Landfill operator ordered to pay compensation after abandoning site

The High Court in Cardiff has ordered a landfill operator who abandoned his site last year to compensate the Environment Agency for emergency remedial works. The Agency has already spent around £100,000, and full site restoration would cost a further £250,000. The operator, believed to be in Spain and unlikely to have sufficient assets to cover the Agency's costs, is also facing criminal proceedings over pollution from the site.

Abernant landfill site, near Ammanford in Carmarthenshire, was licensed to take around 250,000 tonnes of commercial and industrial waste. The licence was issued in the early 1990s - before the requirement for operators to make financial provision against pollution liabilities came into effect. The waste regulation authority was Dinefwr Borough Council until the Agency took over in 1996.

"In our opinion the site was run quite poorly," said one Agency officer dealing with the case.

The operator, William Munslow, failed to comply with enforcement notices issued by the Agency. In May 1999, the Agency suspended the site licence, thereby preventing further tipping.

Among the matters of concern was that too much waste was being accepted at the site. Although Mr Munslow had constructed a new cell, the Agency found that this was dug too deep into the natural clay deposits - causing a breach of the containment it sought for the site.

A major blow for Mr Munslow was that his application for planning permission to continue tipping after the existing consent expired was refused because of the impact of vehicle movements on a nearby village. The original time-limited consent had been granted by the Welsh Office against the wishes of the borough council.

Things came to a head in June 2000 when Mr Munslow disappeared. Until then, he had been paying for leachate to be tankered away to the sewage works in Carmarthen.

The immediate consequences were spills from the leachate lagoon in July and August last year. The second incident killed 76 trout in the river Amman.

Then in October, the engineered clay bunding around the site slumped after leachate levels reached four metres - the same height as the bund. The slump threatened the stability of the whole site and, had the Agency not undertaken emergency repairs, could have resulted in the release of 7,000 cubic metres of leachate.

The Agency intends to charge Mr Munslow for pollution caused in these three incidents and for breaches of his waste licence - but it has yet to track him down. In September, magistrates delayed a hearing relating to these proceedings until December. The hearing cannot take place until the Agency has issued Mr Munslow with summonses.

At the High Court in Cardiff on 14 September, Mr Munslow was represented by counsel in connection with the Agency's civil proceedings against him. His solicitors advised the Agency that they had not been instructed to act for him in connection with the separate criminal proceedings, so they could not accept the summonses on his behalf.

At the hearing, the High Court issued a final injunction against Mr Munslow, following an interim injunction and freezing order issued last autumn. The injunction requires him to comply with several licence conditions within 14 days - including the draining and disposal of leachate, covering of exposed wastes, and works to reduce the gradient of working faces and flanks at the site.

He must also refrain from causing or knowingly permitting further pollution. If he fails to comply with the injunction, the Agency may initiate contempt of court proceedings.

The court also ordered Mr Munslow to pay compensation to the Agency for the cost of emergency works carried out to date. The exact sum is to be determined by the court at a later hearing, but the Agency is seeking around £100,000. Works to date include tankering leachate for disposal and the reconstruction of the site bund. The court also extended the freezing order on Mr Munslow's assets.

"The reality is we're unlikely to recover all of our costs," commented Andrew Graves, the Agency's solicitor. "There is a public interest over and above that, however, in ensuring that people cannot abandon these sites with impunity."

The Agency has obtained £50,000 from the Welsh Assembly to cover some of the emergency work, and is now seeking further support. Works to connect the leachate lagoon to the public sewer are set to begin shortly.

Once leachate levels have been drawn down it should be safe to bring heavy machinery on site. The Agency plans to re-engineer the new cell to accommodate the excess waste at the site. Engineered capping to reduce rainwater ingress, followed by restoration, would cost around £250,000.

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