The introduction of the landfill tax in 1996 led to an increase in concern about the abuse of exemptions provided under the 1994 waste management licensing regulations. Exemptions for the purposes of improving the agricultural or amenity value of land raised particular concern, with reports that farmers were showing a peculiar interest in road building and drainage improvements, and that scores of bogus golf courses were cropping up across Britain (ENDS Report 276, pp 20-23 ).
There have also been numerous incidents where the spreading of untreated organic wastes on farms has led to serious pollution. This issue has attracted political attention in the Scottish Parliament over the past couple of years.
In 1998, the Environment Agency commissioned a report which examined the problems and recommended a way forward. Proposals included a new system for authorising operators, and a requirement for them to pre-notify regulators of their operations (ENDS Report 281, pp 27-29 ).
Four years on, however, Whitehall has yet to unveil its proposals on closing the loopholes at exempt sites. The latest word is that it hopes to consult in late February. The process may have got tangled up in politically sensitive issues relating to agricultural waste, but another factor is the work on proposed exemptions for certain types of hazardous waste recovery and land remediation.
In December, the Scottish Executive issued a consultation paper on tightening up the controls at exempt sites - raising the prospect of controls appearing north of the border before they do in England.
To cover the cost of inspections, operators will also have to pay fees to SEPA, which will be set on a cost recovery basis. And where relevant they will have to provide evidence, based on "properly qualified advice", that land spreading of waste will lead to benefit to agriculture or ecological improvement.
Operators will also be required to keep monthly records of the quantity, nature, origin and destination of wastes. Importantly, failure to comply with the terms of the exemption could lead to its withdrawal.
The Executive says it is also considering proposals under which SEPA could collect annual renewal fees, where appropriate.
The certificate should be set against a number of criteria, including those relating to excessive nutrient applications. The total addition of nutrients including nitrogen and phosphorus should not exceed the need of the planned crop, and the total nitrogen input must not exceed 250kg per hectare.
Another criterion is that spreading of waste soil must not be done solely in order to raise the level of the land, but must facilitate use of the land for agriculture.
The certificate will have to be based on "properly qualified advice". The Executive does not specify what this means in its draft regulations, but explains that it is likely to require someone with technical or professional qualifications and expertise in agricultural management and the science behind the cultivation of crops.
The draft regulations also restrict the range of wastes that may be spread on land. Removed from the existing list are septic tank sludge, sludge from biological treatment plants and waste gypsum.
New categories of waste that will be allowed include treated blood and gut contents. From 30 April, untreated material of this kind will be barred from land spreading under the new EU Regulation on animal by-products (ENDS Report 334, p 52 ).
The consultation paper signals that compost treated in accordance with the EU Regulation will also be permitted. Other materials that will be allowed are wastes from stables, zoos and livestock markets, including bedding, slurry and dirty water.
Among the changes proposed here are to tighten up the definition of construction and demolition wastes that can be used. The list now excludes materials such as scrap metal, bonded asbestos and plastic.
Similarly, the term "sludge" is now replaced with a list of acceptable sludges. The proposal would continue to allow the use of "de-inked paper sludge and de-inked paper pulp", which the Executive says can be used for restoring land such as former colliery sites.
Also included are the spreading of wastes from soil and groundwater _remediation.
The draft regulations now specify a maximum depth of two metres, but the maximum quantity that may be spread remains at 20,000m3. They also require that storage must be "secure" and last no more than three months.
Another change is intended to allow for the restoration of historic unlicensed landfill sites without having to obtain a site licence. The definition of "relevant" construction work has also been revised to allow some genuine recovery activities that are currently disallowed by the exemption.
Plans are also afoot to extend the categories of mobile plant eligible for a waste management licence beyond the current definition of plant to treat waste soil.
Finally, a range of new exemptions for the recovery of hazardous wastes - including contaminated soils - is still under consideration at UK level. These require consent from the European Commission.