Environmental regulation and enforcement

Two weeks ago, the Irish Times reported that MoneyPoint regularly breached its IPPC license but failed to inform the EPA. I was waiting for a follow-up article, like “Plant Closed, Chief Engineer Jailed, Company Fined”, but then I realized that I’m in Ireland still.

If a coal-fired boiler runs in steady state, it emits little more than water vapour (white smoke) and carbon dioxide (invisible). However, if it is starting up or winding down, combustion is incomplete and smoke turns black. Black smoke contains a mix of chemicals which not only twist your tongue but also cause respiratory problems, cancer, degenerative diseases, and other mayhem. Such emissions are therefore strictly regulated, and rightly so.

The report and the lack of follow-up is disconcerting for a number of reasons. First, the ESB knew but did not tell the EPA. Second, the EPA got into action after complaints by locals. This does not help against nightly emissions or invisible ones. Third, there were two more incidents after the ESB was audited (and presumably warned) by the EPA. Fourth, there is no sign of remedial or punitive action.

(There is a side issue. Power plants should not do this. The boilers are either in much worse condition than their age suggests, or the engineers in charge are not doing their job as they should.)

Regulation is only as strong as its enforcement. For a plant the size of MoneyPoint, the EPA (and the public) should be able to monitor emissions in real time. We should not rely on voluntary disclosure or complaints. The EPA should have the right to intervene in the running of the plant, and shut it down if necessary. The owners and operators of the plant do not have the right incentives.

IPPC licenses were put in place to please Brussels, but they in fact protect our health and environment.

23 thoughts on “Environmental regulation and enforcement”

  1. I’ve said this before, but a live stream of data from air pollution sensors in and around a plant, is both do-able and inexpensive. This helps to keep both the polluter and the regulator honest.

  2. Any possibility that these emissions are linked to reports that Moneypoint is being ‘cycled’ to compensate for intermittent wind generation?

  3. Ah excellent – the ‘wind-power causes pollution’ meme. I was waiting for that.

    Did you know it was also horrendously expensive and not at all pretty? Blades have been known to come off rotors, crushing sheep.

  4. @Richard Tol

    “Regulation is only as strong as its enforcement.”

    Yes Richard – you are still in Ireland, where ‘regulatory capture’ is deeply institutionalised across far too many fields.

  5. I second the call for sensors and automatic publication of sensor data on the Internet.

    Automatic instant publication of all data should be mandatory. It should be so that exemptions should only be granted to allow organizations not publish data if national security is threatened.

    Data produced by regulators should, without exception be freely available to the public….. They are after all, the people who are above reproach and should be seen to be above reproach…..

    I don’t see why I cannot see exactly what the EPA are doing, who they are visiting, what measurements they have taken etc… Or indeed what the various regulators in the various industries are up to (or not)

    e.g. why not have it so the QA/lab results from processors are published for any food product that enters the food chain Along with the approvals etc of the FSA…..

    and so on.

  6. Ireland has a formal policy of self-regulation by businesses that pollute.

    When rare EPA inspections occurred they were known about well in advance (e.g. several days, so parts of the operation were shut down to reduce pollution levels by the time the inspection occurred). (info from friends who worked in these places) Reporting problems to relevant authorities or to politicians had no impact.

    I’ve been told that some multinationals located in Ireland some decades ago because they were offered access to waterways combined with lax/non-existent regulation.

    This is part of the underbelly of FDI in Ireland. Jobs at any cost. Turn a blind eye to any consequences.

    Some companies are polluting less in recent years. Does the EPA now have more teeth and more political independence?

  7. @ Richard,

    Your post raises a number of points.

    1) Firstly is the EPA a toothless organisation? What is the maximum fine they can impose against a deliberate pollution incident.

    2) If they are a toothless organisation, ie. max fine which can be imposed is 3K, then this needs to be corrected.

    3) Boilers do not just emit water vapour + Co2. There is also NoX, SoX ash and clinker. This mainly depends on the type of combustion and quality of fuel etc etc.

    4) By clicking on the Moneypoint link in your post, one is directed to a page which says that a upgrade is being undertaken to reduce emissions. Not too sure how up to date this page is. However a few points, trying to get a new system working with no teething problems is not easy. A lot of it is trial and error to get the best results under all working conditions.

    Trying to get switched on Engineers who know what they are looking at is exceptionally rare these days. Many computer control systems are overly complex. In addition there has been a movement to the Siemens SCADA system, where a windows based PC has access to industrial PLC computers. You may or not be aware but a computer worm called Stucknet has been designed (suspected nation state) to infiltrate and cause problems in SCADA systems. The aim was to find out what is going on in Iran. However this worm has infected industrial systems all over the world.

    The Dublin Port Tunnel has a SCADA system which has had problems and I believe it even ended up in court at one stage.

    So it might not be as simple as it seems at first glance.

  8. @Richard
    It is common for regulators to have powers to prosecute but much less common for them to have powers to impose fines directly. The Financial Regulator has such direct powers. The example is instructive since the issue of how enforcement powers are used is complex and arguably of more significance than the precise callibration of the powers.
    With the EPA my understanding is that they use stringent enforcement powers sparingly to eke out their resources in seeking to maximise compliance. Compliance, rather than punishment, is for many regulators taken to be their primary objective. Serial non-compliers may merit different treatment, but such serial non-compliance has to be detected and the issue of powers and capacity for detection is another issue again.

  9. This post – and the subsequent comments – highlight another example of the magnificent edifice of regulation that has been constructed in the decade. But in all cases there are gaps or inadaquacies in both the powers and resources and the willingness to monitor and enforce compliance and to prosecute and penalise non-compliance. The usual line is: “The lads in Brussels are forcing us to put all these bodies and rules in place, but, shure, you don’t have to be terribly bothered about them.”

  10. @Colin Scott
    17 violations in less than 8 months plus a major procedural error (if not an attempted cover-up) — you and I would lose our driver’s license for less.

  11. In the world of detection and regulation, whether it is air pollution or food contaminants or whatever, the world is driven by technology. It’s not ‘what do we want to detect’, but ‘what can we find given the technology’. This means it is a moving target, new advances, adaptations, continually changing technological capabilities make regulation almost impossible.(sound a bit like finance?) The real culprit here is society’s insatiable appetite for,.. for,… well just about anything that burns more precious resources. For once it is not all the regulators fault, if anything they are often manipulated by the techies providing the tools they need to do their jobs. And society push them by demanding everything cheaper, better and faster.

  12. The single electricity market is definitely responsible for moneypoint being cycled more often than it used to be. However, the response is not to “blame wind” but rather the ESB engineers for not being able to cope with this situation. I’ve heard other stories from locals in Tynagh about extended periods of very peculiar looking yellow smoke from the gas power plant (GE owned and operated) there.

  13. Coal burning also produces uranium emissions.

    It is in fact the largest source of uranium, unless you live near a mine or in Serbia or Iraq.

    Excellent criticism Richard, but then you are a blow in!

    The Irish are lazy greedy and feckless.

    Luckily many of the emissions will land elsewhere often in the Netherlands……..

  14. So many people here missing a key point

    We fund regulators to ….. well sit on their a^^es

    They don’t do their job, we make excuses for them… the fines aren’t big enough, they dont have the power, they are under resourced etc

    Regulators need to be made accountable.

    As Richard said I was waiting for a follow-up article, like “Plant Closed, Chief Engineer Jailed, Company Fined”, but then I realized that I’m in Ireland still.

    Given this hasn’t happened, and it appears that were it not for local people, the EPA would still be struggling with the newspaper, I am waiting for a follow-up article, like “New broom at EPA, CEO fired”

  15. @Garry
    The regulator is not to blame in this case. While in other areas, the regulator was allowed to bite but choose not to, here the regulator would love to bite but is not allowed to.

  16. There’s been a couple of points made about ‘live data’ of emissions. If that was provided, it would be fairly easy to acertain each generator’s production levels in real time as well – which is not broadcast by the TSO on competition grounds and for good reason.

    That’s not to say the EPA couldn’t have this information, or at least be able to work it out from generation levels…

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