Environment

Ignore reports of low-impact pollution events, Environment Agency tells staff | Pollution

Environment England has asked its staff to “shut down” and ignore reports of low-impact pollution events because they don’t have enough money to investigate them, according to a leaked internal report.

Judgment on so-called Category 3 and 4 incidents means that events such as farm contamination or hazardous landfills may not be properly investigated by companies. The decision angered river groups and NGOs.

An Environment Agency staff briefing, released in November and seen by The Guardian and the Ends Report, says there is leadership support for a “lack of response to low-impact, unfunded environmental incidents,” also known as Category 3 and 4 incidents.

The leaked document also indicates the agency’s frustration with ministers and funds earmarked for its work. She says EA’s leadership team “made it clear to the government that you get the environment you pay for”.

The exceptions to the rule would be pollution incidents caused by a regulated site or water company, the briefing says, although it doesn’t explain how it would determine the source or severity of the accident if it was not attended to or investigated.

Ignoring the huge number of pollution reports that come in each year will have benefits, the agency’s brief says, including “reducing the overall effort on accidents that present the least risk to the environment,” increasing efforts on “cost-financed regulation,” and more space. To prioritize high-risk incidents, “increase consistency of response and service to customers,” and reduce officer disruption during and off-hours.

In a presentation by the Environment Agency, also seen by the Guardian, on what is known internally as the Incident Triage Project, the agency said it currently responds to more than 70,000 incidents each year, and the number continues to increase.

However, data from the agency’s National Incident Recording System shows that while 116,000 potential accidents were reported to the agency in 2021, only 8,000 were attended, down from 12,000 in 2016, when 74,000 potential accidents were reported. .

“We cannot keep trying to do what we are not funded for; we don’t have the money or the resources,” the presentation explains. “We are in an unsustainable situation. Our incident responders feel under increasing pressure, and this affects staff resilience and well-being.”

If employees hear about a Category 3 or 4 incident that is not related to a water company or regulated site, they are told, “Do not validate the report, call the site or add any details. Close the report.” Response letter forms for agency employees have been created in anticipation of complaints. .

“A lot of Category 2 incidents start as 3 seconds until they turn up,” said one Environment Agency official, who did not want to be named because employees were warned not to speak to the media, and that a Category 3 example could be an “oil or water spill.” 2 km of sewage into a river.

A second officer, who also wished to remain anonymous, said it would be “impossible” to ascertain the level of the incident without visiting him. They added that the EA’s response to the contamination has waned for some time, and “unless there are dead fish floating all over the place,” the agency will not attend any incident.

The agency’s customer service commitment says the regulator cut its budget for responding to environmental incidents last year and that in addition to reducing responses, it will not provide feedback on any action taken to address pollution events.

This comes after many years of cutbacks in granting aid to the agency. However, the government gave the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and its agencies an additional £4.3 billion in its latest spending review in October 2021. An overview of the Environment Agency’s settlement is due this year.

Mark Lloyd, chief executive of Rivers Trust, called the move a “horrific scandal.” “Clearly, Category 1 and Category 2 pollution incidents have a very serious impact on the environment, but they are the tip of the iceberg. The vast majority of accidents are in lower categories and they are the ones that cause rivers to die with a thousand injuries,” he said.

Lloyd said the agency needs “the resources and political support to take drastic action on all pollution if our rivers do not continue to suffer from endemic pollution and persistent decline in quality…It is absolutely essential that there is a credible enforcement threat to all pollution incidents if we are to return our rivers to normalcy.” Good health for the next generation.”

Ignoring pollution incidents threatens people with not reporting them in the first place, according to Fish Legal’s head of practices, Penny Jane.

“Many of our members gave up reporting pollution incidents some time ago because they didn’t feel the agency was interested,” she said. Any further reduction in reporting “would paint a rosier picture of the reality of our deteriorating rivers and it would be difficult for the agency to build the case for more funding.”

Gane is also concerned about how the response reduction will be managed. “Without attending any incident, how can they tell if it was caused by a regulator site or a water company? In practical terms, they are talking about agricultural pollution, which the Environment Agency has identified as the main threat to water quality and the cause of water failure in England.”

Feargal Sharkey, a rivers activist, sees the move as a more pessimistic one. “The outrageous thing is that the Environment Agency has reduced its staff to political pawns in a cheap game of Whitehall policies. It is unjustified, it is unfair, it is incompetent,” he said.

An Environment Agency spokesperson said: “We focus our incident response efforts on pollution incidents that pose the greatest threat to the environment.

“Our Incident Triage project looks at how we can best use our resources and maximize benefits to the environment. As we continue to attend to the most serious incidents, we focus our efforts on our organizational activities that prevent accidents from happening in the first place. Intelligence from incident reporting helps us plan Our work is prioritized to protect the environment.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “The government recognizes the importance of protecting the nation’s natural environment and we are investing accordingly.

Defra and its agencies received an additional £4.3 billion in their latest spending review in October 2022 so we can do more to tackle climate change and protect our environment for future generations. The Environment Agency plays a very important role in this area and will always seek to hold those responsible for environmental damage accountable.”

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