FEARS are mounting this week that an incinerator will be built in Oxfordshire.

Companies involved in incineration make up half of a shortlist drawn up by Oxfordshire County Council of firms that the local authority believes could treat the county's waste for decades to come.

Eight companies are being invited by Oxfordshire County Council to submit plans setting out how waste should be treated and disposed of in the future.

Although County Hall insists that it is remaining "neutral" about the best technology, environmentalists expressed concern that half of the companies on the council's list either build or have close connections to incinerator plants.

Firms on the list, such as the French firm Veolia, have been responsible for some of the UK's energy-from-waste (EfW) plants, which burn waste to create electricity.

Energy-from-waste remains a controversial option, which critics say bring health risks, while adding to global warming.

One of Veolia's companies operates the incinerator at Chineham, Hampshire, that has been visited by Oxfordshire council councillors and council officers.

Its creation led to strong local protests from nearby residents.

Incineration and many of the other options being considered would all involve investment of about £100m.

Oxfordshire County Council invited tenders from companies across Europe, insisting it would keep an open mind about the best and most cost-effective technology.

The final shortlist includes companies that already operate landfill sites in Oxfordshire and that are are also involved in energy-from-waste projects.

Friends of the Earth insisted that these local landfill companies would enjoy a big advantage in the tendering process because they already occupy large sites in Oxfordshire, which could eventually house incinerators or other waste treatment sites.

A total of 14 companies expressed interest.

Next month, the eight companies on the shortlist will be invited to submit outline proposals for treating residual household waste for consideration by the council.

On the list is Waste Recycling Group, which runs the landfill site at Sutton Courtenay and also runs energy-from-waste facilities.

Also listed is Viridor, which runs the landfill site at Ardley. It has a share in an energy-from-waste plant at Slough. But it has also submitted a proposal for a mechanical biological treatment scheme in Manchester. MBT involves mechanically sorting waste then treating it biologically.

Other firms on the list are:

  • The French company SITA, which operates the landfill site at Alkerton, north west of Banbury. It has won a wide range of UK contracts, including collection, recycling and composting
  • Cory Environmental, a large waste management company with a number of waste disposal contracts, including a large collection and disposal contract in London
  • The American firm Covanta, which is bidding for UK contracts but has none signed as yet. It provides predominantly energy-from-waste facilities
  • Global Renewables, a fairly new entrant to the market, with one UK contract signed for Lancashire. It has no plants in the UK as yet. It specialises in mechanical biological treatment
  • Hills Industries, a landfill disposal company, which focuses on the disposal of residues after treatment. The company is the disposal contractor for Wiltshire.

Andrew Wood, of Oxfordshire Friends of the Earth, said: "This does not make incineration in Oxfordshire inevitable but there is good reason to be concerned.

"This shortlist does not bode well.

"They call it energy-from-waste. But people should realise it is still burning rubbish. There are health concerns and there would be climate change impact. It is also a very inflexible technology."

The county went out to tender after warnings from the Government that there would be severe financial penalties for failing to significantly reduce waste being sent to landfill sites.

But it already looks too late to meet the tight Government deadlines being imposed on local councils.

The cost of not meeting Government landfill targets by an amount of, for example, 20,000 tonnes, would be £3m. This would represent £13 a year on the total council tax of a band D house.

Only the waste that remains after recycling and composting will be treated using the new technology.

A spokesman for Oxfordshire County Council said: "Last year Oxfordshire produced the lowest amount of waste per person of any county in the country. The county is one of the top performers for recycling and composting at just over 38 per cent in 2006/07.

"However, this is well short of the levels of the best European countries who recycle around 50 per cent and use technology to dispose of the rest. "

He said the eight companies listed could offer a range of technologies that can treat biodegradable wastes so that they need not be landfilled, and which also produce a usable product such as electricity, compost or gas.

"The council is neutral between these technologies provided they do the job safely, cleanly and at reasonable cost.

"This list of companies ensures that a range of technology solutions can be considered through the next stage of the process."

Councillor Roger Belson, the cabinet member for sustainable development said: "I am pleased with the level of interest the industry has shown in our contract.

"I am also confident that the eight companies that have qualified will allow a choice of technologies to be considered so that we can find the right solution to meet Oxfordshire needs and at a price that provides value for money.

"I am looking forward to seeing what the companies come up with in the autumn. "

"Whatever is chosen will not be in place until 2012 at the earliest, and so to avoid Government fines in the short term we will also be procuring capacity to compost or treat food waste, to be in place during 2009."

The council is shortly to invite bids for a multi-million-pound recycling centre to take Oxfordshire's kitchen waste.