In 1984, a release of phenol into the Dee from Ferro (GB)'s site in Chirk, Clwyd, tainted the drinking water supply to two million people (ENDS Report 111, p 7). Water companies were flooded with complaints and there were widespread claims of adverse health effects. The incident cost £20 million in remedial measures and £400,000 in compensation.
Last year, the National Rivers Authority (NRA) proposed that a statutory water protection zone should be introduced in the Dee catchment to reduce the risk of future pollution (ENDS Report 226, p 8 ). The scheme, the UK's first, would require companies to carry out risk assessments and take precautionary measures against accidental leaks and spills.
The NRA has estimated that about 260 of the 700 firms in the catchment would have to carry out risk assessments. And about 100 might have to take precautionary measures at a cost of anything from nil up to £1 million.
The proposals have won a generally warm reception. According to an NRA spokesman, out of 50 formal written responses, 38 expressed wholehearted support and eight qualified support. There were two qualified and two outright objections.
The plan's most vigorous critic has been the Welsh CBI's new director, Dr Elizabeth Haywood. Her objections came as a surprise to the NRA, which has been careful to involve the CBI in its plans for the zone.
Dr Haywood told ENDS that the threat of a mandatory scheme had sufficed to raise awareness of the issue, and urged the NRA to try a voluntary scheme first before imposing extra costs on industry. However, the NRA says that its predecessor, the Welsh Water Authority, attempted without success to set up a voluntary scheme after the 1984 incident. It believes that a voluntary scheme would fail because the least co-operative companies are those that most need to take pollution prevention measures.
Dr Haywood fears that the protection zone would threaten jobs by forcing companies to move elsewhere, and act as a disincentive to incoming investment. She claims that the scheme would put north-east Wales at a disadvantage compared with Merseyside, which draws its water from the Dee and would benefit from the scheme. North-east Wales has recently lost the EC Assisted Area status which Merseyside still enjoys, she says.
However, the NRA argues that the protection zone is the most cost-effective way of achieving security of water supply. Only 20% of the companies in the catchment would be affected by the proposed plan, which would require tailor-made improvement programmes designed to minimise expenditure. The cost of even a single pollution incident might greatly exceed the investments required under the plan.
A further benefit would be the protection of the river environment. The Dee has a thriving salmon population whose commercial value alone is estimated at £9 million annually. However, according to Dr Haywood, CBI members feel that water companies abstracting from the river should build bankside storage reservoirs. Exactly which members she has in mind is not clear, but the Wrexham and East Denbighshire Water Company and the Chester Waterworks Company are unlikely to be among them. Other CBI members in the area, Monsanto and Kronospan, have both expressed support for the zone.
The NRA says that water consumers would have to pay for construction of bankside storage, which would hardly accord with the "polluter pays" principle. Bankside storage would also be more costly at about £20 million, compared with only £4-12 million for the protection zone, and in any event would not prevent pollution or protect life in the river.
Another opponent of the scheme is chemical manufacturer Synthite. It has told the NRA that any restrictions on some chemicals could affect its viability. The company recently transferred all its operations to its Mold site, and regards it as the first choice for expansion.
Synthite is particularly concerned that there is no definitive list of chemicals which may be prohibited, and regards theNRA's risk assessment model, PRAIRIE, as inadequately developed. Like the CBI, it wants the NRA to adopt a voluntary approach.
Conversely, Friends of the Earth has objected to the NRA's proposals because they do not cover the nine sites subject to integrated pollution control (IPC) in the catchment. Farms, fuel stores and petrol stations are also not covered.
These exclusions appear to be partly the result of the NRA's desire to side-step criticisms of over-regulation. It believes it can achieve satisfactory control over IPC sites through its statutory links with HM Inspectorate of Pollution. The NRA also already has powers, under regulations introduced in 1991, to require pollution prevention measures on agricultural fuel oil and farm waste stores.
However, other fuel stores appear to have been excluded on pragmatic grounds. The large numbers of fuel oil tanks in the catchment could bring many sites within the scope of the protection zone, the NRA believes, but most tanks are in any event too small to pose a serious threat to the river.