Agency restructuring delays site clean-up

Environment Agency restructuring is delaying the deployment of mobile treatment plant to clean up polluted sites. But poor quality applications from operators are also to blame.

The Environmental Industries Commission has written to Agency chief executive Barbara Young to complain about the delays experienced by some land remediation firms with the licensing of mobile treatment plant.

The regime was developed as a less burdensome method of regulating land remediation than waste management licensing (ENDS Report 370, pp 41-42 ). An operator needs only a single licence for the remediation technology used. To deploy treatment plant to a site, the operator must submit a form demonstrating it will not have any adverse impacts. The Agency has one month to approve the deployment.

The EIC says that experience of the scheme since it started in April 2006 has been "generally positive", resulting in greater certainty in business planning for companies. But a number of companies are now experiencing "significant delays" in receiving Agency approval of deployment forms.

The Agency has failed to approve around one-third of the 170 deployment forms received in the past 18 months within the deadline. Some are just a few days late, but others have been delayed by three months or more.

Craig Sillars, managing director of remediation firm Churngold, said the delays are hitting the industry’s busy summer period.

The EIC says the problems are due to reorganisation in the Agency which has led to job losses among key staff.

Land remediation licensing has been handled by regional specialists. But the work is to be centralised in four national permitting centres which, by early next year, will handle all applications under the pollution prevention and control, waste management, effluent discharge and water abstraction regimes. The centres will be in Birmingham, Cardiff, Nottingham and Warrington.

The new structure is part of the Agency’s environmental permitting programme which will merge PPC and waste management licensing (ENDS Report 384, p 40 ).

Mobile treatment licences will be processed at the Agency’s Nottingham centre. Its manager John Sweeney said that the loss of two of the Agency’s four land remediation licensing specialists as a result of the reorganisation had cause some delays, but replacements were being recruited.

Mr Sweeney said that most of the longer delays are due to the poor quality of deployment form submissions, which contain "insufficient information" on potential impacts. Agency practice is to ‘stop the clock’ on determinations until the operator submits the right information - which can be difficult if this has to be obtained from third parties such as councils.

In some other cases, sites are in sensitive areas near housing or conservation areas. The Agency has to extend the period to consult third parties.

Clive Boyle, vice-chairman of the EIC’s contaminated land working group, said he was reassured by a meeting with the Agency in June to discuss the problems.

"The move to a central location is something we wanted from the outset. Once the Agency gets back up to strength and relationships are re-established we hope the process will become more efficient than before."

He acknowledged the shortcomings in some deployment form submissions and said that an improved working relationship with Agency permitting staff should help operators provide the right information.