The giant refuse mountain at the bottom of a quiet cul-de-sac in Orpington, Kent, made national news and has been covered by media ranging from the BBC to Russia Today.
Despite outrage from all sides, there is still no definitive plan of action to clear the eyesore that has been troubling the residents of Cornwall Drive for the past three years.
A trip to the notorious site is almost a surreal experience. Cornwall Drive sits off a busy A road, from which the giant mound is visible. Walking down the culde- sac, which is only a few hundred metres long, the noise from the main road begins to get lost among the trees that line it. But the Waste4Fuel mountain looms larger with every step.
For the residents, it has become an everyday part of life, although some are understandably bitter about how long the situation has been allowed to run. For some of them, perceived ‘buck passing’ between agencies while the situation remains unchanged has become the norm.
However, the wheels may be starting to turn a little faster after three local MPs went to environment secretary Liz Truss to voice their frustrations over the saga. Truss told James Brokenshire (Old Bexley & Sidcup), Bob Neill (Bromley & Chislehurst) and Jo Johnson (Orpington) that she would take up the matter with Environment Agency (EA) chief executive Paul Leinster and she would consider changes to the law to stop a repeat of the Waste- 4Fuel situation.
It is self-evident that lessons need to be learnt quickly from this debacle and, longer term, that any changes to the law which are needed are introduced quickly
Cllr Colin Smith
One option that the three MPs suggested was that any company looking to start a waste transfer station must pay a bond before they are issued with a permit to cover any costs should the site need to be cleared.
Sam Corp, head of regulation at the Environmental Services Association, would be in favour of such a move. He told MRW: “It is vital that any site that processes and stores waste has adequate financial cover to be able to make provision for the legal disposal of waste they receive. This is in case of business failure or for clean-up in the case of fire.”
It appears that resource minister Dan Rogerson would also support such an initiative. In March, he was questioned in the House of Commons about the EA’s actions on a fire at a carpet recycling facility. He replied that he had challenged the agency to submit proposals that would ensure operators “are in a position to fund their obligations”, including covering the costs of any clean-up.
Te minister has written to the industry to outline new proposals on how the EA will get tougher on waste crime. These included new measures to make the polluter pay and giving the EA new powers to intervene more at poorly performing sites.
A bond would certainly discourage rogue waste operations from operating, and give legitimate business that have failed a cushion to fall back on.
Corp added: “Unscrupulous operators are currently able to undercut legitimate operators by failing to invest in appropriate safety or environmental measures, or by charging below-market rates for waste which they cannot then profitably dispose. Stockpiled wastes over and above permitted levels, or indeed abandoned waste sites, can clearly have adverse implications for the environment and local residents.”
More robust legislation to stop waste companies causing similar situations to Waste4Fuel in the future would clearly be welcomed by Bromley Council, the local authority for the Cornwall Drive neighbourhood.
Cllr Colin Smith, deputy leader and executive councillor for environment, said: “We are absolutely delighted to learn that the three MPs have further escalated their earlier efforts to have this matter decided at the highest level of Government. That is precisely what we have been urging as a council for some time now.
“It is self-evident that lessons need to be learnt quickly from this debacle and, longer term, that any changes to the law which are needed are introduced quickly, thereby preventing waste operators inflicting this type of misery on others again.”
But what of the Waste4Fuel site today? A Defra spokesman told MRW: “We are keeping an eye on the situation, but the EA is talking the lead.” The department would not comment on any meeting or words that Truss may have had with the EA.
Smith welcomed the news that the EA was getting a prod from above to clear the site. He said: “We are particularly pleased to note that all three MPs are also pressing the EA to remove the legacy mountain of waste still left sitting on-site, given that local residents are still having to tolerate the outrage on their doorstep on a daily basis.”
As MRW went to press, the EA said it was still working to remove some of the waste and reprofiling the mound to allow for better fire-fighting methods: “In terms of the next course of action, we cannot yet be specific. We are still working with our partners to consider the next step.”
The EA has revoked Waste4Fuel’s environmental permit, which means the company can no longer carry out waste management activities at the site. It would still, however, be responsible for paying the bill to clear the blight.
Whether it could do so is another matter because the firm has been under a company voluntary arrangement, with insolvency practitioner Ian Franses Associates acting on its behalf since December 2013.
The Waste4Fuel website has been offline for several months and its telephone line disconnected. The company has also been blamed for leaving several hundred tonnes of bales of waste at Chatham docks.
Writing this article in the press room at the RWM with CIWM exhibition, the images and story of Waste4Fuel strike a strange juxtaposition with the industry displaying its better side on stands only a few feet away. Waste4Fuel’s shortterm future looks uncertain, but its legacy could be an industry game-changer if its story contributes to new laws.
Growth of a monster
- April 2013 - EA serves Waste4Fuel with notice to remove combustible waste from site
- May 2013 - Jo Johnson MP complains that the site is on fire for the third time in five weeks
- November 2013 - EA wins High Court order against Waste4Fuel to remove all combustible waste at the site
- February 2014 - London Fire Brigade prosecutes Waste4Fuel after 12 fires in one year. The company pleads guilty and admits exceeding its permit without notifying the fire service as required
- March 2014 - Waste4Fuel applies to High Court to bring in another 2,000 tonnes of waste to Cornwall Drive site
- April 2014 - Bromley Council seeks injunction against Waste4Fuel after waste spilled on to surrounding green belt land
- June 2014 - High Court dismisses EA’s contempt proceedings against Waste4Fuel for failing to remove combustible waste
- August 2014 - Waste4Fuel ‘abandons’ Cornwall Drive site and facility is fenced off by EA
- August 2014 - EA begins clearing some waste to give fire fighters better access
- September 2014 - Shelley Hurst, the last of Waste4Fuel’s directors, resigns, the legality of which the EA is investigating
- September 2014 - Three more fires reported at the site in three days