Chemical industry improves, but Minister asks for more

The chemical industry improved its environmental performance on most indicators last year, according to a report from the Chemical Industries Association (CIA). But the sector has been warned that pollution incidents will attract tougher enforcement action - and has been urged by the Government to make more effort on environmental reporting and certified environmental management systems.

The CIA's report is its fifth annual account of its members' progress in implementing the "Responsible Care" programme. At the launch on 26 June, junior Environment Minister Angela Eagle said she was impressed with the programme and urged other sectors to follow suit. But she also voiced a warning.

Local people in Runcorn, she said, "will be far more aware of the recent pollution incident at ICI than they are of your commendable `Responsible Care' initiative. The risk for the industry is that all the good work that goes on under that heading is negated overnight with an incident of [that] kind."

Indeed, the recent series of incidents at ICI's plants (ENDS Report 268, pp 23-26 ) may have repercussions for other chemical companies. "We have recently made clear to the [Environment] Agency's senior managers our desire that all significant violations of environmental standards and licences should be met with rigorous enforcement action," Ms Eagle said. "Polluters must be in no doubt that standards are to be respected and the public must be able to have confidence in environmental regulation."

Included in the CIA's report are estimates of environmental expenditure by the entire chemical industry, not just its member companies.

On capital expenditure, recent annual CIA surveys have greatly exaggerated the likely burden of environmental regulation, forecasting that environmental spending would account for up to 24% of total spending by the mid-1990s. In fact, the highest figure was 14% in 1992, and last year it dipped to 11%, the lowest since 1991. Actual spending in 1996 was £243 million.

Even these figures are inflated - by an unknown amount - by the CIA's practice of treating entire investment in new capacity as "environmental" where the "main reason for undertaking the expenditure is to manufacture products with improved environmental benefits, e.g. alternatives to CFCs."

Operating expenditures on environmental protection totalled £723 million in 1996, accounting for 5% of the industry's operating costs. In cash terms the figure has barely changed since 1992, and in real terms it is now some way below the 1990 level of £652 million.

The report shows that improvements occurred in most areas of the industry's performance last year. The figures are based on returns from 99% of the 333 manufacturing sites run by CIA members - the highest rate to date. However, not all firms provided full data, and so for some indicators the CIA used matched samples of companies reporting data for both 1995 and 1996 to illustrate trends.

  • Discharges to water of "red list" substances have been reduced by 91% since 1990, with a further small reduction in 1996. In absolute terms, 237 sites discharged 360 tonnes of red list substances in 1990, compared with 339 sites reporting a total discharge of 37 tonnes in 1996.

  • Off-site disposal of "special wastes" declined by 24% between 1990 and 1994, but rose to 83% of the 1990 baseline in 1995. Last year saw a further setback with an increase to 95% of the 1990 figure, though this was due in part to a change in the definition of special waste in September.

    Total special waste arisings for off-site disposal amounted to 557,166 tonnes in 1996, with 52% going to landfill, 18% to both reprocessing and incineration, and 12% to energy recovery - probably as cement kiln fuel.

  • Included in the report for the first time are emissions of volatile organic compounds. Emissions fell by 7% last year, when 208 sites reported a total figure of 80,000 tonnes.

  • The proportion of sites with formal procedures for responding to public complaints increased from 60% in 1980 to 89% last year. Complaints per site have declined from 15.9 to 8.3 over the same period.

  • The number of companies producing environmental reports showed only a slight increase last year. At site level, 64% produced reports, but 46% of these were intended solely for employees. At corporate level, 68% produced reports, of which 29% went only to employees. External verification was carried out for 12% of local and 16% of corporate reports.

  • 65% of CIA members have formal environmental management systems - but only 6% have certified systems. According to the report, 21 sites had certified systems by the end of 1996, but another 80 reported that they intend to seek certification.

    This was one of three areas singled out by Ms Eagle for the next phase of Responsible Care. She suggested that the CIA set a target to increase the number of companies with certified environmental management systems "over the next few years."

    The Minister also urged the industry to "lead the way on environmental reporting - improving the quality of reports, increasing the amount of quantified information disclosed and making greater use of external verification." And she proposed that the CIA work with the Government "to develop environmental indicators of performance to enable companies in the industry see how their progress compares with others in the industry and with other industries."

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