Going underground

There is increasing evidence that groundwater, which provides around 35% of the nation's drinking water, is polluted beneath a large number of industrialised areas. (In the Birmingham and Coventry areas alone, over 80% of boreholes sampled showed evidence of pollution of trichloroethylene, a solvent used in manufacturing.) Europe says it has got to stop. And under new Groundwater Regulations to be enforced by the Environment Agency and SEPA, companies have just six weeks to comply.

Groundwater is present in all rocks. It provides around 35% of our drinking water, rising to more than 50% in lowland England where the pressures on land use from industry, agriculture and the sheer numbers of people, are exerted more heavily. It also provides a substantial amount of the flow in rivers through springs and seepages - many instances of river pollution can be traced back to pollutants entering the watercourse via groundwater.

Already covered
However, if any activities are already covered by a Waste Management Licence (Environ-mental Protection Act 1990), IPC authorisation (EPA 1990) or a discharge consent (Water Resources Act 1991), then an extra licence is not required. The new Regulations list two categories of substance which must be controlled:
  • List I - the most toxic chemicals, which must be prevented from entering groundwater. List I substances include many pesticides, sheep dip, solvents, hydrocarbons and toxic metals.
  • List II - the less dangerous chemicals, but which, if disposed of in large amounts, could be harmful to groundwater. Heavy metals, all remaining pesticides and sewage effluent fall into this category. Entry of these substances into groundwater must be restricted to prevent pollution.
Before any authorisation can be granted, the Regulations require "prior investigation" to be undertaken, considering:
  • the hydrogeology of the area;
  • the suitability of the soil and subsoil to break down the chemicals;
  • the possible impact on the environment; and
  • the risk of pollution to groundwater, including possible impact on neighbours' water sources. Applicants will have to confirm that they have contacted neighbours who may have water supplies drawn from around or close to the disposal area.
Activities which may give rise to the unintentional release of listed substances to groundwater, for example the manufacture, storage or use of listed substances, will be subject to statutory codes of practice to be prepared by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR), assisted by the Environment Agency and in consultation with other interested groups. The codes of practice will be issued for public consultation before being finalised, following which the Agency will be legally empowered to require improvements or prohibit the activity altogether.

The DETR is currently preparing guidance which will confirm how the Regulations are to be implemented. In the meantime, guidance will be available from the Agency on how it will approach its responsibilities under the regulations, particularly for the transitional period up to 1 April 1999. The current recommendation is that any company which thinks it might be affected by the new Regulations should discuss its concerns with the Environment Agency before undertaking any work or submitting applications in order to ensure that time and money is not wasted, a point stressed by the Agency's director of environmnetal protection, Paul Leinster. He states: "These new Regulations will affect a wide range of companies and we want to work closely with them to ensure that the administrative load on industry is minimised and to maximise environmental benefits. We are working carefully to ensure that the way in which the Regulations are enforced is harmonised with existing and planned pollution control legislation.

"Our advice to companies that think they might be subject to the Regulations is to contact their local Environment Agency office as soon as possible, so that where they need to they can meet the end of March deadline."

Applications for small-scale, infrequent disposal, i.e. less than five cubic metres per day (1,100 gallons), on no more than six days per year, will be charged around £84. Larger activities or more frequent disposals will attract the full application charge of £589. In addition, there will also be an annual charge to recover associated ongoing Agency costs based on the quantity, composition and frequency of the disposal.

For information on how to apply for an authorisation, or to find out if you need one, contact your local Environment Agency office on 0645 333111.



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