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Industry concern at open data ruling

Waste firms could have their interests damaged and be driven from public sector contracts if regulators succeed in forcing a council to release sensitive EfW technical data, industry insiders have warned.

The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) told Hertfordshire County Council it must hand over environmental data to anti-incineration campaigners under freedom of information (FoI) rules.

While some councils have released redacted versions of Waste and Resources Assessment Tool for the Environment (WRATE) reports previously, this is the first instance of the ICO getting involved in a disclosure of a such a report.

The WRATE report had been submitted to the council by Veolia as part of its proposal for a new EfW facility near Hatfield.

Although the council refused to release the report, which it argued was the intellectual property of Veolia and a trade secret, the ICO overturned the decision and gave the council 35 days to hand over the data.

A spokesperson for Veolia Environmental Services’ said: “We can confirm that we are in receipt of a copy of the decision notice issued by the Information Commissioner’s Office and are presently reviewing it.”

Cabinet member for waste at Hertfordshire Council, Derrick Ashley, said: “The information in the WRATE report backs up what we’ve always said – that Veolia’s proposed facility will reduce the county’s carbon emissions and other pollution caused by landfill. If we have to publish it then so be it.

“We haven’t released the report in the past because the calculations include commercially sensitive technical information, and we think it’s important to respect that. It’s worth remembering that it’s by having waste companies compete against each other that we get the best value for taxpayers.”

Paul Zukowskyj of Hatfield Against Incineration, said the information could have been used to object to planning permission for the facility and could still thwart the project. “If we have to take them to court for a Judicial Review, their failure to release this information may be viewed by the court as a failure of the planning process and it may help derail the project for good.”

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.”

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