Integrated pollution control and the organic chemicals industry

The chemical industry has been loudest in expressing its anxiety about the potential business implications of integrated pollution control (IPC). The publication of draft guidance notes by HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP) for nine sectors of the organic chemicals industry has provided it with its first opportunity to understand the detailed implications of the new regime.1 Chemical companies' most common complaint is that the guidance lacks the detail which would tell them what HMIP will be demanding - an issue which is also likely to reinforce environmentalists' concern about the direction IPC is taking.

The organic chemicals industry will be the fourth to come within IPC, following fuel and power, waste disposal and minerals. Operators of existing processes in the sector will have to apply for IPC authorisation between 1 May and 31 July 1993. They are then likely to have to upgrade their plants by 1997 to standards based on the "best available techniques not entailing excessive cost" (BATNEEC) which will apply immediately to new or substantially changed processes.

The first drafts of the guidance notes on the organic chemicals industry were issued for consultation in early April. Responses are due in by 18 May. A second draft will be circulated for comment later in the year before the final version is published in November.

Key sector
The organic chemicals sector is one of the most significant to fall within IPC, and has been estimated to account for as many as half of the 5,000 processes affected. The scope of this set of notes is huge, ranging from large, multi-process sites producing bulk petrochemicals to small-scale speciality chemical and pharmaceutical manufacture.

The notes have been prepared against the backdrop of heavy lobbying from the Chemical Industries Association (CIA). Many of the larger companies affected are multinationals, and the CIA has been warning that some operations may be transferred overseas if the demands of IPC prove too onerous.

As ENDS went to press, many companies were still formulating their response to the draft notes. However, several clear concerns were emerging.

  • Defining BATNEEC: Industry's biggest concern is that the notes give too much generic guidance and not enough specific pointers to HMIP's view of BATNEEC. There is particular concern over note IPR 4/5, covering batch manufacture in multi-purpose plant.

    "The notes contain a lot of straight description that could be picked up from any textbook," says Mike Wright, ICI's environmental adviser. The CIA felt that they would offer little help to a company preparing an application for IPC authorisation.

    Most of the notes give broad descriptions of the main process routes to a particular chemical with no critical analysis of differences in their environmental impacts. Those covering petrochemical processes, polymerisation of organic monomers and production of acetylene and aldehydes list the substances which each process may release to air, water or land. But there is no indication of which process variant has the least environmental impact, and descriptions of available abatement techniques are couched in general terms.

    HMIP's view is that the onus is on each company to demonstrate in its application that its process is consistent with BATNEEC. It appears unlikely to budge from this position despite industry's complaints.

    However, HMIP appears to have accepted that existing processes will not be scrapped and replaced purely on environmental grounds. It is also unlikely that companies' freedom to select the feedstock of their choice for bulk chemical manufacture will be affected - important because of the industry's desire to be responsive to international price variations.

    But for new processes, many would have preferred HMIP to take a lead in defining BATNEEC. Dr Malcolm Joslin, senior environmental adviser at BP Chemicals' Hull site, described this as a "missed opportunity".

    Part of the problem undoubtedly arises from the scale and complexity of the sector. Diane Brown, the CIA's environmental affairs specialist, says that "it's always been hard to see how BATNEEC would relate to the chemical industry. There are so many processes - and companies compete by inventing new ones." The CIA is particularly critical of the guidance for batch manufacture of fine chemicals, labelling it as inadequate". It describes the affected processes in just two pages.

    HMIP's response is that by definition the fine chemicals sector covers a huge range of different processes handling every type of organic chemical. It would be a hopeless task to describe these processes in any detail. Instead, a long list of proposed limits for releases to air - though not for releases to water (see below) - is included. Overall, HMIP seems intent on dealing with applications in this sector on a case-by-case basis.

  • Waste audits: A novel feature of the guidance notes is the recommendation that operators should carry out comprehensive waste audits. Although not an absolute requirement, this is being encouraged by HMIP as the best way for a company to justify its proposals and to prove that it has considered all options to minimise its waste.

    The approach is not prescriptive, because HMIP recognises that some companies already have differing audit systems in place. But the draft guidance sets out the main features that will be expected.

    For a new process, these include details of the firm's organisation; responsibilities of audit team members; process information; a summary of input materials; a product summary; individual waste streams and a characterisation of the alternatives; a waste stream summary; description and weighting of waste management options, followed by a technical and economic evaluation; and a summary of the projects which emerge from the assessment.

    HMIP regards the audit as its principal tool in ensuring that firms look at waste minimisation and cleaner processes rather than focus on "end-of-pipe" treatment. Operators are expected to produce a prioritised list of feasible options. These are Class I: newer and cleaner technologies; Class II: reduction and recycling techniques; and Class III: end-of-pipe options. Operators will have to demonstrate that they will use Class I technologies "where possible". And where Class II waste streams are "unavoidable", they will have to opt for reduction and recycling before resorting to end-of-pipe techniques.

    For existing plants, HMIP expects a waste audit to show that options for waste reduction and minimisation have been considered. This should lead to a schedule for the implementation of waste reduction measures.

    The industry's initial response to the waste audit idea has been generally positive. A common view was that it formalised a practice that more environmentally aware companies had already started to carry out.

    However, there are some reservations over the necessity to include audits as a regulatory requirement. Diane Brown is concerned that they will add to the regulatory burden, and described audits as "pushing IPC to its limits." However, she conceded that the CIA's member companies are already advised to carry out similar audits under its "Responsible Care" programme.

  • Emissions to air: The industry's principal concern in this area is over the proposed 20mg/m3 limit (expressed as carbon) for total organic compounds. Many companies regard this as very tight, and argue that it fails to take into account the varying environmental impact of different volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

    Limits for each air pollutant are consistent across the guidance notes, although some give a more exhaustive list of pollutants than others. Values for some of the more common pollutants are shown in the table.

    "The 20mg/m3 limit for organics takes no account of the variable effect of different releases," commented Joe Draper, environment manager at Shell Chemicals in Chester. "I'm concerned that we're not concentrating our efforts on the chemicals with the worst environmental impact."

    Similar complaints were voiced by industries subject to the second regime - local authority air pollution control - created by Part I of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but almost all of the guidance notes now issued under this system have a release limit of 50mg/m3 for VOCs. This will make it difficult for HMIP to back down on the issue.

    Other companies pointed out that because the limit was based on carbon, it would lead to disproportionately tight restrictions for some substances in absolute terms. Many would like to see the limit expressed in terms of mass emissions, and preferred a system along the lines of the German TA Luft regulations which set out distinct limits for generic groups of VOCs.

    Other release limits have not aroused the same level of controversy. For example, Courtaulds foresees little difficulty in meeting the 5mg/m3 limit for carbon disulphide. The company is a major user of the chemical, as well as being the UK's sole producer at its plant in Stretford, Manchester.

    However, a spokesman warned that many users of carbon disulphide would have to improve their housekeeping practices drastically to comply with the limit. "In a lot of older factories, the approach is to suck hard and blow it up the stack," he said.

  • Releases to water:
    In contrast to the relatively detailed limits spelled out in some of the draft notes for emissions of prescribed substances to air, a much more broad brush approach is taken to releases to water.

    The only discharge standards specified are for cadmium and mercury. This approach seems to be a reflection of HMIP's origins as an air pollution inspectorate. It seems to be on surer ground in setting limits on releases to air, and is leaving the detailed standards for discharges to water to be considered on a site-specific basis, backed up by advice from the National Rivers Authority.

    Part of the difficulty is due to the wide range of possible effluent components which are not classed as prescribed substances under the 1990 Act. Releases of these need only be "rendered harmless" rather than prevented or minimised.

    However, there are many prescribed organic substances for which no release limits have been proposed. This is particularly apparent in the draft guidance on the secondary manufacture of pesticides, since most substances prescribed for release to water are actually products of this sector.

    Likewise, tributyl tin and triphenyl tin compounds - both prescribed substances - are likely to be released from some sites producing organo-metallic compounds, and 1,2-dichloroethane is used in most sectors covered by the notes.

    Ironically, the only substance other than cadmium and mercury which is singled out for special mention is carbon disulphide - which is not a prescribed substance. Guidance note IPR4/4 specifies that "carbon disulphide should not be released to the aquatic environment."

    HMIP's view is that it is still developing its knowledge of the effects of most prescribed substances in the aquatic environment and the best ways to prevent their release. From industry's point of view, however, this leaves uncertainty over the abatement measures that will be required.

  • Releases to land: An unexplained inconsistency appears in the draft guidance notes on this issue. Some simply comment that the off-site disposal of waste and the consignment of "special" wastes are covered by other legislation and should not be dealt with in IPC authorisations. Another two add, however, that inspectors should ensure that adequate facilities are available for the storage, handling and transport of solid waste that may contain prescribed and other harmful substances.

    In another three cases - petrochemical processes, manufacture of organo-metallic compounds, and IPR 4/2 - the draft guidance also stipulates that inspectors "should set appropriate limits on the annual releases of waste to land."

  • Multi-process sites: The question of how to "ring fence" processes which are on the same site and may discharge to the same central drain or on-site treatment plant is particularly crucial to the organic chemicals sector. HMIP is expected to clarify its position in a guidance note due out shortly.

    The problem is particularly acute for setting limits for discharges to water and for assessing the best practicable environmental option (BPEO) for a process. For instance, if the site has a common effluent treatment plant, will HMIP set limits for the effluent going to that plant or for the discharge from it? The indications are that monitoring of the waste stream from each process will be required before the common drain to show that each is being operated satisfactorily.

    As for the BPEO, industry is pushing the "bubble" concept, which would look at the impact of the whole site - but HMIP may feel that this does not square with the process-based philosophy of IPC. Until the issue is resolved, many in industry feel that the guidance notes cannot be fully interpreted for their sites.

  • Pharmaceutical processes: The application of IPC to the pharmaceutical industry poses several distinct problems.

    The sector is covered by two guidance notes. Primary manufacture of active ingredients is covered by the batch process note IPR 4/5, while secondary processing - including sieving, milling, coating and packaging - by the pharmaceutical process note IPR 4/9. However, some firms are concerned that IPR 4/9 "strays into the areas of primary manufacture", particularly in its references to drug campaigns.

    The feeling is that HMIP is trying to ensure that all of the industry is covered by IPC and does not fall through a loophole in the legislation. The relevant regulations defined pharmaceutical processes as those which may either cause the release of a prescribed substance to water or those likely to produce more than 1,000 tonnes of special waste in any 12-month period. In practice, most of the secondary processing sector would escape inclusion under these definitions.

    The pharmaceutical industry is also unusual in that it has to freeze the chemistry of each process at a relatively early stage to comply with the drug regulations. This means that any changes to the process to achieve a reduction in waste which are ordered by HMIP could require the re-registration of a drug and further toxicity studies. HMIP appears to accept this argument, and is more likely to base BATNEEC on end-of-pipe abatement measures, at least in the short term.

    The industry is still far from happy over HMIP's guidance on envelope authorisations (ENDS Report 206, pp 30-1 ). Active ingredients are made in short runs, using adaptable, small-scale plant. It is common for the plant to switch every week to a completely different process which may not fit inside the current definition of an "envelope".

    "If a one-for-one application system is imposed, HMIP will get swamped," warns Bob Clare, director of environmental affairs at SmithKline Beecham. Through the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, the sector is still hoping to win "bubble" authorisations based on agreed standards of control and release levels.

    Pharmaceutical processes are hedged around with secrecy, and firms are worried about the implications of the public register. "HMIP has indicated in the past that it will not be looking for too much detail in applications," said Martin Rackham, environmental manager at ICI Pharmaceuticals. "But that does not ride easily with the implications of this note."

  • Attitude of HMIP: A change in HMIP's approach has become apparent in recent months. It is now clear that inspectors are meeting firms for pre-application discussions which will not be entered on the public register - despite comments to the contrary from senior figures in the Inspectorate. Only from the time when an application is received will records of any discussions be entered on the register.

    This represents a pragmatic move by HMIP to ease the application process, and is also a reflection of the approach taken by its new Director, Dr David Slater. Under the "arms' length" philosophy introduced by his predecessor, Dr Frank Feates, discussions about applications between inspectors and companies at local level were strictly precluded.

    The improvement in communications has been widely welcomed by the chemical industry. HMIP hopes that greater dialogue will improve the quality of companies' applications.

    The poor standard of applications to date has increased its workload and has also been held responsible for the steep increase in application fees (ENDS Report 206, pp 33-4 ).

    Environmental groups are likely to see things differently, and it may not be too long before they begin to ask some serious questions about the direction in which IPC is heading. HMIP's predecessors were widely criticised for having an unduly cosy relationship with industry, and developments in recent months may be interpreted by environmentalists as signs that it is slipping back into old habits.

    Closed process
    HMIP does not expose to public view the reasons why it judges a particular release limit or abatement technology to be consistent with BATNEEC. Neither does it operate any arrangements providing for public access to industry's comments on its draft guidance notes - although such arrangements are now commonplace for Government consultation papers. Add to this the re-emergence of a private dialogue between inspectors and industry at local level, and the concern with which environmentalists are likely to view HMIP's current approach becomes all too apparent.

    The uncertainty in which the organic chemicals sector has been left due to the lack of release limits for many prescribed substances in the draft guidance, as well as HMIP's disinclination to express a preference for any particular production routes and abatement methods, will also be of concern to environmentalists, albeit from a different perspective.

    The expectations of both parties were influenced by a guide to IPC issued by the Department of the Environment last spring. This promised that the guidance note for each process would "describe the standards that HMIP believe can be achieved for that process by techniques appropriate in the industrial context concerned," and "describe a technique or range of techniques that can achieve those standards." Their failure to do so is one of a number of reasons why HMIP should start worrying about a possible backlash against where it is taking IPC from both sides of the environmental divide.

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