Laws Tightens for Landfill Operators

The first successful prosecution in the UK of a company for landfill gas emissions should serve as a stark warning to operators of the need for integrated risk management of all aspects of their operations and, in particular, their safety systems, writes Caroline May. On 17 January, 2011, Waste Recycling Group Central Limited (WRG) was ordered to pay a total of £28,184 for committing two offences under the Environmental Permitting Regulations 2007 and its predecessor, the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations 2000. The prosecution sends a clear signal to industry players that non-compliance with regulations governing the protection of the environment and human health from dangerous emissions will not be tolerated. Prosecution is now a real possibility and the absence of fault or financial gain will not provide a defence. The offences related to WRG’s management of a closed landfill site in Berkshire that contained local household and business waste, buried under restoration soils and a clay cap. The site was regulated under the terms of an environmental permit issued by the Environment Agency (EA). This required WRG to ensure a system was in place (and was regularly monitored) to ensure the capture of potentially harmful landfill gas (including methane). The system implemented by WRG extracted gas out of the site and pumped it to a flare which burned the gas and converted it to carbon dioxide. An alarm system was activated if there was a fault with the flare to allow an emergency plan to be put into place. In May-June 2008, on-site works resulted in the power supply to the site being cut off for a period of up to two days. The power cut affected the functioning of the gas flame alarm system. No back-up or replacement alarms had been installed so the loss of the gas flare meant no gas extraction took place across the landfill, resulting in the escape of gas in several directions as well as the risk of it escaping into the atmosphere. When the power was switched back on, WRG discovered that many perimeter boreholes had exceeded the permitted levels for methane and CO2. WRG took steps to rectify the situation including notifying the EA and undertaking extensive gas monitoring. A review of its management procedures was also conducted. Following notification of the incident, the EA prosecuted WRG for: (1) failing to comply with its environmental permit by exceeding the allowed limits of landfill gas and CO2; and (2) failing to follow the site management system for the site between January and June 2008 (e.g. relating to the maintenance, upkeep and monitoring of the gas collection system and gas flare). The magistrates’ court hearing the case noted WRG’s co-operation with the EA, lack of financial gain and early guilty plea as mitigating factors in sentencing. However, it emphasised that it takes environmental offences very seriously and that WRG, as a large professional waste company, “should have known its own business”. Loscoe methane explosion The first landfill methane explosion in the UK happened in Loscoe, Derbyshire, in March 1986. On that occasion a unique series of events culminated in a large methane explosion which destroyed a bungalow on a housing estate near the Loscoe landfill site, badly injuring its owners and causing damage to neighbouring properties and post traumatic stress for a number of residents near the scene. At the Loscoe landfill there were no system failures as such, but rather a failure to appreciate the risks from landfill gas and the need for methane extraction and flaring. On the day of the incident, Loscoe experienced the lowest day of barometric pressure for 25 years. This had the effect of allowing the methane (which had been unknowingly building up in the landfill) to rise and find a method of escape through disused mining channels that ran beneath the site and led directly to a residential housing estate nearby. Despite the higlighted cases, most landfill sites are safely managed and controlled The gas found its way into cellar voids beneath the properties and, when the early morning pilot light came on for the central heating beneath the bungalow in question, the resulting explosion became inevitable. The residents escaped alive (albeit with substantive injuries in the case of Mrs Middleton) but their property was destroyed. The housing estate was evacuated immediately and 55 households were placed in temporary accommodation until the area could be made safe. Investigations showed that there was a substantive build up of methane under the estate which had been effectively piped under the properties by mining channels from the landfill nearby. This was the first time that the regulatory authorities (at that time locally Derbyshire County Council Waste Regulation Authority and nationally Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Pollution HMIP) realised that infilling organic matter had the potential to generate large quantities of methane. This needed to be vented and flared in a controlled manner to prevent uncontrolled build ups, which if concentrated in a confined space and ignited, would explode. Following the Loscoe incident, best practice was changed to require venting and flaring of landfill sites capable of methane generation and also to require sites to be lined to prevent leaching. This is as well as requiring them to be monitored to assess and prevent unauthorised methane escapes. After Loscoe, a series of alarms and other safety measures were introduced to enable site operators to monitor their operations and to prevent escapes outside site boundaries. Once methane extraction commenced at the Loscoe landfill, monitoring equipment was installed at a number of properties to ensure that levels were diminishing and being maintained. The monitoring equipment remained in place for many years and indeed was a necessary reassurance for residents who reluctantly returned to their homes several months after the explosion (and following a major public inquiry into the causes of the incident). Regulatory landscape alters Since the Loscoe incident the regulatory landscape has changed significantly. The regulation of landfilling operations is now in the hands of the Environment Agency (the national successor to HMIP) and all waste operations are now controlled by one Environmental Permit (replacing waste management licences and the local waste authorities that administered them). There is a clear criminal regulatory framework in place – it was this which was used to prosecute WRG. At Loscoe, the incident occurred as a result of a lack of understanding of the process operations and necessary controls and, as such, the explosion could be seen as a deliberate (if unintended) consequence of the landfill operation. It is ironic for WRG that its site in Berkshire was being actively managed and controlled until works unconnected with the landfill operation meant that power was cut to the site, thus effectively removing its safety alarm systems. It was clear that no proper risk assessment had been carried out either of the alarm systems themselves (i.e. to provide a back up supply in the event of a power failure), or of the proposed works and its ability to impact the site management system at the landfill. The judge was critical of both failures and, under the current regulatory regime, breaches of permit conditions are matters of strict liability where there is no need to establish harm or fault; the fact the breach occurred is sufficient. Operators face strict regulatory regime While the fines in the WRG case may not appear significant (and it is clear the court considered WRG’s swift and open response to its failures, which mitigated the penalty), they could have been much higher and it is clear that the strict regulatory regime is in place to serve as a deterrent and to remind operators of their strict responsibilities. If the recent case had led to substantive environmental damage or harm to human health, the penalties would have been much higher. In conclusion, it should be remembered that most landfill operations today are safely managed and controlled by experienced specialist operators under tight regulatory controls. Incidents such as the WRG case are thankfully rare, but serve to remind both operators and contractors working on landfill sites of the need for integrated risk management of all aspects of their operations. In particular, their safety systems which are often the last line of defence. Caroline May is a partner and head of the environment team at Norton Rose LLP. More Waste Management World Articles Waste Management World Issue Archives