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Best Available Technology(BAT) in a key role in VOC legislation in EU– New Industrial Emissions Directive will be finalized 2010

By Tarja Sundqvist

The VOC Directive decreed in 1999 has reached the set targets, as it's implementation has led to significant emission reductions in the EU-27 member states. However, this is not enough, and the ground-level ozone content still has to be reduced. The new IE directive will clarify the industrial emissions legislation, boost the use of the BAT, and harmonize the permit procedure. In the future, the environmental permit conditions will be based on the BAT emission levels defined in the BAT reference documents (BREFs).

The intensified use of the BAT is expected to improve the purification efficiency and to tighten the emission limits of the environmental permits on a practical level. The European Commission is likely to pass the new directive already during 2010, and the new regulations will be applied to the existing plants from 2016.

Background for the VOC legislation in the EU

In practice, the European Community has been concerned about air pollution since 1973 when the first environmental program by the EC was published. The program highlighted the significance of preventing and reducing air pollution in the area. The first reference to volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can be found in an international protocol concerning transboundary pollution from 1979. The protocol states that these compounds have a significant transboundary effect and that people and the environment should be protected from their adverse effects. It is precisely because of transboundary pollution that VOCs were included in the environmental competence of the entire European Community.

In 1987, a significant turn in environmental politics took place when the Montreal Protocol, which is one of the most successful international environmental conventions, was signed. This was also a starting point for creating a stronger environmental policy for the European Community, for demanding concrete measures and environmental legislation. As a result of this work, the general permit procedure directive for industrial plants i.e. IPPC Directive (Integrated Pollution Prevention and Control, 1996/61/EC) came into effect in 1996. The purpose of the directive is to prevent and minimize emissions into the air, water, and soil that are produced by large and medium-sized industrial plants. The directive created a basis for a joint permit system. Industrial plants must fulfill the permit conditions required by this system in order to continue their operation. The IPPC directive has been a remarkable development step in reducing industrial emissions, and the environmental legislation of numerous EU states is based on the directive.

The IPPC directive postulates that the permit procedure of the member states must be based on the emission limits based on the Best Available Technology i.e. the BAT.  However, there are considerable differences in the implementation of the BAT between the member states, due to the scope and different interpretations of the concept.

The VOC directive (1999/13/EC), completed in 1999, started to limit primarily industrial emissions into air. The directive is applied to approximately 20 industrial processes in which organic solvents are used. These special sectors have noted to have a significant local and transboundary effect on damaging natural resources and the adverse effects on people. These impacts are also economically significant. The previous legislation had only applied to large industrial plants, but now the directive was extended to control emissions from small plants as well.

MEP Heidi Hautala actively involved in creating the VOC directive Heidi Hautala, MEPHeidi Hautala, MEP

The VOC directive was prepared in the European Parliament at length, from 1991. At the time, MEP Heidi Hautala was, as a substitute member of the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy, involved in the preparation of the directive and managed to add several amendments to the directive. “The long preparation time and the controversial issues were related to the difficult decisions on what sectors the directive could be applied to, what could be excluded, where to draw the lines, and whether or not to make exceptions,” Hautala says. “It is important to be able to allow certain concessions for small and medium-sized businesses so as to not hinder their competitive edge,” she continues.

The VOC directive defines the minimum level of emissions for the processes in the applicable sector. Operators are primarily obliged to observe the designated emission limits and to process emissions exceeding those limits with separate equipment. Alternatively, the operator may follow an emission reduction scheme in which it commits to using new methods or products that contain very little or no solvents. The emissions limits for authorized installations are decreed in the environmental permit, and for smaller operators with the reporting requirement, in connection with the registration to the data system. The operators must prove to the authorizing bodies that the emissions do not exceed the allowed limits. The purpose of the directive is to create environmental protection procedure and monitoring operation processes for the industry.

“During the drafting of the directive, the health and environment hazards of solvents had already been proved, and serious attention started to be paid to ground-level ozone that is formed when emissions from solvents react with oxides of nitrogen in the presence of sunlight. It was noticed that purification technologies and less harmful alternatives did in fact exist, and with the directive, these were implemented in industrial use in the extent that was economically and technically reasonable. The significance of pre-emptive action had been understood,” Hautala says.

During her career, MEP Heidi Hautala has been involved in environmental issues to such an extent that even though she operates today entirely in the foreign policy sector, and works for instance with human rights, she has received an “environmental vaccination” for life. Therefore, she warmly supports making environmental issues more mainstream, so that people with a positive approach towards environmental protection would also exploit their expertise widely in other sectors.

Appropriate implementation of the VOC directive has led to significant emission reductions in the EU-27 member states

The European Commission monitors the implementation of the VOC directive in the European Union by reports gathered from the member states every three years. The most recent summary analysis covers all EU-27 member states from the period 2005 to 2007. Based on the analysis, all member states already have sufficient permit or registration systems in place to ensure that the VOC installation permit terms fulfill the requirements of the directive. In other words, member states have defined all the installations and processes that require a permit or a registration, and they have the required permit authorities and a clear permit application procedure in place.

By the end of 2007, approximately 53,000 VOC installations existed in the European Union according to the reports. The actual number is greater than this, as the information from some of the member states has been inadequate. According to the reports, new permits have been granted and registrations issues only for less than 25% of the installations since 2003. However, it may be that most of the installations have already been registered before the first year of monitoring. The actual total situation will become clear after the next monitoring period, as it has been decided that the report should be expanded. At this time, the possible still unregistered operations or operations without the appropriate permit in the member states will be discovered.

Large industrial plants still produce a significant share of total emissions, and their share of for example of VOC emissions is 55 percent. On average, 20 percent of all operators use an emission reduction scheme, but this percentage varies greatly from country to country. Emission reduction schemes are used in Belgium, Germany, and England in particular: in these countries, as much as 40 to 60 percent of the installations follow the scheme.

According to a survey by the European Environment Agency (EEA), the European VOC emissions (NMVOC) have decreased by 41 percent between 1990 and 2007. The most significant sources of VOC emissions in 2007 were painting, dry cleaning, cleaning surfaces, manufacture and processing of chemical products and other use of solvents. The second largest sector was road transportation. During the monitoring period 1990–2007, the VOC emissions caused by road transports have decreased the most due to the fact that catalytic converters have become more common and because there are more diesel-cars in use. The second most significant emission reduction has taken place in the above-mentioned processes due to the VOC directive.

According to the monitoring in 2007, the EU-27 member states will reach the legally binding VOC national emission ceilings set in the NEC directive in 2010. However, the VOC emissions from France, Germany, Spain, and Portugal significantly exceeded the target path of the emission ceilings set for them. Significant reduction measures are still required from these countries to fulfill the requirements of the directive. 

The member states have not had notable problems with implementing the VOC directive, and most of them feel that the directive has been a very efficient means of significantly reducing industrial VOC emissions. In addition, the environmental awareness of the operators has increased significantly. In general, the EU-27 member states have succeeded well in the implementation of the directive.                

The more effective implementation of the BAT will tighten the emission limits in the new IE directive

The actual VOC legislation will not be reformed in the near future, but it will be clarified. The currently prepared new Industrial Emissions Directive aims at reducing industrial emissions and clarifying the emission regulations set for various industrial sectors. The purpose is to enhance the implementation and compliance of the BAT in all member states and to harmonize permit procedures. With the directive, the legislation is expanded to also apply to new processes, such as the manufacture of wood-based panels and wood protection.

The preparation for the IE directive was started once the European Comission found out that, despite the long transition period of the IPPC directive, only half of the industrial plants in the EU states had been authorized by the middle of the 2006. In addition, other deficiencies and quality problems concerning the issued permits were discovered in the clarifications, in the implementation of the BAT in particular. As BAT is a comprehensive concept, it is very difficult to find unambiguous meters for it, and defining the optimal solution will require extensive expertise. Therefore, the interpretations of the BAT vary to a great extent, and its practical implementation in the member states has remained too weak and unharmonious. In addition, according to the feedback from the member states, the industrial directives often overlap, which creates difficulties in the interpretation of the directives as well as additional administrative costs.

This has led to the revision of the IPPC directive, based on which the Commission started the new IE directive proposal at the end of 2007. The proposal combines the existing seven directives on industrial emissions into one clear and integrated legislative entity. In the proposal, the industrial VOC directive has been incorporated with the reformed IPPC directive as such. In addition, the proposal combines the Large Combustion Plants Directive (the LCP directive), the Waste Incineration Directive, and three directives relating to titanium dioxide industries.

The new directive will improve and clarify the concept and legal validity of BAT, Best Available Technology, in limiting industrial emissions. In the future, the external permit conditions of the BAT will only be possible in special cases, and they must be justified and documented. This enhances the implementation of new technologies in the EU and leads to a more harmonious use of the best available technology.

Anneli Karjalainen, the Finnish Ministry of the EnvironmentAnneli Karjalainen, the Finnish Ministry of the Environment“The emission limits will probably become tighter in the practice of permit processing at least for large solvent operators (more than 150 kg/h or 200 t/a) precisely because of the BAT, if the generally used technology reaches better emission results than the limits set in the directive. This is great for the environment, as the minimum levels set in the directive may have in some cases hindered the adoption of the BAT,” says Anneli Karjalainen, a VOC expert from the Finnish Ministry of the Environment. “We are currently looking into the practical options for implementing the directive, and we will receive more information from the Commission for applying the BAT this year. The IE directive requires BAT solutions from the large plants, but on a national level, lighter procedures may be considered for small businesses in order to preserve their operational preconditions,” she adds.

BREF documents define the best available technology

The BREF documents (Best Available Technique Reference Documents), as published by the European Commission, are a significant source of information for defining the best available technology. 31 of these documents have been compiled for the sectors covered by the IPPC directive. In addition, so-called horizontal joint BREFs have been prepared to be applied for several sectors, concerning for instance the monitoring of emissions and energy efficiency. The BREF (EIPPCB 2007a) prepared for surface coating processes utilizing solvents, painting and printing processes in particular, is largely used as the directions in VOC emissions. The BREFs made for other sectors can case-specifically be applied to the other processes as well, if the documents have also considered VOC emissions.

The BREF documents already exist and are in use, but until now, they have been for reference only. With the implementation of the new IE directive, their role becomes more legally binding, as in the future, the BAT emission levels defined in the BREF documents will function as the foundations for the permit regulations. In other words, these documents describe the solutions thought of as the best available technologies on the EU level as well as the associated emission levels (BAT AEL, BAT Associated Emission Levels) that can be reached by using the best available technology. In the VOC directive, the emission levels have been defined as total carbon (mgC/Nm3), but in the BREFs, the emission level values are related to certain technical solutions and can be given as certain units, such as concentrations, specific emissions, or total emissions.

Cost-efficiency is also an important criterion in the definition of the best available technology. The BREF documents are based on the information exchange between EU-wide technical workgroups, coordinated by the IPPC office of the Commission, which is located in Seville.
“In the future, the definition of emission limits in the BREF documents will be the most important – and a very challenging – task, which is currently being discussed widely. The content of the existing documents varies greatly: in some BREFs, the limits are defined in great detail, while others remain superficial. The content of a BREF document depends in the expertise of the preparer and the team in charge of gathering the background information, as well as the resources allocated for the work,” Anneli Karjalainen says. “VOCs are created in various industrial processes and installations and, therefore, the application range of the BREFs is very heterogeneous,” she adds.    

In accordance with the principle of continuous improvement, the BREF documents are constantly being updated. The new round started in 2005 from the oldest documents. The updates mainly focus on the consistent collection of the emission and consumption data as well as the updating of the technology descriptions. Enhancing the implementation of the BAT is a means of enhancing the implementation of new technologies. As technologies advance, more and more environmentally friendly methods are discovered, better purification results are achieved, and the solutions become more cost-efficient.

Until now, the European Commission has published only the summaries of the BREFs in national languages, but in the future, the objective is to produce also the description and justifications of the BAT in the national languages. In addition, the Commission organizes a VOC seminar for the permit authorities of the member states in June 2010. The questions concerning the applicable sectors and the boundaries between the sectors are discussed and clarified in the seminar. 

New Industrial Emissions Directive will be finalized in 2010 and applied in 2016

The second reading agreement of Industrial Emissions Directive was approved by the European Parliament in July 2010. The member states’ Council will officially approve it during the Autumn, and the directive will be ready by the end of 2010. Directives are secondary legislation in the European Union, which will become binding once the member country has made them a part of the national legislation. After the approval, the member country has two years to implement the directive on a national level. In this phase, the country-specific details are also clarified. At the moment, the transition period for the IE directive will be until 2016.

Battle for reducing ground-level ozone continues

Industrial operations will always be regulated, as it always has significant effects on the environment. At the moment, ground-level ozone and the small particles created in incineration processes are regarded as the most harmful air pollution. Ozone is a strong oxidant, and high concentrations cause, for instance, respiratory and irritation symptoms and worsen allergy symptoms in people. For plants, ozone is a hundred times more harmful than it is to people, damaging their tissue and weakening their growth. Volatile organic compounds enhance the forming of ozone as they react with oxides of nitrogen (NOx) in the presence of sunlight.

Regardless of the considerable reductions in industrial emissions in Europe since 1990, the air ozone content has not improved notably after 1997. This means that emissions still have significant adverse effects on health and the environment, and further action is still needed. The planned intensifying in the use of the BAT will certainly provide cost-efficient and sustainable effects on health and the environment. The more efficient implementation of the BAT is expected to stimulate the development of environmental technologies and to strengthen the position of the EU as a top expert on this globally expanding sector.