Serious water pollution incidents on the rise

The number of serious water pollution incidents in England and Wales increased by 50% in 2001, according to the Environment Agency's annual "spotlight" on business environmental performance.1 Meanwhile, the Agency has published operator pollution risk appraisal (OPRA) scores for major industrial sites for the first time.

The Agency's "hall of shame" report on the year's most prosecuted companies was first published in 1999 in a move designed to embarrass polluters. In the face of criticism from chemicals, water and waste companies, the Agency softened its stance by reporting on both good and poor performers in its annual spotlight report (ENDS Report 306, pp 3-4 ).

Last year saw a 50% increase in the most serious category 1 and 2 water pollution incidents to 118, up from 77 in 2000 and reversing a long-term improving trend. The Agency lays the blame at the door of the "usual suspects" - water companies and farmers.

In 2001, the water industry was responsible for 11% of all pollution incidents and 17% of the most serious incidents affecting water. The Agency says that the sector's performance is "unacceptable". It urges it to "refocus management attention."

The Agency shames United Utilities Water as one of the worst culprits. In 2001, it was prosecuted for 12 pollution offences and fined a total of £70,500, often for discharges of raw sewage into rivers (ENDS Report 319, pp 54-55 ). Other companies with deteriorating records last year were Welsh, Thames, Wessex and Northumbrian Water.

United may top the sector's pollution league table next year, too. It was fined a total of £200,000 in April and May for a string of sewage disinfection failures (ENDS Report 328, p 60 ), and was hit with a further £17,000 fine in June (see p 58 ).

Agriculture is also singled out by the Agency. Last year, the number of serious category 1 incidents involving farm discharges almost doubled from 21 to 38.

The Agency also turned its ire on service and retail companies, including some high street names, which were responsible for 30 cases with fines above £10,000 - more than any other sector.

TotalFinaElf was fined £50,000 in February 2001 for spilling several thousand litres of oil at a Derbyshire depot in one of the UK's worst groundwater pollution incidents (ENDS Report 313, p 53 ). The company's poor performance continued last May with its fifth prosecution for water pollution within two years (ENDS Report 328, pp 59-60 ).

High street retailers Tesco, Stylo Barratt Shoes and JJB Sports were all fined for offences in 2001.

Another striking change last year was the increase in category 1 and 2 air pollution incidents from the waste sector, more than doubling to around 350 last year. Some of these were related to landfilling of carcasses during the foot and mouth outbreak.

The Agency took more prosecutions in 2001. It brought 720 successful court cases - up from 694 in 2000. Enforcement notices also increased to 478 from 411 the previous year.

However, the average fine per prosecution for companies fell to £6,410 compared with £8,532 in 2000 - although a handful of very large fines may have distorted the average in 2000. As before, the Agency complained that "often the level of fines does not reflect the negligence involved and the environmental damage done."

In late July, the Agency also published OPRA scores for major industrial sites regulated under integrated pollution control (IPC).2 Scores for waste management sites will be published in September.

The OPRA scheme assigns a risk rating to each site based on an appraisal of its inherent risk to the environment and the operator's ability to management it (ENDS Report 271, pp 32-33 ).

The report says that most sites are "low hazard" and "well managed", but 13% are high hazard and 6% poorly managed.

Of 325 companies in the chemicals sector, over 40% appear in the top two "best" bands (A-B) for operator performance. 5% are in the "D" band, indicating poor management. No chemical companies are rated in the bottom band "E".

The report names only two sites with poor operator scores: EPR's biomass plant at Ely and waste company Absolute Solvents at Westbury. Both get an E rating for operator performance.

The report also highlights good performance - often driven by regulation. Emissions of volatile organic compounds from the chemicals sector were 17% lower than in 2000. At Eastman's Llangefni works, VOCs were reduced by 70% following commissioning of a regenerative thermal oxidiser.

In the metals sector, copper tubing manufacturer Mueller cut particulate emissions by 90% as part of a £0.6 million investment in pollution control at it Bilston works. Stainless steel producer AvestaPolarit cut particulate releases by 38% at its Sheffield works, while Alcoa UK achieved a 70% reduction at its aluminium recovery works in Banbury.

The minerals sector cut its particulate emissions by 19% last year, with Owens Corning Fiberglas contributing a 47% reduction at its Wrexham works.

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