Energy too hot to handle
How would it feel getting stuck in the early morning traffic behind one of those ominous containers carrying hazardous waste from the new power plant at Delimara?
A number of local councils have expressed concern about the proposal to transit a particular category of waste, technically known as FGD waste, through arterial roads from the new power station at Delimara and back down south to Malta Freeport in Birżebbuġa, from where the waste is to be shipped to a foreign destination.
A traffic impact statement carried out in conjunction with the power station extension project states plainly that the traffic generated as a consequence of this significant development should be minimal. The issue is certainly not about a few more truckloads running daily on our roads. The interest lies in the material that shall be carried.
Flue gas desulphurisation, or FGD, is a process by which the flue gas released from conventional fossil fuel power plants, like the new extension at Delimara, is cleaned up of acidic sulphur dioxide gas, the detrimental health and environmental effects of which have long been known. To this effect EU law sets a cap, or limit, technically known as a national emission ceiling, on the annual total amount of sulphur dioxide that each member state can emit. The relevant legislative instrument is Directive 2001/81/EC, which establishes Malta’s national 2010 emission ceiling for sulphur dioxide at 9,000 tonnes.
Enemalta estimates that every kilowatt-hour of power produced from the new plant at Delimara shall yield 8.3 grammes of FGD waste. The chemical composition of the FGD waste is estimated to consist of 78 per cent sodium sulphate, 17 per cent sodium carbonate and five per cent fuel ash.
It is envisaged that about 30 tonnes of this waste shall eventually be produced on a daily basis and transited via a land route as far as possible from residential areas to Malta Freeport by means of specially-designed 20-foot containers.
A European Commission definition describes hazardous waste as “a term applied to those wastes that, because of their chemical reactivity, toxic, explosive, corrosive, radioactive or other characteristics, cause danger or are likely to cause danger to health or the environment”.
Annex III of Directive 2008/98/EC, the Waste Framework Directive, essentially constitutes a detailed list of properties that render waste hazardous, producing a waste classification by the terms of irritant, infectious, carcinogenic and mutagenic, flammable and others.
Council Decision 2000/532/EC of the European Commission establishing a list of hazardous waste is a collection of no fewer than 20 chapters bringing together a vast number of waste categories considered hazardous under EU law. FGD waste and other solid waste from gas treatment are listed in chapter 10 of the Council Decision.
Apart from the land route option to discard the waste there are two obvious possibilities. One is to ferry the waste directly to Malta Freeport right across Marsaxlokk Bay, taking all the necessary safeguards to preserve the integrity of the bay.
The second option is shipping the waste abroad directly from Delimara and, thus, bypassing the Freeport logistics. This would likely require the construction of a suitably designed quay.
It ultimately boils down to managing risks at an affordable cost.
Technical documents by the planning authority reveal that the FGD process planned for Delimara should run on sodium bicarbonate.
A paper by Mortson and Telesz (2001) for the US Environment Protection Agency describes the chemistry of the process and how the FGD derived sodium sulphate can eventually be recycled to regenerate the bicarbonate starting material together with ammonium sulphate fertiliser. Apparently, both can be regenerated at a high grade of purity of 98 per cent+, making sodium bicarbonate-based FGD commercially very attractive.
The FGD system at Delimara shall be a first timer in a local context and, perhaps now more than ever, the competent authorities are expected to reassure and to deliver.
The issue about waste management from Delimara arises in the havoc of confronting the global energy crisis at a time when Malta is about to shed its energy island status to connect with the energy grid on continental Europe and not just modernise the energy sector but, finally, close down the Marsa plant. The days of fumifugium will be definitively over.
The interconnector with Sicily shall make it possible to diversify Malta’s energy mix and at competitive prices.
However, the 2003 blackout across Italy that had also affected the French, Swiss and Austrian power grids, remind us of the fragility of macro scale energy systems such as the European power grid and that, in a worst case scenario, an insignificant accident miles away from our shores can have devastating consequences on our economy.
That is also why all technical options for Malta’s energy sector must be explored with an open mind.
The author specialises in environmental management