Friday 24 February 2017

US Poolbeg firm wants Gormley to 'stand aside'

Environment Minister's 'conflict of interest' is concern for investors

Jerome Reilly

Jerome Reilly

Environment Minister John Gormley should "stand aside" from the decision-making process in relation to the Poolbeg incinerator because there is strong evidence he has a conflict of interest, according to the US company behind the plan.

Covanta Energy, the US firm that is Dublin City Council's partner in the planned development, has been unable to proceed with the €350m project because the Department of the Environment has, so far, not issued a foreshore licence which would allow the construction of a ventilation system at Poolbeg.

Mr Scott Whitney, Covanta's chief executive in Europe, says the company is now seeking a meeting with Taoiseach Brian Cowen to find out if the project is still a runner, and he admits that the company has looked in general terms at what they would do in "a worst-case scenario". That would mean legal action to recover tens of millions of euros.

So far, the company has spent €20m on the Poolbeg plan, but issues like the loss of future potential earnings could come into the equation if legal action is taken.

And in an interview with the Sunday Independent, Mr Whitney admits that institutional investors in the US are now wondering if Ireland is a place in which they can do business, following what he called the "unique" way the Poolbeg project has been handled by the Fianna Fail/Green administration.

"We do know from communication we've had with at least one of our significant shareholders that there is some concern in investor circles about whether Ireland is going to continue to be a good place for American companies to do business, particularly given the current situation," Mr Whitney said.

Mr Whitney says that in his experience it is almost unique that a person who was vehemently opposed to the incinerator project before he was elected is now expected to make an unbiased decision about whether it gets support or is hindered.

"He claims that he can be impartial, but in every other situation like this that I've ever seen anywhere in the world, there is a way of handling these things.

"If there's even a substantial appearance of a conflict of interest, then normally that official excuses him or herself from this specific situation, and it seems to me here that there's a pretty strong appearance of it [conflict of interest]. Given what is at stake, it would be pretty difficult for anybody to be impartial in this situation, it's a very difficult situation for everybody," Mr Whitney said.

Asked by the Sunday Independent if he was looking for clarity from the Taoiseach that the company was not "wasting its time", Mr Whitney replied: "Yes, exactly, and it's really more than just the foreshore licence, and I think you just stated what we are looking for most succinctly."

When pressed on the possibility of legal action against the Government if the project is scuppered, Mr Whitney said: "There have been discussions in that regard, I'm not going to lie to you but we haven't spent a lot of time in regard to plotting a worst case strategy."

Sunday Independent

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