A teeny little EU landfill directive that the government has overlooked now threatens to blow up in its face – and even destroy its vision of brownfield regeneration.
Government policymakers who have latched on to brownfield regeneration could be about to see their plans blown out of the water. New European rules on the disposal of hazardous waste will impose a ban on the current UK practice of disposing of hazardous and non-hazardous waste in the same landfill site.

The effect will be to slash the number of landfill sites that can accept contaminated soil from brownfield developments, pushing up remediation costs, and thereby jeopardising the government's regeneration policy. There are even fears that key regeneration initiatives such as the Thames Gateway and the Lea Valley Olympic site could become casualties of the changes.

The 1999 EU landfill directive comes into force on the 16 July in England and Wales. Scotland and Northern Ireland will be bringing forward separate legislation to implement the directive. Lord Richard Rogers, chairman of the Urban Task Force, warns that as a consequence of the changes brownfield regeneration will become "vastly more expensive". Rogers is so concerned about the legislation's impact that wrote to deputy prime minister John Prescott late last year warning him of the consequences of the directive on the government's urban vision.

More than five million tonnes of hazardous waste is produced each year in England and Wales, half of which goes to landfill. And because of changes to the definition of what now constitutes hazardous waste, the total amount produced each year is predicted to grow by a further 2 million tonnes. Construction is the biggest single contributor, producing more than 1 million tonnes annually, including contaminated soil and demolition waste.

Under the new rules, landfill sites will fall into three categories: hazardous, non-hazardous or inert, according to the type of waste they are licensed to receive. It is unlikely that many operators will opt to have sites designated for hazardous waste, which would mean complying with onerous operating conditions to gain a hazardous waste permit, and accepting any long-term liabilities associated with the site.

As a result of the changes, the number of landfill sites that accept hazardous waste could be slashed, pushing up prices and making disposal to landfill an expensive option. "At the moment there are in excess of 200 landfill sites for hazardous waste; after July that number could be reduced to between eight and 10 licensed to continue," says Derek Vernon, a partner at Davis Langdon & Everest and a remediation specialist.

The problem for developers and contractors is that soil removed from brownfield sites is often contaminated with coal tar, asbestos, arsenic and cyanide, and is classified as hazardous. The bulk of contaminated soil is currently sent to landfill. "The effect of this directive will be a significant increase in remediation cost," says Vernon.

Exactly what those costs will be is a matter of speculation in the waste industry. Vernon says that one operator has said the gate price "will be what the market dictates". Put another way, whatever operators feel they can get away with charging. "Indications are that the gate price will increase between 100% and 200%," he adds.

The cost of contaminated soil disposal will be even more in the south of England, where the government is looking to implement its sustainable communities plan, since the majority of landfill sites will be located in the Midlands and the North. Travelling distances will increase as business truck toxic waste hundreds of miles to licensed sites, adding to disposal costs, vehicle pollution and congestion. "There will be no sites in Wales or near London and only limited capacity for hazardous waste in the south of England," Vernon explains.

Even if developers truck waste halfway across the country, sites may not be prepared to take it because of government-imposed annual targets. "In overall terms there is 10 million m3 of tipping space available for contaminated soils [on landfill sites after 16 July], most of which is north of Peterborough. Even though the tipping space is available, you will not be able to tip this amount because there are 'loading rates' for tips. This means that no more than 600,000 tonnes can be tipped a year," says Phil Kirby, managing director of SecondSite Property – the organisation responsible for managing and developing National Grid Transco's portfolio of contaminated land – and a member of the Urban Task Force.

Unless developers identify a suitable on-site technology, they may be unable to proceed for months, or even years

Neil McLeod, technical director, Envirotreat

The rationale behind the EU directive is sound; it is being introduced to reduce the amount of hazardous waste sent to landfill in the interest of improving the local environment. The legislation is intended to encourage developers and contractors treat the soil on site, using washing, bioremediation, cement stabilisation or other insitu treatment techniques, rather than opt for the quick and cheap fix of "dig and dump" to get rid of contaminated soil. The increased cost of disposal in landfill sites as a result of the co-disposal legislation should make these alternative options more attractive. "Development costs and programmes will need to reflect this change in remediation methodology," warns DLE's Vernon.

There are concerns that the waste disposal industry has insufficient capacity to do these treatments on the scale needed once the directive comes into effect. Rogers has warned that in the short term these alternative clean-up options will only make up 20% of the capacity required to replace landfill disposal. And some forms of soil contamination such as coal tar are untreatable on site and will still need to be disposed of in landfill.

Remediation specialists themselves acknowledge the shortfall. "Unless developers have identified a suitable on-site technology that can render pollutants inert, they may be unable to proceed with development on the site for months, or even years, as land remediation companies are expected to be inundated with work after July 2004," says Neil McLeod, technical director at land remediation specialist Envirotreat.

It is a view echoed by the Environment Agency. In its submission to the 2002 Environment Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee Inquiry, the agency warned the government that the current planning regime would not provide new treatment facilities in the short to medium term. It advised the government that "without urgent action, there will be a major shortfall in our capacity to treat and dispose of hazardous waste safely". The agency said this could lead to an increase in illegal disposal, including fly-tipping.

The official body set up to investigate the problem last year – the Hazardous Waste Forum – blames the looming debacle on the government for , which has had more than five years to respond to the directive. It accuses the government of failing to clarify important details of the regulations, delaying investment by the waste management industry. As a result the forum warns that sufficient treatment capacity is unlikely to be available until 2009 at the earliest.

The government acknowledges the inconsistency between brownfield regeneration and legislation designed to limit the amount of contaminated soil sent to landfill. In a statement to Building, DEFRA said: "The government is committed to delivering two potentially conflicting goals in a co-ordinated manner; the regeneration of brownfield and environmentally sound management of hazardous waste". The statement said the government's approach includes: promoting the use of alternative technologies; providing incentives for the development of new remediation technologies, through the Waste Implementation Programme; providing a regulatory system for brownfield remediation; and providing financial support for regeneration with the continuation of the Contaminated Land Tax Credit.

There are fears that the increased costs for the development of brownfield sites may even lead to pressure to develop greenfield land. "Some developers will look to develop greenfield sites because they will start to become more economically attractive," says Vernon.

Phil Kirby says additional funding is needed. "Developers will pay less for sites, so owners of contaminated sites will sit on them until market forces make them viable – so the people with land to sell won't do it," he explains. "Regeneration and urban initiatives will now require more government funding."

With less than four months to go before the directive's implementation, developers will need to reassess the economic viability of developing existing contaminated sites. Vernon says the inevitable outcome will be in a delay in brownfield redevelopment. What is more, he warns: "Those schemes that do go ahead will face higher remediation costs, longer clean-up programmes and a lack of viable treatment options for some waste."

With the government's target of 60% of all new housing built in brownfield sites and economist Kate Barker calling for 200,000 extra homes to be built each year, the pressure to develop brownfield sites is unlikely to diminish. Vernon is far from optimistic about the future. "Some projects could be put on hold, some may well be cancelled," he warns.

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