Pressure group names top 100 legal polluters

FRIENDS of the Earth yesterday named the factories and chemical plants with the 100 largest permits to pour toxic metals down the sewers of England and Wales. The list includes BP, British Aerospace, ICI, Ford and British Steel.

The environmental pressure group was launching a two- pronged campaign - for companies to be compelled to declare exactly what quantities of pollutants they are putting into the drains and to reduce them.

The metals drain into sewage works and some pass through into rivers and estuaries. A large fraction ends up contaminating the sewage sludge which the works produce, severely restricting its use as an agricultural fertiliser.

Thousands of polluters pay the 10 big privatised water companies to treat their waste water in sewage works, alongside the more mundane effluent from homes and street drains. The trade is worth about pounds 130m a year.

Each polluter has to agree a written consent with its local water company, setting out the maximum quantity of various types of pollutants - including toxic metals - which it can send down the drains. For some of the more polluting processes the Government's pollution inspectorate can intervene to set standards.

The consent documents have to be open for public inspection, and Friends of the Earth researchers have spent hundreds of hours going through 7,500 of them to produce a list of the 100 biggest 'permits to pollute' with toxic metals.

But the information which Friends of the Earth cannot obtain - and which it says the public has a right to know - is the actual quantities of pollution measured entering the sewers.

The water companies monitor what enters their sewage works and the polluters usually carry out some monitoring of their discharges - but neither are obliged to make this data public. Many will be producing far less than their consents; others are certainly exceeding them occasionally, sometimes regularly. Andrew Lees, the Friends of the Earth campaigns director, said: 'The Government must force these companies to come clean on what's going down the sewers.'

The 11 metals in question include copper, zinc, lead, nickel, cadmium and mercury. All cause environmental damage and harm human health at raised concentrations, but the latter two are on the Government's 'red list' of particularly toxic substances which accumulate in plants and animals.

Friends of the Earth have calculated that in total 2.6 tonnes of cadmium and 11.6 tonnes of zinc are authorised to be discharged down the sewers every day.

But even these sums - which do not correspond to the amount actually discharged - lack precision. Some consents lump several metals together without specifying figures for each one - it is not possible to know how much, say, zinc a firm can discharge.

Top of the group's list is Ectona Fibres, of Workington, Cumbria, whose consent theoretically allows it to discharge 682kg - over half a ton - of metals into the sewers in one 24-hour period.

'I can't believe they ever do that, but that is what their authorisation says they can do,' Mr Lees said. 'It's a Mickey Mouse figure. We need to know what they are actually discharging.' No one was available for comment at the company yesterday afternoon. If firms reduced their output of these metals the result would be cleaner, safer sewage sludge which could be more readily spread on farmland as fertiliser.

The Water Services Association, which represents the 10 big water companies, said that the amount of industrial pollution escaping through its sewage works into rivers was declining.

'Fewer and fewer of our sewage works are failing to meet the consents set them by the National Rivers Authority,' a spokesman said. 'There's nothing to be ashamed of in taking industrial pollution and earning money by cleaning it up.'

----------------------------------------------------------------- The top 10 on Friends of the Earth's list ----------------------------------------------------------------- Company Metals per day Ectona Fibres, Workington 682 kg ICI Dental Products, Macclesfield 522 kg Polymeric Treatments Ltd, Killamarsh, Derbyshire 438 kg BP Chemicals, Port Talbot 392 kg May and Baker, Barking, London 273 kg Ford Main Plant, Dagenham 258 kg Inco Europe Ltd 209 kg British Aerospace, Filton, Bristol 199 kg ICI Macclesfield 164 kg Imperial Metal Industries (Kynock) Ltd, Swansea 136 kg -----------------------------------------------------------------