Pollution failures mar improving record

Environmental regulation of industry is cutting thousands of tonnes in emissions of substances that damage health and the environment, the Environment Agency reports, but continuing pollution failures by businesses across England and Wales are marring environmental gains it says.

The Agency highlights dramatic reductions in polluting emissions from power stations, metal production and processing, the chemical and minerals industries in a new report, Spotlight on environmental performance – 1999, which examines good and poor performances by businesses in England and Wales, last year.

At the same time, the report shows the Environment Agency prosecuted over 500 companies and individuals for serious pollution offences which left the public and the environment exposed to – amongst other dangers – asbestos, hazardous wastes, chemical gas clouds and raw sewage.

Failings highlighted in the report include the case of Milford Haven Post Authority, whose £750,000 fine for oil pollution from the Sea Empress tanker grounding puts the authority as the top of the league for fines imposed on companies prosecuted by the Environment Agency during 1999.

Major offenders

Big water and sewage companies, however, dominate the league of most frequent offenders, occupying all five top places, and seven out of the top 11 rankings for companies most often prosecuted by the Agency last year.

Waste management, the construction and demolition sector and manufacturing industry all feature as frequent pollution offenders. And three companies in the hotel and restaurant sector are included for sewage pollution offences.

The UK Chemical Industries Association (CIA) welcomed the latest update of the Agency’s database of emissions from regulated processes. CIA Director General, Dr Elliot Finer, said: “The chemical industry fully favours openness”. He said the industry also welcomed the broader context in the report, but believe that this needs to go further. “For example, all emissions reported here pale into insignificance compared with the effects of vehicle exhaust fumes. We call on the Agency to take the next step in widening the scope of its reporting.”

Environment Agency Chairman, Sir John Harman, said : “The vast majority of offences prosecuted by the Environment Agency are for avoidable pollution.

“While we make progress on one front, it seems that the gains from massive investment in environmental technology and training are continually getting clawed back by careless management and neglect of basic equipment on another.

“In 1999, for the first time, a company director was disqualified for an environmental pollution offence. Seven more directors were held personally responsible for pollution offences, convicted and fined by the courts. If that is what it takes to get the health of the public and the environment taken seriously in the boardroom, then I hope the courts will exercise that sanction more often in the future.

“However, the Agency continues to be disappointed about the overall level of fines imposed on companies once they have been found guilty of an environmental crime. Last year the overall level of fines imposed was £3,500, a slight increase over the 1998 average of £2,768.

“The Environment Agency believes the current average level of fines still do not reflect the long term damage and strain forced on our precious environment through criminal neglect. The Agency will continue to call on the courts to ensure the seriousness of these crimes in their judgements and impose penalties that are real deterrents for future environmental mismanagement.”

Examples of regulatory improvements highlighted in the report incude a 346,000 tonne reduction in emission of sulphur dioxide (SO2), one of the main components in the production of acid raid, from the fuel and power sector, between 1998 and 1999. Four power stations accounted for nearly half the total reduction; Drax Power Station was responsible for 88,000 tonnes or around 25% of the overall cut.

The chemical industry reduced emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) “which contribute to climate change” by 9,000 tonnes in 1999. The bulk of the reduction was achieved by Associated Octel Co Ltd, which reduced VOCs from its Elllesmere Port plant by 4,553 tonnes 70 % down on 1998 levels. BP Chemicals Ltd in Hull, Dupont in Cleveland and Union Carbide in Middlesborough achieved reduction of 65%, 99% and 55%, respectively, together equivalent to a further 4,097 tonne reduction.

Metal production and processing and the minerals sector together accounted for reductions in particulate (PM10) emission of 3,500 tonnes in 1999. Although industry is not the primary source of atmospheric particulates (road transport accounts for 27% and residential fuel burning for 15%, compared with four per cent and three per cent from the metals and minerals sectors, respectively), industrial emissions have significant local impact.

The performance of water and sewage companies was marred by its high rate of pollution incidents. Total fines against top offender Thames Water amounted to £79,000 in 1999, giving the company third place ranking for fines (after Milford Haven Port Authority and waste management company SARP UK Ltd, fined £80,000 in 1999) as well as the top ranking position for offences.

Anglian Water Services Ltd was the second most frequent water and sewage companty offender, with six court appearances and eight prosecuted offences in 1999, whilst Southern Water took third place in the table with four court appearances. Dwr Cymru Cyf is in fourth in the table with four court appearances and Northumberland Water Ltd ranks fifth with three.

In all 28 companies across a wide range of industries are singled out for achieving significant reductions in environmental pollutants in 1999, while a total of 48 offenders appear in the league tables for offences or total fines. Nine firms feature in both tables.

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