Patchy first year for new air pollution controls

Operators of thousands of industrial processes have failed to apply for authorisations under the air pollution control system created by the Environmental Protection Act 1990, the National Society for Clean Air (NSCA) and the Association of Metropolitan Authorities (AMA) have claimed following a joint survey of local authorities. The study has also revealed that many councils are implementing the new controls at the expense of other environmental health work.

The survey is the most comprehensive yet undertaken of the implementation of the new air pollution control regime. Some of the findings confirm indications from quarterly returns made to the Department of the Environment (DoE) by local authorities that many industrial operators are either applying for authorisation late or not at all.

The NSCA/AMA survey was carried out in May. A total of 286 local authorities in England and Wales responded out of the 365 approached.

The new controls are being applied in three blocks to existing industrial processes. The survey revealed that just 2,425 "duly made" applications have been received by responding local authorities for processes in block 1, for which the application deadline was 30 September 1991. Another 2,580 have been received for processes in block 2, for which the deadline was 31 March 1992.

Extrapolating these figures to all 365 councils, the NSCA/AMA conclude that about 6,025 applications have been submitted for processes in blocks 1 and 2. To set these figures in perspective, the DoE revealed in a recent parliamentary answer that it had estimated that the number of processes in block 1 alone would amount to 4,600-4,800, along with another 2,000-15,000 waste oil burners (ENDS Report 208, p 29 ).

Extrapolating from local authority estimates of the number of processes in block 3, for which applications are due by 30 September, the NSCA/AMA have also calculated that the total number of known processes liable for control under the new regime is about 12,300 in England and Wales. This is way below the DoE's initial estimate of 27,000, comprising some 14,000 industrial processes and 12,000 waste oil burners. The latter figure is not a fixed quantity, since the operators - including many thousands of garages - can switch to an alternative fuel.

Nevertheless, unless the DoE was way out in its estimates, it is clear that "the job of tracking down the thousands of industrial processes which still await discovery remains a major task," according to NSCA Director Dr Tom Crossett.

Some councils are beginning to take companies to court for failing to submit applications on time. A total of 36 prosecutions for this offence are pending.

Other findings from the survey were:

  • 21 local authorities returned all or most applications as not "duly made". Another 37 rejected about half the applications they received, 145 rejected "a few", but 79 rejected none. An NSCA spokesman suggested that the number of returned applications probably reflected the varying efforts made by authorities to explain the requirements of the legislation to industry. On the other hand, there is anecdotal evidence that some authorities have not examined applications in any detail before issuing an authorisation.

  • The survey suggests that many environmental health departments lack the resources to apply the controls effectively. No fewer than 179 authorities said that staffing levels were "inadequate" for the task, although 138 of these claimed to be "coping". And 184 authorities said that the new air pollution control work is being undertaken at the expense of other environmental health responsibilities.

    Part of the problem may lie with local councils themselves. While 127 have created extra air pollution control posts, 157 have not. Again, there is anecdotal evidence that some authorities have placed application fees - set at £900 for this year - in their general budgets rather than used the revenues to pay for new air pollution control personnel.

  • Many authorities contend that the fees paid by industry are too low to cover their costs. While 142 replied that the initial application fee of £900 is adequate, 134 said it was not. Likewise, although 185 authorities said that the annual "subsistence" fee - currently £550 - is at least adequate, 93 maintained it was not.

  • Limited use has been made to date of the public registers of applications, authorisations and monitoring data set up under the 1990 Act. Just six authorities said their registers were "well used". Another 148 said their registers had been "little used", while the registers of 126 councils had not been consulted at all. These figures mirror the initial experiences with the water pollution registers set up in 1986 under the Control of Pollution Act 1974. Public interest in these took off rapidly in the late 1980s.

    Among the qualitative findings of the survey was a general local authority view that fees paid by industry should be related to the size of processes. There is anecdotal evidence that some businesses - particularly in the metal recovery sector - have closed down rather than pay the charges.

    Many authorities also complained that there has been a lack of central training and guidance, resulting in an inconsistency of approach across the country. More will doubtless be heard on this theme from industry as authorisations are issued and competitors bemoan the lack of a level playing field.

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