An MP has challenged the resource minister in the House of Commons over the Environment Agency’s (EA) enforcement actions prior to a major carpet recycling facility fire.
The fire involving 3,000 tonnes of carpet at Swarland Brickworks, Thrunton, was judged to be finally put out in February 2014, six months after starting in September 2013.
Recycler Blackwater North East was using the site owned by Chris Blythe to recycle carpets.
Alan Beith MP for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Lib Dem), who already raised the issue in Parliament three months into the fire, claimed the EA failed to enforce permit conditions for the site.
On 21 June 2011, Blackwater was awarded a permit to operate as a household, commercial and industrial waste transfer station with treatment.
Beith said: “The first breaches of the permit were identified when the EA inspected the site in July 2011. It gave advice and guidance.
“There were subsequent breaches in September and December 2011 and March 2012.
“The first time there was an inspection that did not record any breaches was on 6 July 2012—but actually there was a breach. Material previously stored outside had been moved to storage bays, but those bays had been put up on part of the site that was outside the area covered by the permit—yet the agency accepted that.”
After site conditions deteriorated, Blythe complained to the EA in February 2013. The agency said the site would be inspected in the next few weeks.
Beith claims that Blythe was also told by the EA: “The landlord’s patience would be appreciated.”
Beith added that excess waste was being stored in March 2013. EA officials asked the operator for an action plan with a deadline of 3 April 2013 to deal with the issue. But on 17 April, they agreed a new deadline.
“Blackwater then advised the EA that it would be relocating, but it did not. An action plan was received on 23 May, more than seven weeks after the original deadline.”
Beith added: “Too often it seems that the EA has accepted at face value information given to it by Blackwater. Deadlines passed and seem simply to have been revised. Storage bays were in place, but they were not within the area covered by the permit. The business was going to move, but it did not.”
The EA has told Beith that it is pursuing enforcement action against Blackwater, but Beith questioned their actions in the run up to the fire breaking out.
He said: “The fact remains that the EA was, through its lack of enforcement, allowing the company to store combustible waste in ways which were bound to make a fire much more serious.”
Resource minister Dan Rogerson responded initally by discussing the EA’s actions after the outbreak of the fire.
As a result Beith repeated his question to Rogerson asking for comments on the the EA’s “extraordinarily long period of inaction between 2011 and 2013”.
Rogerson said: “The agency is under a duty to ensure that site operators are in a position to meet the obligations under their permits.
“I will ask the agency to consider whether its enforcement action could have been swifter.”
Beith said Blackwater should have received well over £600,000 for taking carpets for recycling, but no funds were set aside for dealing with the aftermath of potential disasters.
He suggested that there should be a bond system, so that money is available for emergency clean-ups, given the increasing number of waste fires around the country.
In response Rogerson said: “I have challenged the agency to come to me with proposals on this issue. I am pleased to say that it is exploring, with representatives of the waste management industry, how operators can ensure that they are in a position to fund their obligations, including any potential clear-up and reducing the risk of the abandonment of waste and waste fires.”
This echoed possibilities raised by Eunomia’s waste crime report ‘Tackling Britain’s Dirty Secret’, which proposed legislation to ensure companies have enough financial reserves to deal with potential disasters.
At the report launch, David Palmer-Jones, chairman of the Environmental Services Association told MRW: “We are looking at linking insurance with (environmental) permits.
“You have to set some barriers to entry into the industry.”
He said linking insurance to permits would lift the burden of the cost of waste crimes off local authorities back onto the company involved.