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Clinical waste incineration capacity row deepens

The war of words between the Environment Agency (EA) and contractor Healthcare Environmental Services (HES) has worsened after the company released a cache of emails and minutes of a meeting marked ‘official sensitive’.

Last week, HES launched legal action against 15 NHS trusts after the Government handed its contracts with them to Mitie following an outcry about the alleged stockpiling of hospital waste including some human body parts.

HES has argued throughout the dispute that there has been a shortage of suitable incinerator capacity, which both the EA and NHS have denied.

The minutes show representatives of the NHS, EA and HES were there, along with a staff member of law firm Hill Dickenson, whose presence is not explained.

They state that it was held at ‘official sensitive level’ on a secure phone line.

According to the minutes, NHS Improvement official Fiona Daly “acknowledged that there appeared to be national market capacity issue”, an apparent reference to incineration.

A separate email, which HES also suggested backed its position, from EA senior adviser Paul Fernee to HES managing director Garry Pettigrew, said: “I am aware of the unprecedented challenges we have with hazardous waste incinerators at this moment in time.”

An EA spokesperson said: “It is not true to say there is insufficient incinerator capacity – there is industry-wide agreement that there is enough capacity to deal with clinical waste, and our site inspections show the rest of the sector is performing well.

“However, Healthcare Environmental Services has significantly and repeatedly breached its environmental permits by storing excess waste at a number of its sites.

“We have taken a range of actions with the company but they have continued to operate unlawfully. As a result, in addition to our enforcement activity to clear the sites, we have launched a criminal investigation.”

The EA said a Defra estimate showed there is more than 30,000 tonnes of spare capacity in the system, and added that Fernee’s comment referred to maintenance work on specific incinerators in May 2018, when it was sent.

It said incinerator shutdowns for maintenance were mostly planned and companies should have contingency plans in place.

But in a statement on its website, HES said there is “a severe lack of high-temperature incineration capacity in the UK combined with more waste being sent for incineration by the NHS”.

It went on to say HES had more than 300 emails that showed it had repeatedly warned the EA, NHS and the Government about this since 2015, blaming the situation on ageing infrastructure and lack of investment.

Further into its statement, HES noted that the EA said it had initiated a criminal investigation into the company but HES said this “relates to an alleged failure to complete documentation. It does not relate to our handling of waste, which has been to the highest standards throughout.”

Meanwhile, HES said it has transferred 23 workers from its Normanton site to Mitie, under Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment (TUPE).

It said Mitie had challenged this “but, having taken expert legal advice, we are convinced there is a clear service provision change and that their employment should transfer automatically to Mitie”.

A Mitie spokeswoman said no TUPE was taking place but the company was looking at other ways to support HES employees.

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