The Environment Agency (EA)’s Fire Prevention Plan (FPP) guidance has remained deeply unpopular with the waste industry since version two was published in March last year.
An early indication of his was when Hadfield Wood Recyclers’ announced that it had temporarily shut the gates to inbound waste at two of its sites from July to November 2015 to avoid enforcement action. The company stopped accepting low-grade wood at its main recycling facility in Manchester and closed to all customers at its Middlesbrough site, run by sister company UK Wood Recycling (UKWR).
Hadfield and UKWR managing director Geoff Hadfield said the EA’s guidance was “totally unworkable” for larger operators, and he criticised maximum stack sizes of 16 tonnes for unprocessed wood and 33 tonnes for processed, as well as a six-month storage limit.
Waste site operators were allowed to develop their own ‘bespoke fire plan’, which had to be equivalent or superior to the EA’s guidance. After Hadfield reopened, having produced a plan based on information from its own independent fire tests, the EA began consulting on version three of its FPP guidance.
This revision was stricter, and included maximum pile heights of 5m for unprocessed wood and 3m for processed. Another unpopular measure, opposed by 75% of respondents to the consultation on FPP v3 was a maximum three to four-hour burn time.
The Wood Recyclers Association (WRA) and Tyre Recovery Association (TRA) both argued that even the less stringent FPP v1 was unworkable and could destroy existing compliant businesses, never mind v3.
Meanwhile, the Waste Industry Safety and Health forum (WISH) began its own fire tests last year to produce empirical evidence for future storage legislation and is due to publish its research in early 2017. WISH chair Chris Jones told MRW that initial findings had led to a focus on stock rotation and particle size rather than a prescriptive burn limit.
“I understand the EA has taken advice from Public Health England (PHE) to tell people to do it [extinguish fires] in under three hours,” he said. “My problem with that is you should aim to do it as quickly as you can. Having a time limit is not helpful and we won’t be doing that in our [report].”
But he did say that larger separation distances between stacks were likely to feature.
Many respondents to the EA’s consultation on FPP v3 questioned why the agency did not wait for WISH’s results to be in before constructing their guidance. The EA previously told MRW: “Once the WISH fire tests have been independently peer-reviewed, we will consider whether they provide new information which would merit a further revision of the FPP guidance.”
Some have gone further and questioned why the EA is taking responsibility for storage regulations at all, saying that fire brigades should be leading the project as they have more appropriate expertise. Addressing this issue at RWM, EA senior advisers James Finch and John McCarthy said the agency had to be responsible because waste fires produce smoke, which is a threat to public health.
This is the crux of the divisions in viewpoints: the EA and PHE are approaching the issue of waste fires from a public health point of view. The latter has recommended that the public should not be exposed to smoke for a prolonged period, and said the EA’s four-hour limit “represents a time period during which continued sheltering is likely to be both feasible and remain effective”.
But the four-hour figure did not come from the PHE. It came from the EA, which sees fire duration as a “key corporate scorecard measure” in its target to reduce the number of ‘serious and significant’ incidents it records. There were 262 waste fires in 2015, of which 15 ranked as such, and the EA is determined to lower these numbers.
But what the industry is saying, and what the EA does not appear to recognise, is the price to pay for this achievement could be operators going out of business. Addressing operators’ concerns about the burn limit, McCarthy said it was only an aim and “not an absolute deadline you will be held to account over”.
Finch added: “There is basically a three-tier approach to how the guidance can be implemented. The first is to be totally strict with all the measures. If you are able to do that, your FPP is likely to be approved quite easily.
“The next option is to suggest an alternative to any of the measures in the guidance, provided they still meet the [overall objectives]. You would need to show evidence of how that could work. The third is it may be acceptable in some circumstances to depart completely from the objectives, in particular the four-hour aim.
“We recognise that, for some sites in the middle of a city, there is a more significant risk than for sites in the middle of nowhere.”
But these pragmatic words do not seem to have pleased many in the industry. Speaking to MRW, TRA secretary general Peter Taylor said the agency’s “sweet talking” differed from how it was enforcing the guidance and his industry’s future in the UK was being threatened: “That is not how it is being imposed at grass roots level. [Tyre operators] are waiting for the EA to come round and close their businesses.”
WRA chair Andy Hill said wood recyclers remained similarly concerned, with several of his organisation’s members experiencing lengthy delays in receiving bespoke site permits due to FPP-related issues. Hill said the EA had yet to tell him exactly how many wood recyclers were waiting for approval.
“In some cases, major projects have been put on hold or abandoned, and some wood recyclers have said they are even considering giving up because the regulations are unworkable and they cannot operate a viable business.
“We are hoping our conversations with the EA will continue in a positive note, and that it will work with all the trade bodies and listen to our concerns about why the guidance in its current form doesn’t work. We need guidance that is flexible in real terms and takes into account different sites and their individualities.”
The EA consulted operators on the cost-benefits of its new regulations in September. Some in the industry have criticised the timing and the scope of this, with the guidance examining only the cost to businesses of upgrading from full compliance with v2 of the guidance to v3 rather than FPP regulations overall.
In its consultation document, the EA said: “We are required to carry out a cost-benefit analysis in relation to changes to our guidance made during this parliament, following the introduction of the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Act 2015. The original FPP guidance v2 and its predecessor, TGN7.01, were both introduced prior to the current parliament, which excludes them.”
As time of writing, results from this consultation have yet to be released, but MRW understands that the costs would be much greater if they took into account other recent guidance.
Taylor also described it as “extraordinary” that the analysis would come out after the guidance had been issued.
Elsewhere, large regional company Grundon Waste Management said further clarity from the EA was required about how strictly its guidance was set to be implemented.
Deputy chairman Neil Grundon said: “We are a British company with money to spend in investing in new projects, yet we’re not able to move forward until we have greater clarity from the EA around the entirety of implementing the FPP guidance.
“Developments which can deliver jobs, innovation and improved environmental management are on hold and that’s not good for anyone.”
The Government launched its ‘Cutting Red Tape’ scheme shortly after the 2015 general election. In July that year, the waste industry was chosen to shed light on “unnecessary regulation”.
It seems contrary, then, for the EA now to be allowed to press ahead with tighter regulations on waste businesses in the form of FPP guidance despite warnings from operators of its burdensome effects. The cost-benefit analysis, operators fear, could hide the true price paid by those in the sector struggling to meet the guidance.
What is unthinkable is that the EA rejects the bespoke permit applications it has received and forces operators out of the industry. While the agency has repeatedly tried to allay bosses’ fears, it needs to process the applications it has received to properly reassure people. When it does, businesses will be able to get on with their operations and future investment.
At the moment, with the EA having lost 10% of its staff in recent months, there are questions over its ability to successfully enforce a set of such complex and crucial regulations.
Different types of fire
There are two distinct types of waste fire: an ‘outside-in’ and an ‘inside-out’.
The outside-in is a surface burn. The surface ignites and creates an ash layer which tends to dampen it. The burning layer is relatively narrow, there are very small flames, not a lot of smoke, and slowly the pile burns in. The material burns at 500-600°C.
Where the ash forms, plastic tends to reform so it sits under a ‘cocoon’. If you spray any water on to the cocoon it just runs off. That explains why so much water has been used to ill effect.
But these are the easiest burns to deal with. You let it smoulder, it does not produce a lot of smoke and, if you get it in the early stages, you can put it out quite quickly because it’s a very shallow burning zone.
An inside-out fire is much more difficult. The fire ignites deep-seated in the waste and a super-heated layer builds, taking it up to 1,200°C centigrade. It punches through the surface in multiple places as a fully developed fire.
All the blazes that have caused problems for the fire service were deep-seated ones.
Chris Jones is the chairman of the Waste Industry Safety and Health forum (WISH)