Companies and farmers have three months to apply for new groundwater licences

Under new Groundwater Regulations introduced as part of the European Directive on Groundwater Protection, companies and farmers who dispose of potentially-polluting chemicals, pesticides or sheep dips onto or into land have until the end of March 1999 to apply for a licence from the Environment Agency to continue with these activities.

If farmers or companies miss the deadline, they must wait until they have received a full authorisation from the Agency before they continue such disposal.

However, if any of these activities are already covered by a Waste Management Licence (Environmental Protection Act 1990), IPC authorisation (Environmental Protection Act 1990) or a discharge consent (Water Resources Act 1991), then an extra licence is not required. Most industrial discharges are already covered by an Agency licence.

The Groundwater Regulations list two categories of substances 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 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.

Other activities which may give rise to unintentional releases of listed substances, such as the manufacture, storage or use of listed substances will need to have regard to statutory codes of practice.

The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) is coordinating preparation of these codes with the assistance of the Environment Agency and in consultation with other interested groups. These codes of practice will be issued for public consultation before being finalised.

If the codes are not followed and there is a risk of pollution to groundwater, the Agency will have powers after 1 April 1999 to serve a notice to require improvements or prohibit the activity.

If a prosecution is taken by the Environment Agency under the Groundwater Regulations, defendants face up to a £20,000 fine and a maximum of 3 months in jail in a Magistrate’s Court and an unlimited fine and up to 2 years imprisonment in Crown Court.

In the meantime, guidance will be available from the Environment Agency on how it will approach its responsibilities under the Regulations, particularly for the transitional period up to 1 April.

The Environment Agency’s Director of Environmental Protection, Paul Leinster, said: “These new Regulations 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, perhaps more importantly, to maximise the environment 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.”

The Groundwater Regulations require ‘prior investigation’ to be undertaken before any authorisation can be granted which will consider:

  the hydrogeology of the area.

  the suitability of the soil and subsoil to break down the chemicals.

  the possible impact on the environment.

  the risk of pollution to groundwater. This includes possible impact on neighbours’ water sources and applicants will have to confirm that they have contacted neighbours who may have water supplies drawn from around or close to the disposal area.

  Guidance is available from the Agency on what is required to carry out this investigation.

For a copy of the relevant application form, please contact your local Environment Agency office on 0645-333111.

Action inspires action. Stay ahead of the curve with sustainability and energy newsletters from edie