Overview

Commercial Waste Composting Operations are a rapidly increasing source of odour complaints across the UK, with thousands reporting noxious odours and health concerns about the affects of bioaerosol emissions.

Composting is part of the UK’s waste strategy for reducing the amount of waste sent to landfill but it is important that composting sites are located correctly and well run.

Hugh James continues to work with local groups to fight for better regulation and for compensation where people’s lives and health have been affected.

Environmental law

We are one of the UK’s leading specialists in the field of environmental law and one of only a handful of firms in the country with the knowledge and expertise to successfully conduct environmental claims. We represent large communities right through to the individual with clients located throughout England and Wales.

All environmental claimant cases are dealt with by a dedicated team within the environment group headed by partner Stephanie Eedy. Our environmental personnel keep up to date with legal developments that affect the work and together we have built up many years of experience in the field. We pride ourselves on the fact that we provide the same efficient friendly service to all clients large or small.

Key contact

Stephanie specialises in group actions on behalf of communities and residents across England and Wales affected by various forms of environmental pollution such as odour, noise and dust emanating from factories, landfill sites and other similar commercial entities.  She has successfully concluded a number of environmental group actions in locations within the UK and has secured compensation and an end to the nuisance on behalf of a large number of individuals.

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Your questions answered

How does waste composting work?
 

Most composting operations involve the composting of vegetation and vegetable waste and bark. The waste is generally stored for ‘bulking up’ prior to shredding. It is then composted in elongated rows known as ‘windrows.’ The process can take some 10 to 16 weeks depending on the required quality of the final compost. As part of the process the windrows need to be aerated from time to time. This is done by turning them often using machinery. Once the composting process is complete the material is often screened to size it and remove unwanted material and it is then stockpiled.

Why do some composting sites cause odour?
 

Problems sometimes occur if a windrow (a row of composting waste) does not get enough oxygen to keep it aerated, or if it becomes saturated, it will become anaerobic. Anaerobic windrows can produce methane gas and hydrogen sulphide. This may generate odours from the windrows. Turning an anaerobic windrow will increase the odour generated. Odours may also be generated by failing to keep the composting area clean and drainage channels clear.

Who is responsible for regulating compost sites?
 

The Environment Agency is primarily responsible for regulation as in order to store, sort or compost waste material, or spread waste compost onto land, a Waste Management Licence or site exemption is generally required with the Environment Agency. Whether a Waste Management Licence or an exemption is required will depend on the types and quantity of wastes.

Although the Environment Agency are responsible for site regulation the local authority also retains powers under the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to serve Abatement Notice if is it satisfied that a statutory nuisance is being caused.

What are bioaerosols?
 

Bioaerosols are in essence micro-organisms (bacteria, fungi/moulds or viruses) or their products that are airborne. As composting is a natural process in which micro-organisms are encouraged to grow to break down waste material large numbers of micro-organisms are present in compost and any handling of the material can create a bioaerosol. This can happen when the piles of material (called windrows) have to be aerated or turned. Further bioaerosols are likely to be created at the end of the process when the compost is often sieved.

Is there any health risks associated with bioaerosols?
 

Concerns have been raised that bioaerosols generated from composts can affect health. The Health and Safely Executive have prepared a report on this very question.

The primary objective of the HSE study was to critically review published literature related to studies of airborne micro-organisms or their constituent parts (bioaerosols) associated with organic waste composting facilities, and to establish whether there is a risk to worker health from the inhalation of these bioaerosols.

The review aimed to identify the personnel at risk on compost sites, identify the circumstances which increased the risk and indicate suitable control measures to control the risk. A further consideration was that airborne dispersal of bioaerosols from compost facilities could affect neighbouring facilities or residents, leading to health concerns, and the review also looked at evidence of bioaerosol dissemination from sites, potential exposures and reported ill health.

The full report is available at http://www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr130.pdf.

If I work with compost should I be worried about bioaerosols?
 

If you work with compost, you may be exposed to bioaerosols, because of the large number of micro-organism present in compost. If you breathe in those micro-organisms in large numbers over a long period they can trigger an allergic reaction. This can range form a short-term flu-like reaction (inhalation fever) to longer-term ill health such as asthma or bronchitis. Once a person has become sensitised, subsequent exposure to even a smaller quantity can trigger the allergy.

Your employer is obliged by the Health and Safety at Work Act and regulations to assess the risk to you.

I live near a composting site. Will I be exposed to bioaerosols and will they affect my health?
 

Residents living near composting sites often complain of ill health affects such as exacerbation of Asthma, bronchitis and itchy eyes. Whether these symptoms are actually being caused by raised levels of bioaerosol is difficult to prove.

A study by C E W Herrof the Institute of Hygiene and Environmental Medicine, Medical Centre, Faculty of Medicine, Justus-Liebig-University of Giessen, Germany in 2002 did however find that bioaerosol pollution of residential outdoor air can occur in concentrations found in occupational environments. The study showed that residents exposed to bioaerosol pollution were shown to report irritative respiratory complaints similar to mucous membrane irritation independently of perceived odours.

What guidance is there from the Environment Agency?
 

The Environment Agency has a general presumption against permitting of any new composting process if the boundary of the facility is within 250 metres of a work place or the boundary of a dwelling, unless the application is accompanied by a site specific risk assessment.

The Environment Agency issued a position statement which stipulated that if new composting sites, or new activities on existing sites, are less than 250m from a sensitive receptor such as a nearby residential property, they must assess any health risk and, if necessary, control potential exposure of that sensitive receptor to bioaerosols.

The 250m distance was estimated from previous studies which indicated that by this distance any bioaerosols associated with commercial composting would disperse in the atmosphere and concentrations would be reduced to background levels.

Quotes

Gwen Evans specialises in acting for claimants in group actions relating to environmental pollution. She recently represented a community in a nuisance claim due to dust fallout from a steel plant. One market source said: ‘She gets through a lot of detail very quickly and is unflappable.’

Chambers and Partners UK

Quotes

I and 130 of my neighbours have had cause to engage ‘Hugh James’ to deal with a current problem that is ongoing at the moment and have found their professionalism and assistance in all matters so far to be of a very high standard. They seem to be tenacious, approachable and responsive to any concerns I have had throughout and for such a service I would not hesitate to recommend them to anyone whom may find that they have to embark on a similar path.

Anonymous client

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Hugh James recently successfully represented local residents in a difficult and major claim against a landfill operator. Throughout the case, we were extremely impressed by the way in which the case was presented and handled. The solicitor acting on our behalf fully explained our position, opportunities, and strategies, at all times displaying professionalism of the highest order. The pleasant, courteous and patient manner in which everything was fully and effectively explained contributed greatly to success in winning the difficult and complicated case.

Anonymous client

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I wanted to thank you and your team for the way in which you have handled the case. Right from the earliest meetings and the regular updates, things were laid out clearly and emotive issues handled with sensitivity. It’s also clear that you were successful in the negotiations delivering a result that would not have been possible without you. Thanks again for all your work.

Manchester Airport claimant.

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“.. What you have achieved for us is worth more than cash alone. We have been let down by the regulators time and again and Hugh James is the only organisation which has achieved anything for us long-suffering residents. I want to thank you for what you have achieved.”

Mr B – South Yorkshire

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So far, I have found Hugh James to be very open and honest in their dealings. They are very good at keeping us informed of what is happening, and they always ask before carrying out any actions on our behalf. Based on my experience so far, I would have no hesitation in recommending them to help in any action you are considering or pursuing.

Mr Paris

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I would just like to thank your company for the efficient way you have handled this matter / you have kept me regularly informed by the way of letters explaining all procedures and possible outcomes in relation to the investigation.

Mr Tarvin (Hampshire)

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I have to admit that I was very skeptical at first, as it did not seem possible that I would not be considerably out of pocket should we have lost the case at court. However you were able to put my mind at rest. With the success of the claim, I feel this has completely justified our efforts in complaining to the defendant and recording the times etc of the worst incidents. The smell really was nasty at times, which most importantly has now ceased.

Mr Tarvin (Hampshire)

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The reason I joined and contributed to this group claim, was to bring an improvement to my own, and neighbour's environmental living conditions. This has largely been met. Without your involvement, Cannock Council would not have felt it necessary to become involved and we would still be in the same position as we have been for the past forty years. For this, I thank you and Hugh James. Our whole community will reap the benefit of this for years to come.

Mr Woodman (Norton Aluminium Group Litigation)

Quotes

The “unstoppable” Neil Stockdale is head of the environment team at the firm. He maintains his position as a market leader on group actions for claimants affected by pollution and blight including odour or noise. Interviewees say he is ‘highly experienced,’ ‘very focused’ and ‘very approachable.’

Chambers and Partners UK

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