Brussels moves to cut cost of forthcoming VOC controls

In an effort to reduce the cost of a forthcoming EC proposal to control industrial emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), the European Commission has dropped plans to oblige operators to obtain permits from the authorities, and has simplified its previous proposal to require companies to prepare solvent management plans. It has also brought the latest draft more into line with UK practice by allowing most stack emissions to be measured as total organic carbon (TOC) rather than as concentrations of individual solvents. But the UK is still pressing for changes which would provide a greater incentive for industry to switch to low-solvent coatings rather than invest in add-on pollution control equipment.

The proposal will tackle emissions of solvents and other organic compounds from a range of industrial sectors. Solvents account for over 30% of total man-made VOC emissions of some 10 million tonnes per year in the EC, and contribute to the formation of low-level ozone and other photochemical pollutants.

The Commission hopes to issue a formal proposal by the end of the year, following one further consultation meeting, and to have the controls brought into effect by Member States by the end of 1996.

The latest version is the fourth draft, and has broadly the same structure as its predecessors (ENDS Report 207, pp 32-34 ). Operators of processes using more than a specified quantity of solvents will be obliged to prepare solvent management plans. Emission limits and other detailed controls will be laid down on a sector-by-sector basis in a series of annexes.

However, many industry bodies and several Member States expressed concern over the complexity and potential cost of the earlier drafts, and the Commission has now gone some way to simplifying the proposal. The fourth draft has clearly been influenced by the UK at a number of points, reflecting the controls imposed on sectors emitting VOCs under the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

The key features of the latest draft are:

  • Industry sectors: Last summer's draft contained annexes setting out emission control rules for six industrial sectors: metal degreasing, printing, coating of new cars, dry cleaning, impregnation of wood, and coating of metal, wood and plastics. This list has now been extended to include leather coating, adhesive coating processes, the manufacture of coatings, varnishes, inks and adhesives, rubber processing, and coating of textiles, fabrics, film and paper surfaces.

    The controls proposed for these additional sectors are largely based on the UK's guidance notes for processes falling under local authority air pollution control. However, many of the detailed emission limits differ from those in the UK and are frequently considerably less strict.

    The UK is unhappy with the continued inclusion of dry cleaning processes, and will push to have them removed from the final version. Dry cleaning is one of the more significant sources of VOCs, releasing 77,000 tonnes across the EC each year. However, the industry is characterised by numerous small businesses, and while small operators in other sectors are excluded from control no such threshold is currently set for dry cleaners.

    The Commission intends to add further industrial sectors to the proposal, and is currently preparing a further annex dealing with the extraction of vegetable and animal fats.

  • Thresholds:
    Previous drafts proposed that VOC controls should cover all processes which exceeded specified thresholds for maximum hourly consumption of solvents. However, this would have caught a large number of small processes which may be operated only infrequently.

    Revised thresholds have now been set on the basis of both annual solvent consumption and nominal capacity. For most sectors, only processes consuming more than two tonnes of solvents per year and with a maximum release of over two kilos per hour are included. This would eliminate the smallest users, such as high street printers and small paint sprayers. However, for wood impregnation and the manufacture of coatings, varnishes, inks and adhesives the thresholds are 10 tonnes per year and 10 kilos per hour. No thresholds have been set for dry cleaning processes (see above).

  • Permitting:
    Earlier drafts required operators to apply for a permit from the authorities. The application process would have required public consultation and public access to monitoring data.

    The cost implications of this approach led to strong industrial opposition, backed by the German Government. The upshot is that all references to permitting procedures have been deleted from the current draft. In line with the doctrine of subsidiarity, it would now be up to Member States to decide whether to apply a permitting regime, or instead to opt for a system of spot checks or voluntary agreements with industry.

    This modification will have little effect in the UK. Most of the industries are already covered by the local authority air pollution control permitting system, which is unlikely to be dropped. Larger solvent users are likely to fall under the forthcoming draft Directive on integrated pollution prevention and control, and will therefore still require permitting.

  • Monitoring of releases: The UK and industry groups argued strongly that emission limits should be expressed in terms of TOC rather than as the sum of individual compounds, as proposed in earlier drafts. This issue is particularly important where complex solvent mixtures are handled or where there are frequent modifications or interruptions to the process. TOC-based limits also simplify continuous monitoring of releases and improve the accuracy of the data.

    These arguments prevailed, and all general release limits are now expressed in terms of TOC. However, numerically the limits are unchanged - effectively making them less strict in many cases. The Commission has partially compensated for this by expressing the limits as a moving average of eight hours rather than as a daily mean.

    The move to TOC monitoring ties in with the simplification of the solvent management plan (see below), as detailed information on all individual solvents would no longer be required. However, specific emission limits have been retained for a handful of the most toxic solvents. Where present, these would have to be monitored individually, either continuously or annually depending on the size of the release.

  • Solvent management plans: All Member States and most industry associations have supported the concept of annual solvent management plans. However, there is concern that the content should not be too complex or demanding, and also that excessive costs could be incurred if highly detailed information was required from the outset.

    The new draft generally extends the solvent management plan implementation period for existing processes, while in many cases small installations would have to prepare only a simplified version of the plan.

    More importantly, the number of compounds for which detailed information would be required has been cut substantially. Earlier drafts contained three lists of chemicals. The first consisted of 16 compounds for which specific emission limits were set, either as Group A for the most toxic or carcinogenic or as Group B for less harmful substances. This list has now been replaced with more general formulae, based on certain criteria in the 1967 Directive on the classification of dangerous substances. Substances "with a high potential to cause very serious effects to human health" would have to be "replaced by less harmful substances and/or preparations within the shortest possible delay."

    The other two lists of chemicals in the earlier drafts were for guidance only. The first divided some 70 common solvents into three categories based on their potential to cause harm, while the second listed generic solvent groups according to their photochemical ozone creation potential (POCP). They were intended to help companies choose the best option when considering solvent substitution.

    Both lists have now been dropped despite industrial support for the concept. The difficulties arose over the lack of accurate data on the environmental persistence and bioaccumulation potentials of most chemicals, and also over uncertainties in defining POCPs. Overcoming these problems would "require several years' additional work", according to the Commission, which concluded that it would unjustified to delay the Directive while agreement was sought on an issue which only had the status of a guideline.

  • Low-solvent and water-based products: In the UK, regulation of VOC emissions under the 1990 Act allows operators to opt to use "compliant coatings" - products with a specified low solvent content - instead of complying with the VOC emissions laid down in guidance notes. The theory is that this will encourage the development and acceptance of low-solvent products as an alternative to expensive VOC abatement devices.

    Earlier drafts of the Directive allowed derogations for operators using low-solvent coatings - but in general these lasted only 2-3 years, after which strict emission limits would have begun to bite. The UK criticised this approach, arguing that it favoured end-of-pipe measures over the adoption of cleaner technologies.

    The new draft attempts to meet these concerns by setting the derogations in more general terms and "leaving decisions on details to be taken at the appropriate level of implementation". Typically, the new formula gives 2-3 years for new processes and 7-8 years for existing processes to come within 150% of the emissions allowed by end-of-pipe abatement, and 10-12 years for new and 12-14 for existing processes to meet the emission limit values laid down.

    But the crunch comes in the longer term - the final emission level required from operators switching to low-solvent products is typically 75% of that required by those opting for abatement techniques. This, says the Commission, is "because the allowances of higher emissions within the derogation period has to be compensated in the long run". This formula still threatens to act as a disincentive to companies contemplating a switch to low-solvent processes, and the UK can be expected to press for a more even-handed treatment of the two approaches.

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