Chemicals firm gets mixed report from Agency audit

An audit of Albright & Wilson's chemical works in the West Midlands by the Environment Agency has found much to commend in its environmental management systems. But the Agency is critical of the lower priority given to environmental than to safety issues and the site's reliance on "end of pipe" safeguards against spills and surface water contamination. The audit also pointed to an intriguing combination of reasons behind under-reporting of incidents to the Agency.

Conducted last October by a team of Agency inspectors, the audit was the fourth in a programme to assess the factors influencing the environmental performance of sites with a major pollution potential. Previous audits have been on sites operated by ICI, BP Chemicals and Glaxo.

Albright & Wilson's Oldbury works makes phosphorus chemicals. It has 12 integrated pollution control (IPC) authorisations. Six processes, as well as a landfill operated by the company, were scrutinised during the audit.

The Agency found "no cause for any major concerns". Features of the works given a positive rating included its environmental policy, operational and preventative maintenance procedures, management of contractors, and the integration of environmental concerns into new product and process development. Compliance with authorisations was also "generally good".

However, the Agency concludes that environmental matters are "very much an adjunct" to health and safety in some of the site's operational and training practices. For example, a 37-page handbook on the site's legal responsibilities given to each employee contains just two pages on environmental matters "as an afterthought", with no mention of legal duties relating to the environment. Environmental matters are also given much less prominence in the site's safety forum and audit checklists, while environmental training is "very much secondary" to safety training.

The Agency also found that some managers felt that their legal duties were discharged when compliance with release limits and other specific conditions in IPC authorisations was achieved. The report suggests that the works' management "do not seem to have fully assimilated - or perhaps more likely communicated" - their residual duty to ensure that the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost" should be used to prevent releases, although this conclusion is contested by the company.

One of the audit's more intriguing findings suggests that the incentives introduced by some chemical companies since the mid-1980s for improving environmental performance may not fit well with a requirement in all IPC authorisations for notification of unplanned releases to the Agency.

At the Oldbury works, managers' salary increases are linked to both their individual and the site's performance against targets - including an absolute requirement that there should be "no pollution incidents or notifiable incidents." The audit team expressed concern that this could discourage incident reporting to the Agency.

Albright & Wilson denied that this was a possibility, but the audit team found that in fact an unspecified number of incidents had not been reported. One example was a ten-minute chlorine release which overloaded a scrubber, causing an apparent peak release of 109mg/m3 and, according to an operator, a "horrendous smell" of chlorine.

The report says that this was "clearly" a reportable release, since IPC authorisations require any malfunction or breakdown with the "potential to cause serious pollution" to be notified to the Agency. However, Albright & Wilson said that it had relied on another condition which requires releases to be notified unless they are so trivial as to be incapable of causing harm. The company carried out a risk assessment which concluded that no harm had in fact resulted - a procedure agreed with the then site inspector which arguably overrode the terms of the authorisation.

Albright & Wilson notes in a commentary in the report that the audit team's concern on this point has implications for operators of IPC processes who have made similar agreements with inspectors. The Agency has accepted that the reporting criteria should be clarified and applied consistently.

The audit team found several other issues on which the Agency's own performance is open to criticism. Limits on some releases to air and sewer had not been set when the original IPC authorisations were issued because of lack of data, but no limits were subsequently set after the company provided the missing information. The firm was also found to be using non-standard methods for sampling releases, in part because the Agency had not responded when notified of its methods.

Other defects in the works' environmental safeguards are common to many chemical works. In particular, the audit team concluded that the Oldbury site relies unduly on an "end of pipe" approach to dealing with contamination of surface water by process leaks, spills from unbunded chemical stores and phosphorus and arsenic contamination of soil. Surface water passes through an effluent treatment plant before being discharged to sewer, but the Agency felt that this causes unnecessary overloading of the discharge and risks an overflow of pollutants into a nearby canal or to groundwater from a holding lagoon during periods of heavy rain. The report recommends that the drainage system should be brought under an IPC authorisation with an improvement programme.

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