The state of environmental regulation: 6 things you need to know

The Environment Agency (EA) last week published its annual report on the state of environmental regulation in England. ENDS takes a look at the key findings.

Steam is emitted from a chimney at British Steel's Scunthorpe works, which entered liquidation this year. Photograph: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

1 Serious pollution incidents are on the rise

Pollution incidents ranked as class 1 or 2 - the highest on the EA’s scale - rose by nearly 30% in 2018, with illegal waste activities, permitted waste management, farming and the water sector accounting for the bulk of total incidents. 

The EA said that hot and dry conditions played a role in around 50 of the 533 serious incidents last year, impacting the quality of water bodies and increasing the risk of surface run-off after heavy rainfall. MORE

2 The EA is playing whack-a-mole with waste criminals

The report reveals that the EA is closing down almost exactly the same number of illegal waste sites as it discovers. Last year it stopped illegal waste activity at 912 sites - an increase of 12% on 2017 - but also found 896 new sites - up 5% on the previous year. 

The top three types of waste found at illegal sites in this period were household and commercial waste, construction and demolition waste and end-of-life vehicles. Inspection rates for waste shipments were slightly down on 2017 levels, with 84 fewer checks carried out in 2018. MORE

3 The number of sites fully complying with their permits has declined

The EA has recorded a 2% decrease in the number of permits granted for operators in the highest compliance bands A and B in 2018, down to 12,676 in 2018 from 12,923 the year before. 

At the same time, the number of sites that need to improve their permit compliance increased. Sites placed in the lowest E and F compliance categories increased by 28%, although from a much lower base of 166, and those rated C and D increased by 10%, from 801 to 882. MORE

4 Industrial emissions have plateaued since 2016

Emissions of nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides, greenhouse gases regulated by the EA and large particulate matter (PM10) have remained broadly constant since 2016, after recording significant declines over the past decade. The agency does not supply a reason for the slowdown in progress. Emissions of non-methane volatile organic compounds were down 7% in 2017 after spiking in 2016.

Meanwhile, the figures show a steady increase in ammonia pollution, principally due to farming activities that do not fall under the Environmental Permitting Regulations, which only cover poultry and pig farms. The EA says most farmers “will need to change their practices and invest in farm infrastructure and equipment to reduce emissions”. 

5 Water quality is still far below EU targets

Despite recording a drop in phosphorus in water discharged from sewage treatment works, the EA notes that in 2016 86% of England’s river water bodies had reached good ecological status as defined under the EU’s Water Framework Directive. 

As reported earlier this year, water company performance deteriorated in 2018 compared to the year before, while average household water consumption and total water network leakage slightly increased. The agency says that more than a quarter of groundwater bodies are over-abstracted, with that figure falling to one-fifth for surface waters. 

6 Waste is being reprocessed at record high levels 

The EA recorded 14.8 million tonnes of waste from permitted sites in 2018, a decrease of 2 million tonnes on 2017 figures, with 72% of the total waste recovered or reused.

The amount of waste - from wastewater treatment, the food industry and digestate - spread onto land stayed stable at 5.5 million tonnes, with a longer term increase reflecting “the increase in anaerobic digestion as a treatment option”. MORE