Sunday, August 01, 2004

More EU-mental disasters

It’s environment again in the Booker column today, as he ploughs a lonely furrow pointing out the unprecedented waste crisis created by EU legislation.

In pursuing his line, Booker often gets criticised for being obsessed with EU issues – or simply looking for anti-EU material to reinforce his Euroscepticism, but this is no imaginary crisis.

The lead story is about a Scottish Water at Daldowie outside Glasgow, built at a cost of £65 million to turn 50,000 tons of sewage sludge each year – nearly half of Scotland’s entire sewage residue – into pellets which can be used a fuel.

This is a considerable technical achievement – many have tried before and failed -o it has to be commended as an innovative solution to a previously intractable problem.

So successful has been this plant that, for the last five years it has been feeding Scottish Power’s giant 2400 megawatt power station at Longannet in Fife with a ‘carbon-neutral’ equivalent of 42,000 tons of coal, enough to provide electricity for 30,000 homes.

But that was to reckon without the baleful effect of EU law. A decision is currently awaited following legal action in the Scottish courts, after the Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) ruled that the sewage pellets were not ‘fuel’, but ‘waste’.

Under the EC Waste Incineration Directive (WID), 2000/76, when it comes into law next year, Scottish Power will no longer be allowed to use the pellets to make electricity.

Predictably, this has presented Scottish Water with a huge problem. Under other EC laws they can no longer dump sewage sludge at sea, to provide food for fish, and it cannot be landfilled. It is becoming all-but impossible to use it as fertiliser on farm land.

On the interpretation of EC law by SEPA, the only practical means of disposal is to burn it at great expense in incinerators - but only so long as these serve no useful purpose such as generating electricity. And the incinerators do not yet exist.

Scottish Power sought judicial review of SEPA’s ruling, citing cases in the European Court of Justice which seem to justify its claim that where a material can be used as fuel it is not waste. But if judgement in September goes against them, Scottish Water will have spent its £65 million in vain and be left with an insoluble problem.

Well done the EU and its wonderful environment policy.

And it does not end there. Booker’s second story is about the OSS Group, run from Knowsley, near Liverpool. This is easily the largest firm in Britain dedicated to collecting most of the 400,000 tons of ‘waste oil’ generated each year by garages, workshops, farms and ships.

The oil is picked up all over the country by a fleet of 60 tankers, processed to remove contaminants and sold provide fuel for power stations, or to quarries for making roadstone.

But once again EU law is set to intervene. This highly useful multi-million pound business is now threatened with disaster when, next year, the EC’s waste incineration directive comes into force.

Officials of the Environment Agency have ruled that the oil cannot be classified as a ‘fuel’ but only as ‘waste’. Even though it is virtually indistinguishable from ‘virgin oil’, it cannot therefore be put to any useful purpose, but must be burned in incinerators (which do not yet exist).

The directive, drafted on the advice of German and other incinerator manufacturers, prescribes burning requirements which are appropriate only for the destruction of ‘waste’, not for re-cycling it to serve another purpose.

In the words of Paul Ramsden of the OSS Group, “after the ‘fridge mountain’ and the ‘scrap tyre pile’, must we expect Defra and the EA (together, strangely, an anagram of Deaf Ear) now to provide us with a ‘waste oil lake’?

For decades the UK has had an exemplary record in managing its used lubricating oils. By recovering them for other uses, it has been possible to provide an environmentally benign service, at little or no cost to the producers. But now this system is under threat, from officials who focus on nit-pickingly literal interpretation of the rules, apparently without regard for the consequences”.

As the cost of collecting and disposing of used lubricating oils soars, Mr Ramsden foresees that many of those who now have their oil collected to be put to good use will think they have no alternative but to tip it away. As they say – and we are fond of repeating – you simply couldn’t make it up.

To read these and Booker’s other stories, click here.

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