Government acts to stave off potential hazwaste crisis

The imminence of the 16 July deadline for the implementation of the Landfill Directive has spurred a spate of announcements from the Government and the Environment Agency in response to widespread concern expressed across the environmental and waste sectors that guidance has been insufficient and in the knowledge that facilities for the pre-treatment of waste and particularly, hazardous waste, will be stretched to capacity, if not beyond. Editor Alexander Catto reports

As long ago as last December the ESA was warning that "the Government is sleepwalking into a hazardous waste crisis."

Chief Executive Dirk Hazell, commenting on the launch of an action plan at the end of last year from the Hazardous Waste Forum set up by DEFRA, did not mince his words when he said: "ESA and our Members have assiduously supported the work of the forum which has identified many of the key issues that need to be addressed. This work is long overdue.

"For years ESA has warned that the UK risks a hazardous waste crisis from next July: even now, the UK's waste managers still do not know how the Government intends to manage hazardous waste from July so it is not possible to invest in treatment plants. Indeed, the authorities' failure to enforce regulation has forced our members to close modern plants which manage hazardous wastes in the safest way."

Mr Hazell said that it had always been clear to the ESA that many of the actions identified in plan could only fall on the Government and the Environment Agency. "The authorities will have to use the remaining time much more productively than they have so far shown themselves capable of doing if they are to avoid sleepwalking the whole country into a hazardous waste crisis from next July," he concluded.

While elements in the Government and among its advisers are playing down talk of a "hazardous waste crisis", Mr Hazell's words look prophetic as the clock ticks down to 16 July.

Action speeded up

The Forum's Action Plan set out a communications strategy and the key decisions and actions that were needed for dealing with hazardous waste. But frustration has been expressed at the speed of the implementation of these recommendations by the Government.

There has certainly been a surge of action and statements from Ministers and regulators, over recent weeks, as concern began to emerge over the number of facilities that will be available to handle waste requiring pre-treatment and disposal, particularly in relation to hazardous waste.

On 25 March DEFRA launched the consultation outcome on the implementation of the Landfill Directive's detailed Waste Acceptance Criteria in England and Wales. In a statement to the House of Commons Elliott Morley, Minister of State for the Environment said: "The Landfill Directive represents an important step change in the way we dispose of waste. It encourages waste minimisation and increased levels of recycling and recovery.

"The Government also recognises that implementation of the Landfill Directive will have a significant impact on the disposal of hazardous waste. It continues to work with the Environment Agency, waste producers and waste managers to ensure that the transition period is as smooth as possible and that the environment and human health are fully protected."

"Following consultation, the Government has decided that the implementation date for the WAC will be 16 July 2005 with the 'interim year' between July 2004-July 2005 being managed using a site specific approach based on loading rates of new wastes, the types of new waste and the types of waste already in the landfill. This site-specific approach will continue post-2005. The option of opening separate cells in hazardous sites for waste deposited after July 2005 which has been subject to the full WAC will not be pursued.

"The limit values for Cadmium and Mercury will remain those contained in the Council Decision. However, this position will be reviewed two years after implementation following discussions between DEFRA and the Environment Agency to determine whether compliance with the Groundwater Directive requires adoption of limit values lower than those required by the Landfill Directive.

"Furthermore," he said, "the Government has decided to extend the ban on disposing gypsum based wastes with biodegradable wastes to include any high sulphate wastes. This action on high sulphate wastes will lower emissions and improve the local environment near landfills by reducing odours."

Risk assessment options

Mr Morley added: "The risk assessment option will be adopted but, given the difficulties for the Agency in its regulation, the potential for greater environmental risk and the resultant risk of having to store hazardous waste pending Agency checks, Government will restrict the option to only individual waste streams destined for specific mono-fill sites. While there will be no initial time limit to this approach, Government reserves the right to re-visit the issue within two years of implementation."

The Landfill (England and Wales) (Amendment) Regulations to implement these decisions will be laid before Parliament in April. In addition, Mr Morley expected the Landfill Directive Interpretive Guidance to be available to operators also in April.

The Environment Agency has warned that it would not tolerate illegal waste activity when new hazardous waste rules come into force this summer.

The Agency expressed concern that the temptation for illegal waste activity may rise as costs for the legitimate disposal of hazardous waste increase and capacity for hazardous waste disposal decreases. The warning was issued by the Environment Agency as it published a new report - Hazardous waste: a growing challenge - on 24 March 2004.

The warning comes only a few months before the onset of new rules that will drive a step change in how hazardous waste is managed. The first milestone, 16 July 2004, will see the banning of disposal of hazardous wastes with other types of waste in the same landfill cell as well as setting down treatment standards for hazardous wastes prior to disposal. The rules are designed to strengthen environmental protection at landfill sites and reduce the quantity of waste that is currently being landfilled.

Barbara Young, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency, said: "The Environment Agency will not tolerate illegal waste activities as new hazardous waste rules come into force. The Environment Agency is monitoring the situation. Increased enforcement, surveillance and intelligence will be employed if growing levels of illegal waste activities - including flytipping - are detected."

Hazwaste doubled

The amount of waste classified as hazardous has more than doubled in the last decade. In 2002, more than five million tonnes of hazardous waste was consigned for disposal across England & Wales by almost 100,000 businesses. The number of serious pollution incidents that involved flytipping of hazardous wastes across England & Wales almost doubled between 2001 and 2002, involving a range of materials including oil, asbestos and chemicals.

A crucial factor after 16 July is that under the Landfill Directive there will be an end to "co-disposal" of hazardous and non-hazardous waste in landfill. It will also require hazardous waste to be pre-treated to reduce quantity and hazard prior to landfill. In July 2005 this pre-treatment will need to meet the EC waste acceptance criteria.

The forthcoming Hazardous Waste Regulations (replacing the Special Waste Regulations 1996 (as amended)) will increase the types and quantities of waste classified as hazardous and introduce changes to the management and tracking of hazardous wastes. An implementation date was still awaited as LAWE went to press. Beyond the current situation, between 2002 and 2006 the End of Life Vehicle legislation, Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment legislation and Restriction of Hazardous Substances legislation will mean that even more waste must be recovered rather than disposed of to landfill.

The message for local authorities and the waste industry is "watch this space" - only the space is dwindling.



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