Air quality monitoring removed from industrial permits

14th March 2016


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The Environment Agency has scrapped the need for large industrial emitters to monitor the impact of air pollution, including on EU-designated wildlife sites.

New permit decision documents issued by the Environment Agency reveal that the regulator has removed an obligation for coal-fired power plants to monitor and model air quality, and the requirement to track whether emissions are causing acid rain and water pollution in Natura 2000 sites.

The information came to light in a review of environmental permits, which the agency is undertaking to update conditions placed on operators to align with a temporary plan to bring large emitters into line with stricter rules in the Industrial Emissions Directive.

The directive obliges large industrial emitters to meet stricter standards on emissions of key pollutants. Member states were allowed to delay compliance for up to 4.5 years, as long as they put in place regulations to cover the intervening years. This is known as a ‘transitional national plan’ (TNP) and the permits for the 114 plants covered by the TNP have now been amended by the agency to bring them into compliance.

In permit decision documents seen by environmental law firm ClientEarth, the agency states every site had complied with air quality standards since 2001, and so monitoring would no longer be required.

On monitoring of Natura 2000 sites, the agency acknowledged that sites ‘may be compromised by poor air quality’, as data indicates that total acid and nitrogen deposition are too high. However, it states: ‘The monitoring data does not provide a means of source attribution. Confounding factors make it difficult to extrapolate signals from the monitoring data and the most useful information is likely to come from modelling.’

Continued monitoring is unlikely to provide any further insight, says the document, adding that Natural England, which first raised the need for monitoring, is comfortable with the conclusion.

Susan Shaw, EU energy and coal lawyer at ClientEarth, said: ‘Clearly this is intended to cut costs for operators even further and I suspect there will be lobbying pressure behind this.’

The organisation has asked the agency for copies of the assessments that have been used to justify the change, which it said was made without public consultation.

The group also alleges that the permits are unlawful, because they were issued before the regulations for the directive came into effect at the end of December.

A spokesperson for the agency: ‘We will look into the details of ClientEarth’s concerns and respond in due course.’

The allegations are the latest in a series of complaints about the government’s handling of the development and implementation of the TNP. In January, the parliamentary joint committee on statutory instruments reported the TNP regulations to parliament due to drafting defects and technical grounds, which it said cast doubt on their legality.

The regulations were laid before parliament before the TNP had been signed off by European commission, and without publication of key accompanying documents, including the impact assessment, the committee said.

Emissions from industry, including energy, manufacturing and construction are the largest overall source of nitrogen oxide emissions in the UK, accounting for some 49% of all such emissions in 2013, according to the government’s own statistics. Around 20% of such emissions are attributed to coal-fired power stations.

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