EU landfill decision adds to UK's hazardous waste headache

Agreement has finally been reached at EU level on the "waste acceptance criteria" which set out the rules as to what types of waste can accepted at hazardous, non-hazardous and inert waste landfill sites. However, the UK hazardous waste sector remains in a state of confusion because the Government has yet to announce whether it intends to take advantage of the flexibility allowed under the new criteria to set landfill standards on a site-specific basis.

The waste acceptance criteria had been under negotiation for some years. Last July, a technical committee of Member State representatives finally gave up trying to reach agreement - and left the matter for the Council of Ministers to deal with (ENDS Report 331, pp 27-30 ).

Agreement was reached on 19 December at a meeting of the Agriculture Council, and the text has now been published.1 It represents a defeat for the UK, in that it leaves Member States the option of setting acceptance criteria on a site-specific basis. The criteria take effect from July 2005.

The UK's negotiating position was that it favoured a single set of criteria - to be expressed in terms of leaching limits - rather than allowing authorities to set limits on the basis of site-specific risk assessments. The reasons for this stance were two-fold.

First, conducting risk assessments at each landfill site would be burdensome for both the Environment Agency and landfill operators. The point was confirmed to ENDS in January by the Agency's landfill Directive project manager, Dave Baxter: "If we had to do it on a site-specific basis it would create a huge amount of work that we're not resourced to do."

Second, if each landfill has its own acceptance criteria it will be very difficult for waste businesses to plan investments in much-needed new capacity to treat hazardous waste. Such planning would have to wait till site-specific risk assessments were finished and new landfill permits issued, and this could take several years. In the meantime, the Directive requires that the British method of disposing of hazardous waste - _co-disposal - must stop by July 2004.

The final text sets out leaching limits which are almost identical to those proposed last summer (ENDS Report 331, p 30 ). However, it also allows for less stringent limits to be set - up to three times the level set out in the tables - as long as a site-specific risk assessment shows that this "will present no additional risk to the environment."

Further restrictions on the use of the site-specific provisions have been introduced. For example, the leaching limit for dissolved organic carbon cannot be increased - and neither can the limit for total organic carbon at hazardous waste sites. By and large, however, the framework leaves considerable flexibility for Member States to apply less stringent criteria.

The situation leaves the Environment Department (DEFRA) with a difficult decision. The Confederation of British Industry and the chemicals sector have been pressing for the UK to take full advantage of any flexibility available under the EU rules. DEFRA's fear of being accused of "gold-plating" of EU legislation means that it is acutely sensitive to such lobbying.

The waste management industry and the Agency are continuing to press for the adoption of nationally fixed criteria. They point out that site-specific risk assessment is simply an option that Member States may now employ, not a rigid requirement.

DEFRA intends to discuss the way forward with stakeholders over the coming weeks. The matter is likely to be on the agenda of the first meeting of its new Hazardous Waste Forum. But the Department is not planning to consult formally on implementing the criteria until the summer.

The Agency is hoping that a strategy involving only limited application of site-specific risk assessments might emerge. Examples where it may be applied are sites taking incineration residues, where chloride will be a major leachate component. The chemical industry is likely to press for some of its in-house landfills to benefit from more flexible rules.

The picture will come as little comfort to landfill operators with sites in the first tranche to fall under the new pollution prevention and control regime (ENDS Report 335, p 19 ). They must submit their applications by June - which is likely to be in advance of DEFRA clarifying its position.

In the meantime, the industry will have to make do with an interim guidance document issued by the Agency last year (ENDS Report 332, p 38 ). This set out plans to allow co-disposal sites to continue accepting hazardous waste for 12 months after the ban on co-disposal, before the new waste acceptance criteria take effect in July 2005.

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