Spotlight reports bright picture on performance

The environmental performance of industry and agriculture is improving, the Environment Agency’s annual Spotlight report finds. But the regulator has backed away from highlighting poor performance.

The Environment Agency’s annual Spotlight report on business performance in 2007 finds serious pollution incidents in England and Wales have fallen to their lowest-ever level. Site management is at its best ever (see p 19) and waste generation has fallen by 14% over the last ten years.

Now in its tenth year, Spotlight started life as an exercise in naming and shaming polluters, but has since come to include data from the pollution inventory, the operator and pollution risk appraisal (OPRA) scheme and case studies of good performance. But in becoming more rounded, the report appears to have lost its purpose (ENDS Report 392, pp 15-16).

This year, the Agency has taken an even more business-friendly approach by only naming and shaming the ten firms which were fined the most for pollution offences last year, in contrast to the dozens named in previous years (see table).

The rest of the report has been slimmed down with overviews of emissions to air featuring three pollutants, particulate matter, sulphur and nitrogen oxides, and discharges to water focusing on cadmium, mercury and phosphorus. It gives overviews of waste production, pollution incidents, fines and OPRA scores, but case studies of good and bad performance are gone. Performance in each key sector such as chemicals, waste and water is limited to a one-page graphical summary.

The Agency’s acting chief executive Paul Leinster told ENDS: "We will continue to use naming and shaming where appropriate but it is just one - and not the only - way to raise environmental standards."

The reformatted report was welcomed by industry groups. Gareth Stace, head of environment for the manufacturers’ association EEF, said it "reflects a far more constructive approach by the Environment Agency towards relations with business".

The Agency uses the report to highlight the gains it has secured over the last ten years. Paul Leinster said: "This year’s findings show that we have been getting on with our job. Regulation has reduced the impact of industry’s activities on people and the environment."

He added: "As Spotlight demonstrates, progress can be made without stifling growth. That’s because addressing environmental issues can protect a company’s bottom line."

The findings are not all good news. Despite the fall in serious pollution incidents from 884 in 2000 to 462 last year, the proportion caused by Agency-regulated firms is rising as it has become responsible for more sites under the pollution prevention and control regime (see figure).

Agency prosecutions led to a total of 284 firms being fined in 2007, a rise of 11% from 2006. The average fine was £10,508, almost identical to that of 2000 and a considerable decline from the 2006 average of £12,315.

Fines totalled just under £3 million in 2007, down from £3.5 million the year before.

The waste sector accounted for around a quarter of the total, while fines to water firms fell by over half to some £300,000. Prison sentences totalling eight years were handed out in 2007. The largest fine went to Easco (Wheelers) for running out of hours set in its waste management licence (ENDS Report 391, p 61 ).

Severn Trent, United Utilities, Grosvenor Waste Management and Yorkshire Water all had cumulative fines of £50,000 or more. Thames Water, which led the pack for the second year running in 2006, is notably absent from the top ten.

In response to low penalties and prosecution costs of £18 million last year, the Agency wants to make greater use of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 to confiscate illegally obtained profits. The Agency has already sought three confiscation orders for major waste offences, with one set at £1.2 million (ENDS Report 397, p 59).

Illegal waste operators remain a serious problem for the Agency, which is concentrating on pursuing those associated with organised crime and causing the most harm. It closed 277 unlicensed sites in 2006/07 and 57 companies were fined.

From 1998 to 2007, emissions of cadmium and mercury to water fell by around 80%. But for cadmium, sites in the metals sector new to Agency regulation are pushing releases back up. Phosphorus discharges from sewage treatment have fallen (see back page).

Emissions of SOx from the power sector have fallen consistently since 1998 due to the switch from coal to gas-fired plant and the installation of flue-gas desulphurisation. Less progress has been made on NOx (ENDS Report 401, pp 20-21).

In contrast, emissions of particulate matter are rising as a result of intensive livestock farms falling under Agency regulation for the first time.

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