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

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 351 - 359)




  351. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen. This is an additional evidence session that we have laid on, on behalf of the Committee, looking into hazardous waste disposal, so that we could take further views, firstly, from the Environmental Services Association, and secondly from the British Cement Association. And I wonder if, initially, before you make some opening remarks, those from the Environmental Services Association would be kind enough, for the record, to introduce themselves and say where you are from and what you do?

  (Mr Hazell) Thank you very much indeed, Chairman. We very much welcome the opportunity to give evidence to this important inquiry. My name is Dirk Hazell. I am the Chief Executive of the Environmental Services Association, which is the UK's sectoral trade association for managers of waste and secondary resources. On my left, your right, is Ms Gill Weeks, the Regulatory Affairs Director of Cleanaway, one of the top five waste managers in the UK, and one of only two now managing high temperature incineration for hazardous waste. On my right, and your left, is Mrs Leslie Heasman, the Technical Development Director of M J Carter Associates, one of the leading consultancies providing technical advice to our industry, and both Ms Weeks and Mrs Heasman serve on a number of ESA's committees.

  352. Thank you very much indeed. I think you are going to give us a little set of remarks, for the first few minutes, is that right?
  (Mr Hazell) I am very happy to do that. I can certainly start with a general introduction.

  353. I think, if you could do, say, about five minutes of that, just to give us an overview of where you are coming from, and then we would like to ask you some questions, please?
  (Mr Hazell) As I have said, ESA is the sectoral trade association for the UK's managers of waste and secondary resources; and ours is an interesting industry, in a number of ways, but one, particularly, in that it is driven almost entirely by regulation and that is particularly the case for hazardous waste, and virtually all the primary drivers now come from the European Union. So, with respect to your Committee, the real reason, I think, that your Committee is meeting today, and the real reason that ESA is as active as it now is, is as a response to legal initiatives that have come from the European Union; and this is an area of law where not only is there Qualified Majority Voting in the Council of Ministers but now Co-Decision with the European Parliament. And, if you wish to pursue that, I think that is an area that DEFRA has totally failed to pursue. But, as far as hazardous waste is concerned, we are broadly dealing with a situation where, in the UK's geological conditions, which are particularly favourable to landfill, we are moving from a scenario where co-disposal of hazardous waste with non-hazardous waste provides an environmentally stable state, over time, within the landfill, towards a situation where the Landfill Directive, as well as achieving some diversion from landfill, is requiring hazardous waste only to go to hazardous waste landfills, and only in a condition where it has been pre-treated subject to the Waste Acceptance Criteria. And the Minister omitted to mention yesterday that the Waste Acceptance Criteria materially changed last week, but hazardous waste can only go, on the basis of the Waste Acceptance Criteria, to hazardous waste landfills. And that requires a response from our industry, which we have given in our written evidence, and we truly believe that the position of ESA is economically right for our country and the industry, we believe it is environmentally right, and we believe that it is ethically right. And I think there are two fundamental points in our evidence. The first, as I have already intimated, is that regulation is the key driver of our industry; you cannot possibly expect investment in hazardous waste infrastructure unless there is a regulatory framework that gives a reasonable prospect of waste going to that hazardous waste infrastructure, and that, at the moment, we do not have. If anything, the regulatory regime in this Country is tending to push waste treatment down, rather than up, the waste hierarchy; so the regulation is absolutely paramount. The second key point in our evidence is that, once the Landfill Directive applies to the hazardous waste, in the sense of requiring that waste stream to go to mono-landfills, taking only hazardous waste, for this industry to be asked to accept into those landfills waste which does not meet the Waste Acceptance Criteria is simply not an available option. And, with all due respect to the Minister, yesterday, the point he made, in response to our position on that, was really a debating point rather than a point of substance; and Mrs Heasman will be more than happy to elaborate. But we are very, very clear indeed that there is no environmental justification for taking to hazardous waste landfills hazardous waste that has not already been stabilised to a safe state. So those are the two overriding points, I think, in our evidence, Mr Chairman.

  354. Thank you very much; those are very interesting and, indeed, important points. I was going to ask you, if you had been sitting here yesterday, what would have been the questions you would have asked Michael Meacher, but, in a way, you have anticipated that by marking out, very clearly, two significant areas of reservation. One of the things that always concerns me is that when people from an industry say, "From our side of the fence, this is what it looks like," you will get an opposite reaction from people like DEFRA and, indeed, the Environment Agency, and I hope I do not do them a disservice by coupling them with DEFRA, on their side of the fence, which will give an opposite reaction, because that is the line that they are pursuing. One or two things you have mentioned; why do you think the Government are pursuing the line they are, why do you think that they think that they are right, and you have given a clear view that you think that they are wrong? Just help us to understand these two areas a little more?
  (Mr Hazell) I think, in very broad terms, the British Government has yet to form a view as to the kind of waste regime it wants to have in this country, and that is an acute difficulty for our industry. Our members want to invest a billion pounds a year in new infrastructure for the foreseeable future, but we simply do not know, as of today, whether the Government wants to continue with the cheapest possible solution it thinks it can get away with under European Law, or whether instead we are going to try to move to the best practicable environmental option that can be achieved in the context of the European Framework. We simply do not know. And Mr Meacher said, in answer to Mr Hunter, in a Parliamentary Question, on 25 March, "The Department has made no estimates of the amount of hazardous waste that will require treatment from 2005 to 2010." On the Environment Agency, we do not really know what is the quality of the information that they use, but we do know that the quality of the data that the Agency have is not as good as it might be. We are dealing with a situation that, probably, in the context of DEFRA, is chronically underresourced. I have been at ESA for three years, I am dealing now with the third generation of official; key positions are unfilled, there is absolutely no internal legal support for the DEFRA officials that we liaise with at all within DEFRA on key issues of interpretation. Again, Mrs Heasman can give you some very specific, immediate examples. And when we try to go to DEFRA and say, "Can we help you, can we together go to a leading QC, not some back-street lawyer, a leading QC, to get an answer on that?" the response is one really of suspicion and "What are their motives?" And it might be shocking to this Committee, given the strategic role of waste as the second environmental priority of this Government, but we have never had a substantive discussion with DEFRA on the strategy of waste management in this country. I recall no instance where DEFRA officials have ever, for example, discussed with us the Sixth Environmental Action Programme. On planning for our industry, planning for an industry that wants to invest a billion pounds a year for the foreseeable future in new infrastructure, officials refused to discuss the Planning Green Paper with us. Lord Rooker, the new Minister, he sent us a very nice letter; obviously, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, in there, it is more charming than its predecessor, but, again, a refusal to see us, pending the outcome of the PIU study. So, in very broad terms, I think it is probably an issue of the real priority that has been attached by the Government to waste management; that said, since the appointment of the current Secretary of State, we have given her the fullest possible support. I do not think one could have asked more of a Secretary of State in her first year of office than to launch a Cabinet Office review; the difficulty is going to come when the words have to become deeds.

  355. Let me just ask this question. I hear what you say, when you say "a billion pounds of investment," it sounds fantastic; but we had the pleasure of visiting, in fact, Ms Weeks's incinerator, and I was very pleasantly surprised by what I saw, it was the first time I had been to a modern incineration facility. But you could see that there is obviously a vested interest in utilising plant that has had a very heavy level of investment, it makes good business sense. So, if you were a Minister, you would say, "Well, they would say that anyway, wouldn't they?" In other words, let us go, and you are saying, "We mustn't push the waste," I think, to quote what you have just said, "down the waste hierarchy," your argument, it could be put, if you were the Minister, is saying that "They really do have a vested interest in making the largest possible return from the biggest, most sophisticated investment, because that's good for their shareholders." How do you counter that perhaps oversimplistic but possible line of argument?
  (Mr Hazell) I think, one of the great advantages this Country has at the moment is that, compared with comparable European countries, there is clearly a dearth of relevant infrastructure; the hazardous waste treatment infrastructure in France and Germany is a different order of magnitude from what we have in this country. There is nothing in our industry, if not a shortage of competition between the leading members of our industry to provide various solutions. I think what I can honestly say to you is that, overwhelmingly, the turnover in our sector is with a handful of companies that operate in a number of jurisdictions, and they have a choice of investing where they think they can earn a return, and there is no real shortage in other countries of investment opportunities; but, obviously, the British market is an important one. The key response to your question, and I think it is honestly reflected in everything ESA has been saying for years and years, is that we want the Government to say, clearly, what sort of waste management industry it wants us to have. And if the Government decides it wants a low-investment outcome then our members will respond to it, and they will provide the infrastructure; if the Government instead says, "We want to be the best in Europe," we will again try to deal with that. But we have had no real response from the Government on the types of outcomes they want to achieve from our industry; our members simply do not know where they are.

  356. I am going to bring in Mr Tipping in just a second, but I just want to conclude our opening exchanges by seeking a point of clarification. When you said, in your first substantive point, that you were concerned that the Government's policy was pushing waste down the waste hierarchy, was, if you like, the counterbalance to that position your observations about mono-landfill and your judgement that hazardous wastes, in all cases, needed a more sophisticated form of pre-treatment before they were ultimately disposed into the revised landfill arrangements? Were the two points linked? I just want to be clear I understand those two points.
  (Mr Hazell) They are, and they are not. The regulatory system at the moment is tending to cause the existing infrastructure for treatment of hazardous waste to close, or not to be used at anything like full capacity, rather than to encourage a stream of investment in new infrastructure. I am sure the Committee is already aware that there has been a 40 per cent diminution in the active high temperature incineration capacity since 1999; one of our leading companies, Onyx, about half their treatment works have closed, certainly within the last decade. Mr Meacher spoke yesterday about fluorescent lighting; there is a company in Manchester, they are not a member of ESA, Mercury Recycling, they are not exactly overwhelmed with business. So the regulatory system is not pushing, as it does in France and Germany, waste treatment into the infrastructure that is being provided. The point on treatment of the mono-landfills is really a different one, and it is looking at what can be justified, given the context of a Landfill Directive that requires designated hazardous waste landfills and pre-treatment according to the standards of Waste Acceptance Criteria; and, I emphasise, we still do not know what those are, and, to deliver a result in years to come, we actually need to know what they are today. And the difficulty with unstabilised hazardous waste going into hazardous-only landfills is essentially that it represents an environmental and an economic risk in perpetuity, and that is very difficult to handle. Mrs Heasman can tell you in great detail why we do not actually think the Environment Agency will be able to licence those sorts of sites anyway, but I would also make the point that our members are prudent businesses, they need to insure their risk, and following 11 September there is a noticeable increase in difficulty in getting access to capital for insurance, and the cost of capital has risen, and the Financial Services Authority is driving stricter rules for insurers properly to look at risks. So I would put it to the Committee that probably we could not even get insurance for those sorts of facilities anyway; no realistic prospect of the Environment Agency ever giving a release under the permit.

  357. You have just indicated something that could undermine the Government's approach. Mrs Heasman, would you care to just possibly say a few words, at Mr Hazell's invitation, because he says you can give us a little more detail, just so that we can again fully appreciate the new dimension that he has opened up about this matter?
  (Ms Heasman) Certainly. The key change that everybody is very alert to, I am sure, in this inquiry, is the move of hazardous waste from the co-disposal system, where we had the benefits of the chemical and biological reactions within domestic landfill sites, and the stabilisation of the waste and degradation of the waste that was achieved, and is achieved, to moving to put hazardous waste into sites which are only for hazardous waste, and therefore there are no ongoing, beneficial chemical reactions, biodegradation reactions, to reduce the potential environmental liabilities associated with those wastes. The only thing that is going to reduce them in the long term is a gradual, slow washing-out of those contaminants, and control of the leachate that is generated. The proposal in the Landfill Directive is to set Acceptance Criteria, so there are leaching limits, limits set for the leaching quality of those wastes, before they can be placed in those landfills. The view of the Environmental Services Association has always been that they should be treated to Final Storage Quality, so far as is possible; the Waste Acceptance Criteria that have been in the past discussed, and up until about a week ago, with the draft numbers that everybody thought were pretty likely to be the numbers that were going to come in, are moving towards Final Storage Quality, they are not Final Storage Quality but they are moving in that direction. The main concern is the suggestion by Government that the ban on co-disposal will come in in 2004, as specified in the Landfill Directive, but the Waste Acceptance Criteria may not come in until a date after 2004, possibly 2005, possibly 2006, we do not know what that date will be. The particular point that Mr Hazell was making is that in the period beyond 2004 there is no possibility that wastes that are not treated to Final Storage Quality, or those Acceptance Criteria, could possibly be accepted at sites which will only accept hazardous waste, because of the liabilities that will be presented, not only a decision on liabilities presented to the owners of those sites but also in terms of the liability to the groundwater. There is no way any groundwater risk assessment for those types of waste would be able to demonstrate, in accordance with the Groundwater Directive, that it was acceptable, in terms of environmental risk. So there is a very real issue that if the ban on co-disposal and the Waste Acceptance Criteria are not brought in on the same date then there will be hazardous waste with nowhere to go.

Mr Mitchell

  358. What sort of quantities are you talking about there?
  (Ms Heasman) The majority of the hazardous waste at the moment would not meet the Waste Acceptance Criteria without some form of further treatment.

Paddy Tipping

  359. You have talked to us about the billion pounds a year, and it is clear to me that the ESA, and its constituent companies, has got a vision of the way forward, which, to characterise it, perhaps I have got this wrong, is higher cost, higher technology, moving up the market. Now I think you were with us yesterday when we talked to Mr Meacher about a waste strategy; what struck me, and the Minister denied it, was the absence of a waste strategy within DEFRA. Would you like to comment on the Government's Hazardous Waste Strategy; what do you think it looks like?
  (Mr Hazell) We would like to agree with you; and I certainly do not wish to appear impertinent, Mr Chairman, but we are very happy to give standard ESA corporate gifts to any member of the Committee who can spot the strategy. We do not spot a Hazardous Waste Strategy, and we have no idea; it is an intense frustration to people like Gill Weeks, in companies like Cleanaway, who want to move ahead and plan investment for the years ahead for the leading companies. We have no idea what the Government is planning. And I will tell you, to give you a feel for the climate in which we operate; a few weeks ago, it was on 15 May, I was summoned, at relatively short notice, to a meeting with Mr Meacher and the Chemical Industry Association and the Environment Agency, and at that meeting, and it was used as a debating point, it was actually calculated to try to embarrass ESA, one of the two Agency people there said the Waste Acceptance Criteria were already in a draft form and had been made available to ESA, on the strength of which our members could start investing. But since that meeting, on 15 May, as Leslie and I have both intimated, the Waste Acceptance Criteria have materially changed, the draft criteria have materially changed. And you, as a Select Committee, would be entitled, in years to come, if waste management companies started going bankrupt, to question the wisdom of companies that invested in infrastructure in an industry driven by regulation where those regulatory standards were not stable and known. And that is the position we find ourselves in; we desperately need a structure. The Chemical Industries Association has asked for a forum; quite honestly, in the waste management sector, we have so many fora, we have to sit around in these little circles, improving people's learning curves and not really getting anywhere. What we actually need is a strategy, and it is for the Government to govern and to say what the strategy is and then for the Environment Agency, as the regulator, to regulate it in an even-handed and, actually, we want, strict way, we want strict regulation; and it is incredible that an industry that is actually saying, effectively, "tax us more, regulate us more," finds itself with the type of relationship that we have with the regulator and, to an extent, the Government.

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