Powerfuel Portland is proposing to develop a £100 million Energy Recovery Facility at Portland Port. The company has signed a lease with Portland Port to build the plant on their property. If this facility goes ahead, it will radically change the look and feel of Portland and the surrounding area, for the next 30 years.

The proposed incinerator would sit right in the middle of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site. As Richard Drax MP says: “We live in a stunning part of the world, I’m slightly baffled why we should put it here”.

If built, the waste management centre would be located next to Portland harbour, an internationally known centre for sailing and watersports. A decade ago, in early 2010, planning permission was granted for a palm oil energy plant on the site, but this was long before the regeneration of Castletown, the 2012 Olympic sailing events, and the recent boom in tourism and marine sports in the area. The immediate offshore area is popular with due to the numbers of wrecks and the rich marine life that flourishes at these sites. Portland Port has more information on local dive sites here.

The many activities and sports based around Portland harbour, from kitesurfing to birdwatching, would be impacted by the sight of a large chimney stack alongside a substantial waste management plant and by the odour and noise such a plant and associated delivery lorries are likely to create. Plumes from such facilities can cause loss of light, fogging and icing of roads. Even when low emissions are achieved plumes are frequently visible, depending on the sky background and the angle of the light.

The proposed plant has the residential area of Castletown right next to it and its emissions would carry right into Fortuneswell, Weymouth, and Preston.

What is it like to live right next to an Energy Recovery Facility? 

Residents living next to an ERF often experience increased noise, light pollution, odour, and an influx of flies and rats. The experiences of residents living next to the Runcorn ERF plant do not make pretty reading:

“Residents who live near the plant have reported being unable to open their windows because of the vomit inducing smells and loud noises it generates.”

Similar problems are experienced by people in Derby who live near such a facility:

“[The] site is inundated with more than 250 complaints in past year about smell and noise levels. Problems with smells, noises and toxic fumes are among hundreds of complaints which have helped to hold up handover of Interserve’s energy-from-waste scheme in Derby, documents obtained by Building have revealed.”

A polluted plume?

The plant is designed to burn Refuse Derived Fuel (RDF), which is non-hazardous, non-recyclable residual waste and will include certain plastics and other non-recyclable waste.

The proposed plant is designed to operate 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with “pre-arranged down times”. During down times, when the burner is getting back up to temperature after being shut down, there is a concern as the more uneven the combustion, the greater the potential for increased emissions. 

It is worth pointing out that during the shut-down and restart period, the plant stops monitoring for emissions, as the emissions during this time will go over the permitted limits until the burner is at the correct temperature, boosting the amount of pollutants released into the air.

If the waste management site were to get up and running, the quality of air within at least 10km of the site would be affected, since the emissions, even after filtering, are likely to contain nitrogen dioxide, hydrogen chloride and heavy metals (in the form of particulate matter). Prevailing winds roughly 60% of the time will blow the emissions across to Weymouth and Preston. The rest of the time the emissions will blow over Portland. Portland is famous for its amazing winds — it would be a sad irony if the very wind which attracts so many to the area ends up being blighted in such a way.


It would seem that Energy Recovery Facilities are being ‘greenwashed’ to appear environmentally friendly. Even the name “Energy Recovery Facility” is a euphemism for rubbish incinerator. Although ERFs are promoted as a green option, the truth is that for every tonne of waste burned, typically around one tonne of CO2 is released into the atmosphere, and around half of this is fossil CO2. This means that incineration has a higher carbon intensity than the conventional use of fossil fuels. An incinerator such as this one would be throwing out roughly 500 tonnes of Carbon Dioxide a day.  

Harmful to health?

Following research, commissioned by Public Health England, in June 2019 Imperial College reported that “They found no association between infant deaths and the modelled concentrations of PM10 emitted by MWIs, but there was a small increase (0.06%) in the risk of two birth defects among those living closer to MWIs – specifically congenital heart defects and hypospadias (affecting the male genitalia – where the opening of the urethra is not at the top of the penis). These birth defects typically require surgery but are rarely life-threatening.” 

PHE later released a statement in October 2019, in light of these findings, “PHE’s risk assessment remains that modern, well run and regulated municipal waste incinerators are not a significant risk to public health. While it is not possible to rule out adverse health effects from these incinerators completely, any potential effect for people living close by is likely to be very small.” 

How might the incinerator impact upon nature?

The effects of nitrogen and other toxins will almost certainly have an impact on lichens and grasses in the area, Portland’s remaining calcareous grassland is a rare example of a fast disappearing habitat supporting particular plants and animals. They are among the most species-rich plant communities in Europe, and contain a large number of rare and endangered species, which are at risk from increased nitrogen pollution. 

Calcareous grasslands are nutrient poor, which allows smaller plants such as wildflower and smaller grasses to flourish without being crowded out by taller and more vigorous grasses. However, it has been shown that an increase of 14-25 kilos of Nitrogen deposited yearly per hectare creates an increase in tall grasses, and a corresponding decrease in diversity. Therefore any extra nitrogen at all likely to be deposited on these grasslands, from any source, must be evaluated and scrutinised carefully, as once deposits reach a tipping point, a process will be triggered resulting in an irrevocable loss of a rare and unique eco-system.

The diversity of Portland’s wild flowers and plants create a fantastically rich habitat for butterflies and in fact, over half of the British Isles’ 57 butterfly species thrive on Portland including the rare silver studded blue butterfly, and Richardson’s Case-bearer, Eudarcia Richardsoni, a tiny moth which inhabits stony cliff slopes on Portland and Swanage in the UK and two other locations in Switzerland.

It is a worrying possibility that air pollution could modify the scentscape to such a degree that these rare butterflies and moths could well have their breeding patterns (which rely on the scent plume of pheronomes) gravely impacted by pollution which can destroy these signals prematurely.

Light pollution is also a concern as moths can become confused by extra light sources over and above the moon. As the incinerator will be working 24 hours a day it will light up the surrounding area considerably, and thus impact upon the usual night-time behaviour of nearby moth populations.

What are Powerfuel Portland’s plans? 

Although Powerfuel Portland is promoting the incinerator to the public as an energy solution, rubbish burning is primarily a strategy for waste management, and fairly near the bottom of the “waste hierarchy” of ways to treat waste. Whatever would be derived from the burning is a by product from the main purpose of the plant: getting rid of rubbish. 

It’s clear from a scoping request email from Powerfuel Portland to Dorset Council planning department, which was uploaded to the Dorset Council website, and then removed, that there could be bigger plans afoot: to expand the incineration plant into a larger waste processing facility. According to the email, Portland Port has been: 

“engaged in detailed discussions with DWP [Dorset Waste Partnership] to host a materials recycling facility at the Port to conduct recycling and production of RDF for export from the Port.”

The company also proposes that waste fuel can be brought in by boat — this waste would come from outside Dorset, from London and perhaps even from abroad. So the plant will become a hub for the import and export of waste. This vision for the facility illustrates that the primary purpose of the plant is actually going to be to process waste, rather than to produce energy. Although this seems like a subtle distinction, it is actually an important point. 

So who knows? Perhaps Powerfuel plans to apply for a Section 73 a few years down the line to extend the capacity at Portland to cope with all the imported waste from London and other UK areas by sea – so they can prepare and burn their own waste, thereby turning a so-called ‘energy recovery facility’ into a very large (and highly profitable) ‘waste management plant’. 

Interestingly, one of the Powerfuel’s main justifications for the location of the ERF is that it is to be a solution to Dorset’s waste problem. However, if the RDF mainly comes in by sea, the plant will be burning very little actual Dorset waste, thereby undermining one of the key planks of their proposal.

Increased traffic on an already over-burdened road system 

Richard Drax, the MP for South Dorset, has said he’s got “two main concerns” about the proposed Portland waste burner: “emissions, and the huge number of lorries coming on & off the island”. 

A large increase in heavy traffic to the proposed incinerator site is inevitable. Powerfuel Portland estimates that at least 40 lorries a day will bring waste into the plant which would mean 80 lorry trips daily. For those living close to the plant, that’s one additional lorry passing their door every 6- 9 mins. The lorries will be also be transporting toxic fly ash away from the plant – a residue from the burning process. 

“The disadvantage to the people of Weymouth is being on the receiving end of all these additional lorries,” says Weymouth councillor Graham Lambert 

The local road system connecting Portland to the mainland is already overstretched. According to planning consultants Adams Hendry: “The nature of the road system connecting Portland to the mainland means that, even now prior to any works or extra traffic, hold-ups or bottlenecks in Portland can have an effect which extends back through Wyke and the edges of Weymouth”.

How do incinerators fit into the Dorset waste management strategy? 

Dorset Council have declared a Climate and Ecological Emergency, but burning household and commercial waste works directly against this initiative. 

The proposed plant will be fed waste which has been preprocessed in Canford Magna and then driven to Portland. On a good day this takes 1hr 10min 

Dorset Council have three other proposed developments in Canford Magna, Mannings Heath Poole and Holton Heath Ferndown, two of which are less than 20 mins drive from the MBT site in Canford Magna and the third is located right by the current waste management site itself. 

Dorset Council currently send some of their waste to an Energy Recovery Facility in Southampton. This is only 45 mins from Canford Magna mechanical biological treatment plant which produces Dorset’s RDF. 

How would this incinerator fit into the national waste strategy? 

Currently the UK has more incineration capacity existing and under construction than residual waste to burn, and there are many more incinerator projects in the pipeline. The proposed facility at Portland would be an independent ‘merchant’ facility. This means that it will not be built to manage a particular waste stream but will be available for any residual waste, domestic or commercial, that is currently being exported out of the county or sent to landfill. It has no public subsidy. The plant’s location at the Port, that has a need for energy and power, means it should be able to maintain optimal performance even if Dorset improves recycling further. 

Professor Ian Boyd, chief scientific advisor for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: 

“If there is one way of quickly extinguishing the value in a material, it is to stick it in an incinerator and burn it. It may give you energy out at the end of the day, but some of those materials, even if they are plastics, with a little ingenuity, can be given more positive value. One thing that worries me is that we are taking these materials, we are putting them in incinerators, we are losing them forever and we are creating carbon dioxide out of them, which is not a great thing…I think that incineration is not a good direction to go in. 

This brings me to a more general point about landfill. Quite rightly, we have had a policy of trying to eliminate landfill in this country, because it has been seen as a major source of greenhouse gas pollution and, to some extent, groundwater pollution. That is because we put biodegradable organics in—food waste, garden waste and things like that. Landfill is a very low-marginal-cost method for storing highly resistant materials like plastics and metals for long periods of time, if we cannot extract the value from them now.This is one caveat I would put around the current direction of travel on landfill. 

We should not lose sight of the fact that, in a few decades’ time, or maybe a bit longer, we might be mining our landfill sites for the resources they contain. Rather than putting some of those resources into incinerators and losing them for ever, we might want to think differently about the landfill sites.

Take action

When the planning application for the proposed waste incinerator at Portland Harbour is submitted it is crucial that as many objections as possible are submitted to the council. Find out how.

The planning application

The proposed site has planning permission for the construction of an energy plant, which was granted by Weymouth and Portland Borough Council on 12 January 2010 and Powerfuel Portland are intending to adapt the current planning permission (which is for the burning of palm oil and tyre crumb) to incorporate the incineration of commercial and domestic waste.

Here’s a link to the representations made for the scoping report on the Dorset Council website. You’ll also see that some stakeholders and other interested parties have already submitted some representations to the council regarding the scope of the planning application and expressed their concerns and these can be downloaded.

You can find out more about what it’s like to live near a waste incinerator here.

More information about the Jurassic Coast as a World Heritage Site here.