Filling the void

EBM looks at the Environment Agency’s draft guidance on odour treatment and control and finds industry eager for help with this complex area, but wary of the extra work it might entail

Odour abatement has long been problematic in the UK. Unlike countries such as the Netherlands and Germany, which have been operating qualitative odour regulatory regimes for a number of years, this country has struggled along with a more subjective case-by-case approach.

This is all set to change when the Environment Agency’s consultation on the IPPC H4: Horizontal Guidance for Odour, Parts 1 and 2, is complete. There is no publication date as yet, and an Agency official told Environment Business Magazine that it could be at least 2-3 months before industry replies are collated and decisions on changes to the document made.

The guidance is aimed at all A1 IPPC activities directly regulated by the Agency in England and Wales – for example, oil refining, the chemical industry, and the food and drink industry.

It does not cover A2 activities (those regulated by Local Authorities), intensive livestock farming, or landfill, which will be covered by separate guidance. Different regulatory arrangements apply in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

It’s an important step in the tackling of odour as it will provide a quantitative transparent approach – the use of modelling criteria for example – for the first time. Nick Jones, head of independent odour consultancy Odournet UK, explains: “The guidance is a step in the direction of clarity, away from the previous regime, which was based on the opinion of an inspector.”

Increased consistency

Although this could sometimes lead to inconsistent decisions, it did allow a certain degree of flexibility in inspectors’ interpretation when faced with specific cases. Critics of the guidance claim that this will disappear as regulators stick to the guidance’s suggested inspection and abatement methodology.

But Daniel Smyth, technical director of planning, transport and the environment at environmental consultancy RPS, disagrees with this view. “It must make the system fairer, because it is consistent guidance,” he says. “It is fairly flexible too, as it allows more detailed methodology to be employed as you progress through the guidance.”

Jones agrees: “I think it’s a fairer system. There is a definition of what you do and transparency on both sides. It reflects what already happens in parts of Europe.”

It doesn’t, however, update odour control technology, despite much of the research dating from 1994. And although there is more practical experience of the technology, this knowledge doesn’t permeate the new guidance.

So, what does the guidance contain? The first part outlines the main considerations relating to the permitting and regulatory aspects of odour-generating activities. Although it is aimed primarily at regulators, it also contains information of use to industry, including:

  • a description of the process of determination as it relates to odour;
  • information on the human response to odours; tools available for the assessment of the environmental
  • impact of odour; and
  • information on the odorous releases required from the operator for the purpose of making an IPPC application.

Part 2 of the guidance, Odour Assessment & Control, is aimed at both regulators and operators. It describes:

  •  measuring odour using analytical and sensory techniques;
  • u the collection of odour samples;
  • the range of odour impact assessment methodologies;
  •  the range of “end-of-pipe” odour abatement technologies available; and
  • odour control by design, and by operational and management techniques.

Greater obligations

There are implications for industry. The guidance will ensure a more consistent approach, but will also make more formal demands on managers, such as documenting why best available technology (BAT) has been selected. “The guidance doesn’t require more than BAT, but it does require a lot of work to get there,” explains Smyth.

“Under PPC you have to prove that the technology you have come up with is the best available, whereas before industry would go some way down that route, but may have done little more than vet alternative suppliers.”

This, says Jones, could make industry uncomfortable: “There will be clarity in the long run, but initially it will place more requirements on industry, such as assessment and how to quantify risk. The greater obligation to demonstrate performance levels may cause some protest from industry.”

Smyth goes further: “There is a lot to learn and those that go through it first will be learning lessons for the rest of their industry sector. This means that potentially there is a huge amount that might be required, which has time and cost implications relative to the impact of the industry itself.”

A challenge for industry

For sectors such as the refining industry, which comes under IPPC in 2006, this could be serious, although Ian McPherson, director of environment health and safety at the Petroleum Industry Association, says that as yet, members are not sure what the implications will be.

“There is a lot involved with IPPC and it does look daunting. It will be a challenge, but whether it will cost our members more money in areas like odour control is not yet clear. After all, odour control shouldn’t be a new concept for our members.”

For others however, guidance on a problem that is notoriously sensitive to control is welcome. A spokeswoman for the Food and Drink Federation welcomed the document, saying that guidance across all industry sectors should make it easier for managers to understand what they need to do.

The Chemical Industries Association (CIA), whose members are often faced with odour issues, are also content with the guidance overall. In a response to the consultation paper the CIA wrote: “The guidance notes are excellent technical documents that give thorough treatment to odour problems that may arise in the chemical sector. Sites with recognised odour issues will find these guidance notes a useful source of reference and advice.”

However, it does have some reservations: “Clearer guidance is needed however on the circumstances that might trigger use of the guidance. It would be helpful if these guidance notes had a statement up front in their text stating when this document might be useful and indicate that if use of the H1 environmental impact assessment methodology, for instance, shows that a site does not have odour issues, then this guidance is not necessarily triggered.”

Looking ahead

The guidance will be under consultation for at least another couple of months – the Agency is being coy about giving an exact date, but most experts agree that it is not likely to change substantially between now and then. After that, there will probably be a period of learning as different regulatory bodies and industries begin to use and get used to the guidance.

“A challenge has been issued by the Agency,” says Jones. “They have set a clear framework but admit that they don’t know all the answers. If there are issues specific to certain industry sectors then, it is up to these sectors to demonstrate what criteria that they should be judged against in a technically robust fashion.”

Because of this, it could take a couple of years for the new guidance to bed down. Also the regulators can expect challenges from non-PPC sectors that have the guidance applied to them, because it is the only guidance around.

When the dust settles, the UK should have the beginnings of a decent odour strategy. Industry should know what is expected of them and regulators will be able to apply consistent rules. For industry and those affected by odour, the future smells rosy.

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