It is hard to imagine a more unlikely setting for a major pollution incident than Appleby-in-Westmorland. The small market town sits on the Eden, a prime fishing river in a fertile valley between the Pennines and the Lake District peaks.
But in June 1987, a spill of 500 gallons of ammonia at the Express Foods factory, sited on the brow of a hill overlooking the town, escaped into a stormwater drain. The pollution ran directly into the Eden. Several thousand fish, principally salmon and trout, were killed and more than seven miles of the river were seriously affected.
The upshot was that Express Foods achieved the distinction of being fined a total of £25,000 for the spill - at the time a record penalty for a pollution incident (ENDS Report 154, p 4). It also had to pay £112,000 for restocking the river.
The spill brought Express Foods' strained relationship with the then North West Water Authority to a head. An inspector with the National Rivers Authority describes the company's attitude as "perhaps not untypical for the time, but still leaving much to be desired."
Waste from dairy processes has a very high organic load, and the site's effluent accounted for some 80% of the organic load and 60% of the volume treated by the local sewage works. "We produce enough waste for a town of 80,000 people - and only 3,000 people live in Appleby," says John Bolton, the present factory manager.
Growing demands on production meant that through the 1980s the factory regularly exceeded its trade effluent consents. The water authority issued several warnings and began pressing Express Foods to make a large capital contribution to help upgrade the sewage works. "We were given enough chances," comments Mr Bolton.
The prosecution was the catalyst for a radical change in the factory's approach. The Appleby site was under severe threat of closure from the water authority and the parent company. A new factory manager was appointed, and his response was to institute a programme to reduce the effluent from the site.
The Appleby creamery's main products are 12,000 tonnes of cheddar cheese per year and 5,000 tonnes per year of demineralised whey powder for use in the manufacture of biscuits, chocolates and baby food. It can handle up to 400,000 litres of milk each day, brought in 40 tanker loads from surrounding farms.
Following the ammonia spill, the company's first action was to build a bund around the source - a refrigeration unit which had cracked and released its contents. The company also began to consider bunding its storage tanks of acids, caustics and fuel oil - described by Mr Bolton as a "disaster cocktail", especially in view of the position on a steep hill above the river.
But as well as taking steps to avoid further accidents, the company began to look seriously at its day-to-day activities. The factory had no on-site treatment works, and all process and cleaning effluent was simply transferred to a 100,000 gallon holding pit to prevent major shock loads when it was sent to the sewage works.
An effluent awareness committee was set up with members from all departments, and went right back to basics. "We started by asking simple questions such as: what is effluent?" says John Bolton. "As we became aware of the problems, the group soon turned into a Wastage Control Committee."
A graduate trainee was taken on to monitor all the cleaning operations, measuring the organic load and volume generated in each operation. The data were used to draw up a priority action list, and also to calculate the variance between predictable effluent from routine operation and that from spillages of product.
In June 1988, the company recruited David Barker as an effluent control officer. His wide-ranging brief included segregating waste streams and developing a strategy for their disposal, reducing product losses in the factory and continually monitoring the levels of discharge. He also set targets for the base loading of effluent from each department.
"One of the first things we did was to take all hoses out of all departments to identify any leaks of product", says Mr Bolton. He describes the hose as the "dairyman's friend" because of its use in cleaning - but it can also be used to swill any avoidable leaks or spills out of sight.
Within a year Express Foods had started to gain control of its effluent. The risk of prosecution had receded - and the firm was finding that it was actually making reasonable financial savings (see Table ).
Several of the measures taken were very simple, such as switching from the successive use of acid and detergent to clean vessels to a single wash with acid-based detergent.
Besides the general good housekeeping procedures, specific projects were set up to tackle the main sources of waste. Again, sometimes these proved remarkably simple.
For instance, large losses of milk were occurring in the tanker reception area during the uncoupling of hoses and cleaning of lines and silos. Operators were encouraged to drain hose contents into stainless steel buckets and put them in a refrigerated tank for use in the process. And recovery of milk product from the cleaning-in-place system in the main lines is saving some £10,000 in product costs and trade effluent charges.
But some other measures required more upheaval. Once the sources of high strength waste had been identified, the drainage system was modified to divert it to a dedicated collection tank. Express Foods says that this strong waste is an effective and environmentally benign soil conditioner and fertiliser supplement, particularly for cereal crops and grassland. The NRA has lent its support to the practice.
Over three million gallons per year of high strength waste is now taken off site by the licensed waste disposal contractor, East Cumbria Plant. It is spread on local farmland rather than being sent to landfill, and Express Foods audits the operation every six months to ensure that the risk of pollution to watercourses or roads from field run-off is minimised.
John Bolton estimates that if the plant was to send its full consented load - a maximum daily flow of 841m3 and biological oxygen demand of 1367kg/day - to the sewage works, the trade effluent charge would be over £200,000. With the new segregation system, the charge is £60,000 and the haulage fee for the high strength waste is £63,000 - a saving of some £80,000.
"It's a physical impossibility for us to stay within our consent without some segregation," according to Mr Bolton. "But we're taking out more strong waste than we need to - simply because it saves money."
The company also looked at ways to recycle waste into the process itself. A £100,000 investment programme was set up to improve the recovery of fat from the salt whey. Previously the salt whey had been dumped while the "sweet" whey had been kept for fat recovery in centrifugal separators. The company introduced more efficient collection of the waste and installed two 3,000 gallon tanks so that salt whey could also be kept for fat recovery. The result was that the company recovered 16% more fat for return to the process. The capital payback was achieved in 11 months - and Mr Bolton places the current annual savings at £175,000.
Further savings were made by returning the first rinses of vessels to the process. "An initial rinse can be anything up to 30% milk," according to Mr Bolton. Potential hygiene problems are avoided by repasteurising the wash liquid.
Another major source of waste was found to be the reverse osmosis process which concentrates the whey before it is dried. The permeate is normally only a low-strength effluent - but when the semi-permeable membranes needed periodic replacement, pure whey escaped to the drain.
Express introduced a monitoring procedure to test the membranes and permeate strengths. This allows the membranes' life expectancy to be predicted - and is saving £30,000 in product and reduced trade effluent charges.
Enlisting the workforce
But John Bolton stresses that hardware alone is not enough to improve environmental performance. He believes that a cultural change is just as important. "We had always been very quality-conscious of our products," he says, "but our attitude to the environment and to health and safety was less than it should have been."
"Morale among the staff was very low after the ammonia spill," Mr Bolton recalls. The management's approach was to raise the awareness of the workforce, initially by organising seminars with the help of the NRA. This was followed up by regular bulletins on waste performance and the establishment of a suggestions scheme.
Every department now has a continuous sampler on its effluent stream, so there is no hiding place for a spillage and every incentive to report it quickly. But Mr Bolton believes that staff should be kept informed of their performance. "Communicating the fact that targets are being met is at least as important as reacting when they are not."
With 105 staff, the creamery is the major employer in the town. Mr Bolton is very conscious of the bad feeling caused by the ammonia spill, particularly among local anglers. Once again with the active involvement of the NRA, a meeting was held in the town's market hall to explain the steps the firm was taking to avoid further incidents.
The lessons of the Appleby site's experience have now been absorbed by Express Foods' six other sites. These have taken the waste reduction programme on board, and all employ a wastage control officer. The sites share a common reporting system and the results are entered into a central database to compile a league table of performance. All effluent levels are monitored centrally, and if results differ greatly from the agreed base level the site is encouraged to take action.
The improvements on the Appleby site have also won external recognition in the shape of regional and national Golden Leaf Awards from the PA Consulting Group in 1991. This award aims to recognise companies which have gained a business advantage through responsible environmental action.
"We were impressed by a relatively small outfit getting the bit between their teeth," explains David Smith, PA's environment services director. "Simply by paying attention to detail and instituting straightforward management measures, they've set an example of good practice across the whole group."
While the initial impetus of the waste reduction programme may be slowing as the most obvious problems are tackled, the process is continuing. This year Mr Bolton plans to complete the protection against accidental spills reaching the river by fitting cattlegrids across the entrance roads. He also hopes to recycle wash fluid from the site's skim dryer by collecting and reusing it in the powder-making process.
Express Foods is not alone in realising that good environmental practice is good for business. But despite the growing number of case histories to back up the theory, many in industry still appear at best reluctant to take the plunge - and at worst, downright sceptical.
John Bolton has a simple explanation. "It's a lot easier, and needs a lot less thought, just to flush waste down the drain. Many people are too busy making excuses as to why they can't do anything, rather than just getting on with it."