Steelworks resists Agency pressure to clean up

An ageing County Durham steelworks with a history of environmental problems is appealing against the Environment Agency’s attempts to clean it up.

The Agency has been battling with Weardale Castings and Engineering since the plant fell under the integrated pollution prevention and control regime in 2004. The onset of IPPC pitched it into a dispute over noise and vibrations, previously the responsibility of the local authority, and brought it up against a new owner who had bought the plant the previous year.

The case exemplifies the difficulties the Agency faces when trying to regulate industrial sites unable - or unwilling - to replace ageing infrastructure.

Weardale is located alongside housing in Wolsingham and casts large items such as anchors for the shipping industry. Local residents have complained about noise and vibrations, and there have also been problems with particulate matter emissions (ENDS Report 364, p 8 ).

Assessments by the Agency under its operator and pollution risk appraisal scheme rated the site "very poor" in 2005 and "poor" in 2004.

In May 2006, the Agency prosecuted Weardale for failing to implement a series of improvements required under its IPPC permit, even after some of its deadlines had been extended. The firm was fined a total of £4,000 plus costs of £3,400 for four offences and received a 12-month conditional discharge for two offences relating to effluent pH.

A few months earlier, the company said the plant would close at the end of 2007 and be replaced by a business park and housing.

The Agency believes the plant, which serves a niche market and still has plenty of orders, could have remained a going concern if investments had been made earlier.

It said it had taken a "pragmatic" approach since the site’s closure was announced, but that the problems experienced by local residents needed addressing.

Early last year, it commissioned a noise and vibration report from consultants. This suggested a series of relatively inexpensive measures that could reduce the site’s impact until it closed.

These recommendations formed the basis of a draft variation notice drawn up by the Agency which sets out changes to the plant’s permit. The notice also reiterated other outstanding requirements such as installing an alarm to alert operators to a drop in water level in the flue scrubbers and fitting a system to measure and correct effluent pH. The Agency estimates the cost of the work at £20,000-25,000.

The notice also stipulated the works would have to meet best available techniques standards if it were to continue operating beyond December 2007 - a condition to prevent the company continuing to eke out the plant’s life without substantial upgrades.

Weardale was shown a draft of the variation notice in April 2006. Two months later it replied that the measures were unreasonable. Despite Weardale’s complaints, the Agency issued the notice in July 2006 requiring new equipment to be fitted by December and an environmental management system to be drawn up by April 2007, another condition of the original permit.

Weardale appealed against the notice in October and the case is being reviewed by the Planning Inspectorate. No date has been set for a hearing.

In the meantime, the firm has installed a flow meter on the scrubber but is breaching several other permit conditions, the Agency has said.

Weardale refused to comment on the appeal.

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