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UK consulted on air quality plans after Belco emissions, Pati e-mails show

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Clearing the air

In the latest of our articles based on records released under Pati, we report on how the island’s environmental agency sought information about managing air quality from its UK equivalent.

An environmental unit consulted its British counterpart about tackling sources of pollution after levels of sulphur dioxide recorded in an area close to Belco exceeded UK targets.

The Department of Environment and Natural Resources received information from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about its regulatory structure.

Geoff Smith, a DENR environmental engineer, wrote in March 2021 to residents – in an e-mail group for updates about soot and odour issues: “In the UK places that exceed the UK Air Quality Objectives are referred to as Air Quality Management Areas and either local authorities or the Environment Agency will be involved with the polluter to work towards an Air Quality Action Plan.

“DENR is in consultation with Defra in the UK to fully understand this proven process.”

Belco North Power Station (Photograph Supplied)

A copy of the correspondence was released to The Royal Gazette in response to a public access to information request.

The e-mail came after monitoring found a UK 15-minute sulphur dioxide target level was exceeded 34 times in less than three months in early 2021.

By the end of that calendar year, minutes from a meeting of the Environmental Authority said 63 exceedances were detected at a unit on Ocean Lane, Pembroke, where the area was vulnerable to down drafting from Belco engine stacks.

Britain has a threshold of 35 exceedances a year although the target is not a legal limit in the UK. Proposed legislative amendments, to update Bermuda’s Clean Air Regulations, could mean that the cap becomes mandatory on the island.

Wayne Caines, the Belco president, said the company “has met all standards for both the UK Air Quality Objectives and the Bermuda Ambient Air Quality Standards in 2022 and 2023”.

Sulphur dioxide: why is it checked?

“Sulphur dioxide, or SO2, is a corrosive, acidic gas which is predominantly produced from the combustion of coal or crude oil,” information published on the UK Government website said.

“Direct exposure to SO2 is associated with asthma and chronic bronchitis and can lead to irritation and constriction of the airways.”

It added: “SO2 is also known to combine with nitrogen oxides and ammonia to form particulate matter which has serious health implications …

“SO2 can also combine with water vapour in the atmosphere to form acid rain that may be transported large distances.

“Acid rain can cause significant damage to ecosystems such as forests and freshwater habitats.”

A table contained in an agenda for a May, 2021 meeting of the Environmental Authority listed 40 exceedances of the UK Air Quality Objective for sulphur dioxide recorded at Ocean Lane, Pembroke between January 28 and April 16, 2021.

The exceedances ranged between 267 and 351 micrograms per cubic metre.

These would be classed as moderate according to a Daily Air Quality Index published on the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website.

A related health message for “at-risk individuals”, when air pollution is in the moderate zone, said: “Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, who experience symptoms, should consider reducing strenuous physical activity, particularly outdoors.”

Advice for the general population was to “enjoy your usual outdoor activities”.

A home affairs ministry spokesman explained: “The ministry can confirm that in 2021 DENR consulted with sections from the UK Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which include the Local Air Quality and Environment Act, Air Quality and Industrial Emissions, and the Environmental Quality Directorate.”

The spokesman said the consultation was successful as it allowed DENR to understand three things:

• how Defra, the Environment Agency and UK authorities apply the EU/UK Air Quality Objectives to point sources and more diffuse sources (ie, areas of traffic congestion).

• how the EU/UK Air Quality Objectives are applied in comparison to the less stringent statutory UK requirements (ie, limit values) of the UK Air Quality Standard Regulations 2010.

• in the UK, if a single polluting source exceeds one of the air quality targets, then the UK Environment Agency or other local authority would work with the polluting source to plan how to mitigate the exceedance (ie, Air Quality Action Plan – AQAP).

The spokesman said: “Defra noted, however, that for Air Quality Objectives, no hard timescales apply in the case of a breach.

“Hard timescales and fines would only occur if there were a breach of the statutory limit values provided in the UK Air Quality Standard Regulations 2010.

“DENR and the Environmental Authority have essentially been requiring improvements to the operations at Belco through the operating licence conditions, which are updated annually.”

Targets and laws - Bermuda and UK

In Bermuda:

The Clean Air Act 1991 – established the Environmental Authority; covered construction, operation and licensing for controlled plants, eg, for manufacturing, processing of metal or chemicals, or those that generate electricity or steam; and provided that a minister responsible for the environment could make regulations about – among other things – setting maximum concentrations and rates of emission for air contaminants.

Clean Air Regulations 1993 – section 7(1) states: “A person shall not emit, or cause or permit to be emitted, from any source any specified air contaminant so as to cause the concentration of that air contaminant to exceed the relevant maximum limit prescribed … ”

The limits for sulphur dioxide are:

• 30 micrograms per cubic metre as an annual arithmetic mean

• 150 micrograms per cubic metre as a 24-hour average

• 450 micrograms per cubic metre as a one-hour average

Contravention of the rules would constitute an offence, which could result in a jail term of up to six months or a fine of up to $5,000 or both.

The Environmental Authority, in a May 26, 2020 letter to Belco, said an operating licence meant “Belco is permitted to discharge exhaust gases containing air contaminants providing that they are within the regulatory limits stipulated in the Clean Air Regulations 1993 at grade level, ie, Bermuda’s Ambient Air Quality Standards”.

In the UK:

Air Quality Standards – concentrations recorded over a given time period, which are considered to be acceptable in terms of what is scientifically known about the effects of each pollutant on health or the environment. Can be used as a benchmark to show whether air pollution is getting better or worse.

Exceedance – a period of time where the concentration is higher than that set out in the standard.

Objective – a target date on which exceedances of a standard must not exceed a specific number.

Limit values – legally binding parameters, set for individual pollutants, that must not be exceeded.

Target values – to be attained where possible by taking all necessary measures “not entailing disproportionate costs”.

Source:UK Air Quality Limitson the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs website.

He added that six letters submitted by the EA to Belco since 2020 “with a range of instructions and reporting requirements” included actions to be undertaken by Belco.

The spokesman said: “This process of changes to licence conditions and action letters is a form of AQAP.

“Note that when Bermuda amends its statutory Clean Air Regulations 1993 to align with the EU/UK Air Quality Objectives, it will effectively have more stringent air quality standards, ie, limit values, than the UK – not equivalent.”

He confirmed last week that the “technical and complicated” Bill to amend clean air rules was still in the drafting process and will need an “in-depth review” to meet public needs.

A Defra spokesman told the Gazette earlier: “In 2021, Bermuda approached Defra to discuss our regulatory framework, and we provided an overview of our framework and facilitated a discussion with colleagues from the Environment Agency.”

Investigative actions required of Belco by the Environmental Authority in a letter dated May 26, 2020 included the deployment of air quality monitoring equipment in the Ocean Lane area, which was to collect data over “many months” and be able to “remotely indicate when elevated pollutant concentrations are being detected”.

It was requested that trials involving shutting down and restarting engines take place to determine which stacks – at the north or east power stations – were causing “periods of apparent poor air quality”.

In a July 2021 letter, the EA said these requirements were completed and that air quality results were regularly supplied to DENR, through the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences.

A comment on determining the source of pollutants added: “Belco have clearly shown that both East Power Station and North Power Station are both contributors of the poor air quality at Ocean Lane.”

The utility firm was asked then to provide monthly results of – among other things – air quality monitoring data whenever there were exceedances of Bermuda or UK standards or objectives.

Davida Morris, the EA’s chairwoman, told the Gazette in February that monthly updates from Belco continued and at that time the last received was for December 2022.

Records showed that Belco stopped collecting data from Ocean Lane in June 2022 after the owner of the land on which the monitoring station was installed requested its removal.

Other monitoring stations still in operation are at Langton Hill and Cemetery Lane.

The Defra website said that UK national air quality objectives established a target for sulphur dioxide of 266 micrograms per cubic metre measured as a 15-minute mean, with the level not to be exceeded more than 35 times a year.

In Bermuda, current clean air regulations do not include a 15-minute limit for sulphur dioxide and instead legislation sets caps on hourly, daily and annual averages.

Mr Caines told the Gazette: “Belco is not required by law to meet any UK Air Quality Objectives.

“However, Belco has configured alarms at all of its monitoring stations to provide notification of any exceedance of the UK Air Quality Objectives, inclusive of the 15-minute SO2 objective, as well as for all Bermuda Air Quality Standards that we are legally required to meet.”

He said: “Belco has recorded exceedances of the BAAQS in its history but has been in compliance since 2000.

“Further, since the retirement of older engines in November 2021, Belco has seen improved ambient air quality data.”

Mr Caines said the power company held certification that meant it “meets the highest international standard for its environmental management system”.

He added: “The company also complies with the Clean Air Act 1991 and the Clean Air Regulations 1993, including requirements pertaining to ambient air quality standards which requires regular reporting for pollutants across different averaging periods.”

Affected residents should contact Belco

Wayne Caines, the Belco president, said: “Belco has a dedicated Occupational Health, Safety and Environment team that ensures that the company is compliant with various reporting requirements and that operations fall within the regulated standards concerning emissions.

“Reports are submitted to the Department of Environment and Natural Resources and are available to the public.

“Property owners and residents who have been impacted by Belco operations should visit the Belco website or reach out directly to the OHSE team via e-mail at ohse@belco.bm.

“Any questions or concerns will be addressed as a priority.

“Belco is committed to continuing dialogue and engagement with the community as we continue to build a clean, safe and renewable energy future for Bermuda.”

Among mitigation measures undertaken by Belco, Dr Smith told residents on April 13, 2022: “Since November 2021, Belco has adopted a procedure of ‘partial primary abatement’ for some engines in order to reduce the net amount of sulphur emitted into the atmosphere, ie, as sulphur dioxide.”

He explained: “When the wind is from SW/SSW direction and above 15 knots we understand that the Ocean Lane, Pembroke area is impacted by down drafting of fumes from both the NPS [North Power Station] and East Power Station engines.

“If the 15-minute sulphur dioxide air quality objective is exceeded, as realised from instant e-mail notifications, then Belco will start to switch some of the engines from HFO [heavy fuel oil] to road diesel, which has a much lower concentration of sulphur.”

A home affairs ministry spokesman told the Gazette: “After Belco started the fuel switching strategy, the measurable number exceeding the UK Air Quality Objective for 15-minute SO2 dropped.”

To view some of the documents referenced in this report, click on the PDFs under “Related Media”.

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Published March 21, 2023 at 9:59 am (Updated March 21, 2023 at 3:10 pm)

UK consulted on air quality plans after Belco emissions, Pati e-mails show

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