Resource minister Dan Rogerson’s letter to the industry which outlined proposals for tackling waste crime has been generally well received, but many people agree that there is a bigger picture to be considered before the problem is solved.
Although the letter may read well, the waste industry is cautious about applauding it fully. While all agree that, of course, the problem of waste crime must be solved and sooner rather than later, there are unanswered questions that need addressing before further progress can be achieved.
First, how will the Environment Agency (EA) ensure that all businesses operate to the same standards?
Greater scrutiny of company standards by the EA at the time of permit application is clearly vitally important. Often the industry’s reputation is damaged by those who do not commit to industry processes and regulations, meaning the EA has to work hard to stop operations, which is both costly and time consuming.
In many instances, more investigation into the financial standing and reputation of a company should be undertaken as part of the application process and prior to issuing any permit.
In addition, further training for EA officers is required so that there is an in-depth commercial understanding of business and day-to-day operations, to ensure that knowledge can be applied when enforcing penalties or similar.
Currently, there is potentially limited understanding among EA enforcers as to the operational challenges that result following incidents such as a breakdown, inclement weather or issues out of the hands of the operator, such as the onward disposal destination being closed, which can result in the operation being non-compliant.
There is also concern among many businesses that ‘tough enforcement’ will take place against those that endeavour to operate compliantly but were unable to do so on an isolated occasion. If EA officers are rewarded for taking swift and direct action, legitimate companies, doing their upmost to be compliant, may become easy targets rather than the more challenging, repeat offenders.
In his letter, Rogerson also discusses increased EA interventions at sites that are not performing to an adequate level, with the objective that none remains so for more than 18 months.
Here, more detail is required about the measures that would take place to combat waste crime, and how it would be policed or audited to ensure it is businesses that are regularly non-compliant that are penalised rather than one that happens to have unfortunate non-compliance on the occasions that the EA visited.
Guidance should be developed to include information regarding the levels of non-compliance taking place, and how practices are scored with regards to the severity of the non-compliance to enable a fair gauge and consideration of any enforcement action.
To suspend or revoke a company’s environmental permit without transparency around such matters could have a negative effect on the industry. It could leave the destiny of any organisation, but more so the SME, in the hands of an EA officer. An in-depth picture should to be formed and carefully considered, with non-compliance being flagged before ultimate action, such as closure, is taken. People’s jobs are on the line – it is not just the corporate or SME owner who is penalised.
Most would agree that clean-up costs placed on non-compliant operators are acceptable and fair if calculated correctly. But there lies yet another challenge as to who is able to carry out the task of calculating costs fairly – an independent body?
So while Rogerson’s letter is a good start on tackling waste crime, greater clarity on specific regulations and compliance is needed, as well as greater industry understanding from the EA to ensure that companies are not punished unfairly.
This would help to progress the waste industry and ensure that all companies operate to a specific, and high, standard. The industry needs to be advised and supported rather than being scrutinised and punished.
There is still groundwork and clarification needed on these points before such proposals will work effectively and without being detrimental to SMEs in particular.
Jacqueline O’Donovan is managing director of O’Donovan Waste Disposal