A council has made public commercially sensitive information about a proposed incinerator following an offiical order.
Hertfordshire County Council was told by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last month that it had to hand over an environmental report to anti-incineration campaigners despite a claim from its partner Veolia that it contained trade secrets.
The council said the Waste and Resources Assessment Tool for the Environment (WRATE) report submitted by Veolia as part of the procurement process showed the environmental benefits of the planned 380,000 tonnes EfW facility.
It said the report showed the New Barnfield incinerator would significantly reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants compared to the county’s current arrangements.
A spokesperson for Veolia added: “Overall the report demonstrates there is a reduction in CO2 emissions released to the atmosphere as a result of this proposal. This is excellent news for Hertfordshire.”
Industry experts told MRW after the ICO ruling that waste firms could have their interests damaged and be put off bidding for public sector contracts if anti-incineration campaigners succeeded in forcing councils to publish such data.
Campaigners form have said the council’s initial refusal to hand over the report could be used in any future legal challenge to the project.
The controversial EfW project ran into further trouble when it was ‘called in’ by communities secretary Eric Pickles. The council’s plan now faces a public enquiry.
Paul Zukowskyj of Hatfield Against Incineration said the WRATE report had become a legal point of contention: “Our initial assessment is the conclusions are very poorly supported, frankly there are holes in it you could drive a toxic ash tanker through.”
“We will be taking expert scientific advice about the report in due course and we are relishing the opportunity to cross-examine the authors at the planning inquiry, where we fully expect to utterly refute the weak and unsubstantiated conclusions HCC and Veolia have put forward.
“To claim that a plant that will emit millions of tonnes of CO2 is helping reduce climate change demonstrates just how little HCC and Veolia care about addressing climate change”, he added.
What is a WRATE assessment?
The WRATE assessment, a modelling tool developed by the Environment Agency, estimates and compares environmental impacts of waste management systems and includes detailed technical data related to specific facility proposals.
One senior industry insider with experience of WRATE said the reports contain commercially sensitive information that would reveal bidders’ technical solutions.
“For example they could reveal whether they proposed to reprocess incinerator bottom ash on-site, which affect the emissions in the WRATE analysis. If that’s revealed before contracts are awarded, it’s really detrimental to the private sector.”
The source warned there was a danger that information released could be used out of context as WRATE analyses usually accounted for only around 0.01% of the overall score in procurement evaluation.
They also said emissions data was in the public interest, but only when shown in comparison with other WRATE analyses for the same site.
The industry insider said others were also worried about how the information would be used.
Adam Read, waste management practice director at Ricardo-AEA, said FoI had become a political tool and stalling tactic that was becoming increasingly expensive for everyone.
While FoI is important in a democratic society, he said, the widening range of information being requested would cause problems: “You can’t always easily separate commercial confidential information from that the rest of the world would like to see.”
“If we’re going to constantly challenge everything - contracts awarded, facilities being decided on, sites being picked – the market’s going to get slower, and riskier, and all we’re going to do is turn industry away.”