Case law: “Sludge means sludge”
An application for judicial review against the Environment Agency was refused in February. Cleansing Service Group Ltd applied for judicial review on policy guidance by the Agency, which set out its interpretation of an exemption in the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, relating to the storage of sludge.
The company’s business included the removal of sludge from customers’ septic tanks, which were transported to farms and transferred into storage tanks before being used as agricultural fertiliser. The tanks were fitted with grids, allowing debris in the sludge to be separated out.
Agricultural use of sludge is governed by Directive 86/278/EEC and the Sludge (Use in Agriculture) Regulations 1989. Under the 2016 Permitting Regulations, storage of residual sludge is exempt from the requirement to hold an environmental permit. However, the Agency issued guidance that screening sludge to remove debris is ‘treatment’, requiring a permit.
The company applied for judicial review of that guidance, but permission was refused; the judge decided it was not arguable that the screening of debris from sludge prior to storage fell within the exemption. It was concluded that it amounted to treatment, which needed to take place before the operation that fell within the exemption, and that there was no basis on which the screening could be excluded from the requirements. The company appealed and was granted permission to apply for judicial review.
The judge confirmed that “sludge” means “sludge” and “storage” means “storage”, and does not include any form of treatment. It was concluded that the screening process to remove debris was a form of treatment.
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