Improving quality

Results from laboratories can be inconsistent. The Agency's MCERTS scheme should bring a higher quality service to environmental managers. Melanie Brown reports

The Environment Agency's Monitoring Certification Scheme (MCERTS) is set to improve the quality of environmental monitoring data. It allows the certification of instruments and personnel and the accreditation of monitoring and testing laboratories under European and international standards (EN 45011 and ISO/IEC 17025). The scheme is operated for the Agency by Sira Certification Service (SCS), an independent body accredited by the United Kingdom Accreditation Service (UKAS) to EN 45011.

It aims to promote public confidence and to help industry choose certified instruments or testing laboratories for monitoring. MCERTS is also a way of increasing the Agency's confidence in monitoring data obtained by consent holders. This is crucial to the Agency's strategy of increasing reliance on self-monitoring by operators to enforce European environmental directives.

Continuous emissions monitoring

The first stage of MCERTS, introduced in 1998, was the certification of continuous emissions monitoring systems for chimney stacks. The standard covers extractive instruments and cross-stack or in situ monitoring instruments and initially focused on large combustion plant, incinerators and processes using solvents. Instruments monitoring temperature, pressure and mass flow of gas are included.

The standard mainly affects equipment manufacturers and suppliers. Eight manufacturers have already obtained certification for their continuous stack monitoring instruments. Some are smaller companies with no previous certification.

Many larger companies already had instruments approved under the German Federal Environment Agency's (Umweltbundesamt - UBA) scheme and are now applying for MCERTS under a fast-track procedure established by an agreement between the Agency and the UBA on the mutual recognition of test reports. A common European standard is being developed.

Continuous ambient air quality monitoring

MCERTS was extended in December 2000 to include certification of instruments for continuous monitoring of ambient air quality in order to meet the requirements of the European Air Quality Framework and Daughter Directives.

Instruments measuring the pollutants nitrogen monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, particulates, lead, cadmium, arsenic, nickel, mercury, benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons are included.

The testing of a variety of instruments for certification is underway at the N

ational Physical Laboratory and AEA Technology, which are both accredited to the international standard ISO 17025 (requirements for the competence of testing and calibration laboratories).

Manual stack emission monitoring

In February 2002, MCERTS was introduced for manual stack emission monitoring. It has had a major impact on all those involved in stack emission monitoring, including testing laboratories and in-house sampling teams. In addition to the accreditation of laboratories, it requires the certification of personnel conducting the measurements.

Certification requirements

Personnel certification has an entry (trainee) level and two competency levels. Trainees require direct supervision from a Level 2 qualified person and should progress to Level 1 within 6-12 months.

Level 1 requires a basic understanding of manual stack monitoring involving practical experience, record keeping and a written examination. Team leaders must be qualified to Level 2, which involves further written and oral examinations. SCS maintains a register of all certified personnel; each individual will be reassessed every 5 years.

Transitional arrangements are in force for 18 months to allow experienced individuals to move directly into Level 1 or 2 if appropriate exams are passed. Stack-testing personnel are also required to attend a recognised health and safety course covering working at heights.

Laboratories wishing to undertake MCERTS-approved monitoring must be accredited by UKAS to ISO 17025 for the MCERTS performance standard for organisations. This rigorous performance standard includes ethical requirements, use of MCERTS personnel, selection and implementation of appropriate methods, estimation of measurement uncertainty, use of appropriate equipment, planning sampling campaigns, reporting results and participation in proficiency testing schemes.

Accreditation may be obtained for specific substances - particulates for example. Laboratories must implement a policy addressing all associated hazards and risks and produce their own quality and procedures manuals for scrutiny by UKAS. It typically takes 18 months to obtain accreditation. The certificate is valid for four years, after which a full reassessment is required. UKAS carries out annual checks to ensure that standards are maintained.

The first certificates for stack emission monitoring personnel and organisations were presented by the Agency's director of environmental protection, Paul Leinster, at a conference held in November 2002 in Burton-on-Trent.

Delivering improvements

The STA, a trade association representing equipment suppliers, test houses, operators and regulators, has been working closely with the Environment Agency to develop MCERTS. Its administrator, Dave Curtis, says that "prior to MCERTS, monitoring data was often low cost and low quality and was sometimes not worth the paper it was written on."

He believes that the lack of recognised standards was compromising health and safety and points out that "the UK has a poor safety record in stack monitoring compared to other countries, including the USA."

STA members are almost unanimous that MCERTS is workable and will improve the quality of monitoring. Some are already accredited to ISO 17025 and are extending this to adopt MCERTS. Others are working towards accreditation. Applicants for certification must pay their own costs, although the Agency insists that these have been kept to a minimum.

The environmental monitoring company, AES, became accredited in November 2002. Technical director Dave Davidson explains that the company obtained UKAS accreditation 13 years ago and this goes a long way towards meeting the MCERTS requirements.

Davidson believes that the investment required to meet UKAS accreditation including MCERTS from scratch for a company like AES (which employs 280 people) would be over £100,000. Also, ongoing costs to maintain accreditation can be significant. In addition to the annual UKAS audit fee (£30,000 for all the AES laboratories), AES employs six people to look after quality, safety and environmental issues.

However, he fully endorses the need for MCERTS and says: "It is important to obtain a level playing field for all laboratories so that data obtained can be accurate, reliable, traceable and defensible. Customers are waking up to the importance of certified data, although MCERTS' full impact may take time to filter through". Benefits to laboratory users Although a substantial cost is involved in obtaining MCERTS accreditation, the resulting data is less likely to require check monitoring by the Agency, which has a cost for operators.

The more confidence the Agency has in data, the more it will pull back from check monitoring, potentially reducing costs for end-users. The Agency's John Tipping explains that the target is to reduce the requirement for check monitoring from 30-40% of processes falling under IPC to 10%, once MCERTS is up and running.

MCERTS approval is not mandatory, but Tipping says that for some sites it is likely to become so. The Agency will expect to see MCERTS used for monitoring - data obtained without using certified equipment, personnel or laboratories will require justification.

Some end-user companies are seeking accreditation to carry out their own monitoring, but this is only viable where a significant monitoring effort is required. The Agency is considering developing specific endorsements to enable such companies to carry out monitoring under MCERTS.

Further developments

The Agency is in the process of developing performance standards and certification arrangements to cover all regulatory monitoring activities; a series of additional standards, including schemes for effluent monitoring and soil testing, are in the pipeline.

The ultimate objective is to provide a comprehensive framework covering all aspects of monitoring, which will allow industry to choose monitoring equipment suppliers and services, with confidence that the monitoring data obtained will meet the Agency's requirements.



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