The PCP problem emerged in 1989 (ENDS Report 186, pp 14-17) during an official survey of PCP levels in river water. The survey was needed to ensure that the UK was in compliance with a 1986 EC Directive which required - under the implementation option selected by the Government - that annual average PCP concentrations did not exceed 2µg/l after January 1988.
Unexpectedly, higher levels were found in several rivers in north-west England. The source was found to be discharges from sewage works which receive effluent from textile finishing businesses. These claimed that the PCP was being washed off unfinished "grey cloth", to which it is applied as a fungicide in Asia and the Far East.
Faced with official demands to eliminate the PCP discharges, the industry pleaded for and eventually received a six-month period of grace to deal with the problem. For most companies this proved long enough to reduce their PCP discharges to within the limits which were then being applied by North West Water (NWW).
One celebrated case, however, ended with NWW being prosecuted by the National Rivers Authority (NRA) for accepting a PCP discharge at levels which were sufficient to breach the EC standard in a brook which received the effluent from its Belmont sewage works. NWW was convicted in January and fined £9,000 (ENDS Report 205, p 39 ).
The verdict appears to have prompted it to safeguard its own position by warning textile finishers that new limits on PCP discharges to sewer due to come into force on 1 July will be strictly enforced.
The Textile Finishers' Association (TFA) says that most of its members are now working to a limit of 100µg/l. The new standards are generally between 6-20µg/l. "Companies are just about scraping in under 100 micrograms," says the TFA's Director Barry Hazel. "Coming down below 20 is just not possible at the present time."
The TFA insists there is no practicable way of treating PCP-contaminated effluent prior to discharge to sewer. The industry is participating in a project to investigate new treatment methods (ENDS Report 191, p 7). But, because a grant from the Department of Trade and Industry was held up for several months, the research will not be completed until June 1993.
The industry also maintains that it has no direct control over the problem. Pressure on suppliers of grey cloth to stop using PCP has reduced discharges of the chemical by 40-50% over the past two years, but there is little more that the industry can do, the TFA maintains. "Most of our members are commission finishers," says Barry Hazel. "The cloth doesn't belong to them but to their customers."
The TFA has now put the ball back into the Department of the Environment's court by urging it once again to follow Germany's example and ban the import of PCP-treated cloth. It is also demanding more time to comply with the new discharge limits. Up to 10,000 jobs may be at risk if these are introduced in July and business is diverted overseas, the TFA claims.
The TFA is seeking a lengthy stay of execution because its members' customers appear to have paid little heed to regulatory developments over the past two years. As a result, they still have up to two years' supply of PCP-treated cloth in the UK awaiting finishing, and it is this as much as new business which may go abroad.
The Department of the Environment is now in a difficult position. NWW's move to protect itself from further prosecutions owes much to the DoE's failure to respond to the TFA's call for an import ban and its dithering over how to handle the discharge problem. Yet the NRA had no option but to prosecute NWW because it had been directed by the DoE to enforce the EC standard.
On the other hand, for the DoE to give the textile finishers another two years to deal with the problem would guarantee it a bad press, given that the industry was given its first warning to clean up well over two years ago.
One factor which may yet save the DoE's face is that the reductions in PCP discharges achieved over the past two years have brought concentrations of the chemical in the north-west's rivers within the EC standard. This may lessen the need for implementation of the tighter discharge limits in July - though NWW might be none too happy with a further delay because this would leave it at greater risk of prosecution.