Tyre disposal crisis continues as another dump blazes

More than a million tyres burned at an illegal dump at Deepcar, Sheffield, in March after fruitless attempts by local waste regulators over the past 18 months to avert a disaster. The introduction of the "duty of care" on waste producers has done little to stem illegal tyre disposal, and Government inaction has left regulators struggling to cope with the problem.

The Deepcar dump, in a valley close to the river Don, caught fire on 13 March. The fire brigade was advised by the National Rivers Authority (NRA) to control the blaze but let it burn out to minimise the risk of pollution. The tyres burned for over a week, leaving a mass of contaminated ash.

The river appears not to have been damaged. Most of the fire-fighting water percolated through an old shale heap and had a negligible effect on the river.

The blaze was the latest in a string of fires at illegal tyre dumps (ENDS Report 204, pp 10-11 ), and the Deepcar tyre mountain was one of three in the South Yorkshire and Humberside area which were highlighted by ENDS over a year ago as disasters waiting to happen.

How the 1.25 million tyres appeared at Deepcar was a typical case of a now widely practised scam. Tyres began to accumulate in July 1991 after Northern Tyre Holdings announced plans for a shredding plant on the site.

Applying retrospectively for planning permission and a waste disposal licence, the company said it was obliged to accept the tyres under contracts which would ensure funding of the shredding plant. But although some shredding equipment was briefly installed, the plant did not materialise and tyres continued to be deposited until March 1992.

South Yorkshire Waste Regulation Authority (WRA) attempted to stop the dumping by serving two notices under section 16 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. The firm appealed against one of these, and then delayed legal proceedings through two adjournments - only to withdraw when the case eventually came to court.

Northern Tyre Holdings has now been wound up, but the WRA is mounting a legal action against two of its directors in the Crown Court. The charges relate to the unlicensed deposit of waste and failure to comply with the two notices.

A similar chain of events took place before two tyre fires in south Wales and Cornwall (ENDS Reports 202, pp 8-9, and 204, pp 10-11). As in those cases, the circumstances of the Deepcar blaze are suspicious because it appears to have been carefully started at the upwind side of the dump.

Meanwhile, South Yorkshire WRA and the NRA are looking anxiously at another tyre dump in an old limestone quarry near Doncaster. Containing some 4.5 million tyres, this overlies an aquifer which feeds a major public water supply. Following the Deepcar fire, the police placed a 24-hour guard on the site to prevent a copy-cat arson attempt.

WRAs blame the widespread fly-tipping and illegal dumping of tyres on cowboy operators who are undercutting reputable disposers. Hopes that the introduction of a "duty of care" on waste producers and disposers under section 34 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 last April would help WRAs crack down on unscrupulous operators have come to little.

A survey of tyre dealers in the Sheffield area by South Yorkshire WRA showed that while most firms were able to produce transfer notes required under the duty of care, there were almost always some omissions, indicating the possibility of some illegal disposal. To curb this, the WRA says it would need to devote as many resources to the duty of care as it does to waste licensing - implying an extra 4-5 staff.

WRAs' problems have been magnified by changes in the Government's policy on the duty of care. After suggesting when the 1990 Act was passing through Parliament that WRAs should mount preventive inspections of waste producers to monitor their compliance with the duty, the Government later advised them not to do this - and provided them with no extra resources to implement section 34.

An additional flaw in the legislation is that transfer notes do not have to be carried with waste consignments and can therefore be produced after the event. This allows operators to avoid the burden of completing the documentation and to comply only when challenged by the WRA.

Overall, the problem since the duty of care was introduced has been worse than ever, according to South Yorkshire WRA. This may be due in part to new legislation which increased the minimum permissible tread depth on tyres, causing more tyres to be discarded.

A 25MW tyre incineration plant in Wolverhampton, operated by Elm Energy and Recycling, is due to open in October. The plant will burn about 95,000 tonnes of tyres per year - roughly 20% of the UK's annual scrap arisings of 450,000 tonnes. The firm has also announced plans for a 6MW plant in East Kilbride. But Elm Energy already has large contracts with major tyre producers, and WRAs fear that its operations will have little impact on illegal disposal.

The Government appears to have washed its hands of the problem. A promise made in the 1990 White Paper on the environment to consider the introduction of a disposal levy on waste tyres has come to nothing. A voluntary "green fee" introduced by the National Tyre Distributors Association in 1991 (ENDS Report 197, p 14) seems to have foundered after a poor take-up by retailers and complaints from disposers that they were not receiving revenues raised from consumers. And a study of tyre dumping promised by the Department of the Environment also appears to have come to nothing.

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