The heatwave this summer has significantly reduced the number of inspections at waste and material export sites, the Environment Agency has revealed.
The diversion of officers to check on fish kills and pollution incidents was explained by senior Agency official Marie Fallon last week to MPs on the Environmental Audit Committee.
Ms Fallon, who is director of regulated industry, was challenged by the committee over the level of inspections carried out in the wake of a critical National Audit Office report which revealed a falling number of inspections and a failure to meet targets.
The Agency official told the MPs that instead of inspections the Agency was working in a more focused way on intelligence as the waste industry and criminals are “sophisticated”.
But, a clearly concerned committee chair, Mary Creagh, said: “I’m not satisfied with your answer on compliance inspections. First of all they’ve fallen well short of your own target, so that sounds to me like a problem. We know there’s a high incentive for fraud.
“You’ve talked about the criminal trade and of course people are getting money through the PRN system and your inspections don’t focus on companies which your organisation knows to be high risk.”
Mrs Creagh then referred to the National Audit Office report which saw in 2012 400 inspections made against target of 600. “Last year,” said Mrs Creagh, “the target was 360 and you achieved 100. But, in 2017/18, there were five companies stopped by you. Three had shipments stopped in previous years, one had past containers returned over a three year period – these people are at it year in year out. You know where they are, why aren’t you going after them?
Ms Fallon said that the exporters have to check whether the company complies with the regulations in the country they are exporting too. But she said the Agency recognised it has been an issue.
On the dry weather, Ms Fallon said: “Probably people have noticed that our teams have been impacted by the dry weather.”
Asked by Mrs Creagh if this was to attend fires, Ms Fallon said, to “a whole range of things to fish kills, pollution incidents, so our teams locally have been much more affected by the dry weather this year.”
“So the heatwave is affecting the inspection of contaminated waste”, said Mrs Creagh.
“Can be yeah,” said the Agency official, “because our staff locally have a duty role so as part of our role of a category one responder we respond. The impact on the business has been significant.”
She also explained that the Agency was putting a new team in place because of failures to inspect at a local level. “We can do better, of course we can. We accept that in terms of the figures on inspections that we have not met the targets. We did some work ourselves and found that at a local level, other issues were often impacting on their ability to carry these inspections out. That could be anything from dealing with a high risk fire site where there is an incident, a landfill site where there might be emissions or a smell. Their work is often demand driven by local issues. That means sometimes unfortunately they don’t prioritise the work on packaging.
“That’s not acceptable so what we have done is we have changed the way, or we are changing the way – and that’s acknowledged in the report. We are centralising the service so they are not impacted by issues locally so we will be having a central team that will be focusing very much on the high risk sites and working together with our intelligence team to make that much better.”