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Disposal costs set to soar

Adrian Needham examines the potential effects of the Landfill Directive on contaminated land remediation.

Key changes to landfill practice will be implemented from now until 2009. Some of these changes will have major implications for contaminated land remediation.

In August, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) issued a second consultation paper on the implementation of the Landfill Directive.

The draft Landfill (England and Wales) Regulations 2001, prepared under the powers of the Pollution Prevention and Control Act, were included in the paper. The government intends to introduce the finalised regulations quickly, as the legislation should have been in place last July.

In its response the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC) was particularly concerned with the effects of the proposed regulations and associated guidance on the remediation and redevelopment of contaminated sites.

The cost of landfilling is expected to increase substantially for several reasons. First, landfill disposal charges will rise to cover increased costs faced by the operators in meeting the new regulations. On-site landfills, often used in the remediation of larger sites, will also have to comply with these regulations. Many landfills are expected to close because they cannot or do not wish to meet the new standards, so haulage distances will increase and disposal prices may rise as the available space reduces.

Then there is the new requirement that most wastes, including contaminated soils, will have to be treated before disposal to reduce the volume or hazardous nature of the waste. The Environment Agency is preparing guidance on pretreatment methods but any additional processes before disposal are likely to add costs, although these may be balanced by a reduction in the volume or hazardous nature of the waste by the pre-treatment process.

Contaminated soils often contain a complex and varied mixture of organic and inorganic substances, and suitable methods of pretreatment will need to be given specific consideration by the Environment Agency in the coming guidance.

Landfills will be categorised into three classes:

hazardous, non-hazardous and inert. Co-disposal of hazardous and other wastes will not be permitted after 2004, and hazardous wastes will have to be deposited in dedicated sites.

It is predicted that there will be very few hazardous waste landfills in the UK and their gate charges will increase sharply. Haulage distances and costs will probably rise. It will be especially important to minimise the volume of contaminated soil classed as hazardous waste for disposal and to ensure that the classification is correct.

The cost implications of wrongly categorising material for disposal as hazardous instead of nonhazardous waste are expected to become increasingly severe because of rising disposal charges as the Landfill Directive requirements are implemented. At many sites pretreatment of contaminated soil to downgrade a classification from hazardous to non-hazardous is likely to be important to reduce disposal costs.

Most contaminated soils should be classed as nonhazardous waste, with only the worst material falling into the hazardous category. This category is similar to but not the same as the present 'Special Waste' category.

The EU Hazardous Waste List contained in the EU List of Wastes (as set out in Commission Decision 2001/118/EEC) will be effective from January 2002 and identifies contaminated soils as potentially being hazardous waste.

They will only fall into this class if they contain 'dangerous substances' (defined in Directive 67/548/EEC) in concentrations such that the soil has certain hazardous properties (as defined in Annex III to Directive 91/689/EEC or Article 2 of the Commission Decision above).

This is obviously a complicated classification procedure that needs simplification for practical day-to-day use by the issue of guidance from the Environment Agency. Unfortunately, it is understood that none is actively in preparation.

The increase in the cost of landfilling contaminated soils will have the welcome effect of encouraging the use of treatment or containment options.

However, it will also inevitably lead to a rise in the cost of remediation. There are many remediation projects where landfilling of soils will remain necessary (particularly in the light of the continuing barriers placed on alternative methods by the regulatory regime).

Where these alternative methods are not suitable, the overall cost of remediation will increase and will inevitably curtail contaminated land remediation and redevelopment, possibly jeopardising the government's targets, including the aim to build 60% of housing on brownfield land.

This higher expenditure will be mitigated by the welcome relief on corporation tax introduced in the last Finance Act for contaminated land remediation costs, but it will be a delayed benefit.

Immediate cash outflow to pay for remediation may still act as a deterrent to the development of contaminated sites. EIC has called for further fiscal measures to address this.

Insitu treatment should not be directly affected by the Landfill Directive regime but one concern is that the replacement of treated soil after ex-situ treatment may be considered in some cases as waste disposal that will require a landfill permit.

The EIC has worked hard with the Environment Agency over recent years to overcome the barriers to on-site options for site remediation, in particular the inappropriate licensing regime (Ground Engineering, March 2001). There is a danger that the progress achieved will be undone if new regulations mean that an on-site treatment process may create a landfill. The EIC is urging DEFRA to ensure that implementation of the Landfill Directive does not also put barriers in the way of alternative treatment options.

Adrian Needham is a member of the Environmental Industries Commission contaminated land working group and technical director at EDGE Consultants UK.

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