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Family suffered prolonged nuisance and stress after Environment Agency failed to take enforcement action against landfill site

Organisation we investigated: Environment Agency

Date investigation closed: 29 May 2019

The complaint

Complainants J and B complained that the Environment Agency (EA) has repeatedly failed to enforce environment control permits issued to a landfill site. Complainants J and B said that they experienced odours, noise, litter, dust and vermin, amongst other disruption. They said that Complainant B suffered an illness as a direct result of toxins produced at the site. They also said their house had been devalued by approximately £150,000.

What we found

Complainants J and B complained to the EA about a range of issues that fell within its responsibility as the regulator and issuer of environment permits, including the overfilling of waste cells, the gas management system, odour, noise, litter and bird control.

The landfill site performed poorly for much of the nine‑year period complained about. EA’s role was to ensure the site complied with the permits it had issued. EA took appropriate action to ensure a gas management system, but this was delayed because the operator was following the appeals process.

We found that EA had asked the operator to undertake a survey of one of the waste cells to see whether it had been overfilled. The operator did not do this. EA did not take any enforcement action for two years. EA told Complainants J and B that there was no evidence of overfilling, despite its own evidence and action two years earlier.

EA was not customer-focused in its initial contact with Complainants J and B. The first proactive contact with residents, including the complainants, was four years after the site opened. EA also did not do enough to monitor the complaints that were made directly to the site operator during the first four years of operation, so it did not have a clear idea of how many complaints had been made about the site.

We saw that EA increased its compliance and enforcement action against the operator after the site had been in use for seven years. However, it did not do enough in the years before, given the large number of complaints about the site. EA did not escalate enforcement action, even when it became clear there were repeated breaches of the permit.

Complainants J and B suffered nuisance and stress over a prolonged period. Had EA acted quicker and more forcefully, the impact on them would have been reduced. However, we did not find that EA’s failings caused Complainant B’s health issues or that it was responsible for the selling price of their house.

Background

Complainants J and B’s house borders the boundary of the landfill site. They had bought their house before the site was used as a landfill, but the site had existing planning permission for use as landfill. The landfill site is operated by a private company. The site was sectioned into cells, which were capped when full.

EA is responsible for ensuring the company meets its responsibilities through environment permits. The primary purpose of the permits is to control and regulate pollution and emissions arising from landfill operations. When EA visits a site, it records findings in a Compliance Assessment Report. If it observes a breach, it records the site as being non-compliant.

Complainants J and B began raising concerns with EA a year after the site opened. They raised their first formal complaint four years later, and their complaints to EA were ongoing until they sold their home a further four years later.

Putting it right

We recommended EA apologise to Complainants J and B and pay them £6,000 in recognition of the impact its failings had on them.

We recognised EA had revised its processes and guidance to deal with non‑compliance with permits. However, we recommended it review its procedures and policies for monitoring complaints to site operators and its engagement with the public and residents.

EA have complied with our recommendations.

This case summary is featured in the Ombudsman's Casework Report 2019.