Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 319)



  300. So in three and a half weeks' time when we should be starting our recess. In the meantime your department and the Environment Agency have been giving advice and guidance to the industry.
  (Mr Meacher) We have.

  301. And that is in anticipation of what would be the acceptance criteria issued by the Commission later this month. The Committee has received evidence that the lack of certainty has led to some problems with the private sector waste disposal companies making investment decisions to set up the necessary plants, a little bit in the same way as other people did around the disposal of fridges. Do you accept that that has caused a problem and have you any plans as a department to give the technical guidance issue by the Environment Agency statutory status in order give greater certainty to the industry making investment decisions?
  (Mr Meacher) I do think there is a similarity, I agree with you, between the fridges case and the waste acceptance criteria but it is not quite the same. In the case of fridges it was, "Is this included or is it not?", one would have thought quite a simple, straightforward question, but we all know it took a fearful long time to answer it. In this case we are talking about a series of considerations of what should be included, what can go to hazardous landfill and what cannot. It is not just one single question but a number. I entirely agree that it is the delay in providing a clear answer to the question, whatever that answer is, which makes it very difficult for industry to have the confidence to make expensive investment in new facilities that may be required. If we are going to engage in this legislation—and let me make it clear that I think this legislation is desirable; I think we have to make major changes in the form of disposal if they are going to be environmentally sustainable—it should be done within prompt timescales giving industry proper time to make adjustments. The problem is not that the Environment Agency's technical advice may not be statutory. It would not help if we said that they had the statutory power. The question is the construction of that advice on the basis of authoritative information agreed by the Commission with all the 15 Member States in the EU. Once we have that then there is no problem about the Environment Agency giving advice which the waste management industry would accept. There has been a raft of technical guidance from the Environment Agency on engineering requirements, on site classification, on the conditioning plans which are necessary, and we have certainly been extremely active in meetings that we have organised in order to make the industry fully aware of the implications of what is coming but we have not been able finally to give the certain and unequivocal details of exactly what will be required in all cases.

  302. At this stage, keeping our fingers crossed, we will get a clear position emerging on the 24 July. Is your department working now, in anticipation of that clear decision, both with the Commission and with the Environment Agency to ensure that the waste disposal industry here in the UK can move very quickly once that clear guidance is there?
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely.

  303. So that eventually we can do something to catch up from being one of the worst countries within the EU in terms of the amount of landfill we use to become ahead of the game?
  (Mr Meacher) It is certainly true of course that we have already taken extensive action with industry to prepare them. We are certainly of course not waiting until the vote on 23 July and saying, "Now we can fire the starting gun". That is only the final form of authorisation. We have of course been discussing with the waste management industry that on the assumption that these are going to be the waste management criteria are they able to provide the hazardous landfill which is required to meet these regulations. Obviously, we have had extensive discussions about that and the waste management industry has assured us that there will be sufficient landfill capacity to dispose of hazardous waste at least until July 2004. The issue between July 2004 and July 2005 is a separate one. Maybe we will come to that, but they have assured us that there should be, will be, sufficient capacity. We have done research which we commissioned and which concluded that there were sufficient alternative disposal systems either in use or planned to cope with the large volume of organic waste streams diverted from landfill. I think in the evidence we refer to these: pyrolysis or gasification; there are merchant treatment plants offering free treatment, greater company use of spare capacity in aerobic or anaerobic systems; there is high temperature incineration, existing landfill leachate plant which can certainly treat a wider range of aqueous organic waste. I mention these simply to indicate that the department has been involved in detail in preparation of all of these alternatives and alerting the industry to the necessity to use these to the full.

  304. So are you confident at the moment that the UK will be able to comply with the timetable for implementation of these regulations?
  (Mr Meacher) That is the assurance which we have received from the waste management industry and I have no reason to doubt it.

Patrick Hall

  305. I have two issues to raise, Minister, first dealing with those hazardous wastes to be banned from landfill later this month and those that will not be banned. With regard to the first category, in the department's evidence to this Committee, paragraph 36, the department says, "There are sufficient alternative disposal systems in use or planned to cope with organic processed waste".
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  306. They go on to say that additional facilities might be required for oily waste, contaminated soils and organic chemical wastes. We have two weeks to go. What will be in your view the shortfall in available operational facilities?
  (Mr Meacher) You are quite right that the research did indicate that additional facilities might be required for precisely those waste streams which you have indicated. Of course we have discussed this with the industry. We have included details of the bans in both the consultation papers we have issued. The first was in October 2000, a year and a half ago, and the second was in August 2001, both of those, of course, were circulated widely. We have had frequent meetings with both the waste management industry and the waste producers. We have encouraged the waste industry to liaise directly with their customers, those people who are seeking disposal sites. We have spoken, also, at a series of seminars and workshops and conferences up and down the country. As I have said already, the Environment Agency has issued a raft of guidance on the implementation of the bans. I am not sure there is anything more that we can do but we believe we have alerted the industry, all sectors of the industry, to what is required and I believe that will be sufficient and that there will be the landfill sites available as needed.

  307. And other facilities, plant, etc?
  (Mr Meacher) If you are asking what estimate I make of the shortfall, what I am saying, really, in detail is that I do not believe there will be a shortfall. If we have information in the Department more recently or in more detail I have indicated then I will rapidly let the Committee know, and I will write back hopefully this week. My belief is that we have done all the steps necessary to ensure that landfill sites will be available for all waste streams.

  308. But it is for others to obtain planning consent and all sorts of other steps which are needed to invest in plant?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course.

  309. It is for those others that Government gives the guidance?
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  310. I was asking you if you had assessed if there would be a shortfall. These are hazardous wastes and if they have not got a home, or a home they should have, then it is clearly a matter of concern. Of course the point of my question was with regard to the first category.
  (Mr Meacher) My answer was that we have alerted industry in the light of this research to the possibility of a shortfall in order that they are able to rectify it before the time, in fact of 16 July, just a fortnight's time. We have done what we can to alert industry to the need for investment or to find alternative forms of disposal which will meet those particular waste streams.

  311. If they have not done that job sufficiently, what are the consequences?
  (Mr Meacher) If one draws up regulations, and gives people adequate time in order to meet those regulations, to tell them exactly what is required, and to ensure that the full requirements of implementation are fully known and they are not met, then in the normal way there would be a prosecution for failing to meet the regulations. Certainly I hope that is not going to be necessary.

  312. Is the Department aware, for example, that there have been a number of planing consents sought and granted to address these requirements?
  (Mr Meacher) I am sure there are. This is a matter for the Environment Agency, of course, although planning consents, in some circumstances, could be for the local authority as well. I am sure that in the light of, as I say, badgering industry about their requirements certainly they will have been making those applications, as they should. The approval of them is a matter for the relevant authorities not for me.

  313. Turning to the second category referred to in the Department's written evidence to this Committee, paragraph 33, it says "The capacity available for the landfilling of hazardous waste that is not banned from landfill post 16 July 2002 remains unclear, despite the Department's efforts to clarify the position." It goes on to say "The information is commercially sensitive and it is therefore unlikely that a clear picture will emerge until very close to the implementation date". That strikes me as a situation that makes it extremely difficult for people to plan in advance. It is rather unsatisfactory. If the existing facilities are not sufficient for that category that I am asking about now, what plans are in place to try and deal with that?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course I agree entirely, we are back to the issue that the Waste Acceptance Criteria should be known in sufficient time for industry to be able to plan to meet those criteria. As I have said already, from 16 July of this year—just a fortnight's time—hazardous waste can only go to hazardous waste landfill sites, although there is this one exception, which I think we have mentioned, of stable non reactive hazardous waste which can still go to separate cells in non hazardous sites. With that small exception, hazardous waste can only go to accepted hazardous waste landfill sites. Now the decision, of course, by landfill operators as to whether they are going to operate a hazardous site or a non hazardous site is a matter for them. I agree with you entirely that the lateness of the date in deciding a Waste Acceptance Criteria means that information is being left until the last moment. As I say, I repeat, when the waste management industry says to us that they believe that certainly there will be the landfill sites necessary for hazardous waste, at least until July 2004, I do accept that and I do not think there will be a problem but I understand the theoretical issue that you are raising and, again, I do not believe that should not have happened. If we had had the relevant information, the criteria at an earlier stage, there would not have been this problem.

  314. Hopefully it is only theoretical. We want to be assured, but we are not, given the nature of these materials, that it is not a practical problem and if it is we need some means of assessing the volume for example. Are you saying these matters really cannot be determined because it is in the hands of others and largely the commercial world?
  (Mr Meacher) It is. I repeat—I am really going over the same ground—the Waste Acceptance Criteria set down the criteria by which landfill sites will be classified. It is then for the landfill operators to decide for themselves, not for Government to tell them of course, whether they are going to operate a hazardous waste landfill or a non hazardous landfill. They will say, quite properly, that they cannot make a final decision on that until they have a final authoritative version of the Waste Acceptance Criteria and that is not until 23 July. I think it should have been a year ago, then this problem would not have happened. There is no way that I can, as it were, make a contingency plan. I suppose what we have done is make a contingency plan in one sense, namely that we have explored this issue in depth with the industry, alerted them to the issue and tried to ensure that it will properly be met. I think I am right in saying there are two and a half million tonnes of hazardous waste going into landfill and something like I think 0.6 million tonnes will be banned in future from landfill. That is with regard to the specific bans and alternative routes have to be found for the disposal of those particular wastes. I cannot add any further to it. I recognise the problem you draw attention to. It is a valid issue. The problem is that we have had the Waste Acceptance Criteria so very late.

  315. Is it down to the Environment Agency to monitor the situation and report on what is happening, whether it is all working okay or whether it is areas that have not been addressed, etc, etc?
  (Mr Meacher) Of course. I really do not want any Members of the Committee to think that this problem has dropped on us from above and that we are completely unprepared. We are as well conceivably prepared as we can be. I would insist that the UK has done more in the face of this intractable problem, which is not of our making, than any other Member State. Whether it is Government, whether it is the Environment Agency or indeed our own waste management industry, we have sought to tackle this problem as best we can. I really do not believe we could have done more.

  316. It remains to be seen what happens on the ground.
  (Mr Meacher) Absolutely.

  Patrick Hall: Are we prepared.

Paddy Tipping

  317. Let me take you through, Minister, what might happen on the ground because things are going to change on 16 July when private sector operators make decisions about whether landfill is hazardous or non hazardous.
  (Mr Meacher) Yes.

  318. You must have done some work with the Department. You have been talking to the private sector, you have told us, several times. The number of landfill sites for hazardous waste is clearly going to decline. What assessment have you made about the number of hazardous landfill sites which might exist, say by 2004?
  (Mr Meacher) That is a good question and obviously we are very interested in the answer to that question. There may well be a presumption that most operators will opt for non hazardous sites and there could, from July 2004, for that reason, be a shortfall. That is much more of a problem than what I think is going to happen in a fortnight's time in July 2002. But we do not know, I do not know until they come forward with their plans as to how they propose to run their site in future. We will be pressing for that information as soon as possible. There is no question of leaving those issues over as we get close to July 2004. We will want an answer much earlier.

  319. Some of the landfill operators have said to us by 2004, for example, there must just be a dozen hazardous landfill sites. What is the Department's view on that? Does that ring bells?
  (Mr Meacher) I think that is pure conjecture. We will know much more accurately in two weeks' time when the Environment Agency is able, under the Directive, to require the landfill operators to produce their site conditioning plans. On that basis we will have a much clearer idea of the situation in 2004. Before the end of this month we will be able to answer your question much more clearly.

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