A new landmark ruling under the Freedom of Information Act will now allow members of the public to directly request environmental information from waste companies.
Following a formal complaint by environmental charity, Friends of the Earth, the Information Commissioner has ruled that a private waste management company, when working under contract to a local authority, is required to make environmental information public because it is classed the same as a public authority under the Environmental Information Regulations (EIRs) 2004.
The Information Commissioners Office is the UKs independent public body set up to promote access to official information and to protect personal counsel. The EIRs give certain rights of admittance to environmental facts to the public including reports of administrative measures like policies and plans.
Friends of the Earth head of legal & rights centre Phil Michaels told MRW: Before this landmark ruling, companies that had environmental information in relation to their waste and recycling activities that they carried out under waste contracts with local authorities did not want to give this out to the public, on the basis that they had no legal obligation.
He added: The Information Commissioner has made a very important decision that private waste companies can be subject to environmental information legislation. In the past, waste companies have tried to wriggle out of releasing information to the public. Now it is clear that the public is legally entitled to know how their waste is treated by these companies. People all over the country can now get hold of information they may need to challenge controversial proposals, like plans to build new incinerators.
In March 2006, Lewes District Friends of the Earth wrote to South Downs Waste Services requesting facts about the environmental assessments of its proposal for an incinerator in Newhaven. South Downs Waste Services is part of the Veolia Environmental Services family. The company replied stating that the EIRs 2004 did not apply to it as it was not a public authority and it was not required to release the information.
Friends of the Earth lawyers wrote to the Information Commissioner complaining that Veolia had misunderstood the legislation and that it was, in fact, a public authority for the purposes of the Regulations. In his Decision Notice the Information Commissioner found that the company was a public authority because it was under the control of East Sussex County Council and Brighton and Hove City Council as a result of its contract with those councils.
The contract for the Newhaven incinerator is viewed as controversial by the Friends of the Earth. Its legal team is currently acting for a local group to bring a legal challenge for proposals to build the incinerator because the group believe that the incinerator will restrict future recycling and composting possibilities.
Michaels said: Now the public can obtain information about how waste companies are monitoring environmental effects of their work, environmental benefits of their waste programmes and assess whether a good job is being done.