Analyse this: labs and the landfill Directive
Laboratories play a crucial role in environmental protection,waste management and remediation. Decisions to redevelop brownfield sites – and many will be multi-million pound projects – hinge on the analysis carried out by labs.With new legislation accelerating the cost of sending waste to landfill, accurate data on contaminant levels in soil and the leachability of waste is essential. Rob Bell investigates
According to the Environment Department (DEFRA) the introduction of the landfill Directive represents a “step-change in the way we dispose of waste in this country”. It has had a huge impact on waste management in the UK by drastically curtailing the number of sites able to receive hazardous materials – including heavily contaminated soils – and creating much stricter definitions of what qualifies as hazardous.
The final stage of implementation came in July of last year, with the introduction of the waste acceptance criteria (WAC), which “set minimum numeric criteria for each classification of landfill based on leaching tests, compressive strengths, pH and acid neutralising capacity”. This means that all hazardous waste – including any contaminated soils – must be tested for leachability of contaminants before it is sent to landfill. This creates a great deal of extra demand for analysis services.
Despite clear communication from government that the requirements were coming into effect, the lab sector and many others were unprepared for the rule change. David Ruddock, business development manager at consultancy ERM, says: “All major participants in land remediation including developers, regulators, consultants, contractors and laboratories were caught out when the regulations were introduced. Labs had not anticipated demand and inevitably there was an initial bottleneck, although this has now largely been resolved.”
The amount of testing carried out under the WAC requirements is now considerable, with major laboratory ALcontrol – which almost certainly has the lion’s share of the soil testing market – claiming it is now carrying out 2,000 WAC tests a month.
The National Laboratory Service, which provides the Environment Agency with analytical services and sells its excess capacity of around 7 per cent to the private sector, has seen similar demand. Chris Hunter says: “WAC is an area that is growing massively – as is contaminated land generally – so we’re seeing all of the big players in the sector gearing up to service the demand.”
NLS is about to open a new facility in Leeds, and Mr Hunter says one of the main reasons for expansion is that WAC testing has overwhelmed existing resources. “It’s a growth area, having gone from no interest to a hell of a lot of samples coming in a very short period of time,” Mr Hunter says.
And with the cost of disposal to landfill – particularly for material classed as hazardous – reaching prohibitive levels, most of the WAC is taking place before decisions about disposal routes.
Mr Ruddock explains: “It’s in companies’ interests not only to minimise the volume of material going to landfill, but also to ensure any materials that must be landfilled are sent to the class of facility where they can be accepted. This can only be achieved by testing for the concentration and distribution of hazardous components and their leaching behaviour.
“We’ve seen a progressive decrease in the volume of material landfilled and hence overall disposal costs, even though rates have risen steeply with a parallel increase in the uptake of more sophisticated in-situ and ex-situ remediation techniques.”
Mr Hunter agrees: “If you have a lot of waste for disposal – with the cost of disposing of hazardous waste an order of magnitude higher than inert waste – it would be worth speculating by paying for testing before a decision on disposal was made.”
The growing pressure associated with landfill Directive requirements and increasing brownfield redevelopment – and the soil testing that comes with it – has placed heavy demands on the sector, along with other drivers such as the monitoring certification scheme (MCERTS), which requires labs to gain substance-specific accreditation for analysis methods and equipment.
Cliff Billings, group technical and quality manger at Severn Trent Laboratories, says: “In terms of soil testing, the biggest thing has been the introduction of MCERTS for the chemical analysis of soil, which means that all parameters need to be MCERTed if the results are going to the Environment Agency for comment.”
Pressure on small labs ALcontrol’s Hazel Davidson says the demands of the scheme created difficulties for many in the field: “MCERTS was hard on some of the smaller labs because the resources needed to gain accreditation are so high,” she says. “Some found that quite difficult, and the bigger players picked up a few of the small labs as a consequence.”
The way the largest companies have swallowed up the smaller labs has not been universally welcomed. Mr Ruddock says: “The lab sector has been going through an unprecedented period of consolidation for the last six or seven years, which has led to occasional periods of poor delivery as new management structures bed in. It has also resulted in a narrower range of options for buyers and we haven’t really seen major improvement in service provision, perhaps because the market is so competitive and margins are extremely tight.”
ENVIRON UK, another major consultancy, has similar reservations. “Labs are under a lot of pressure, and the amount of work they undertake has significantly increased over the years,” ENDS was told by Kevin Eaton, principal at the firm’s Leeds office. “They have become less personal and there is less competition available”
And while MCERTS has had a profound impact on the structure of the sector, problems remain both with the scheme itself and the lack of understanding in wider industry of its requirements and the strict limitations MCERTS places on the entire analytical process.
Mr Ruddock says: “There remains a very low level of awareness of data quality among users and regulators. Buyers need to understand more thoroughly the process of setting data quality objectives, instigating procedures to control data quality and how to assess data robustness.”
For Mr Billings, this creates real problems. “The lack of understanding in the supply chain about what needs to be MCERTed is a real cause of frustration for labs, with clients unaware of what information needs to go to the Agency. So we’ve really had to push the Agency to push the standard across industry”.
He also feels the scheme needs more careful policing, saying: “If everyone in the sector is working to the MCERTS requirements and it’s being monitored effectively, then it works fine. But from the laboratory point of view there seems to be a lack of appropriate enforcement.
“For the ultimate client this issue is very, very important,” he continues. “If you’re the land owner, you expect the developer, consultants and analytical contractor to know what they are doing. You don’t want to find out 18 months down the line that the Agency has rejected your report and you have to begin site investigation again at huge expense.”
However, Mr Billings accepts it is “early days” for the scheme, which is still short of two years old. And the Environment Agency itself says: “MCERTS for testing soils is ‘policed’ at the laboratory end by UKAS, which has greatly improved the consistency of the application of the standard over the last few years, and we have received little negative feedback.”
But the need to meet MCERTS requirements is not the only challenge – or problem to some – that labs face. A straw poll of environmental consultants brings issues to the surface, mainly around consistency and quality of results, meeting deadlines and speed.
Mr Ruddock says: “The most commonly cited causes for complaint are delivery to agreed deadlines and failure to communicate. But that said, buying laboratory services is not as simple as doing the weekly shopping. As users we have huge expectations and the complexities of delivery are poorly understood. Data quality problems are detected less frequently than they should be because buyers rarely probe beyond the face value of the results. Lack of availability is only really a problem in exceptional circumstances such as very short turnaround times, unusual substances, or when you’re working in remote locations.”
ENVIRON’s concerns are similar: “Consultants should question lab results more often. Mistakes are made regardless of the quality of procedures in place, especially when there is a tendency to view the output of lab results as the definitive answer.
“However, to be fair mistakes tend to be the exception rather than the rule. Most problems come from the practical onsite problems, damaged or missing sample containers, poor collection services. But for all labs, meeting turnaround deadlines remains the biggest issue,” says Mr Eaton.
Another consultant tells ENDS: “Our biggest problem is simply the length of time it takes labs to turn samples around – I’d happily pay double for a faster service.”
Labs too have their gripes, with the quality of sampling and samples their main area of concern. Ms Davidson says: “Part of the trouble is that consultants send their most junior people out to sites instead of their more experienced staff, which defeats the object.”
Mr Billings concurs: “If a sample is not collected or stored correctly, then samples will not be representative. For example, with volatile organics, if a sample is taken on Friday afternoon then left in the sun over the weekend before being sent to the labs, then you’re going to have problems. This is a big issue, and we’ve talked to the Agency, but they feel it’s quite a big step to try and regulate personnel.
“If a system was in place then labs could be confident that the samples they analyse are representative of the bulk of the soil present, which can be a problem when we receive improperly taken or stored samples and clients come back to question our results. Our reputation and the value for money of our services relies on accuracy of data.”
Regulation of those actually taking samples in the field is a thorny issue. In other fields, such as monitoring stack emissions, MCERTS allows for the certification of “competent persons” to carry out tests. Many labs would like to see a similar system put in place for contaminated soils.
Ms Davidson says: “We were hoping that MCERTS would be extended to sampling on site – a personnel accreditation as is the case with air monitoring would work very well. But the Agency says it has no plans to introduce a scheme, even though it’s really what’s needed. The errors that occur on site are so much greater than ever happens in the lab.”
And while the issue may well be addressed by industry itself – CL:AIRE and other bodies are in discussions about an accreditation scheme – the Environment Agency remains adamant this is not its job. “There are a number of areas in the management of land contamination where accreditation is being considered by industry,” says Bob Barnes of the Agency’s land team. “While we are supportive of industry’s work to consider the development of relevant industry accreditation, we don’t consider accreditation is a role for the Agency.”
It is difficult to say if and when an accreditation scheme will be put in place. CL:AIRE says that talks are still at an early stage, but a discussion paper can be expected soon. Meanwhile, most consultants will admit that there can be problems when it comes to carrying out sampling itself.
Mr Ruddock admits that some uncertainty around data quality can be attributed to poor field work and insufficient care in transporting samples, but he is wary of an accreditation scheme. “I am not sure how far I would want to go with an externally administered certification system,” he says. “Although routine procedures can be applied to some processes such as in-situ gas and water quality measurements and water sampling, it is also true that every project is unique, involving a certain amount of application or modification of procedures.”
Mr Ruddock says that while it makes economic sense to employ junior consultants for fieldwork, on ERM projects sampling is always conducted under the supervision of an experienced senior staff member. “We go to great lengths and invest a good deal of resource to ensure field staff are thoroughly capable before being allowed to work unsupervised – and even then their work is checked,” he insists.
ENVIRON UK, on the other hand, would welcome a scheme. “We already apply our inhouse procedures and ensure staff are suitably trained, often undertaking training programmes provided by the labs,” a spokesperson says. “However, the value of field data should not be viewed purely as the quality of the sampling techniques. Quality comes also from choice of sample locations, type of samples and the experience needed to respond to conditions in the field.”
The final area of analysis of soils relates to the monitoring required of landfill operators, such as the Waste Recycling Group. WRG is the largest landfill operator in the UK with more than 50 active landfills and over 40 closed sites. Leachate and groundwater sampling and analysis must be conducted regularly, in accordance with the requirements of the Environment Agency and SEPA as a fundamental condition of permits and licences.
Mike Snell, general manager for external affairs at WRG, says: “A few years ago we chose to commission a single laboratory to conduct the analysis of leachate and water samples rather than use a number of laboratories. WRG chose Severn Trent Laboratories, against criteria including value for money, national coverage and capacity, and quality including UKAS accreditation. While sampling continues to be carried out by WRG staff or specialist contractors, samples for analysis are collected by the lab.
“We have been very satisfied with this approach, with a single contractor that is able to provide the benefits of scale and consistency of results. WRG continues to apply various checks and quality controls from time to time, and seeks analyses from other laboratories as a control measure to verify overall results.”
However, with regulatory requirements becoming ever-stricter – mainly to meet the requirements of the EU groundwater Directive – trouble is brewing. Mr Snell explains: “There’s a regulatory thirst for increasingly lower limits of detection of analyses, to the point where the tolerances or limitations of the analytical techniques applied at ‘ultra-low’ limits of detection produce real difficulties in the interpretation ofWhile labs come in for a lot of flak – fairly or not – on performance and other grounds, they are generally performing well in an environment that is in constant flux as regulatory requirements change, technology improves and further directives are put in place by Europe. Most clients appear confident that services are improving. As the MCERTS system beds down and the bustle to meet the changing client demands created by WAC ceases, that confidence is likely to increase further. However, in the labs game there will always be another challenge on the horizon. er Directive and MCERTS all have brought regulatory pressures and requirements that create challenges for the lab sector to overcome. Mr Hunter says: “The big challenges for the sector are all around the constantly changing working environment. Pollutant limits change, customer demands change. Clients are demanding faster sample turnaround – something many are now willing to pay a premium for. We’re seeing such a wide range of requests from customers that this in itself is a challenge.
“And on top of that we need to replace equipment every few years to stay on the cutting edge of technology and lower limit values, which is obviously a huge expense. External work helps to subsidise that.”
But there are yet more challenges to come. By 30 April next year, the UK will have transposed the environmental liability Directive into national law. DEFRA says: “The Directive is aimed at the prevention and remedying of environmental damage – specifically, damage to habitats and species protected by EC law, damage to water resources, and land contamination that presents a threat to human health.”
The polluter pays
Based on the ‘polluter pays’ principle, the new law will mean companies responsible for pollution incidents will be forced to pay for remediation – if it can be proved that they are responsible.
And the need to prove responsibility for environmental damage to a standard that will stand up in court is pushing forward the field of environmental forensics, defined by expert Al Uhleroff as “an emerging field that addresses the specific questions of ownership of and responsibility for environmental contamination through a detailed study of the nature of the contamination, its movement and its linkages to potential sources”.
Mr Barnes says: “Environmental forensics is already a developing area for soil testing and we anticipate that this will continue in the future. The implementation of the environmental liability Directive, as with other new legislation, will require the use of robust, good quality approaches, including sampling and analysis of soils.
“If we are going to build confidence in the approaches taken to deal with land contamination decisions must be based on good robust information.”
ALcontrol for one is rising to the challenge. Ms Davidson says there has been a “surge of interest” in the discipline, and the company has formed a small team to work specifically in the area.
While labs come in for a lot of flak – fairly or not – on performance and other grounds, they are generally performing well in an environment that is in constant flux as regulatory requirements change, technology improves and further directives are put in place by Europe. Most clients appear confident that services are improving. As the MCERTS system beds down and the bustle to meet the changing client demands created by WAC ceases, that confidence is likely to increase further. However, in the labs game there will always be another challenge on the horizon.