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Environment Agency comes under fire after granting a waste incinerator permit

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THE Environment Agency is coming under fire locally after granting a permit for the Westbury incinerator to be operational if the plans are given the green light at the end of this month. 

The agency acts as the protector of the public’s health but local people are asking if it is fit for purpose. 

“I think I’m right in saying that the Environment Agency has never refused a permit for a waste incinerator; under what circumstances would they actually refuse one?” said Dan Gmaj of the protest group WGAG. 

“They go through a tick box exercise; it’s just an admin exercise. 

“They were always going to grant the permit. The whole exercise is a sham; they ‘listen very carefully’ and then grant the permit.” 

Westbury town councillor Jane Russ said, “The Environment Agency is meant to be on our side; it is meant to be regulating major industry and waste but not in this instance, it is simply not doing that.  

“It states that one of its main priorities is ‘to protect people and the environment and support sustainable growth’.  Common sense says you don’t put an incinerator that will burn commercial and industrial waste close to a town and within one mile of a local school and just a few hundred yards from local houses.  How can that be ‘protecting people, the environment and supporting sustainable growth’? All the evidence about the threats to our health and all the opposition counts for nothing. It’s a shocking decision, but is anyone surprised?” 

The Environment Agency has defended its decision. White Horse News sent a series of questions to the Agency. Here are its replies.

• WHN: Has the Environment Agency ever refused any application for a permit for a waste incinerator? Under what circumstances would the Environment Agency refuse an application? 

EA: The Environment Agency assesses each permit application by its own merits. Where an application does not meet the standards required for an environmental permit, the application has been refused. Reasons for refusal can include the inability to create and operate a facility that is compliant with the permit conditions. Where permit applications to operate waste incinerators have failed to meet our standards, they have been refused.  For more see Environmental permitting: Core guidance (publishing.service.gov.uk) 

• WHN: There is a school within one mile of the site and houses within a few hundred metres. How close would a school have to be in order for an incinerator permit application to be refused?  How close do houses have to be in order for an application to be refused? 

EA: Emissions from a facility are assessed to identify the potential impact on any sensitive receptor like a school or household. This assessment does not have set limits on proximity and a permit is only issued if this assessment showed no significant pollution. See section 5.3 of the decision document for more on how we assessed potential impact on human health for this application BA13 4WE, Northacre Renewable Energy Limited: environmental permit issued – EPR/CP3803LV/A001 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) 

• WHN: Is it correct that the Environment Agency does not consider the environmental impact of increased traffic when making a decision? If this is true, how is that consistent with the Environment Agency’s purpose of protecting or enhancing the environment? 

EA: Impact on and from the local transport network is considered in the planning permission process by the planning authority [Wiltshire Council]. 

• WHN: Emma Howard Boyd, chair of the Environment Agency, said in a blog* in 2020, “The Environment Agency works to create better places for people and wildlife, and to support sustainable development.” 

How does granting a permit for a waste incinerator create a ‘better place for people and wildlife’ in the Westbury area? 

How does granting a permit ‘support sustainable development’?  There is a growing body of evidence that says incinerators lead to less reusing and recycling. Evidence submitted to a government inquiry showed that local authorities which incinerate more, recycle less. 

EA: Questions not answered.  

• WHN: Did the Environment Agency take into account the findings of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Air Pollution (December 2021)? The report says that, “urban incinerators can constitute a significant health hazard for nearby populations.” 

EA: The Environment Agency is responsible for delivering, not creating, Government waste policy and legislation, which includes energy from waste incinerators. For more see Our waste, our resources: a strategy for England (publishing.service.gov.uk). 

• WHN: In Emma Howard Boyd’s same blog, she says, “we consult the local community and others carefully and seriously and take account of their views.” 

How does this tally with the fact that there was no public meeting in Westbury to discuss the incinerator? The Environment Agency has said this was due to Covid but all Covid restrictions were lifted in England on 24th February, four months before the announcement of your decision. Westbury Town Council said your ‘consultation’ with the local community eliminated people who weren’t tech savvy. 

And how have you taken account of the views of the local community when the decision ignores the objections of the local MP, 19 local parish councils and 2,000 people who opposed the planning application – more than have opposed any other application in Wiltshire Council’s history? 

EA: The Environment Agency has followed its own guidance to ensure the community has been given every opportunity to take part in the consultation process, which included making accommodations to supply information to those unable to access it online and extending the deadline for responses. 

Every response was taken into account and this feedback led to us requesting additional information from the applicant. We also issued 14 separate briefing notes to the local community, electronically and in hard copy where requested, to keep those who had expressed interest up to date with the process. 

A summary of the issues raised and action taken is included in our decision document BA13 4WE, Northacre Renewable Energy Limited: environmental permit issued – EPR/CP3803LV/A001 – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk)

• WHN: Emma Howard Boyd also says, “While we will always come down hard on businesses who break the rules, we want to work with compliant companies to help them meet the highest possible standards and influence an economic culture where companies compete to be clean and resilient.” 

Do you think Hills Waste Solutions – who have very close ties to NREL – are meeting the ‘highest possible standards’ in their running of the Northacre Resource Recovery Centre next door to the proposed incinerator site which was heavily criticised last summer for foul smells over several weeks and for the sister landfill site at Compton Bassett which suffered a fire in April this year? 

EA: The Environment Agency thoroughly investigated odour complaints in Westbury and verified they were coming from the existing Mechanical and Biological Treatment (MBT) plant, which is operated by Hills Waste Solutions. Steps were taken to bring the operator into compliance with its permit. 

The proposed incinerator, although partly funded by Hills, will be operated by Northacre Renewable Energy Ltd. This is a separate business and we must therefore treat their permit application completely separately to our regulation of the MBT plant; our decision cannot be influenced by other sites we regulate. 

• WHN: How will you ensure that, if built, the incinerator will be adequately monitored? 

EA: The Environment Agency will ensure that, if the incinerator is built, the site is closely monitored and regulated, and require that the operator does everything they can to minimise the impact on the local community. For more see How the Environment Agency meets the Regulators’ Code – GOV.UK (www.gov.uk) 

What do you think? 

Write to White Horse News, 31 Market Place, Melksham. SN12 6ES or email news@whitehorsenews.co.uk 

One Response to Environment Agency comes under fire after granting a waste incinerator permit

  1. Michael Ryan

    July 5, 2022 at 6:25 pm

    Having read about the then newly-formed Health Protection Agency being aware of “public concern about ill health consequences of long-term exposure to chemicals, such as those emitted from landfills, incinerators and industrial sites” (‘Chemical danger testing’, Western Daily Press, August 6, 2003), I used FoI in March 2008 to ask the HPA for a list of incinerators around which they’d examined the rates of illness and rates of premature deaths at all ages at electoral ward level and compared upwind wards with those downwind of incinerators .

    Justin McCracken, the second CEO of the HPA, had the brass neck to confirm in May 2008 that they’d not checked any such data around any incinerator, whilst in that same month his claim to be “proud to put public health first” was reported in Nigel Hawkes’ interview (The Times, May 20, 2008), which included: “Our role is to develop evidence and make sure that those who can act on it are given it and do act on it”.

    After a series of critical articles by Mark Metcalf in Big Issue in the North, the HPA promised a study into a possible link between incinerator emissions and infant mortality in 2011, which was carried out by SAHSU and published over seven years later. After adjusting ONS infant mortality data for deprivation, ethnicity and socioeconomic status, the authors concluded that there was no risk.

    For the SAHSU rationale to hold, there’d have to have been major population shifts before and after incinerators started operating, with “the poor etc” leaving prior to the start-up to “explain” the then falling infant death rates and sudden returns after incinerators started operating to account for the rise in rates of baby deaths. These very location-specific and time-critical population shifts just didn’t occur at council level, which SAHSU and other experts should have realised before submitting a flawed and misleading study for publication.