The dirty past and future of new power plant site
Alex Seabrook, local democracy reporter
A small plot of land tucked away between Rover Way, Cardiff, and the Severn Estuary has a dirty history.
The land behind the Celsa steelworks in Splott is also set to have a dirty future — environmental campaigners and local politicians have warned harmful air pollution and carbon dioxide will be emitted from a planned power plant.
Developers Parc Calon Gwyrdd recently received renewed planning permission to build a biomass plant on the 16.5-hectare site, potentially burning 75,000 tonnes of virgin timber shipped from Latvia each year, and generating 9.5 megawatts of energy.
But before that can be built, the developers need to carry out an extensive clean up job, removing 1,000,000 tonnes of rubble and old car parts stripped of steel. The work is needed to prevent toxic chemicals from the landfill leaking into the estuary.
The dirty history of the site was revealed in documents filed as part of the original planning application in 2017. An environmental statement, written by planning agents Geraint John Planning on behalf of the developer, details how the site was used as a dumping ground.
The site was reclaimed from the estuary in the 1970s, according to the environmental statement, with eight metres of blast furnace slag from the neighbouring steelworks. Old cars stripped of their scrap metal by the steelworks were dumped on the land for decades.
But the cocktail of hazardous chemicals from the old car parts created two risks: pockets of gas underground exploding, and water seeping through the landfill, running off and polluting the estuary.
At the turn of the century, work was done on the site to make it safe. This included a “passive gas venting system” to stop pockets of gas building up, and a “site-wide MDPE membrane” to prevent the water running off to the foreshore.
But a few years later, rubble from the construction of the St Davids 2 shopping centre was also dumped on the site, blocking off the gas vents and potentially rupturing the protective plastic membrane.
The design statement, submitted in the original planning application for the power plant, explained the problem: “A large amount of uncertified fill from sites such as St Davids 2 was deposited on the site, rendering a substantive amount of the remediation ineffective.”
Around this time Cardiff council — which owns the land — built a motocross track on the site. The Foreshore Motocross Club works with troubled teenagers, to prevent illegal off-road motorbiking, and helps them stay in education and get into work.
Cardiff council did not respond to questions about whether an alternative site would be found for the club, now that developers want to build a power plant there.
Documents from the Land Registry show Cardiff council entered into a lease agreement with the biomass developers Parc Calon Gwyrdd in 2019. However, the council said the decision to lease the land was first taken in 2014.
The decision to lease the land for a wood-burning power plant has been questioned by opposition councillors, given the council’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions and air pollution. Campaigners claim burning wood emits more carbon than burning coal.
Liberal Democrat Cllr Emma Sandrey said: “We would urge the council not to lease the land for this. Your actions have to align with your words. But they say one thing and do another. It’s going to be feeding demand for trees to be cut down in other parts of the world.”
Conservative Cllr John Lancaster said: “Cutting down forest in Latvia to burn over here isn’t quite so environmentally friendly. The fact the council owns the land makes it a more of a political question rather than a planning decision.
“If they wanted to use it for something else, they clearly could do. They could put solar panels there, or small industrial units for start up businesses. If they wanted to take that position, they could do it.
“There was nothing in the One Planet strategy about this idea. They don’t mention it, which suggests to me that they realised how controversial it would be, so they kept it out of the consultation.”
Cardiff council’s One Planet strategy sets out how the city can get to carbon neutral by 2030, including plans to plant thousands of trees which absorb carbon dioxide and air pollution.
While burning wood for energy legally counts as renewable energy, doubts are mounting about how green woody biomass is. Several recent investigations link rising demand for woody biomass, subsidised by the UK government, with deforestation in eastern Europe.
Gareth Ludkin, of Friends of the Earth, said: “The woody biomass which is to be shipped in from Latvia and burned in this plant is not a clean or green form of energy. We should be protecting forests and planting more trees rather than cutting them down.
“The Drax power plant in Yorkshire already burns more wood than the UK produces in a year and this plant will only fan the flames of greater deforestation in Europe and beyond without regulation.
“Science already tells us that burning wood produces more CO2 than burning coal, and at a time when we are supposed to be phasing out coal alongside plans to restrict or ban the use of wood burners and open fires at home, it’s absolutely crazy that government policy continues to allow the burning of wood for profit under the guise of ‘green’ energy.”
A Cardiff council spokesman said the decision to sell the lease on the land was made in 2014, prior to the election of the current administration. This is documented through an officer decision report at that time.
The spokesman said: “The council is scheduled to meet with the developer, Parc Calon, in the near future to discuss the developer’s detailed proposals going forward.
“However, it is important to point out that any renewable energy plant, whatever the technology proposed, is strictly regulated both through the planning process and by the regulator, Natural Resources Wales.”
Parc Calon Gwyrdd has no online presence and no contact details could be found for the company. Emails sent to architects and planning agents involved in the plans, asking for contact details of Parc Calon Gwyrdd, were not answered.