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EA looks to highlight landowners' responsibilities over crime sites

The Environment Agency (EA) is considering greater communication with landowners when waste permits are being applied for to help cut the blight of abandoned sites.

The agency is also working closely with Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs (HMRC) – including receiving funds to help with some operations – because such illegal activities frequently involve tax evasion rather than environmental crime.

Aspects of how the EA is tackling waste crime were set out at the official launch this week of a report published in September by the RDF Export Industry Group, which disputed claims that export growth was driving up waste crime and leading to more abandoned sites (see box).

At the event, EA senior technical adviser Pandora Rene was asked about the current position whereby the owners of sites on which waste is stored or handled are ultimately responsible for the clean-up operation if the operator disappears or fails to remedy waste crime.

Rene said the EA was looking at contacting landowners before permits were granted so they were “informed exactly what the permit means to them and what their liability may be”.

But she cautioned that such an approach would not be straightforward because some sites are owned by large corporate businesses such as pension funds with chains of managing companies down the line.

The move is part of a general review of the permitting process, including possible financial provision to ensure sufficient funds for clean-up operations.

Rene said new measures may be needed, rather than relying on operator-managed systems and risk assessments.

“I believe part of the problems we have had with these sites has been massive stockpiles, and we have great difficulty regulating them against management systems which may have been based on incorrect or inappropriate risk assessment,” Rene said.

“This was only understood or looked at after we started to inspect those sites. So then we were in an enforcement position instead of a compliance position.”

She acknowledged that some changes might have to be retrospective but the EA was looking at how that could work.

In response to a call within the report for greater funding for the agency, Rene told the meeting that HMRC had contributed to EA costs where it supported certain investigations and prosecutions.

She said the EA and HMRC worked closely on cases where the crime involved fraud, such as avoiding landfill tax, and there was a memorandum of understanding between the two bodies.

Often, she added, the case was taken on by HMRC if the penalties or sentence were likely to be greater than through an EA prosecution.

RDF exports and crime

In its consultation on a standard for refuse-derived fuel (RDF), Defra reported that “a significant number of respondents” had called for regulatory controls around the storage of waste to be improved, with stricter measures to limit and investigate persistent stockpiling, the amounts of RDF stored and the duration of storage.

“Some respondents referred to RDF that had been stockpiled and abandoned by the operator under the guise of being produced for export. They felt that more should be done to address this problem, which is a criminal offence,” Defra said.

The report from the RDF Export Industry Group, which represents a number of key UK exporters and importers on the continent, said the existing legal framework did not provide for any practicable restrictive standard for exported RDF, and any standard that was applied would need to apply equally to residual waste treated domestically.

But the group welcomed Defra’s desire to work with industry.

The report, prepared by the Eunomia consultancy, argued that cases of abandoned waste were a matter of domestic non-compliance and enforcement and not associated with RDF exports.

A spokesman for Defra told MRW “We have met a range of stakeholders involved in the RDF market to seek views on a definition and a possible treatment standard for RDF. We are currently considering the views expressed and will provide further information on how we intend to take this forward in due course.”

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