The Environment Agency’s regulatory performance report attributed one third of the rise in total serious pollution cases to natural causes, such as algal bloom in watercourses caused by the dry weather, and greater surface run-off when heavy rainfall followed drought.
Simon Tilling, partner at law firm Burges Salmon, agreed that hot weather can play a big role as slow-running rivers are less able to cope with contaminants, and warm, still air tends not to disperse bad smells, while more people are outside to notice them.
“Whether a breach of environmental law gives rise to a serious pollution incident can depend as much on the receiving environment as the underlying fault of the operator,” he said.
The Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/675)
09 May 2016
Of the 533 total incidents, less than half (41%) were caused by industrial activities with permits. For instance, the waste industry was found to be responsible for 160 serious pollution incidents, far more than water and farming. But more than half of these (81) were attributed to waste crime, with pollution at illegal waste sites responsible for half of these.
Pollution from permitted sites rose 22% from the previous year. The EA highlights landfill sites as particularly problematic. Out of the 79 serious waste incidents in 2018, 16 took place at landfill sites, more than double the number in 2017. And of these, two individual sites were responsible for half the incidents.
Jacob Hayler, executive director at trade body the Environmental Services Association (ESA), said that the number of pollution cases at permitted sites was disappointing. But issues at landfill sites can be very dependent on specific local factors, such as flooding, he said.
Another common problem was inappropriate material being brought to the site by the waste producer, he says. “For example, gypsum or plasterboard isn’t meant to go to landfill, because once it’s wet it releases sulphur dioxide, which stinks.
“Then you have a really bad odour problem affecting the local population, which amounts to a serious pollution incident,” he said.
Landfill sites have criteria for what waste they accept, and operators run visual inspections to check the suitability of waste brought to the site, he explained.
“But we’ve had incidences of plasterboard being ground up and hidden with other materials. That caused a huge stink, which was very hard for the operator to manage,” he says. It was very difficult for an operator to prevent problems when a particular material has been deliberately hidden, he added.
The next worst performing sector in 2018 was farming, where there were 77 cases, up 13% from 2017. Intensive pig and poultry farms saw more than double the cases of serious pollution than in 2017. Almost all of these were due to odour pollution, the agency said.
Meanwhile, dairy farming saw a 28% decrease in serious pollution cases in 2018. The agency cited dry weather as a possible explanation for the drop, and a fall in the number of registered dairy producers in England, down by more than 500 compared with a year earlier.
However, the remaining dairy farms had bigger herds, which meant that farms needed more slurry storage to prevent pollution, it noted. Of 29 cases in 2018, 26 involved slurry or silage, with 23 of these caused by containment and control failures.
Comparing the figures over five years, the agency said that both the average number of cases, and the number per farm, increased between 2012 to 2017. “Although the trend dips in 2018, by itself, it is not a sufficient signal of change to provide confidence of sustained improvement in the sector,” the report stated.
The agency found that around two-thirds of all serious pollution cases in farming were caused by slurry leaking from storage. Auditors from the Red Tractor farm assurance scheme now assess slurry storage, while a tool from the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board that measures slurry production has been improved to help farmers calculate how much storage they need, it said. These moves should reduce the number of pollution cases involving slurry storage, it said.
A spokesperson for the National Farmers Union said that planning policy needed to support farmers so that they could use more modern, efficient buildings and storage facilities.
He added: “There will always be year-on-year variability mainly due to factors outside farmers’ control such as fluctuation in weather patterns.”
The water sector was responsible for 56 serious pollution incidents in 2018, the agency’s report stated, a slight increase from 52 in 2017. The agency publishes a separate report on the water sector’s performance.
Speaking of the overall picture for cases of serious pollution, Tilling said that although the severity of a case can sometimes be attributable to chance, the trend was “clearly in the wrong direction”.
Resourcing of the agency was an issue, as the more visible it was within the regulated community, the more attention environmental management would receive, he said.
“It is not necessarily a case of businesses deliberately cutting corners: there are numerous competing issues and risks for business leaders to manage, and there is a danger that other issues are prioritised. After all, it is easy to assume a system is working because there hasn’t been an incident – until of course there is an incident,” he said.