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Hazard warning

ICE newsChanges in waste management legislation have set the clock ticking on a landfill dirty bomb, discovers Ruby Kitching.

Ten years ago a hazardous landfill operator could close down a site and walk away from it taking no responsibility for its aftercare.

Back then there were just five guidance documents dictating how the landfill industry operated.

There are now 50 documents imposing higher engineering standards for landfill construction with stringent rules on how waste should be disposed.

These are all part of the new regulations driven by the 1999 European Union (EU) Landfill Directive aimed at reducing the amount of waste going to landfill in the UK.

But as NCE's 'Optimising 21st century landfill' conference last week found, the inevitable upshot is that landfill construction, operation and closure costs will increase. And the risk is that while the waste industry must comply [with the regulations], according to Environment Agency landfill policy adviser Jan Gronow, 'they can just leave if it doesn't make enough them money'.

Many waste contractors have already left the industry since July this year, when co-disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous waste was banned and landfills had to be reclassified under a new permit scheme.

Prior to July, 240 landfills received hazardous waste. There are now just 12.

The shortage has forced the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) to allow some co-disposal sites to continue taking hazardous waste for another year, a fact that Gronov deplores.

But an even greater cost crisis facing the waste industry, Gronow believes, is the aftercare period of hazardous waste landfills. This includes monitoring leachate and gas emissions after a site has stopped receiving waste.

When hazardous waste is landfilled without mixing with other types of waste, research has revealed that it can take 1,000 years for contamination to fall to safe levels (News last week).

Gronow believes that unless this can be reduced to between 50 and 100 years by incorporating accelerated stabilisation it will be impossible for operators to ensure the long term safety of landfill sites, or to persuade banks to offer finance for landfill projects.

'There's no doubt that the content of the hazardous sites will outlive their containment, ' says Gronow.

The coming months will see the aftercare cost of closed landfills pushed into the limelight as the Agency has just begun a consultation into how to meet these costs over just a 60 year period.

It puts the aftercare costs of landfills currently in use at £2bn, rising to £7bn by 2020, even though there will be fewer sites still active.

But with only 20% of landfills having financial provision in place to meet these costs, the clock is ticking for the hazardous waste bomb.

The problem is compounded by delays in implementing and publicising the impact of new legislation, creating widespread uncertainty among operators about how their industry will be affected.

'We have a good handle on short term costs of landfill, but are still learning about the medium term costs of managing a closed landfill and have very little experience of hazardous-only sites, ' says Stuart HaywardHigham, group engineering manager for landfill operator Sita.

Contractors are holding back from renewing their waste licences pending the implementation of new waste acceptance criteria (WAC) next year, Gronow says. As a result the deadline for issuing 2005 operating permits will almost certainly be missed due to late and incomplete applications.

Gronow is sympathetic to the waste contractors' plight, but admits: 'We don't know what the future looks like and the waste operators are the only people we can pick on.'

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