents (54) while Dorset’s population is just 0.07%.

While these figures represent a small fraction of the overall population in Underhill, they account for a significant proportion of Dorset’s black African and black Caribbean population at large, at 17% and 20% respectively, in this small neighbourhood of Dorset at the very top end of the Isle of Portland.

 The map above shows Underhill, at the very top of Portland. It includes two of the eleven areas that rank within the top 20% most deprived nationally: Fortuneswell North and Fortuneswell South. Fortuneswell North is within the top 10% most deprived. The multiple locations pinned on the map are the points where data was collected in the 2011 Census. The waste incinerator is proposed along the top edge, near the ports.

Minority overrepresentation in the area where the incinerator would be built makes this an issue of racial justice, that cannot be extricated from the context of wider local issues of racism.

Many in Dorset faced a reckoning on racism earlier this year, in the wake of African-American George Floyd’s murder. There were protests across the county in solidarity with people both here in the UK and the United States, who have faced racist violence and oppression by the police and state.

And police oppression of BAME groups became an especially salient local issue when the BBC broke the news that government statistics showed Dorset ranked worst in the UK for the disproportionate use of stop and search on the black populace. The data showed that the Dorset Police were by rate per 1,000 people, 25-times more likely to stop and search a black person over a white person.

George Floyd’s final words “I can’t breathe,” have had a piercing resonance in the context of a respiratory pandemic which has disproportionately impacted black and minority ethnic communities across the world, including here in the UK. And a  waste incinerator, belching out pollutants, bringing noise, smells and nuisance to the people of Weymouth and Portland, is an unacceptable extra burden.

It is an environmental injustice. It is a social and class injustice. It is a racial injustice. The residents of Weymouth and Portland deserve a greener, more equitable and just future. If Dorset Council believes in alleviating the deprivation faced by its poorest residents and if it believes that ‘black lives matter,’ it will reject this application.

The public consultation on the proposal runs to the 16th of November. Click here to submit your objection. The ‘Stop Portland Waste Incinerator’ campaign also have some useful resources that are definitely worth a look before submitting your objection.

*Information on the demographics of Underhill, Weymouth and Portland by comparison to the Dorset Council authority area has been calculated using information from These statistics exclude Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole since they fall under a separate Local Authority.


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