Biffa whiff: Enforcement action and a need to “tighten up”

The Community Liaison meeting at the landfill site took place last Wednesday.

This is a regular meeting which happens twice a year.  This time attendance was higher than usual, because of the major smell problems this year.  Five Biffa managers and three Environment Agency staff, including their landfill gas specialist, were there, along with two staff from Surrey County Council Planning Dept, two local councillors (me and Jonathan Essex), two Nutfield Parish councillors, and eight residents, one representing Crispin Blunt MP.

Surrey County Councillor Jonathan Essex chaired the meeting.

The smell was the main topic, unsurprisingly.  The Environment Agency had received 587 complaints since January.

New enforcement action

The big news was that the Environment Agency had served an enforcement notice on Monday (10 March) requiring Biffa to take further steps to deal with the smell, as they were still in breach of their licence

The enforcement notice has strict timescales and if Biffa fails to meet the deadlines, the Environment Agency can take legal action. You can read the enforcement notice here.

What is Biffa doing?

Site manager Amie Jenner gave a detailed account of actions they had taken since the Environment Agency first required them to devise and deliver a plan to reduce the smell problem.

As before, Amie attributed the smell to the unusually wet winter.  But she did acknowledge that gas infrastructure hadn’t been installed in cell 6, which had been active from July 2013 up to 16 January.

Amie’s presentation was full of technical detail so I won’t attempt to reproduce it here (but have asked for her slides so can share details with the technically-minded when they arrive).  In summary, since January, they have installed more gas extraction equipment across the site, including an additional ring main, pin wells, scavengers and a temporary flare.

The rain also led to an increase in leachate (liquid waste that drains from the landfill).  Normally leachate is pumped to the on-site treatment plant but since December it is being removed in tankers to a sewage works for treatment.  The Environment Agency told me that the leachate probably contributes about 50/50 with gas to the smell.

Biffa is also adding capping and repairing tears in existing plastic capping on the site.

When will it stop smelling?

The Biffa staff were very reluctant to answer the question of when the smell will go away.  They made vague statements such as, “As work is ongoing we expect to see a decrease in odour”.  Eventually their Waste Recovery Managing Director, Mick Davis, said, “The temporary lining of cell 6 is 4-6 weeks away and that should have an effect on the odour.”

Air pollution

The Environment Agency is sending its air quality monitoring data to Public Health England, but frustratingly, PHE has not yet made a full response. They say that the majority of the hydrogen sulphide (H2S) readings are below WHO guidelines, though there may be some peaks above this level.

Biffa is also monitoring for H2S at a number of points around the landfill. They say their “results show low levels with an average of 0.008 parts per million (ppm) H2S.  There have been intermittent spikes which have been correlated with complaints.”  Jonathan asked for the highest levels they have measured and Amie agreed to supply this information.

The potential health impacts of the smell are a huge concern for residents so it is frustrating that we are still waiting for detailed data and specific advice.

However, based on the limited information available, the levels of H2S are probably not causing lasting damage. The smell is detected at extremely low levels – the 0.008ppm Biffa are measuring. Health impacts kick in at a much higher level – 2ppm for individuals with asthma and 4ppm for eye complaints.  2ppm is 250 times higher than the 0.008ppm average level Biffa is measuring now.

We are chasing both PHE and Biffa to release more information on the air quality monitoring and specific advice on the health impacts.

“We have to tighten up”

Following the discussion on the actions taken to deal with the recent emergency, Jonathan Essex asked if Biffa would mainstream the new practices.  Mick Davis acknowledged, “We have to tighten up” – and said they would use the forthcoming summer months to improve.

A formalised investigation

As well as pursuing the enforcement action, the Environment Agency will carry out a more formalised investigation of this event and why it occurred. They will be monitoring at Water Colour from the end of March for four months for H2S and other trace gases.

Other issues

As well as the smell, a number of other issues were raised.  Simon Elson from Surrey County Council expressed his displeasure at the slowness of the landscaping at the south of the site.

There were discussions of the foot and cycle path along the north of the site, which Biffa damaged and which is still largely impassable.

Also raised was the issue of broken bricks on the road outside the site entrance, which are a serious hazard as they can be thrown up by the wheels of lorries or cars. Amie will carry out an audit to confirm that drivers are checking their wheels as they leave, as they should.

Bird strike, potholes on Cormongers Lane, and the issue of lorries parking overnight on the highway and in the entrance to the site were all raised too and will be taken up with Surrey County Council.

Public meeting

Both the Environment Agency and residents have been asking Biffa for a public meeting at which residents could get answers to their questions about the causes of the smell and its effects.

Resident Katie Prusynski, who was at the meeting representing Crispin Blunt, offered to arrange a meeting, as did the Watercolour Residents Association, but Biffa did not commit to this.

I had taken along questions and comments from residents who had asked me to put their views before Biffa. I left copies with landfill site manager Amie Jenner and Environment Agency Pollution Prevention and Control Officer John Radclyffe and will forward on any replies they give.

 Time will tell…

As we left, the site was stinking and the following morning was one of the worst days yet. Everyone within sniffing distance of the site is hoping that the new works will yield quick results and that Biffa will have learned the lessons of this incident and tightened up their procedures.

I’m glad to say that where I live, just west of the site, we have just enjoyed a pleasantly smell-free weekend. I dearly hope this is a result of the work Biffa is doing and not just a temporary blip.

We will continue to liaise with the Environment Agency, Biffa and the local and county councils and will aim to keep you updated via this blog.


More information

Clarification on the impact of Redhill Gas Emissions – statement from Biffa added 18 March

Impact on Health of Emissions from Landfill Sites – report by the Health Protection Agency

Environment Agency 24-hour incident line to report the smell: 0800 807060


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