Over one fifth of water pollution consents exceed agreed limits

UK Environment Minister Michael Meacher has revealed that 21.5% of the 4277 significant ‘consents to discharge’ to water courses issued by the Environment Agency to industry in 2000 breached agreed limits.

The information was provided in a written response to a Parliamentary Question on the state of the UK’s regulation of discharges to water courses, and highlighted a fall in compliance compared to 1998. The statistics also showed this figure was based on monitoring of only 67.3% of the discharges, so compliance figures for the remaining 32.7% are unknown.

Even this figure is skewed, the Environmental Industries Commission (EIC), the organisation that represents the UK’s environmental technology and services sector, pointed out. In the heavily industrialised North East just 49% of discharges were monitored, whereas in Wales, where water quality is much higher, 89.8% were monitored. “There are horrific regional pictures,” an EIC spokesman told edie.

Under the Water Resources Act 1991 it is an offence to “cause or knowingly permit” pollutants to enter controlled waters – rivers, estuaries, coastal waters or groundwaters – without permission. This is generally obtained in the form of a discharge consent granted by the Environment Agency, which sets conditions to control volumes and concentrations of substances or impose broader controls on the nature of the effluent.

Each consent is based on an objective set by the Agency for the quality of the stretch of water to which the discharge is made, as well as relevant EU directives. The Environment Agency is also able to refuse an application for a consent.

The Environment Agency can also serve notices on consent holders requiring action to be taken to prevent breach of a consent under Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) legislation.

“The new figures also reveal that 10% of consents were reviewed in 2000 – meaning we are missing out on the chance to reduce pollution levels to reflect technological innovation and increasing concern over the health of our watercourses,” says a statement by the EIC.

“These breaches of pollution limits not only harm the environment, but also undermine responsible companies that invest to meet their legal requirements,” said the EIC.

Meacher’s written response also showed that between April 1999 and July 2001 there were only 21 prosecutions for breaches of trade effluent discharge consents. Fines during the same period were £141,500.

“It is vital that those companies that invest in their environmental performance and meet UK law are not commercially disadvantaged by polluting companies getting a free ride,” said EIC director Merlin Hyman. “DEFRA and the Environment Agency must take strong action to ensure that industry complies.”

“The Government’s planned new Water Quality Strategy is an important opportunity to tackle the problems with industrial water pollution by putting in place tighter standards and ensuring that they are properly enforced.”

The strategy moves the debate on from the old Department of the Environment Transport and the Regions’ 1997 consultation paper, Economic Instruments for Water Pollution, which considered the use of economic instruments to address point source discharges such as those made by industry.

Among the conclusions of that paper the Government noted: “For a given quantum of expenditure, a national pollution charge would be unlikely to deliver the same level of environmental benefit as the sort of targeted improvements in regulatory control being sought via the investment programmes being reflected in the Periodic Review of water company prices and other action being taken by the regulatory agencies to secure improvements in water quality.”

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