Chemicals sector poses IPC's toughest test so far

HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) is facing probably its biggest test yet with a wave of applications to register existing chemical processes for integrated pollution control (IPC). Confusion over the rules for defining process boundaries has continued right up to the last minute - while moves by some chemical companies to test HMIP's implementation of the system to breaking point are opening up a rift in the industry.

Operators of existing organic chemical processes had to apply for authorisation by the end of October. HMIP is expecting more than 1,000 applications from the chemicals sector alone over the next year, easily doubling the number it has received to date.

Applications for organic chemical processes were originally due in by July, but the industry's lobbying against the rules eventually forced a three-month delay to allow revisions to the IPC regulations. The previous approach to process boundaries would have forced an artificial split in many complex chemical processes, obliging operators to seek several separate authorisations. The revised rules arrived shortly before the deadline for applications, very late in the day for any significant amendments to be made (see p 32 ).

This late change was compounded by a delay in the production of HMIP's guidelines for defining process boundaries, which were eventually completed just before the closing date for applications. Applicants have therefore been left in the dark, with the only advice being to seek guidance from local inspectors when deciding how many applications to submit for their sites.

The result is that some firms intend to submit extremely broad "envelope" applications covering all of their site's diverse processes rather than clearly defined process units with a "prime purpose". ENDS is aware of several such cases, mostly involving smaller fine and contract chemicals businesses. Several larger companies are also believed to have contemplated this option.

The full scale of the problem will not be clear until all applications are received and the dust has settled. However, some firms appear to be deliberately pushing HMIP's concept of a process boundary to breaking point.

There are two main motives. The first is an attempt to reduce the number of "components" on the site, which determine the amount payable to HMIP in application and annual "subsistence" fees.

HMIP is under an obligation to recover the costs incurred in applying IPC. The Chemical Industries Association has been campaigning strongly on the issue, claiming that the fees are not proportionate to the level of regulatory "service" received. The revised rules will clearly result in a reduction in the fees paid even by those firms that apply them legitimately - raising questions over how HMIP can hope to recover its costs.

However, some firms also appear to be stretching the rules to cut their costs - or are using the issue in a bid to frustrate HMIP's efforts to bring them within IPC at all. One fine chemicals producer said that bringing the sector under IPC "will make HMIP's tussle with the power generators look like a bunfight."

Several companies claimed that HMIP has set a precedent by telling Thomas Swan, a chemical manufacturer in north-east England, that its site-wide envelope was valid. But this may not cut much ice with HMIP - the validation step carries no legal force, and is merely an administrative procedure.

One company in Manchester had agreed with its inspector to submit 12 applications for its site. However, a spokesman told ENDS that it now planned to include everything in one application. This would, among other things, cut its application fees from £80,000 to £12,000. The spokesman claimed that IPC is "unworkable" in his sector. He accepted that the company's bid may not succeed in the long run - but said that "once we've got a valid application we've got the rest of our lives to slog it out."

It remains to be seen how HMIP will react. In the past it has suggested strongly that site-wide envelopes are appropriate only for very small sites with a few small-scale processes. HMIP could force many firms to resubmit applications - and it will be under strong pressure to do so in order to ensure something resembling a level playing-field and to make up some of its costs.

By no means all chemical companies have taken a combative stance. One smallish firm told ENDS that "what we're doing now should have been done 20 years ago. Then perhaps it wouldn't look as daunting as it does to some people." ENDS is aware of many companies that have taken the IPC philosophy on board and are making strenuous efforts in waste minimisation.

These operators are critical of the confrontational approach. One environment manager was worried that his competitors may be seeking to "bend the rules to their own advantage". Another said that "by doing this, they're distracting attention away from the main issue which is one of HMIP's overall costs. If the industry doesn't comply with the spirit of the Act or bickers over how to slice up the cake, then we can't expect to be taken seriously when we try to say that the cake is too big."

So far most IPC applicants in other sectors have failed to address their responsibilities under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. Details will be given in an in-depth study of the IPC system to be published by ENDS in a few weeks. Our inspections of the public registers has shown that to date only a minority of applicants have addressed the key issues of environmental impact, or attempted to justify their operations as representing the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost" (BATNEEC) and the "best practicable environmental option" (BPEO). And very few have given any cost data to support claims of "excessive cost".

These issues are at the heart of the Act's requirements. HMIP and the Department of the Environment have made clear in general guidance, process guidance notes and inspector manuals that applicants must justify their proposals by assessing environmental impacts and comparing the available processes and abatement options. However, most firms seem simply to have ignored these principles.

HMIP is clearly hoping that the chemicals sector will herald a step-change in the quality of applications. However, there are signs that its hopes may be frustrated.

Inspectors have invested much time in pre-application meetings with firms and several seminars have been held to explain IPC's requirements. HMIP has also agreed general guidance for the chemicals sector with the CIA. A key feature of this is the concept of "proportionality" - so, for instance, "there is no need for a detailed analysis of a the impact of a very small release". However, the guidance adds that the use of the proportionality argument should be justified.

The CIA has circulated the guidance to its members and included a "model application" submitted by Fine Organics for a new process at its Seal Sands site which, it says, was prepared using the guidance.

The application gives details of expected and maximum concentrations for releases to air - but contrary to initial HMIP guidance fails to give predicted annual emissions. No environmental impact assessment is offered, and the application merely claims that all emissions to air "are below the levels known to cause harm to the environment". No indication is given of what those levels might be.

There are similar concerns over the depth of treatment of BATNEEC and BPEO in the model application. Brief justifications are given for the synthesis and waste disposal routes, which is more than most applicants have managed.

However, the core of the company's justification for its choice of abatement is simply that "Fine Organics has experience in operating this type of plant, over a number of years, in a way which affords adequate levels of safety and environmental protection...The levels of containment afforded by the plant together with the control mechanisms which are in place ensure that high standards are achieved and maintained. For the type of processing we carry out this represents BATNEEC." These assertions may well be true - but no alternative techniques are considered, and the broad generalisations offered can hardly be viewed as a proper BATNEEC justification.

Previous applications from Fine Organics have been found invalid on the basis of similar unsupported statements. In at least two cases HMIP told the firm to provide a BATNEEC case for its abatement and to explain what alternatives had been considered and the reasons for rejection.

Many other applications in the chemicals sector have been found invalid or have been challenged in Schedule 1 notices for failing fully to address environmental consequences, BATNEEC or BPEO. If applications for existing processes follow the CIA's model too closely, they may well meet the same fate.

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