Consultation on control of odours from sewage works

Four options for controlling odours from sewage treatment works in England were put forward in a consultation paper issued by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs just before Christmas.1

The proposals are intended to fill a gap in the law which was exposed by a court case in March 2000. Before then, local authorities had successfully tackled odour pollution problems from sewage works by serving abatement notices under the statutory nuisance provisions of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

However, that option was closed by the court case when Yorkshire Water appealed successfully against an abatement notice. The court agreed with the company that sewage works are not covered by the statutory nuisance regime because they are not "premises" within the meaning of the Act.

The ruling has defeated several subsequent attempts by local authorities to deal with serious odour problems.

  • Notices served by Liverpool City Council on United Utilities in an attempt to remedy a persistent odour problem caused by the massive Sandon Dock sewage works in the city were quashed by magistrates, leaving the council with a £32,000 bill in court costs.

    Some 8,000 residents are now seeking civil damages of around £5,000 each from United Utilities in an action under the Human Rights Act. Meanwhile, the company is investing £22 million in a project to cover part of the works to enable odorous emissions to be collected and treated.

  • Last May, Brentford magistrates quashed abatement notices served on Thames Water by the London Borough of Hounslow in respect of another long-standing odour and mosquito nuisance problem caused by the firm's Mogden sewage works.

    Thames Water's promise that the problem would be remedied by a £20 million refurbishment of the works' sludge digesters has so far failed to deliver. On the day that DEFRA published its consultation paper, the company announced that a further £2 million will be invested in measures to tackle the nuisance directly.

  • Abatement notices served by Plymouth City Council on South West Water in respect of an odour nuisance created by the new Cattedown sewage works in the city were withdrawn by the council after it took legal advice on the implications of the Yorkshire Water case. In a House of Commons debate last year, the company was criticised for causing "four years of pong, pollution and misery" to local residents (ENDS Report 325, pp 41-42 ).

    Residents' groups around these works and a fourth in Leith have linked up to campaign for a change in the law. The Seafield works in Leith is a private finance venture run by Stirling Water in which Thames Water is a partner, and also faces civil action under the Human Rights Act.

    DEFRA's consultation paper puts forward four options:

  • A voluntary code of practice setting "a clear standard for odour control that all water companies should aim to attain." The paper acknowledges that this approach would lack teeth in cases where voluntary action was not forthcoming from water companies.

  • Restore the legal situation to that believed to prevail before the Yorkshire Water case by redefining the term "premises" in the 1990 Act or otherwise bringing sewage works under the statutory nuisance regime.

    Potential drawbacks, the paper notes, would be that different odour control standards might be required by different local authorities, and magistrates' courts might come to different conclusions about whether a particular odour control method constituted the "best practicable means" - the key defence against an abatement notice.

  • Bring all sewage works except those due to come under the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) regime in 2004 within the scope of Local Air Pollution Prevention and Control so that they employ the "best available techniques" (BAT) to control odours and other emissions to air.

  • Bring all sewage works under IPPC. This appears not to be a favoured option since, the paper notes, water companies would be obliged to employ BAT for a wide range of issues such as noise, waste and energy use which are unrelated to odour control and "could be seen as a disproportionate approach to an odour problem."

    However, the paper makes no reference to the other potential environmental benefits of this option - nor to the possibility that bringing all sewage works under IPPC might make them eligible for a climate change levy agreement and an accompanying 80% discount on the climate levy, which the water industry has long been lobbying for.

    The latter two options would be the most expensive for water companies and their customers, with odour control costs having to be incorporated in the five-year price-setting process for the industry. DEFRA has promised to publish shortly a full regulatory impact assessment of all four options.

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