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Environment Matters

Licence limit

Unless positive action is taken by government, UK bioremediation technology will fall further behind Europe and the rest of the world. Adrian Wilkes explores the legislative barriers.

There is a growing worldwide market for technologies to remediate contaminated land. Yet the majority of insitu and exsitu remediation technologies in commercial use in the UK today have been pioneered in other countries. Insitu bioremediation to address contaminated soil was first commercially implemented in the US in 1981. Significant developments in soil washing technologies were pioneered in the Netherlands and air sparging, to address volatile organic impact in groundwater, was developed initially in Germany. UK plc is losing out.

EIC's Contaminated Land Working Group has therefore been reviewing the barriers to the successful implementation of new technologies developed in the UK. The group believes that there are significant legislative barriers and has recently produced a campaigning report on the issue to encourage government to help our nascent industry become a real force in world markets.

One of the major business concerns is waste management licensing. Present government policy requires landowners, their consultant or contractor to convince the local authority that what they are doing is Best Available Technology. This forces all parties to fall back on tried and tested options, and does not encourage new innovative solutions. The present lead-in times to convince all parties of the viability of new ideas are excessive, circuitous and very expensive.

Any company at present wishing to field trial a new technology has to gain consent for a licence followed by planning consent for the actual site. Both of these take an average of about six months. The UK has not adopted the 'prototype licensing' opport- unities for new technologies in use elsewhere in Europe.

A person seeking to develop a new technology for the treatment of waste or water must of necessity be able to run full-scale trials. Though there is not the same statutory obligation to apply BATNEEC, the agencies will in practice require it in determining licence conditions. Those developing relevant technologies must have positive assurance that the constraints on them allow for experiments that may not work, and for full-scale trials that are likely to lead to unwanted discharges. For those providing financial backing, it is simply not good enough to be expected to rely on the exercise of discretion not to prosecute for breaches of inappropriately stringent conditions.

As the legislation stands at present it tends to have the perverse effect of forcing development to other more accommodating countries (the US in particular, allows waivers from the strict enforcement of environmental controls over those involved in relevant research and development). If the development is forced abroad, ownership of the results is likely to stay there, to the benefit of that other country, and to the disadvantage of the UK.

We therefore recommend that the Environmental Agency and SEPA formulate and give wide publicity to a policy of active encouragement to the develop- ment of waste management and water treatment technologies that includes the granting of licence conditions with sufficient latitude to allow for non-negligent failures in the conduct of experiments and of full-scale trials.

Many of the new remediation technologies being developed are more benign than those they aim to replace, and where these are concerned with waste treatment, they are eminently appropriate to be exempted from waste management licensing. Self-evidently it would considerably facilitate adoption by the market of such new waste treatment technologies if those using them are only required to register an exempt activity, rather than to apply for a waste management licence, with the costs and delay that entails.

It is widely acknowledged that many of the exemptions listed in the Waste Management Regulations (1994) are difficult to understand. While the procedure for registering exemptions is simple, these uncertainties mean that the mere registration of the activity does not remove the risk of prosecution for operating a licensable activity without an applicable licence.

Specifically, those seeking to commercialise new technology must not only be able to assure themselves that they are not at risk of any prosecution, but must be able to give full confidence in the respect to their customers. It is therefore most important to have a procedure within the Environ- ment Agency that provides a rapid decision, eg within one to two weeks - provided of course sufficient information is made available - on whether the Agency accepts that a proposed activity will indeed fall within the scope of any particular exemption and is not contrary to the Schedule 4 objectives. It is the experience of EIC members that decisions of this sort in fact take months.

A further major barrier is, of course, the DETR's recent decision to postpone the statutory guidance on contaminated land with the earliest potential implementation date being spring 1999.

Further delays to implemen- tation of the new contaminated land regime are indefensible. The failure of government over this long period to address effectively what is widely acknowledged to be a serious problem will continue to have serious adverse effects on the relevant environmental service and technology sector and our customers. The consequent inability in practice to develop more efficient remediation makes it harder to redevelop brownfield sites cost effectively and increases pressure on greenbelt land.

Then there is the whole question of funding support. Financial support, available from government, often has narrow eligibility criteria and applications can take months to process. This can result in poor take-up of the available budget, such as the LINK programme set up to promote bioremediation processes. Arms' length funding does not always work since traditional lenders such as middlemen will always apply their own criteria (eg DTI loan Guarantee Scheme).

Government funding at present is either for research or to promote development in economically depressed areas. There is little funding for the commercialisation of an innovative technology that has proven successful in laboratory or bench scale trials. As a result, technology businesses fail before they achieve commercial reward for their investment or are forced to sell equity often to secure working capital to execute their first commercial contracts.

In 1997 a study was undertaken, known as CONSEPT, in association with a number of principal contributors including DETR, English Partnerships, Welsh Development Agency, The Soil & Groundwater Technology Association and various industrial organisations. The study investigated the feasibility of a system of networking sites for use in research into remediation.

CONSEPT aimed to comple- ment existing public and private sector collaborative programmes in contaminated land remediation and management. The chosen sites represent a good range of contamination problems in the UK allowing them to be used as a resource for the development, demonstration and validation of remediation techniques and making sites well instrumented and available for long term studies of site assessment, risk assessment and monitoring techniques.

The project is a good example of the value of partnership between the public and private sectors. We recommend that the government encourage the private sector to come forward with proposals to stimulate the development of UK remediation technologies using similar collaborative funding arrangements.

EIC Contaminated Land Working Group believes that implementation of these prop- osals would provide a more level playing field for UK companies to compete in the rapidly expanding global market for environmental services and technologies. Many of the barriers can be eliminated, or at the very least reduced by an enlightened approach by government. UK plc is waiting.

Adrian Wilkes is director of Environmental Industries Commission.

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