Waste still the Cinderella

Twenty-two years ago, the first professional meeting on landfill gas took place in Britain. Two dozen case studies of gas migration incidents, some of which had caused death and injury, were presented at the seminar. A professional publication on the subject followed a year later. No operator or regulator should by then have remained ignorant of the hazards which the new generation of deeper, more contained landfills were posing to their surroundings.

The warnings were widely disregarded - and by the end of the 1980s the landfill industry was in the middle of its deepest ever crisis. Explosions, incidents of gas migration into homes and near misses came thick and fast. The authorities identified 600 landfills in need of gas controls. For a while it seemed that the very future of landfilling was at risk.

More than a decade on, the picture is very different. Landfill gas is now the UK's biggest alternative energy success story - even if it owes that position to failures with true renewables. Serious gas migration incidents are now rare. And, following a long-term research programme, a new generation of controls on emissions from landfill gas flares and engines is about to be introduced by the Environment Agency - and should over time diminish concern about the health effects of landfill emissions (see pp 24-28 ).

Despite the strides that have already been made, and however impressive the end product of still higher standards turns out to be, 22 years is a long time for a sector and its regulators to get to grips with one of its biggest environmental impacts. That the pace has been so sedate owes much to the Cinderella status which, as the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution observed in 1985, waste management then enjoyed in environmental policy - and continues to do amidst all the excitement about impending extra cash for waste recovery.

True, the Environment Agency has lately been showing signs of a more intelligent and innovative approach to waste regulations than it did in its early years, when chasing inspection targets appeared to be its prime motivation. It is standardising key data sets and centralising information flows in ways which will help it measure the effectiveness of its regulatory and enforcement activities. Its newly published database of OPRA scores for landfill sites (see pp 29-31 ) will also provide a new driver for improvements in standards, since none of the major waste companies with sites at the wrong end of the performance league will wish them to stay there.

Nonetheless, as the National Audit Office concluded in its review of the Agency's waste regulation performance (see pp 18-19 ), a considerable amount remains to be done to improve its effectiveness. Some of the shortcomings stem from the failure of its parent Department over several years to spell out more clearly what outcomes it wants the Agency to achieve and to make long-needed adjustments to legislation and guidance. Here, as in other areas, the environment is paying the price for shortages of policy and legal staff at the Environment Department.

The danger, as the Agency faces a blizzard of extra duties on the waste front in a cash-squeezed environment, is that important enforcement activity will be cut back to make room for new areas of work. The NAO's conclusion on this - that the inspection frequencies set for the Agency by the Environment Department have no "scientific basis", with "no evidence" that they are needed to deliver effective regulation - may strictly be correct but is unhelpful. Landfills in particular are not closely controlled operations like industrial processes, and the experience which informed the inspection targets was right in pointing to the need for a regular official presence to help stop things going astray - as the continuing crop of leachate management problems at sites run by some major operators serves to underline.

The NAO was right, though, to conclude that it is the quality of inspections that counts above all - and on this, as several site managers pointed out to the investigation team, the Agency continues to fall down. The rawness of many of its recruits is one problem. But another which was not probed by the NAO is the status of professionals in the organisation. As one officer recently complained, the judgements of experienced staff are regularly called into question by "ambitious teenagers" who are being appointed as team leaders. This is a long-running sore which the Agency needs to address if it does not wish to run the risk of further unfavourable verdicts about its effectiveness.

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