Agency moves to classify non-compliance with permit conditions

A new scheme to classify and respond to operators' non-compliance with permit conditions has been introduced by the Environment Agency. Information on the compliance record of individual sites will be made public.

The compliance classification scheme is designed to improve the consistency of inspectors' assessments of breaches of operating conditions at industrial sites. It will apply to activities covered by integrated pollution prevention and control permits, discharge consents and waste management licences.

The Agency hopes that the scheme will give it a better handle on its effectiveness on the ground. It will sit beside other indicators, including data on pollution incidents, routine releases reported to the Pollution Inventory, and rankings of operator performance under its operator and pollution risk appraisal (OPRA) scheme.

The Agency first consulted on the compliance classification scheme two years ago, and the final version has been modified only slightly (ENDS Report 327, p 49 ).

The scheme came into force at the beginning of April. The Agency has published a briefing on the principles,1 backed up by detailed internal guidance to inspectors, and has revised its enforcement and prosecution policy to fit in with it.2The Agency says that an instance of non-compliance does not necessarily mean there has been any environmental impact. However, it will mean that an operator has passed a "threshold of risk" which requires remedial action.

The scheme is intended to be consistent with an existing tool - the common incident classification scheme - which is used to classify actual incidents which have an environmental impact. However, there is some overlap between the two - not least because pollution incidents which also involve breach of a permit condition would be recorded under both schemes.

The new scheme will also provide more consistent data on compliance to feed into the OPRA scheme, which is used to help target regulatory effort.

Incidents of non-compliance will be classed into four categories, each with a recommended enforcement response:

  • Category 1: Non-compliance which has a potentially major impact should result in a prosecution.

  • Category 2: Non-compliance which has a potentially significant impact should result in a formal caution or prosecution.

  • Category 3: Non-compliance which has a potentially minor impact should result in a warning.

  • Category 4: Non-compliance which has no potential impact should also result in a warning.

    The Agency says that an enforcement notice may also be served for incidents in any of the four categories. It stresses that the categories are for guidance only, and each case should be assessed on its merits.

    The Agency has also confirmed that it will publish site-specific compliance scores on the internet. Summary data will be published in its annual "Spotlight" report on business environmental performance.

    Nigel Morris, who manages the compliance scheme, said that the Agency is already collecting data which would be made public "within a few months".

    According to the Agency, "an operator will not see any difference" in the way site activities are assessed against permit conditions. However, the move to make inspectors' assessments more consistent and transparent may mean that they are less likely to have an informal word with an operator over minor issues of non-compliance.