UK environment minister Michael Meacher recently pledged to develop new legislation that will mean the issuing of dedicated project-specific remediation licences.These may cover any activity pertaining to contaminated soil, whether it is being left in place, remediated or carted off site.
This is the latest result of lobbying by the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), which has led a successful campaign for a practical means to regulate on-site remediation activities on brownfield sites over the last few years.The problems of obtaining a licence for on-site cleanup threatened to halt suppliers of such remediation solutions in their tracks, leaving no option but to dispose of contaminated soils to landfill sites.
Why does the Environment Agency (EA) insist on licensing remediation activities and where has the mixture of legislation now used in the UK come from? The key point is that the Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions (DETR) and EA view contaminated soils undergoing treatment as 'waste soils' Accordingly, any treatment process must be licensed to fit in with the provisions of the Waste Management Licensing Regulations (1994).
Four years ago, the only way of carrying out a waste treatment activity on site was to either apply for a full waste management licence or persuade the local EA or Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) officer that the remediation process was exempt.
The exemption route was fraught with difficulty, as none of the 43 specific exemptions in the Waste Management Licensing Regulations were specifically meant to apply to on-site remediation activities, and their applicability was open to interpretation.
By 1997, specialist remediation contractors were finding that they were being prevented from starting projects, as the regulators were no longer willing to give them the go-ahead using exemptions.The only way to get a project off the ground was to apply for a full waste management licence, the same that is needed to open a landfill site.
This route had the disadvantages of taking a minimum of six months to obtain and being very difficult to surrender.
The inability to remove the licence meant clients were concerned about issues of long-term blight, as the site would be listed as a landfill on public land use registers. It was fast becoming a farcical situation, where the government were on the one hand encouraging the development of brownfield sites using innovative on-site remedial processes and on the other preventing them from entering the marketplace.
EIC began to lobby the DETR, EA and government and won a significant victory with the introduction of a new type of 'mobile plant licence' which is, in effect, a process licence.Permission for remediation contractors to apply for these licences was finally granted in late summer 1998.The new mobile plant licences promised an easier route to getting remediation projects under way.
While there was an existing licensing system for certain types of mobile plant, for example the Royal Ordnance mobile incinerator, the legislation required extension to include on-site remediation techniques.
The existing licence was effectively for a piece of plant, whereas processes such as bioremediation would often use a variety of machines, or one piece of plant may be used on two or more concurrent projects.
The licence comprises a 'schedule of conditions'detailing requirements to prevent pollution and harm to human health, and appendices listing the treatment products, plant and equipment, some or all of which may be used on any project.When applying to employ the licence on a new site, the contractor must produce a 'working plan' to demonstrate how the operating procedures will ensure compliance with the schedule of conditions.
Other hurdles which have now been overcome with regard to the new licences have been clarification of 'financial provision' and 'technical competence' requirements.
Initially, the financial provision requirement was interpreted to mean that sufficient funds had to be available to the EA to remove all the contaminated materials which may be in treatment to landfill, at any time. On larger projects, where there may be upwards of 40,000t of material in treatment, such a requirement is clearly very onerous.
EA guidance now takes the view that provision must be sufficient to make the site safe, and appropriate public liability insurance has been accepted.
Issue of a mobile plant licence also requires that site activities are managed by technically competent persons.
This normally means that site managers hold a certificate of technical competence, issued by the Waste Management Industry Training and Advisory Board (Wamitab). Obtaining this certificate can take several months, and so the EA has provided for temporary 'deemed competence' based on its own test of the site manager.
The Wamitab certification scheme was not designed with operations such as on-site bioremediation in mind, but was initially for activities such as management of landfill operations. The EIC is lobbying for options within the Wamitab scheme more specifically targeted to managing activities under mobile plant licences.
EIC will be involved heavily in the development of the new project-specific remediation licences. It is an important time for the remediation industry to throw their full weight behind this work for a supportive regulatory framework.
Alistair Kean is vice chair of EIC's contaminated land working group.