Better tracking of harmful industrial pollution thrown off course

From coal-fired power stations, large waste incinerators and intensive agricultural facilities, information on the emissions and pollutants released from the 50,000 industrial installations currently operating in the EU must be logged in an EU-wide pollution data register. But efforts to improve how this information is tracked have been thwarted by officials representing the EU at UN talks.

At a United Nation’s Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) meeting on the international pollution data protocol last week, European Commission and Austrian government officials refused to give their green light to further developing ideas to improve access to pollution information on the grounds that they lack enough of a negotiating mandate from all EU member states.

Christian Schaible, industrial production expert at the European Environmental Bureau (EEB), attended the meeting and slammed the Commission’s last-minute turnaround as an “extremely weird and embarrassing procedural excuse”.

He said that there is a broad consensus that the protocol on ‘Pollutant Release and Transfer Registers’ needs to be reviewed and that the ideas discussed at the meeting have been in preparation for the last five years and are merely a list of options for further consideration. Schaible said there was a “complete lack of transparency” surrounding why the Commission and the Austrian government – currently holding the EU’s rotating presidency – threw out the text despite the fact there had been no disagreement at all on the substance.

Schaible said;

It would be a fallacy if our governments, claiming to care about their citizens’ interests, could just decide on their own how online pollution information systems should be set up, the adequacy of pollution thresholds the pollutants listed, or whether essential parameters are missing.”

Schaible said it was essential to first have “full transparency” on “the individual positions of Member States that led to the European Commission and the Austrian Presidency taking this disastrous and reckless decision to slow down progress on improvements to access to information on industrial pollution at the international level“.

The UNECE pollution data protocol dates back to 2003, and the EU’s own pollution data register – the ‘EU Pollutant Release and Transfer Register’ – dates back to 2004. No improvements to how the register works have been made since then.

Schaible added:

We need to improve how the public accesses information on harmful pollution data so that industry is accountable for its environmental footprint. Making sure that effective and user-friendly tools for the public and NGOs are designed in such a way that it is possible to promote compliance and benchmarking of industrial players should be a no-brainer.”

An investigation carried out last year by the European Environmental Bureau showed that more than half of the EU’s Member States are failing to share crucial information about highly-polluting activities effectively online. The investigation also revealed that many are failing to meet even the minimum requirements for transparency required by the EU’s Industrial Emissions Directive, a key European law that’s supposed to help reduce pollution and raise standards across a range of big industries.

The study found that Norway, Ireland and Bulgaria are offering their citizens excellent access to information but that essential documents were missing in Austria, Cyprus, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Luxembourg, Poland, Romania, and the United Kingdom.

The information concerned includes permitting conditions for all major industrial plants in the EU, including coal-fired power stations, large waste incinerators and intensive agricultural facilities. The report used coal-fired power plants as a sample basis. The findings pose serious questions about some countries’ commitment to European environmental protections and compliance with international access to information requirements. The report showed that EU countries could better share user-friendly and timely information with the public, for example when permit reviews take place.

While the European Commission has set up a new registry, this will only be operational in 2020 – meaning many EU countries will have dragged their feet for six years after a 2014 compliance deadline for transparency rules.

Related to the international talks, three-way negotiations between MEPs, EU governments and European Commission officials begin today on a Commission proposal on aligning the reporting and monitoring of a host of EU environment protections, including rules on industrial pollution data. Environmentalists fear that some EU countries are trying to keep the maximum deadline for reporting on emissions and pollutants at 15 months after release into the environment.

Currently countries only need to make data available on 91 pollutants through the EU’s Pollutant Release and Transfer Register within 15 months after release into the environment. The Commission suggested lowering this deadline to nine months, but it is under pressure from Member States to keep it at the current 15 months, in line with practice set two decades ago.

The European Parliament wants to reduce the deadline for EU countries to report industrial pollution data to the Commission to three months.

The European Environmental Bureau has sent an open letter to the MEPs representing the European Parliament in the talks, calling on them to defend the public interest and transparency and stand firm on a shorter deadline in the talks.

The letter states that citizens have a “right to know” about “harmful industrial pollution” and that much shorter reporting deadlines are the norm in other parts of the world.

In the United States, every six months operators must send comprehensive data to the Environmental Protection Agency on over 650 pollutants with the general public having access to the data one month later. Every four months, nearly 5000 of the largest polluting facilities in the United States make full hour-by-hour emissions data available to authorities – with this data then available to the public the next day.

A recent evaluation (see page 100) from the European Commission itself showed that the current industry reporting standard is between three and six months.