All change for pollution regulations

Changes are afoot in the way Government expects regulators to track emissions to air and waste arisings from industrial facilities. Stephen Inch from King's College London's Environmental Research Group considers the implications of current and future developments.

The traditional framework for regulating emissions has been evolving in recent years and now, as part of the Government’s wider drive for better regulation, Defra has proposed a new initiative which will bring together pollution prevention and control (PPC) and permitting for waste management, the Environmental Permitting Programme.

The changes aim to make the system more efficient, saving money for the regulated and time for the regulators.

Stephen Inch said that the overall thrust of the developments was so far sound.

“In principle I think that bringing the waste management and PPC regulations

under a single system is a good idea, a single environmental permit should be

easier and clearer for the operator to deal with and easier to enforce, particularly where there are multiple regulators for each site,” he said.

“There is also an undeniable logic to governing all the potential pollution for an

installation under a single permit or set of rules. I am also broadly in support of the idea that other parts of environmental legislation, such as water discharges, could eventually be brought under the same system for similar reasons.”

Asked whether he expected effective regulation of emissions to air to suffer or improve he said: “This is a very difficult question to answer until the new system has been put into practice.

“On the positive side consolidating permits on sites with multiple permits should make it easier to establish compliance and, if necessary, secure enforcement action. Having a single regulator for the sites that currently have multiple regulators for different parts of the operation should produce similar benefits, although the current proposal is to make the change to a single regulator voluntary.

“On the down side the EPP proposes to introduce more ‘standard rules’ permits

from the EA and more template permits for Local Authorities. A standard rules

permit would be cheaper to obtain and incur a smaller subsistence fee, which

could discourage innovation, as new approaches to pollution prevention would

necessarily require a ‘bespoke’ permit.

“The EA’s intention is that ‘standard rules’ permits will just refer to a set of general binding rules also means that operators could end up claiming not to know what standards to adhere to.

“For Local Authorities the introduction of more standardized permits will

reduce the administrative burden but will also reduce the ability of LA’s to

tailor permits to local conditions or Air Quality Management plans.”

Much of the recent developments reflect a growing reliance on risk-based regulation, which in practice will mean that historically well-managed, low-risk facilities will be rewarded with less frequent inspection, while those who are deemed high-risk will be watched more closely.

But planned changes which would put more emphasis on the type of operation and less on how it is managed might create problems.

“To a certain extent Local Authority inspections are already keyed to the DEFRA risk assessment tool in the expectation that low risk premises are inspected once a year, medium risk twice a year and high risk installations as often as necessary,” said Mr Inch.

“This is reasonably effective as the risk rating is re-appraised every year and there is a financial incentive to lowering your risk category. The introduction of more ‘standard rules’ permits under the EPP has been linked to producing a more or less standardized risk rating for sectors where these apply, based on an initial OPRA assessment.

“This could diminish the value of risk rating as a tool to secure compliance, as the intention seems to be to apply a risk rating based on the type of operation rather than the specific installation or operator.

“There is also a possibility that the risk-based inspection regime could end up with some smaller operations falling under the inspection radar, effectively de-regulating them. Although this would probably not lead to more serious pollution incidents it may lead to more smaller or localized pollution incidents.

“Ultimately the effectiveness of a risk based regime depends on its implementation, if it is used to target the worst offenders it will be a good thing, if it is simply used to reduce the regulators workload or as an excuse to reduce the cost of regulation it could well be a bad thing.”

Asked whether EPP would have a big impact on the coal face and change the way local authority regulators work, Mr Inch said the transition would likely be a smooth one.

“In practice I think the EPP will have very little effect on LA regulated sites, except for a minority who also hold WML exemptions, as the current PPC is incorporated almost wholesale into the EPP regs,” he said.

“The major changes seem to be for how the Environment Agency works. One challenge for LA’s will be the increased emphasis on the availability of public registers, in line with the Environmental Information Regulations, including use of electronic media.

“Our experience of this in developing the Hillingdon emissions website is that it is not a small undertaking, and will become more complex if waste sites are to be included.

“For the majority of the regulated the new regime is unlikely to feel that much different than the old regime, except for those operating on ‘standard rules’ permits who will probably find that their lives are a little bit easier.”

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