Mr Atkins' announcement marked the latest chapter in an extraordinary saga dating back to 1988, when the Department of the Environment (DoE) confirmed that scrap metal processors were subject to waste disposal licensing under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.
The industry has been battling to reverse that ruling ever since, both by making a hitherto unsuccessful bid to have scrap metal treated as not being a controlled waste, and by seeking exemptions from licensing and associated controls, including the "duty of care".
The industry scored its first victory on licensing in April, when the DoE announced that scrap metal recycling would not be brought within the waste management licensing regime introduced under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 until October. The controls were applied to other waste activities on 1 May.
Shortly before the October deadline, however, Mr Atkins announced a further postponement to 1 January 1995. His latest announcement has now pushed the deadline forward to 1 April.
The decision followed responses to a DoE consultation paper issued in November which proposed that all but the largest scrap metal recovery and motor vehicle dismantling operations should be exempted from licensing and subject instead to a registration scheme. To qualify for an exemption, companies will not only have to meet the tonnage thresholds proposed, but also comply with several other conditions. In particular, scrap recovery and storage will have to be carried out on an "impermeable pavement" provided with a "sealed drainage system". The proposed deadline for companies to apply for registration is 30 September 1995 (ENDS Report 238, pp 28-29 ).
As reported last month, the "appointed day" of 1 January for introducing the new licensing system was certain to pose huge problems, and this was the reason given by Mr Atkins for the further delay.
The problem centres on the fact that the licences held under the 1974 Act by the minority of scrap processors who bothered to apply for them will be converted automatically to the new waste management licences on the "appointed day". Once this happens, the licence-holders will be subject to all the duties and restrictions attached to the new regime. They will not, for example, be able to surrender their licences without the consent of the waste regulation authority, and this would not be forthcoming if their sites were likely to pose a pollution risk. They would also have to be managed by a "technically competent" person, and pay relatively high fees.
Although Mr Atkins did not say so explicitly, the DoE's intention in postponing the "appointed day" to 1 April is to allow scrap processors potentially eligible for exemption from licensing an extra three months to surrender their licences. The Minister promised to issue the exemption regulations and associated guidance "as early as possible in the New Year" to allow them time to consider their position.
This should ease but will not eliminate all the problems in the transition from licensing to registration. The British Metals Federation is arguing that many scrap processors may not be able to meet all the qualifying conditions for an exemption by 1 October, particularly those requiring engineering works. It has therefore been pressing for this deadline to be moved forward to the end of 1996 before a failure to register becomes a criminal offence.
The DoE, however, would be taking a big risk if it bowed to this demand. The 1991 EC framework Directive on waste, which requires licensing or registration of all waste recovery activities, should have been complied with by April 1993. Further delays in bringing scrap metal processing under control could expose the UK to infringement proceedings by the European Commission - possibly culminating in an appearance before the European Court of Justice.