Hollywood actor Michael Sheen has lent his weight to residents campaigning against a controversial waste plant proposed for Cwmfelinfach.
In January, Natural Resources Wales (NRW) turned down a permit application from the plant’s operators, Hazrem Environmental Ltd, after raising concerns over the prospective health of neighbouring communities to the Nine Mile Point Industrial Estate.
However Hazrem submitted an appeal over the decision which the environmental agency decided not to contest, citing “extra technical information” included by the developer.
On Wednesday, October 4, Mr Sheen’s letter was read out at a public inquiry into the appeal at Blackwood Rugby Club.
The inquiry, which was called for by campaign group Lower Sirhowy Valley Residents Group, is expected to last two days.
A strong crowd including local councillors, objecting residents and numerous speakers heard Mr Sheen call the situation “especially alarming”.
In a statement read out on his behalf, the Port Talbot actor referenced the respiratory problems suffered by residents as a result of the industrial history in the area, noting that “in the days of when there was a colliery in the valley, mines would be closed during temperature inversion, where residents could be exposed to adverse air.”
Temperature inversion is a weather phenomenon which occurs when cold air is trapped by warm air above, thus restricting any clouds or haze from escaping an area, such as the Sirhowy Valley.
Mr Sheen acknowledged the need for jobs and industry in a community which was named in the top 10% most deprived areas of Wales in the 2014 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation, but warned against allowing that demand to “blind us to the risks to the health and wellbeing of communities”.
Earlier, the inquiry heard from Roger Tunstall, representing Natural Resources Wales, who provided clarification on the body’s position.
The environmental agency previously said the planned facility had “the potential to have a negative impact on the health of people living in the area” and followed advice from Aneurin Bevan University Health Board to “exercise caution” when considering whether to grant the permit.
Following Hazrem’s submission of new data and the recommendations of the health board and Public Health Wales, it decided against contesting the developer’s appeal.
Mr Tunstall said NRW had “conducted a full and thorough consideration of the appeal, and found no grounds to defend the initial refusal.”
He said that reservations regarding the speculated increase in traffic to and from Nine Mile Point Industrial Estate was a “material planning consideration” which was granted by Caerphilly County Borough Council, adding NRW “cannot deal with concerns relating to planning consent.”
As such, he concluded, the issue of HGV traffic would not be relevant to the inquiry, which would focus on the granting of a permit.
However, Howard Leithead, solicitor for Lower Sirhowy Valley Residents Group, called any decision not to take traffic emissions into consideration “completely perverse”.
He added the “slow dispersal of fumes” was an “unusual atmospheric effect of the deep-sided valley”, claiming there was no threshold below which exposure to nitrogen dioxide emissions are safe before claiming it was “very likely” the emission limits would be exceeded.
William Upton, representing Hazrem Environmental Ltd, told the inquiry that NRW were “right to reach their conclusion”, adding that no fuel would be burnt at the plant, and that it would not be operating at full capacity at all times.
He said: “Environmental permit regulations relate to the plant, and do not include mechanically projected vehicles. It is not relevant to HGV traffic.
“On the facts, there will not be a breach of air quality standards.”
Jan Jones, of Lower Sirhowy Valley Residents Group, said: “Wattsville is close to the pollution limit already, and residents could be subject to concentrated doses of pollution on still days on the B4251.”
The former Ynysddu councillor read out names of residents with respiratory problems, telling the inquiry “you will hear a lot of dry legal terms and statistics today but these are the people who make up the statistics. What are you going to tell them if this factory gets a permit?
“We will be watching very closely the amount of traffic to and from the industrial estate.”
Resident David Platt questioned why Natural Resources Wales’ own air quality assessment was not checked, adding: “NRW used different modelling to Hazrem and were correct in highlighting the issues, but they should not be able to do the modelling and then determine its veracity. That’s called marking your own homework.”
In a letter to the Planning Inspectorate, read out at the inquiry, Islwyn AM Rhianon Passmore said: “I find the acceptance of new and substantially lower emissions data extremely worrying behaviour by a body entrusted with protecting the natural environment in Wales.
“These figures should have been robustly challenged to ensure they were genuine and have not been altered simply to ensure a successful appeal.”
The inquiry continues, with a decision over the permit expected in the coming weeks.