Black looks over a burning issue: Government delays in implementing an anti-pollution package for power stations are encouraging use of the world's dirtiest fuel, says Nicholas Schoon

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The Independent Online
ORIMULSION, said by some environmentalists to be the world's dirtiest fuel, is being burnt at two power stations without new controls which the Government's own pollution inspectorate believes to be necessary.

This is one consequence of a lengthy delay in implementing the new 'green regime' of Integrated Pollution Control (IPC) for fossil- fuel burning power stations, Britain's biggest air polluters.

IPC should have taken effect more than a year ago. Critics say the hold-up is destroying the credibility of both the new system and Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP), which runs it.

'It makes IPC look a sick joke at present,' says Tom Crossett, secretary general of the National Society for Clean Air. 'The Government has fallen at the first fence.'

The blame does not lie with the inspectorate, however, but higher up. The matter has been waiting in the in-tray of Michael Howard since he became the Secretary of State for the Environment seven months ago.

Some suspect that the delay is deliberate, with the Government not wanting IPC in place for power stations until more progress is made privatising the coal industry.

British Coal will remain the electricity generators' main fuel supplier for the next few years, despite last week's announcement of pit closures and the rush to build gas-fired power stations. So any new pollution control measures for coal- fired stations ushered in by IPC could influence the prospects for privatising the pits. Mr Crossett, a former environment director of National Power, says: 'It's a handy delay . . . it keeps options open for selling the coal industry.'

Like gas and imported coal, orimulsion is squeezing Britain's miners out of work. It is a mixture of tar and water imported from Venezuela by BP. Orimulsion is high in sulphur and produces dust, toxic vanadium metal and sulphur dioxide (SO2 ) when burnt. This gas is the main cause of acid rain, which has killed fish and wildlife in thousands of upland lakes and streams as well as corroding buildings and statues.

The two main generators, PowerGen and National Power, want to burn more than five million tons a year of the fuel at four or more power stations as an alternative to high-sulphur coal from British pits. Orimulsion is relatively cheap and helps them to beat down British Coal prices.

The fuel also gives a new lease of life to oil-fired power stations that would otherwise be white elephants. The two generators have several that are mothballed or little used because of high oil prices. All can be converted to burn orimulsion.

The generators are willing to install equipment that will remove dust and vanadium from exhaust gases. But because of the expense they do not want to fit equipment that removes SO2 ; this would probably make orimulsion

uncompetitive.

PowerGen, the smaller of the two generators, has been burning the fuel for several years at Ince in Cheshire and Richborough in Kent. This year it will import 1.3 million tons, producing about 70,000 tons of SO2 gas. It has the right to do so under the previous pollution control regime; until the new system comes into force it can carry on.

PowerGen's larger rival, National Power, is keen to burn the fuel at its huge 2,000 megawatt Pembroke plant in Wales and at the smaller Padiham plant in Lancashire. It plans to use more than four million tons a year, producing 200,000 tons of SO2 . But, unlike PowerGen, it never received authorisation under the old control regime and has to wait for approval under the new one.

Orimulsion faces growing opposition from environmental groups and government bodies such as the Countryside Commission for Wales. They argue that the resulting SO2 will cause further damage to fragile upland habitats. At the very least they want equipment fitted to remove SO2 .

For their part, the generators are only willing to limit emissions from orimulsion to what they would have been had the four power stations been burning heavy fuel oil continuously - something they only ever did during the miners' strike. (The oil also contains some sulphur, albeit not as much as orimulsion.)

The judgement on the controversial new fuel should rest with the pollution inspectorate HMIP. But the matter has become tangled up with the delay in bringing in the new pollution control regime for almost all power stations.

HMIP's task in bringing in IPC is to consider applications for licences to pollute from every major polluter in England and Wales - about 5,000 factories, chemical plants and power stations. It then issues authorisations - documents that set out environmental protection measures to be employed at each site and stipulate limits on their output of pollution. Power stations were the first to be dealt with under IPC because they are the biggest air polluters.

The generators had to submit applications for all of their 41 sites by May last year. HMIP was to have issued them with authorisations by the end of August 1991.

The hold-up began when the generators challenged the system by insisting on keeping part of their applications confidential for every power station apart from Pembroke and Padiham, the two would-be orimulsion burners. Applications and authorisations should be open for public scrutiny, giving people a right to know about pollution sources near their homes. The only exception is information that is commercially confidential, which can be withheld from the public registers.

PowerGen and National Power were willing to tell HMIP about their future emissions of pollutants - but not the public. They claimed that a rival generator or a fuel supplier who obtained these details would gain an unfair

advantage.

Dr David Slater, HMIP's director, insisted that their emission forecasts should be made public. The generators then used their right to appeal to the environment secretary - then Michael Heseltine - who appointed an inspector to conduct an inquiry.

By February this year the inspector had submitted his report to Mr Heseltine, but he moved to the Department of Trade and Industry without making a decision. Earlier this month the Department of the Environment could not say when his successor, Mr Howard, might make a decision, but denied that coal privatisation was a factor.

Only once a decision is made can HMIP begin considering the generators' applications. In the meantime, PowerGen carries on burning orimulsion at Ince and Richborough.

But HMIP believes the equipment that removes the damaging sulphur dioxide should be fitted - it has said so regarding Pembroke and Padiham. The inspectorate has been able to make a judgement here because these two National Power plants are the only ones not tangled up in the confidentiality appeals.

At the end of last month it issued a two-sentence statement saying the burning of orimulsion could not 'be justified without further measures to protect the environment'. HMIP has allowed National Power more time to present further evidence before making a final decision.

(Photograph omitted)

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