Turning risk into reward

Gavin Bollan, senior consultant - air, at Atkins Environment argues that the Environment Agency's EP-OPRA assessment scheme can be turned into a win-win situation for operators of industrial installations.

The Environment Agency introduced the Operator Pollution Risk Assessment (OPRA) system in the late 1990s as a means of ranking the relative environmental risk presented by IPC Part A installations (as they were in those days), and to apportion regulatory efforts accordingly. The first OPRA visits came as a bit of a shock to some operators, and were necessarily the most time consuming, as a great deal of fundamental information had to be collected and assessed. Subsequent visits could build on this knowledge base and were usually less demanding.

Since then, IPC has been replaced by IPPC, and in the summer of 2003, the OPRA assessment exercise was rebranded EP-OPRA (EP standing for Environmental Protection). The primary assessment tool now took the form of an Excel spreadsheet. The operator has the first opportunity to complete the assessment, which is then reviewed by the inspector and a decision made (hopefully by agreement) on the scores awarded to the assessment criteria. This was seen by many as a step towards making industrial regulation a more inclusive and two-way process. In keeping with the previous, non-electronic operator pollution risk assessment, permit holders with higher emissions, sensitive neighbours and complex processes requiring greater inspector input are assigned a higher risk banding. This in turn determines the amount for which the operator is liable in subsistence charges, reflecting both the additional time and effort required for EA inspection and the long-held principle that the polluter pays. The complete list of areas assessed includes complexity, emissions to air, water and sewer, waste produced, operation and management and location. Operators are first invited to complete their own assessment of their activities, which is subsequently ratified and amended if necessary by the inspector. Data is entered in to the spreadsheet reflecting the operator’s situation, and a risk banding and associated charges are calculated.

Assessment method

The transparency of the new assessment method allows the operator (or indeed the operator’s consultant) to find out ‘what if?’, and to investigate the consequences of hypothetical scenarios. If, for instance, the spreadsheet is completed as if a full environmental management system were implemented where a rudimentary or no system at all existed before, this may have a significant effect on the calculated environmental risk assigned to this area of an operator’s activities. As a result, the process might be considered to present a lower overall environmental risk, and the operator’s ultimate score and risk banding may change. Any associated cost savings in annual subsistence fees are instantly calculated by the spreadsheet.

Cost-benefit analysis

This provides an opportunity for industry and consultancy to work together in producing a cost-benefit analysis on environmental improvement measures. The early involvement of a suitable consultant is key to a robust assessment of the advantages and disadvantages. Few operators will want to invite quotes for a wide range of options across a potentially large number of disciplines. A suitably experienced consultant in a sufficiently diverse service provider should readily understand which are the viable options, and the best colleague to approach for costs and timescales.

There are obviously some fundamental attributes such as location and the inherent nature of the process which although their alteration might produce substantial benefits are not easily changeable. Areas such as operational management and magnitude of emissions may have considerable potential for improvement, and it is in these areas that the cost of implementation and any consequent ongoing savings can be compared. For example, a change in environmental management practices might be identified, designed and monitored by the consultant at a cost to the operator comparable with the resultant savings in a year’s subsistence charges. Provided the changes are agreeable to the regulator, charges in future years will be at the lower rate, offering the operator financial benefit even in the years to follow.
With careful planning and open communication between all of the involved parties, a win-win situation is achievable with benefits to operator, regulator and the environment. The primary function of EP-OPRA will always be to identify and quantify environmental risk. However, the secondary function as a cost-benefit analysis tool may also be of benefit to all. Since the assessment tool is readily available, it may be prudent for many operators to give it a second look in this light.

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