Dispute over novel soil clean-up process reaches Commons

A campaign against a plant in Kent which will turn contaminated soil into glass reached Parliament in June, when the Conservative MP for Faversham, Roger Moate, deposited a petition calling on the House of Commons to intervene in the dispute. The case has drawn attention to a loophole in the rules on environmental assessment of major projects.

The plant at the centre of the dispute is to be built by VERT Ltd, which has taken over the Detox process for vitrifying contaminated soil developed by Dunston Ceramics (ENDS Report 180, p 6). The process is based on a revolutionary design of glass furnace and is to be operated at a former glassworks in Queenborough, Kent (ENDS Report 184, pp 6-7).

VERT recently obtained an authorisation for the process from HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP). The company will have to employ a number of advanced emission abatement methods to comply, including high-temperature ceramic filters to control particulates and selective non-catalytic reduction to abate nitrogen oxides.

But the scheme has not gone down well with residents or the local authority, Swale Borough Council. VERT is in dispute with the council about the need for planning per-mission for the project. It insists that permission is not needed because no change of use is entailed, since both the past and proposed uses of the Queenborough site involve glass making. The council, on the other hand, argues that the new process is a waste disposal plant.

VERT has also declined to prepare an environ-mental assessment of the plant. It cannot be forced to do so by the council because the UK's regulations on environmental assessment of major projects tie the need for an assessment to the development control process.

Although the potential for releases from the process was evaluated in VERT's application for authorisation to HMIP, wider issues such as the impacts of transporting large volumes of contaminated soil and vitrified material to and from the plant by road and river, as well as the implications of the project for Queensborough's development prospects, have not been assessed.

Swale Borough Council's main concern, a spokesman commented, "is that this is a very new and experimental process which hasn't been operated commercially. It may well be a very good or desirable thing to do for the environment, but it is not the sort of thing to do in the middle of a town." The council had been hoping to attract businesses to the area around the old glassworks, he added, but sees little chance of doing so if VERT's project proceeds.

The petition deposited in the Commons on 12 June was signed by more than 800 Queenborough residents. It charges VERT with "flagrant disregard" of public health and safety, and goes on to raise two wider issues.

One is the loophole in the environmental assessment rules which allows major developments to proceed without an assessment. The second is the connection between planning and integrated pollution control. The petition claims that HMIP "prejudiced" the planning process by giving VERT an authorisation, and calls on the Commons to examine the procedures linking the two systems.

Meanwhile, VERT has just used a formal procedure available in planning law to apply for a "determination" of whether its process would amount to a change in the use of land and hence require planning permission. But because Swale Borough Council claims that the new use is for waste disposal, which is a county and not a district matter, the determination will be made by Kent County Council. A decision is expected in mid-July. Swale Borough Council appears not to have ruled out taking the dispute to the courts if the county decides in VERT's favour.

Whatever the outcome of the case, it has highlighted problems at the interface of the planning and pollution control systems which may well recur and will need to be addressed by the Government.

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