Scotland needs pollution register

Friends of the Earth Scotland has accused the Scottish parliament of “keeping the public in the dark” over potentially hazardous emissions from Scottish factories, landfills and wastewater treatment works.

The environmental pressure group has produced a report, Counting Chemicals, which details pollution inventory systems (Pollution Release and Transfer Registers) around the world and uses these to set out minimum standards for a Scottish system.

The report was published in advance of a Scottish Parliamentary debate, which took place 30 January on a motion by Stirling MSP Dr Sylvia Jackson, which called for Scotland to set up a comprehensive pollution inventory system. FoE was urging Members of the Scottish Parliament (MSPs) to support the motion.

“England and Wales are ahead of us and it seems sensible to build on their expertise as soon as possible,” said Jackson, during the debate. “However, it is important not to restrict the register. We should consider what the Aarhus convention asks. We should develop a register that will empower communities to know what emissions there are locally and what effect they have on health—such data can also be on the database—and that will allow people to take action where necessary.”

FoE points out that under current legislation, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) will have to produce an inventory of emissions of 50 chemicals from 2003, which does not have to be available on the internet. This compares to the US Toxic Release Inventory, which covers around 650 chemicals, and a new European agreement that recommends 244 chemicals for inclusion.

Dr Jackson’s motion reads: “That the Parliament congratulates the Scottish Executive on its proposals to cut particle air pollution by more than 50% by 2010; notes the detrimental effects on health that air pollution can have; recognises the need for the introduction of a pollution inventory system in order to make information on releases of pollutants from industrial processes available to the public in a clear, easily understandable and accessible format, and believes that the Scottish Executive should support the progressive introduction of a pollution release and transfer register as required under the United Nations Economic Commission for Europe’s Aarhus convention.”

The Aarhus convention is a government commitment to disclose information relating to environmental matters. It also gives the public a right to participate in governmental decision-making and aims for a more ‘open’ or transparent form of government.

FoE is keen for data to be available on the internet as part of a move to openness, pointing to the Environment Agency for England and Wales’s web-based pollution inventory. This currently provides information on industrial processes, but is to be updated to include data on landfill sites and wastewater treatment works. The US Environmental Protection Agency also has an online pollution inventory. FoE notes then Vice President Al Gore’s quote when the system was initiated, “Putting basic information about toxic releases into the hands of citizens is one of the most powerful tools available for protecting public health and the environment in local communities.”

FoE’s report was based on detailed discussions between Friends of the Earth Scotland and SEPA and questionnaires sent to MSPs and industry representatives.

Responses to its questionnaires were generally positive. The Scottish Executive told FoE that it “intends to mirror the position in England and Wales by using the proposed Scottish Freedom of Information regime as a means of implementing the information provisions of the Aarhus Convention”. Aarhus provisions would come into force first through the Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control (IPPC) Directive, which would establish a pollution inventory. The first round of reporting would likely be in 2003. While SEPA has been moving to meet IPPC requirements, the Executive stressed that this is in the developmental stage but will be extended, saying: “The UK is committed to having a Polluting Emissions Inventory available to the public in line with that required by the IPPC Directive.” But FoE notes: “The Scottish Executive seems to have no plans to take the Directive further, meaning that the system will remain limited, for example, to only reporting on 50 substances.”

SEPA has been discussing setting up a joint UK-wide inventory with the Environment Agency, which would engender rapid improvements in Scotland’s system and ensure data on effects of pollutants would be available, and that information would be available on a website.

FoE is calling for data to be collected on an annual basis – the IPPC Directive only asks for triennial collection – and for clear rules to establish a consistent methodology for data collection, with an enforcement procedure to ensure this happens – naming and shaming and fines are both suggested.

FoE also wants the database to contain basic environmental and health information and for the public to be made aware that the information is available. In addition, the report calls for waste and recycling activities to be monitored as well as chemical releases, and for companies to have to report the amounts of chemicals they use and the amounts that remain in products.

The method by which releases are made should also be reported, FoE notes – whether pollution occurs in a burst or gradually over the year. It also urges that the register include all chemicals known to be harmful to health, calling the current 50 “not sufficient”.

Dr Jackson’s proposals were broadly welcomed by MSPs during the debate in Parliament.

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