FoE survey reveals official confusion on gassing landfills

The lack of a clear statutory duty on local councils to respond positively to public requests for environmental information has been highlighted by the conflicting responses of waste regulation authorities (WRAs) to a Friends of the Earth (FoE) survey of gassing landfills.1 What data were supplied to FoE indicate that a previous survey by HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) substantially underestimated the number of gassing sites. The results also suggest that little action is being taken to identify gas hazards from closed landfills.

FoE's survey was undertaken in response to last year's HMIP report which concluded that there were 1,006 gassing landfills in England and Wales (ENDS Report 195, pp 11-12). The report did not identify these, and a FoE request for the information was rejected by HMIP on the grounds that its survey was not reliable and that, in any event, responsibility for gassing landfills rested with WRAs.

FoE then approached the 83 WRAs for the data. Only 36 were willing to identify gassing sites. Of the remaining 47, 31 did not reply, while the remaining 16 failed to provide the information.

The reasons given for non-disclosure varied. West Yorkshire Waste Management cited section 94 of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. This bars the disclosure of information "relating to any trade secret" which has been given to or obtained by an authority by virtue of the Act unless the person who has a right to disclose the information has given his consent. The 36 authorities which provided information clearly did not regard this as a constraint.

One Welsh council simply said that the information "cannot be divulged." Humberside County Council said that it was not its policy to disclose the information, while others refused on the grounds that they were not obliged to do so. And North Yorkshire County Council commented that it was "either under no obligation or is effectively debarred from disclosing information of a sensitive nature which could give rise to blight or public alarm."

The confusion on this issue may end when the 1990 EC Directive on public access to environmental information is implemented next year (ENDS Report 204, pp 27-8 ).

Some authorities found another reason for not providing information. This was that they had not provided any data to HMIP. North Yorkshire County Council betrayed a less than overwhelming curiosity on the issue by commenting that it was not "in receipt" of HMIP's report. More generally, several councils commented that their own lists of gassing landfills did not correlate with HMIP's list.

The information given to FoE reveals that there are at least 454 gassing landfills in the areas of the 36 WRAs concerned. The total is an underestimate because West Yorkshire and Somerset identified only those sites run by their authorities, knocking out 96 sites from HMIP's report, while Nottinghamshire said that there were "numerous" gassing sites which were not identified in its return.

The data collected by FoE suggest that HMIP's figures understated the extent of the potential landfill gas problem. Excluding Somerset and West Yorkshire, the number of gassing landfills identified by HMIP in the other 34 WRAs which also responded to FoE's survey was 290. However, the returns made to FoE gave a total of 425 - 47% higher. Extrapolated across England and Wales, this would give a total of 1,480 gassing sites.

It is highly probable that even this figure is an underestimate because many WRAs did not include closed landfills in their returns to FoE. Essex County Council said that there were 300 closed sites in its area, and Staffordshire 800, but both these and other WRAs said they knew little about the condition of such landfills because they were the responsibility of district councils.

These comments tend to suggest that little action has been taken to comply with the Department of the Environment's Waste Management Paper on landfill gas. The guidance says that owners of closed gassing landfills should report them to WRAs, and that district councils should also attempt to identify them and consult WRAs where technical advice on remedial measures is required.

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