The Environment Agency (EA) have now responded to a consultation exercise on the standard rules concerning landspreading and digestate storage, deposit for recovery (i.e. construction, restoration, etc.), and soil transfer involving treatment and recovery. The consultation ran from December 2014 to March 2015. The EA have made some concessions to operators; however, significant changes to the regulations are still going ahead. The main changes are in the areas of landspreading and deposit for recovery.
Changes to the landspreading permit regulations
Concerning landspreading, the EA initially proposed to reduce the maximum permitted storage period in temporary storage facilities from 12 months down to 6 months. The aim was to prevent too much material accumulating in storage, since serious pollution incidents can occur when storage fails catastrophically. The EA hoped that the changes would result in investment in improved permanent infrastructure. However, many objections were received from operators, some of whom pointed out that a shorter time limit might simply encourage spreading at inappropriate times of the year. The EA have now decided not to force through the reduction in the time limit. They state that a new project is anticipated to provide further information in this area, so they will put any changes on hold for now.
The EA originally proposed to ban the use of materials with a high content of available nitrogen, so-called RAN materials, in groundwater safeguard zones (SGZs) that are designated for nitrate. Some respondents complained that this was disproportionate, since such zones cover some fairly large areas. In the event, the EA has decided against a complete ban, but instead is going to impose controls on application rates and the times of the year in which spreading is permitted. There will be a ‘closed period’ in line with those for spreading nitrogen-rich organic manures in nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs). The exact timings depend on soil type and whether it is grassland or arable. It believes that such measures should prove sufficient to keep groundwater from nitrate contamination.
Despite some concerns, the EA is pressing ahead with a requirement for pre-notification of the intention to spread. The EA state that they realise that there are many factors that can cause spreading to be postponed, and that they will make allowances if spreading is not in fact carried out on the stated day.
Wastes consisting of predominately dust particles or loose fibre will now be permitted for landspreading, provided they are stored in a building. In general, different types of waste must be stored separately; only wastes with the same waste code can be mixed.
The EA is carrying out a ‘Business Engagement Assessment’ (BEA) to look in more detail at the costs the landspreading changes will impose on business. It is not clear if this will lead to further changes in the regulations.
Consolidation of standard rules on construction, restoration and reclamation
The EA is consolidating four existing standard rules, SR2010 no.7, no.8, no.9 and no.10, into a single set of rules, SR2015 no.39 (use of waste in a deposit for recovery operation). A limit of up to 60,000 cubic metres of low risk waste is now allowed for either the construction, improvement, restoration or reclamation of low-risk land. This is roughly in line with the previous limit of 100,000 tonnes. The use of soil is now restricted to the upper layers of a waste deposit. An operator must submit a topographical survey before work begins, and another on completion. Operators should recognise the importance of carrying out accurate surveys, and take professional advice if need be.
Waste concrete, bricks and tiles, together with mixtures of these materials, can still be used under the new rules. The EA had been considering banning their use under the standard rules. Metal must be removed from reinforced concrete prior to its use. Soil from sugar beet washing can still be used, but only on the topsoil layer. However, glass, gypsum, slag from the iron and steel industry, pulverised fuel ash, incinerator bottom ash, washed sewage grit and dredging spoil will no longer be allowed. Bituminous mixtures are now restricted to the construction of roads, paths and parking. The overall effect will be to significantly restrict the materials that can be used under a standard permit. Operators are expected to obtain bespoke permits if they want to use the types of waste that are no longer allowed.
In the consultation summary, one operator stated that various coal combustion residues had been used since the 1960s for land reclamation, and they knew of no evidence that they had ever caused harm. In their reply, the EA did not dispute this assertion, but merely stated that since the current standard rules do not require monitoring, they had no means of knowing if harm had occurred or not. They stated that all the waste types that had been removed have a theoretical potential to cause pollution.
Distance restrictions for sites concerned with construction, restoration, etc. remain largely unchanged. Thus a site must be at least 500m from an SSSI or Ramsar site and 250m from where great crested newts are present (provided the site is connected to their breeding waters by good habitat). There should be a distance of at least 50m from a nature reserve, ancient woodland, scheduled monument or an area covered by a Biodiversity Action Plan (in the latter case only if the EA considers the activity puts the plan at risk). Work cannot be carried out within a groundwater Source Protection Zone (SPZ) 1 or 2. One new regulation is that work is not permitted on top of any landfill, even one that has not been used for many years. It is now also stated that work should not occur in an Air Quality Management Area for particulate matter (PM10). Work should also be at least 10m from a watercourse. The latter regulation is new, and may cause some problems where ditches cross or edge a site. Some ditches and small streams may only contain water at certain times of the year, so there will be some circumstances that are not clear-cut. What may be a tiny dry gully in July could have a significant water flow in a wet winter.
Will changes in standard rules lead to more being sent to landfill?
Operators have 9 months from the publication of the new regulations in September 2015 to apply for a new standard permit, or a bespoke permit. The EA believes that since some operators using materials such as slag and ash already operate under bespoke permits, all the other operators wishing to use such materials should be able to do so. It is possible that the changes will lead to more material being send to landfill, since it may be cheaper to pay a landfill tax than to face the cost and delay of obtaining a bespoke permit. Developers using the affected materials under standard permits are advised to take professional advice as to their best course of action.
Environment Agency, Standard rules consultation no.14 (Deposit for recovery). https://consult.environment-agency.gov.uk/portal/ho/ep/src/rules/14?pointId=1418118094489#section-1418118094489
Environment Agency, Standard rules consultation no.14, Summary of Consultation responses and decisions, Sept. 2015. https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/473632/EPR_SRC14.pdf
Source Citation: Simpkins, G., ENDS, ‘EA accepts concerns over revised standard rules’, 4th November 2015.