Does the EA need to re-think enforcement strategy?

10 FEBRUARY 2017

The recent Hanbury Plastics Recycling fire near Stoke-on-Trent received national publicity due to the ferocity of the blaze and the impact on local residents. But what initially received less publicity was the fact that the site was operating illegally with no environmental permit. The Environment Agency stated “They have never held an environmental permit and we have issued legal notices to clear the waste plastics from the site. We instructed the company to remove the waste which went from a peak of around 10,000 tons, to about 1,500 tons at the time of the fire.” Google street view photos show that HPR occupied the yard in 2012 and an undated Google earth view (below) show the site yard full to capacity of what was presumably plastic bales.

So what was the EA doing to get the site permitted? Where you have site operators who ignore all notices and whose behaviour make it extremely difficult – and sometimes dangerous – for the EA to apply enforcement, then delays are understandable. But for the site to have operated illegally over 4 years and built up stocks to the 10,000 tonne level suggested in the EA statement, there must have been a number of parallel offences being committed by other parties. Surely this is where there must now be more coordinated action to prevent these sorts of illegal operations which apart from the huge environmental risk that they pose, also undermine legal operators. Where we see some permitted operators who do everything they can to survive in extremely difficult trading conditions, being penalised for minor issues such as not having correctly completed waste transfer notes or having a temporary excess of material on site, it is somewhat galling to see these long term abuses being tolerated. And with the highly controversial Fire Prevention Plans now adding significant cost, the problem is multiplied.

Section 33 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 makes it an offence for a person to knowingly permit waste to be deposited on any land without an environmental permit. Section 34 applies that responsibility to anyone producing or handling waste. You don’t get 10,000 tonnes of waste onto a site from small local skip companies and much of this must have come from large-scale sorting facilities and, dare one say it, Local Authorities. Anyone sending waste to this site should therefore now be under investigation. And where was this waste going? If it was being exported, then intelligence led port inspections should have prevented this? And if it was being sent to UK reprocessors, then they too would be guilty of incorrect transfer documentation. If there were some prosecutions of those supplying to or receiving waste from these illegal sites, then maybe waste producers would start to take their Duty of Care responsibilities a bit more seriously.

It is patently unfair on the legal waste sector that this scale of illegal sites continues to operate. The scrap metal sector in particular, despite all recent legislation to tighten controls on cash buying, are under intense commercial pressure from unlicensed site. The EA clearly have major resource issues and their budgetary constraints continue to get ever tighter. But if the secondary resource sector is to thrive in England, there needs to be far greater focus on closing down the illegal operators and less attention on those trying to do the right thing under extremely difficult conditions that are significantly exacerbated by these unlicensed sites.