National Pro Bono Week – Waste Not, Want Not?

By David Purchon

Lots of the issues raised with the Environmental Law Foundation (ELF) arise from attempts to manage, i.e. dispose of, the waste we all create in our homes. Many difficult environmental issues arise from what are often now referred to as Energy to Waste plants but previously were known as Incinerators.

When the open fire was the common mode of domestic space heating in the UK, it provided a crude but convenient way for householders to reduce the volume of their waste. The open fire, a domestic incinerator, converted waste to fire grate “bottom ash” and air pollution, largely unburned carbon in the form of smoke, made UK city buildings black and chronic bronchitis and early death from heart and lung disease very common. The residual ash from domestic fires was usually collected by the local Council from household dustbins and tipped onto the land.

The modern refuse fuelled Waste to Energy plants attempt to get waste volume reduction without the urban air pollution, capturing the energy from the carbon efficiently, using it either in the form of heat or power generation or both. This seems like a win/win outcome but of course there are always down sides:-

Transporting what today are very large volumes of relatively light, largely packaging waste, to the plants creates traffic; affecting road safety, noise and air pollution. The operation of the plant, if not the traffic infrastructure, is 24/7 and people living nearby are aware of disturbance to sleep, less enjoyment of gardens and sometimes object to the mere sight of what is a large industrial complex adjacent to their homes. Residents often worry about the health effects of these large plants on their children and themselves however good the flue gas treatment and capture may be. Such plants are large factory like structures emitting pollutants, noise, steam/water vapour, dusts and odours.

Of course the planning system should ensure that such plants are situated in the best possible location but in a densely populated island all too often site suitability is far from ideal. Also, if heat is to be utilised, proximity to a substantial heat “load” is important as hot water pipes are expensive to lay and insulate. When a plant is large the responsibility for planning consent is likely to be with Central Government and operational regulation will fall to the Environment Agency. Local people can feel unprotected by their Local Planning Authority and its Environmental Regulators. Central government and its regulating Agency can seem distant, unresponsive and there is perceived bias in favour of the national or international company plant operator which has provided a very large capital asset, used by the local and regional waste disposal authorities and providing cheap energy to major manufacturers.

This is the case concerning residents in Runcorn who turned to ELF for assistance in their issues with Viridor. They provide and operate a large plant which was initially denied planning permission but ultimately given Secretary of State’s consent, subject to conditions which the residents were not at all impressed by and are now sometimes discontented with the observance, enforcement and monitoring of conditions. The site is a significant employer and provides heat to an Ineos chemical plant and energy to the grid.

When a plant costing millions has been established and is part of the infrastructure of the nation as well as the locality it is an uphill task for local residents to get any assistance with their issues. The residents Group in Runcorn did secure a Ministerial audience to air their discontent and I was able to offer some assistance with drafting their notes for the meeting. Of course with the revolving door of Central Government portfolio holders, such meetings are not likely to resolve on-going issues but such meetings can be a way of securing the attention of the Environment Agency and influence their liaison with residents groups.

David Purchon, FCIEH CEnvH, FRSPH, Technical Adviser to ELF.