Agency’s landfill inquiry drags on for three years

The Environment Agency has failed to draw a line under its investigation into events three years ago involving a spate of odour complaints by local residents after contaminated soil was tipped at two landfill sites. Although it says several firms committed offences, none face prosecution.

The incidents concerned soil from the Castlegate former landfill site in Caerphilly, South Wales. The site was being developed for housing by Walters Group, Wales’ largest privately owned civil engineering business.

The soil was contaminated with chlorinated phenols, which have a strong ‘TCP’ odour even in small quantities. Caerphilly residents had complained to the local authority about the smell.

In 2004 some of the waste was sent to Biffa’s Trecatti landfill near Merthyr Tydfil. Biffa initially accepted it, but soon refused to after experiencing the odour problem during transportation to its site.

In September the same year, the waste was sent to Grundon Waste Management’s Bishops Cleeve landfill where the odour became evident after the material was tipped. Grundon’s staff covered the waste with uncontaminated soil, as required by its permit, but this did not immediately dampen the smell.

The Agency received complaints from about 20 local residents, some of whom were suffering headaches, dizziness and sore throats (ENDS Report 357, p 17 ).

Walters sent the waste to Hills Waste and Mineral’s site in Purton six days later (ENDS Report 359, p 22 ). The site received 17 loads - over 300 tonnes - between 8am and 12:30pm.

Hills’ staff covered the material with uncontaminated soil and odorisers, but again that did not stop residents in nearby Bentham contacting the Agency to report health problems.

The company tried to contact Walters to stop the loads arriving at the site, but according to the Agency "this proved difficult".

Since the incidents ENDS has repeatedly asked the Agency about the investigation’s status and had been told it was "ongoing".

In May this year, Dave Thursfield, director of Walters Group, told ENDS the matter had "fizzled out" and the Agency "had taken no action". As a result, ENDS made a request to the Agency under the Freedom of Information Act for all documents, including warning letters, related to the incident.

The Agency supplied several documents related to Hills which were largely correspondence with members of the public. But it said in an accompanying letter it would not be possible to release anything else because "there is a strong possibility that Hills and Grundon may legally challenge the action we took". The letter did not mention Walters.

After ENDS asked the Agency to reconsider its response, the Agency supplied warning letters issued to Hills and Walters. In a statement it admitted that its reasons for refusing to supply information on the Hills site "were not in fact sufficiently strong to justify the withholding of that information".

Initially, the Agency told Walters in October 2004 that the company had discharged its duty of care responsibilities. But in its warning letter to Walters, sent almost two years later in August 2006, the Agency said: "After further consideration we believe that Walters UK has committed an offence in that the company failed to meet its duty of care responsibilities as a producer of waste."

Walters "failed to provide an adequate written description of the waste" to the landfills, it says. "In particular, special problems (for example, the potential for emissions) should have been identified and problems previously encountered with the waste (for example, local resident complaints) highlighted."

But the Agency says no criminal proceedings will be taken against the company because Walters had "gone a long way" to meeting its duty of care requirements. A fax sent to Hills from the company included "analysis of the waste and… detailed the fact that the waste was odorous".

There would be "little benefit taking legal action where the level of compliance is high, even if there has not been full compliance," the Agency said.

In its warning letter to Hills, dated 2 August 2006, the Agency said the company breached three conditions of its pollution prevention and control permit: failing to take "all appropriate measures" to prevent odour, failing to notify the Agency "without delay" of the problem, and failing to notify the Agency of the rejection of incoming waste.

In a further statement, the Agency said Hills should not have continued accepting the waste once the problem was revealed and had insufficient cover material at the tipping face to deal with the problem. It also did not have the equipment necessary to move enough cover material to manage the odour.

All permit breaches are offences under section 32 of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations, but again the Agency has decided not to prosecute.

"In coming to our enforcement decision we have taken into account the fact that Walters… failed to supply you with an adequate description of the waste," its warning letter to Hills said.

Hills disputes all allegations made in the letter. In a statement, it said: "We don’t understand why the Agency issued us with a warning letter and we strongly dispute its contents. Our own internal control procedures immediately identified difficulties with this particular waste stream when it arrived on-site, which had not been brought to our attention at the pre-acceptance stage. As a result, steps were taken by the company to prevent further deliveries to site. The Environment Agency appears to have identified failings of others for the incident."

Enforcement action has also been taken against Grundon - but the Agency will not state its nature and says it is reviewing the action. Hills will decide whether to challenge its warning letter after Grundon’s case has been resolved.

Walters declined to comment on its warning letter.

Related Environmental Services

Powered by ENDS Directory

Compliance Search

Discover all ENDS content in one place, including legislation summaries to keep up to date with compliance deadlines

Compliance Deadlines

Plan ahead with our Calendar feature highlighting upcoming compliance deadlines

News from ENDS Europe

News from ENDS Waste & Bioenergy