Burning through the jargon

A new energy-from-waste plant in an area tends to attract a lot of attention, much of it negative. Isabella Kaminski demystifies the permitting process for new incinerators (Jun 2014)

The volume of waste being sent for recovery in the UK is increasing, even while arisings are falling. The amount of council-managed waste being incinerated at energy-from-waste (EfW) plants in England alone has more than doubled over the past decade, and across the whole of the UK more than six million tonnes were incinerated last year.

In 2012, ENDS reported on the 'dash for trash' to fuel the growing number of EfW plants. While the building boom now shows signs of slowing, a significant number of incinerators are still in the pipeline. Opposition to new plants, particularly at a grassroots level, remains strong, inspiring highly organised local campaigns and legal challenges.

Angus Evers, partner and head of the environment group at law firm SJ Berwin LLP, said most objections from local residents to new EfW plants are at the planning stage. "Once you have planning permission the principle has been established – it's an important psychological barrier."

There have been challenges to environmental permits, says Evers, but they are rare. The environmental permitting process is seen as less political, and more objective, than planning.

But it is also highly technical, which can make it difficult for non-experts to understand. UKWIN, a network of campaign groups promoting alternatives to incineration, has raised concerns about the availability of permit applications and reports online.

"It's a lot harder to find grounds to challenge environmental than planning decisions, because their purpose is much narrower," says Evers.

The Environment Agency regulates about 100 of the more complex and larger EfW plants in England. These complex, high-risk facilities require bespoke environmental permits.

The agency has set up a national team to handle permitting applications. Applications are often dealt with in parallel to planning permission, particularly if the development is near protected groundwater, air quality or conservation areas.

A recent regulatory change allowing waste operators to apply for planning permission and an environmental permit at the same time could help improve this 'twin-tracking' and make it more coherent.

Developers are encouraged to discuss proposals with the agency before submitting an application, particularly for complex or new sites. Beth Clayton, national permit manager for waste management firm Sita, says her team is regularly in touch with a dedicated contact at the agency. This is common to other waste companies of the same size.

Dr Adam Read, waste management and resource efficiency practice director for Ricardo-AEA, says there has been a "sea-change" in how applications are dealt with. "We're moving in the right direction; every year there are more good examples. But there is still a lot of uncertainty and lack of clarity."

He says Scotland and Wales have made considerable progress on new waste technologies because regulation has been stronger and communication better. "I think England has suffered from lighter-touch regulation."

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