THE Scottish Government’s green watchdog has been accused of supporting a tax break that will lead to hundreds of thousands of tonnes of contaminated soil being dumped at landfill sites.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has backed new guidance proposed by the tax agency, Revenue Scotland, which could make it much cheaper to dispose of soil that has been polluted by industry.

Under the guidance, companies wanting to get rid of contaminated soil could pay £80 a tonne less tax to tip it into landfill sites. Industry experts fear this will mean less soil is cleaned up for use in building projects, putting specialised soil decontamination firms out of business.

Revenue Scotland is proposing new guidance on the landfill taxes imposed on firms disposing of soil. The option backed by Sepa would mean firms returning to the old “dig and dump” regime of the past, according to Edinburgh soil cleaning company Soilutions.

In a submission to Revenue Scotland’s consultation, published last week, the company’s managing director John Curran warned the guidance would open up a tax loophole. “Waste tourism from south of the Border is inevitable,” he said.

The “common practice” of playing down contamination levels to avoid tax would increase, he argued, leading to more hazardous soil going to landfill. Treatment centres recycling soil “will no longer be able to compete with the cheaper landfill alternative and will be forced to close”, he said.

A soil cleaning plant run by Soilutions at Torphin near Livingstone would have to shut down, said Curran, who added this would be “quite embarrassing” for Sepa as it helped select the plant for a major green award in 2014.

He added: “From academia through to industry, a considerable amount of resource has been expended in developing a soil remediation and recycling industry sector. By the introduction of the lower rate of landfill tax this industry will collapse with certain job losses.”

Curran was backed by John Ferguson, an expert from waste company Binn’s “eco park” in Perthshire and a former waste manager with Sepa. “Healthy soils and the conservation of soils are one of the foundations of civilization,” he told The National. “Why is Sepa even considering allowing the cheap disposal of non-hazardous contaminated soils when we have an active and highly capable soils treatment sector with the skills to treat and recover these soils?”

Ferguson argued that the move flew in the face of European attempts to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, adding: “It makes no sense to be promoting the cheap disposal of usable soils to landfill.”

Sepa, however, stressed it just reacting to proposals put forward by Revenue Scotland. It was concerned stricter standards and higher taxes would mean more soil was wrongly classified and illegally dumped.

Sepa pointed out that 1.2 million tonnes of soil had been disposed of at landfill sites in 2011 and 2012. “We have to take an overall environmental perspective, not a business perspective,” said Sepa’s principal waste policy officer, Gary Walker. “We have to balance our response”.

According to Revenue Scotland, the aim of its consultation had been to gather feedback on guidance to determine the correct rate of Scottish landfill tax on contaminated soils. It said it would publish its final recommendations on any amendments to the guidance by August 31.