Wednesday, May 25, 2005

CEPSA emissions within the Law - Confirmed

Benzene levels dispute

• The objective is zero, says Euro directorate

Benzene emission levels from the Cepsa complex in the Campo de Gibraltar may be damaging to the health, yet they are perfectly legal under European Union rules.

A recent study by the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) (Spanish council for scientific research) had pointed to high emissions of this toxic substance in Puente Mayorga and led scientists, environmentalists and politicians alike to conclude that Cepsa was breaking the law. But two weeks into this latest controversy over pollution, it seems that the initial assumption – in legal terms at least - was premature.

Cepsa had dismissed the CSIC’s findings as “alarmist” and maintained that it complied fully with current limits for Benzene emissions.

In the ensuing crossfire of accusations and political flack, there was widespread confusion as to what the law actually stated.

But yesterday, in response to questions from this newspaper, a European Commission environment spokesman agreed with the company’s interpretation of the European Union directive that sets those limits.

The unavoidable conclusion is that, based on the CSIC data, Cepsa meets the legal requirements on Benzene emissions.

And yet underlying concerns remain.

The high emission levels recorded by the CSIC were isolated peaks, meaning that the Cepsa plant complied with current legislation only once these had been averaged out over a year, as the law requires.

The EU directive, while allowing for some emissions, also recognises that there is no safe threshold for exposure to Benzene, which is known to cause cancer. Any amount, no matter how small, is potentially bad for human health.

For anyone in Puente Mayorga exposed to one of those isolated peaks, the fact that Cepsa meets the annual legal limits is of little comfort.

Tit for Tat

The issue at the heart of this row is extremely complex but hinges on the question of how much Benzene can be released into the air without breaking the rules.

The CSIC, in a statement issued on May 12, suggested that Benzene emissions in Puente Mayorga had, under certain weather conditions, occasionally exceeded the regulated limit.

At the time it said that current EU legislation, as transposed into national law, set that limit at 5µg/m3 [micrograms per cubic metre of air] averaged over a year.

Cepsa quickly rebutted and described the statement as “alarmist”, adding that current legislation actually allowed for double that level, that is to say 10 µg/m3.

Environmental campaigners then stepped in to rubbish Cepsa’s argument and, echoing the CSIC, maintained that the EU directive set out a 5µg/m3 benchmark, one that had to be reduced to zero by 2010.

But then followed a bizarre twist.

Six days after its initial statement, the CSIC backtracked and issued a "clarification” that effectively agreed with Cepsa’s position.

The limit was 10µg/m3, as Cepsa had correctly argued, which meant the highest emission recorded by the CSIC at Puente Mayorga – 8.76µg/m3 over an 8-hour period - fell within the legal parameters.

The environmental lobby again cried foul and maintained its initial position that the legal limit in the directive was 5µg/m3 in 2005, to be reduced progressively to zero by 2010.

But in legal terms, the green campaigners were wrong this time.

Practical Realities

Yesterday, the European Commission confirmed Cepsa’s interpretation of the directive and the limits on Benzene that it sets out.

While the spirit of the legislation is to reduce emissions as far as possible by 2010, it also allows some leeway.

The legal maximum is currently set at 5µg/m3 but there is an additional “margin of tolerance” which this year allows for a further 5µg/m3 over the base limit, giving a total of 10µg/m3.

As from next year, it is this margin of tolerance, and not the base limit, that will have to be reduced by 1µg/m3 every year through to 2010.

The directive describes Benzene as a highly toxic carcinogen that is dangerous to humans at any levels, but it also reflects the practical realities of the petrochemical industry and its socio-economic role.

“The objective is zero emissions, but the absolute limit by 2010 will be 5 µg/m3,” Lone Mikkelsen, press spokesman at the EC’s environment directorate, told the Chronicle.

“It could be that there are some emissions that are unavoidable, so you need to have some margins.”

The EC will soon have to submit a report to the European Parliament on the application of the directive, which dates back to 2000, in European countries.

That may provide an insight into how countries have fared in keeping Benzene emissions within the law.

It will also offer an opportunity for Euro-MPs to further reduce the legal limits if they so see fit.

Related Articles:

24 May 2005 - BBB responds to confusion on Benzene level limits

24 May 2005 - Scientists create confusion over Benzene legal limit

18 May 2005 - IU express concern in Andalusian Parliament

13 May 2005 - CSIC report confirms high levels of pollutants in the Bay of Gibraltar

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