Environment Agency seeks legislative change to reduce illegal dumping

Publicity surrounding abuse of the rules which allow some waste in England and Wales to be exempt from dumping in regulated landfill sites has focused the Government's attention on Environment Agency proposals to tighten the law.

“We’ve been pressing the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions [DETR] to revise the exemption legislation,” an Environment Agency (EA) told edie. “At the moment, there is only a minimum requirement when a company is applying for an exemption.”

Articles published in UK daily The Guardian and an edition of the television series Dispatches have focused, in part, on how companies apply for exemptions that will allow them to dispose of waste at sites where leisure facilities such as golf courses are being built or where roads are being constructed. In gaining an exemption, companies avoid paying the Landfill Tax (see related story).

The Guardian and Dispatches allege that cases of contaminated waste being granted exemptions have been uncovered, as well as many examples of sites being designated as leisure facilities or roads when, in fact, they are large dumps with no plans for leisure development.

The EA hopes that change is on the horizon. Present legislation does not require the EA to involve itself heavily in the inspection of exempt sites and the agency says that it doesn’t have the funds to monitor them carefully. Its proposals would change that.

“We want a tighter regime generally, and we were encouraged because the Minister has said that he will look very closely at the proposal to charge for exemptions,” says the EA spokesperson.

The EA’s proposed changes to waste management legislation include the following:

  • a more specific list of what types of waste are eligible for exemption
  • prior notification – “At the moment, companies notify us and immediately get on with it. We don’t have the time to assess the activity in advance.”
  • requirement for the EA to inspect exempt disposal activities
  • charge to waste disposers to cover EA inspection costs
  • requirement for planning permission to be granted for more exempt sites
  • requirement for companies to re-register their exemptions every 12 months

“The theory of exemptions is logical,” says the EA spokesperson, pointing out that a lot of construction waste is better re-used for other development projects than sent to landfill. However, the EA concedes that as long as there is a financial gain to be had from exemptions then there will be people seeking exemptions simply to save on the cost of waste disposal and management. The EA says that charging companies for exemptions would mean that all types of disposal would carry similar costs and companies would be more likely to choose the solution most appropriate to the type of waste they want to get rid of.

A DETR spokesperson confirmed to edie that a consultation document on changes to exemption rules is in the works and that it should be published in May. “We hope to include a proposal for exemption charges in the consultation,” says the spokesperson.

The press attention has also emphasised the low level of fines handed out to companies and individuals sentenced with waste offences. The EA agrees that magistrates often impose fines for environmental offences that are much too low (see related story). “Environmental offences come up less frequently than things like burglary and many courts don’t know what an appropriate fine is,” says the EA spokesperson. That said, 15 people have been jailed for waste offences over the past decade.

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