Chemical Release Inventory at the crossroads

A major overhaul of the moribund Chemical Release Inventory (CRI) has been proposed by the Environment Agency. Plans for standardised reporting of releases against a list of priority substances have been welcomed by the chemical industry, which sees an opportunity to improve the comparability and credibility of its own environmental reports. But unless a new scheme - backed by adequate resources - is introduced swiftly, hopes that the CRI would provide a measure of the success of integrated pollution control (IPC) in reducing industrial releases will be frustrated.

In the run-up to the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the then Environment Minister David Trippier saw the USA's Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) in action. Impressed, he instructed HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) to set up a "somewhat" similar system, albeit without legislative backing.

Looking to the USA
The TRI, set up in 1987, required firms above a certain threshold to report releases and off-site transfers against a common list of over 300 substances. The list was recently expanded to 600 substances, and in April the total number of facilities covered by the TRI was increased to some 20,000.

In 1995, President Clinton claimed that the TRI had helped to achieve a 43% reduction in toxic releases. "Now that's a law worth passing," he said. "No new bureaucracy; just power to the people through basic knowledge. This has kept millions of pounds of chemicals out of our lives...It's also helped to spur innovation to help businesses work smarter and become more profitable, not less profitable."

The TRI provided a powerful incentive for voluntary emission reductions, such as the "33/50" programme. In 1992, David Slater, HMIP's Chief Inspector and now the Agency's Director of Environmental Protection, noted that use of TRI data to produce "league tables" of polluters "means that companies are scrambling to get out of the top ten. Companies using cleaner technologies get the credit they deserve" (ENDS Report 214, pp 29-30 ). The Netherlands, Canada, Australia, Mexico and South Africa have all introduced inventories, and other states in the OECD and developing world are planning to follow suit.

CRI's shortcomings
So far, however, the UK's CRI has conspicuously failed to make anything like the same impact. Structural shortcomings and a lack of resources mean that the system has satisfied neither industry, environmentalists or the Agency itself.

In 1995, Friends of the Earth (FoE) embarrassed HMIP by publishing CRI data for individual IPC processes in a user-friendly form on the Internet (ENDS Report 249, pp 8-9 ). The move confirmed a considerable demand for such information. FoE's website has attracted many more requests for information than the Agency's database, paper-based report of aggregated CRI data, or IPC public registers. But FoE has refrained from drawing up league tables of polluters because it regards the CRI data as so flawed that comparisons between processes would be almost meaningless.

The first problem is that the CRI covers only IPC-authorised processes. Industry sectors came under IPC in a phased programme, so a full data set will not be available until 1997. Moreover, the CRI is not a comprehensive database of all significant polluters because many significant sources are covered by local authority air pollution control (LAAPC) or consents to discharge to water rather than IPC.

Secondly, reporting requirements are often inconsistent because they were based on substances for which release limits were set in IPC authorisations. But limits often reflect what is considered necessary for process control rather than environmental significance. For example, only 60% of incinerators, and few if any other combustion processes, were required to report dioxin emissions. Similarly, half of cement works were required to report CO2 emissions - but power stations were not asked to do so.

This problem has been compounded by an inconsistent approach to groupings of substances such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The CRI database for 1995, for example, has ten categories to describe emissions of lead to air - including lead, lead compounds, lead particulate, metal fume, total heavy metals and various groupings of heavy metals. The true figure for lead emissions from IPC processes could lie anywhere between 51 and 156 tonnes.

Other shortcomings include the CRI's failure to capture many fugitive emissions, or to distinguish between discharges to sewer and to controlled waters. The CRI has also been hamstrung by a lack of resources. The USA's TRI is run on an annual budget of some $40 million with around 40 staff, while the Agency has one full-time official looking after the CRI. As a result, data for releases in 1995 - due out a year ago - have still not been published.

Towards a TRI approach
The Agency is now seeking to address many of these failings. In June, it unveiled proposals for a revamped CRI at a seminar of industry and pressure group representatives. In one of two important moves towards the TRI approach, the Agency suggested that operators should move away from the current process-based CRI to report site-wide emissions - including those from non-IPC processes on the same site.

The second main shift towards a TRI-type system was the Agency's suggestion that all IPC-authorised operators should report against a priority list of substances for each of the three environmental media. Individual sites may still be required to report releases of certain non-priority substances.

The Agency argues that "good quality information for a limited number of significant pollutants is more useful than unreliable information on a long list of substances." The priority lists should, it says, include pollutants with potential to harm the "global commons" - including greenhouse and acid gases and ozone-depleting chemicals - and those with recognised public health implications. Pollutants which are persistent, toxic and bioaccumulative, or where the UK has international reporting responsibilities, would also be included.

The Agency's proposed list of priority substances to air (see table ) has been designed with an eye on local authorities' responsibilities under the national air quality strategy (ENDS Report 266, pp 33-34 ). Reporting of industrial PM10 emissions could fill a particularly important gap in knowledge of current emission sources. However, the continued absence of data on LAAPC sources in the CRI remains the main weakness in its value for building local emissions inventories.

The Agency has also proposed a list of 65 priority substances for discharge to water, dominated by pesticides and metals. Companies would be expected to indicate whether the release was to sewer or fresh, estuarine or coastal waters. As with discharges to other media, operators would indicate whether the data were measured, calculated or estimated - and a distinction would be made between "below threshold" amounts and true zero releases.

How long a list?
Compiling a priority list for solid wastes to land presents a different set of problems. Of the two million tonnes reported in 1995, 96% was described as "non-prescribed - solids not otherwise specified - to land". The Agency says that a more helpful approach would be to report the quantities of special and non-special waste sent to landfill, incineration, treatment, recycling or recovery and reuse. It is considering the case for requiring reporting of some specific substances in solid wastes, such as metals and dioxins.

Environmentalists broadly welcomed the move to substance-specific reporting but called for a mechanism to allow more substances to be added to the list. Gwynne Lyons of the Worldwide Fund for Nature told the meeting that the current priority list is "woefully inadequate" - particularly because it includes no endocrine disrupting substances.

Industry representatives at the seminar displayed surprisingly few qualms at the idea of reporting against longer, more comprehensive lists of priority substances. And all parties appeared broadly happy with the Agency's plan to set de minimis reporting thresholds for each substance so as to keep 90-95% of IPC sources, and a similar proportion of the total mass released, within the CRI.

Link with environmental reporting
Speaking on behalf of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), Rod Perriman of Zeneca said that "industry would welcome and support a more coherent and consistent approach towards environmental reporting in the UK." He pointed out that many firms also collate emissions data for corporate or site environmental reports, environmental management systems and the CIA's "Responsible Care" initiative - but the current lack of consensus on reporting mechanisms makes it "very difficult to make comparisons between reports."

Mr Perriman suggested that "a new form of CRI in which the Agency audited information that companies later put together for use in their environmental reports could add credibility to the whole process." The CIA wants to see "reliable information, not undigested data," he added.

The thrust of Mr Perriman's comments suggests that the CIA, at least, has relaxed its objections to the provision of site-specific data which could be used in league tables. Indeed, BP Chemicals, one of its more forward-looking members, already reports discharges against a list of 230 substances with the intention of allowing meaningful comparisons between sites.

However, other industry representatives at the seminar remained strongly opposed to the presentation of data in league tables - even though moves to improve consistency of data lead inexorably towards that conclusion. Many company spokesmen argued that release data for IPC processes should be presented in the wider context of releases from other industries, transport and agriculture.

These views may carry considerable weight with the Agency, which now plans to consult more widely on its proposals. The Agency wants to keep as much of industry on board as possible because its hopes of extending reporting requirements to entire sites will often rely on operators reporting non-IPC releases voluntarily. Furthermore, companies could argue that reporting against a long list of priority chemicals goes beyond the IPC requirement to use the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost" - particularly if, as the Agency intends, the data are in electronic format.

Community's "right to know"
The Agency's proposals go a long way towards meeting many of FoE's long-standing complaints about the CRI. However, the group claimed that the revisions had been "shamefully developed in secret" at a meeting with the CIA last November - an allegation which the Agency vigorously denies.

FoE campaigner Mike Childs told the seminar that "the Agency's proposals do not at one point mention the community's fundamental right to know" about industrial discharges. The group has written to Environment Minister Michael Meacher calling for the proposals to be scrapped in favour of a Community Right to Know Act to formalise reporting of IPC and LAAPC releases.

There are signs that the new Government may lend a sympathetic ear to the call for legislation. In January, Mr Meacher said that every citizen "should have fundamental environmental rights...Without free access to information, any talk of rights is meaningless." Under Labour, he pledged, local authorities - rather than the Agency - will "be responsible for a comprehensive local pollution inventory detailing emissions of pollutants into air, water and ground in their area. This will be closely modelled on the TRI." It remains to be seen how this statement will be applied now that Mr Meacher is in office.

Tracking the Agency's performance
Another important function of the CRI is, the Agency says, to "show trends in environmental pollution on a year-by-year basis." Last year, HMIP accepted the recommendation of an advisory committee that more indicators of its performance in the field, including pollution trends, were needed (ENDS Report 252, p 34 ).

IPC has now been in operation for over six years - but the CRI has so far provided little or no meaningful trend data. Moreover, because of the rolling introduction of IPC, the CRI offers no simple baseline emission data.

However, the Agency's proposals may not make the picture any clearer. It is "likely" that changes to operators' reporting requirements would be made when authorisations are varied, or when they come up for four-yearly review - an approach designed to make relatively light demands on inspectors' time. But until all processes are brought up to the same reporting requirements - which could take four years - CRI data would be compiled on a highly inconsistent basis. Meaningful figures on pollution trends under IPC would not start until 2001 at the earliest - ten years after the regime was introduced.

The 1996 EC Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control provided for an EC "polluting emissions register" to be compiled by the European Commission from information provided by Member States. The Agency hopes that the register will be modelled on its improved CRI. But growing international and Ministerial interest in data on releases suggests that the CRI will need considerably more top-level commitment and resources devoted to it than in the past.

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