The waste sector recorded an increase in pollution incidents last year after a decade of improvement, an Environment Agency (EA) report reveals.
The waste sector, including waste treatment and landfill permits, comprises about 80% of EA permits. The EA’s yearly report on sustainable business stated: “For these sectors, the number of pollution incidents per permit is lower than average for all sectors.”
But the study reported that while there is a continuation of the decade-long downward trend in incidences of serious pollution overall, the waste industry had recorded an increase in such incidents last year.
There were 620 serious environmental pollution incidents in 2011, 4% fewer than in 2010, according to the report.
Of these, 240 were from permitted sites. Those from waste contributed 101 of these incidents in 2011, compared to 75 in 2010 – a 35% increase.
The EA said: “Among contributing factors were an increase in the number of biowaste facilities in the waste industry which are new to regulation.”
The EA gives permits to about 14,000 sites across England and Wales, but most pollution incidents come from sites that do not have a permit.
Waste industry trade body Environmental Services Association’s (ESA) director of policy, Matthew Farrow, said: “ESA’s member companies aim to exceed the minimum requirements of the law and are committed to working closely with the Environment Agency and other regulators to continue to improve environmental performance. It is encouraging to see evidence of this progress in the report with the proportion of permitted waste sites getting an A rating for compliance at an all time high.
“Nonetheless, in a sector as complex as the waste sector challenges remain. We therefore welcome the Agency’s commitment to give more credit to responsible waste management firms who use accredited environmental management systems and third party verification which will allow Agency resources to be focused more on poor performers.”
EA chairman Lord Smith said: “Illegal waste operators continue to cause major environmental problems and potential health risks by dumping or exporting harmful materials. Although 759 illegal sites were stopped in 2011, over 1,000 new sites were identified.
“And the involvement of criminals in high value waste crime is now a nationwide and worldwide challenge for enforcement agencies.”
The EA has spent £4.9m on a waste crime task force and an EA report noted a rise in successful prosecutions against illegal waste activity - from 280 in 2010 to 335 in 2011.
The report highlighted one case in particular as a “strong warning message to other illegal operators. The boss of a huge illegal waste plant at Aldermaston near Reading was jailed for four years and ordered to pay £1m of profits for money laundering and waste offences.
Farrow said: “ESA members remain deeply concerned at the extent of illegal waste management activity. These environmental criminals stop waste being managed in a controlled way and deliberately put society at risk.
“The continued rise in the number of active illegal waste sites identified by the Agency is alarming. While I understand the Agency’s argument that its extra efforts to tackle illegal activity means previously unidentified illegal sites are now counted, 2012 must be the year when the number of these sites starts going down not up.”
Roger Harrabin, environment analyst at the BBC, tweeted: “1,195 illegal dumps - and they’re only the ones we know about. Chris Smith warns government not to deregulate waste.”
Despite growing compliance to environmental permits, Lord Smith also said that a minority of ‘bad neighbours’ businesses are causing friction within their local communities, and a lot of complaints. The report states that the most frequent complaints are about odour and noise – with odour as the top cause of complaint about permitted sites.
Anyone with information about suspected illegal waste operators should call the Environment Agency’s incident helpline on 0800 807060 or call Crimestoppers in confidence on 0800 555 111.