Spate of ICI incidents turns focus on Agency's enforcement record

Mounting worries about the poor environmental performance of ICI's Chemicals & Polymers business - particularly at its chlorochemicals complex in Runcorn, Cheshire - were reinforced by two serious spills in May. The Environment Agency called a high-level meeting with the company to express its concern and seek commitment to major improvements across the ICI group as a whole. However, the Agency's new, tougher line has failed to dispel doubts about its effectiveness as a regulator - fuelled by the revelation that not a single programmed inspection of the Runcorn site has been carried out under the integrated pollution control (IPC) regime.

A series of major environmental incidents occurs at ICI sites; the pollution regulator summons the company's senior management to a meeting to express concern about reduced manning levels, loss of experienced staff and poor process control. An ICI spokesman says "we are getting fewer, not more of these incidents, but perhaps we're not getting better as fast as the public would expect us to."

History repeats itself
The year was 1987, the regulator was the former Industrial Air Pollution Inspectorate, and ICI's operations on Teesside were the main focus of concern (ENDS Report 151, p 3). Ten years on, a remarkably similar tale has unfolded - with the Environment Agency and ICI's Runcorn complex playing the starring roles.

Concern about the environmental performance of the Runcorn site has been brewing for some time. A year ago, ENDS found that 107 unauthorised releases occurred at the works in the first half of 1996 (ENDS Report 258, pp 3-5 ). Many were trivial, but one resulted in a prosecution by the Agency. In March, ICI was fined £15,000 for a discharge of 29 kilograms of ethylene dichloride into the nearby Weston Canal, leading to a breach of the statutory environmental quality standard (EQS) for the chemical (ENDS Report 266, p 51 ).

Since then, ICI has been swept along on a tide of bad news. In April, 150 tonnes of chloroform poured from a ruptured filter on a pipeline (ENDS Report 267, pp 3-4 ). Most of the spill soaked into the ground. High levels of the chemical were found in the canal, which has been dredged by the company in a bid to remove the contamination. At the time, ICI described the leak as "an exceptional release" and told ENDS that "we haven't had anything like this being spilled for many years." The Agency is considering a prosecution.

On 2 May, the Agency announced that it is also to prosecute ICI for breaching three authorisation conditions last October. The case relates to a discharge from the vinylidene chloride plant to the Weston Canal. At the same time, the Agency announced plans to send in a multi-disciplinary team to review the site's environmental management systems and operational practices. The investigation - due to be completed by the end of July - will be the regulator's second major audit of the Runcorn works in less than two years.

Two spills in four hours
Just two days later, ICI hit more trouble when two major spills occurred within a matter of hours at its Runcorn and North Tees sites. In the Runcorn incident, an estimated 57 tonnes of trichloroethylene was spilled in the site's solvents blending and packing area. The Agency's investigations point to a pressure surge in a pipeline which forced the lid off an in-line filter.

The leak continued for up to an hour before being detected. In common with most of the Runcorn site, the packing area has no active containment or bunding. Some 26 tonnes of the solvent was recovered from the floor of the packing shed, but an unknown quantity escaped to the canal via surface water drains. ICI refused to discuss details of the incident, which it expects to lead to another prosecution. ENDS understands that the company believes that most of the lost solvent evaporated and that less than one tonne entered the canal.

As this spill occurred, a major clean-up operation was under way at ICI's North Tees works, where 100-200 tonnes of naphtha had escaped from an overground pipe following a pressure imbalance. A large gas plume spread over the area, leading police to seal off roads near the plant and warn local residents to stay indoors and shut their windows. Eighty firefighters attended the incident and blanketed the spill with foam. Most of the naphtha was contained on-site, but some entered nearby ponds and killed 15 birds, invertebrates and fish. The Agency is still investigating the cause of the release.

Several other significant incidents have occurred at ICI's Teesside works in recent months. The Agency is considering a prosecution over a leak of tens of tonnes of crude oil from a pipeline at the North Tees works in March. The spill entered the river Tees, where ICI contained most of the slick with absorbent booms.

Other recent incidents include a release of the odorous gas dicyclopentadiene during overhaul of a cracker at the Wilton site which led ICI to send written apologies to over 1,000 nearby residents. The Agency also considered enforcement action after a release of two tonnes of propylene oxide from the Wilton works.

High-level meeting
The two latest incidents proved the final straw for the Agency. Director of Operations Archie Robertson said he was "extremely concerned by the frequency of potentially serious incidents at ICI plants in recent months." The Agency called ICI executives to a meeting in London to discuss C&P's recent poor performance. The last firm to receive such a high-level dressing-down was Unilever, which was called in by the Agency's predecessor, HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP), after a spate of incidents in 1995 (ENDS Report 242, pp 11-12 ).

A package of measures to be taken by ICI was agreed at the meeting (see box). Mr Robertson stressed: "I want to see improvements implemented more widely than at Runcorn." He called for "a major improvement in ICI's environmental performance. In short, I want to see a change in attitude across the company."

The Agency is in no doubt that ICI's overall performance has deteriorated markedly over the last six months. The trend is perhaps clearer at Teesside than at Runcorn.

Deteriorating performance
An Agency spokeswoman told ENDS that there had been a "flurry of enforcement activity" against ICI on Teesside. Over the last six months, the Agency has sent eight letters to the company saying it was "minded to" take formal action, as required by its new enforcement code (ENDS Report 256, p 34 ). None of these letters are on the public register - and because ICI complied with the Agency's requests speedily, they were not followed by formal enforcement notices.

A regional ICI spokesman said: "we do recognise that our recent performance is unacceptable. But if you take the long-term view - over ten years or thereabouts - our environmental performance has been improving." But the Agency's spokeswoman said that "every time something happens ICI deals with it very effectively. But we're looking to stop incidents happening in the first place." She suggested that the Agency would now be taking a "more heavy-handed approach" in its dealings with the company.

Two IPC inspectors on Teesside spend about half their time dealing with ICI C&P sites at Billingham, North Tees and Wilton and the ICI Acrylics site. Until recently, inspectors were making some 70 visits to these sites per year. But recent incidents and breaches of authorisations have led to an extra 25-30 visits over the past six months - effectively doubling the Agency's ICI-related workload.

Over the past 12 months, ICI C&P has reported some twenty incidents or breaches of authorisations at its three Teesside works. However, this is small beer compared to the record of the Runcorn site. On 1 June, the Sunday Times revealed that the site has reported 472 breaches of its authorisations since 1995, and dubbed it "Britain's most poisonous plant."

As always, the picture is rather more complex on closer inspection. The Runcorn site faces particular difficulties in moving towards the Agency's - and its own - goal of 100% compliance. It occupies a strip several kilometres long which runs beside, and slopes down to, the Weston Canal. About 40 discharges enter the canal, and ICI maintains that the site is subject to an unusually large number of discharge limits which make breaches more likely. Unlike many large chemical works, Runcorn does not have a central drainage system which could trap or dilute the impact of any chemical spills.

The site's record has been improving. 55 breaches were reported to the Agency in the first five months of 1997 - little more than half the rate for the same period last year. ICI says that this has been achieved by making all staff "more aware of the tougher environmental climate we are now operating under," spurred by "the tight limits and strict monitoring" required by the Agency. However, the improvement in routine compliance is little comfort when the number of significant incidents has shot up to four within ten months.

Further improvements are on the way. A £50 million project to incinerate halogenated liquid effluents and emissions from a large number of vents is due for completion in June. The scheme has suffered from considerable delays and technical difficulties during the commissioning phase. A £6 million incinerator to destroy releases of the potent greenhouse gas HFC-23 (ENDS Report 261, pp 4-5 ) is awaiting Board approval.

These projects notwithstanding, one of the root causes of the problems at Runcorn is the long-term inadequacy of ICI's capital investment and maintenance programmes. A former senior ICI manager has told ENDS that chronic under-investment, driven by City demands for short-term profits, has held back environmental improvements at Runcorn and other ICI works for many years (see p 3 ).

Starved of cash?
One concern is that the recent expenditure on high-profile projects may have led ICI to cut back on less glamorous but equally important activities such as maintenance, staff training or spillage containment. Indeed, for many years ICI has resisted pressure from the National Rivers Authority and the Agency to fit bunding and other containment measures - arguing that its management systems and safety culture would serve to prevent spills in the first place. Recent events suggest that its assessment of the risks left much to be desired.

In May, ICI announced its acquisition of Unilever's speciality chemicals businesses for £4.9 billion - a key part of a long-term strategy to move away from bulk commodity chemicals to high-value coatings, materials and speciality products. The company needs to raise £3 billion through divestments - with C&P's chlor-alkali business at Runcorn and ethylene plant at Wilton being prime candidates.

However, Runcorn's problematic environmental record may deter potential buyers. The chlor-alkali plants on the site are old and use outdated technology. The site also carries potentially huge liabilities for clean-up of groundwater, old effluent lagoons, and brine caverns which have been used to dispose of chlorinated wastes (ENDS Report 264, pp 24-26 ). The most obvious potential purchaser is EVC, which is already acquiring capacity on the site and is largely dependent on ICI to supply feedstock for its PVC manufacturing processes.

Questions over Agency's role
The recent incidents have dealt a serious blow to ICI's reputation, and a blow to the chemical industry's Responsible Care programme in which the company is a leading light.

The affair has, however, provided a gift-wrapped opportunity for the Agency to improve its credibility - and show the new Labour Government that it is not a toothless tiger. The Agency was strongly criticised by the House of Commons Environment Committee in a report on regulation of the cement industry earlier this year (ENDS Report 266, pp 30-32 ), and Environment Minister Michael Meacher has already said that he expects a tougher line on enforcement and prosecution.

However, past oversight of the Runcorn site by the Agency and HMIP has been far from rigorous. An IPC inspector visits the site roughly once a week to discuss applications, improvement proposals or incidents. But the Agency admitted to ENDS that neither it nor HMIP has ever carried out a formal IPC inspection at Runcorn - nearly six years after the site's processes began to come under the regime.

HMIP did conduct an in-depth IPC audit of the works in late 1995 - finding it "well-managed with good environmental policies, procedures and work systems" (ENDS Report 254, pp 8-9 ). Training was "excellent", maintenance systems were "fully adequate", and ICI showed "a good understanding of their responsibilities under IPC and a generally good level of compliance." Those conclusions have called the regulator's own credibility into question.

The failure to carry out a single inspection on one of the UK's largest and most complex chemical works also calls into question the adequacy of the Agency's entire IPC enforcement policy. Unpublished data show that the number of IPC-related site visits in 1996/97 declined from the already low level achieved in HMIP's final year.

The number of programmed inspections increased last year. But on average, the 2,027 IPC-authorised processes received less than two inspections per year. In the north-west - the region which covers the Runcorn site - just 1.3 annual inspections per process were achieved.

Further evidence suggests that the Agency is particularly weak on the ground in the north-west region. The Agency has allocated posts for a total of 91.5 IPC inspectors, which would make the average inspector responsible for 22 processes. At present, only 72 posts are filled. And just eight inspectors are in post in the north-west region's southern division - which covers some 300 IPC processes in the heavily industrialised areas in and around Merseyside and Manchester.

Shortage of inspectors

Short-staffing in the north-west provides only part of the explanation for complaints about regional inconsistencies in enforcement. An early example concerned HMIP's decision not to prosecute ICI for a major release of the carcinogenic gas vinyl chloride at Runcorn in 1994 (ENDS Report 235, pp 6-7 ). One IPC inspector told ENDS that "things get treated differently in the north-west than in other parts of the country. We've had to turn down our sensitivity meter there."

It remains to be seen whether the Agency's adoption of a tougher stance in its meetings with ICI will be implemented on the ground. But there is little doubt that ICI's difficulties have seriously damaged the chemical industry's hopes of convincing the new Government to persevere with a "light touch" approach towards environmental regulation.

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