I spent a drizzly, cold and grey day (up here they call it “dreich”) in Glengarnock, on the West side of Scotland, yesterday. The purpose of the trip was to attend a Scottish Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA) training day at the Envirowise offices.
All in all it was a fascinating insight into the complex world of environment regulation. As it happens I used to work in regulation myself, in both the advertising and energy industry, and was already aware of the minefield that is compliance. But it must be said, SEPA take that to a whole new level. Their Environmental Protection Officers (EPOs) – the guys and gals who carry out the investigative work – mostly have two degrees. They then train for two years both in the field and in sessions a bit like the one we sat through before being classed as qualified for the tasks they take on. And what tasks they are! Once trained, the EPOs basically become a bit like an environmental police officer. Our trainer, a very knowledgeable SEPA representative called Simon, described some of the powers SEPA have. These include the right to force entry, the right to obtain mobile phone records and many other things that allow them to ensure they can find out who’s doing the bad stuff and stop them in their tracks.
Before I paint the wrong impression of the way they approach their work, Simon made it very clear that SEPA always at least try to follow the path of least resistance. So, where businesses are prepared to work with them, they will work with businesses. In fact I think they offer a really useful service, because they digest the technical and legal legislative issues and translate them for us mere mortals so we know, in practical terms, what we should and shouldn’t do.
Apparently the training day we had was an amalgamation of several training elements that EPOs would sit through but was not as detailed as the real training. I can’t help but feel slightly relieved about that!
It was a lot of fun as we worked in groups looking at real life issues that SEPA EPOs might face. For example we had to consider a garden shed manufacturer and decide what potential environmental hazards might be caused by their activities. As it turned out there were quite a few: the lorries turning up to drop off the wood; the chemicals used (and how they were stored – it’s all about bunds apparently); the way the waste wood was handled (was it being illegally burned); the way the chemicals and wood preservatives were applied; the noise on the site; the dust and sawdust (different things apparently); the potential run-off to a nearby watercourse. The list goes on.
The next activity involved a simulated emergency where fish from the watercourse (the one near the shed factory) started dying. What would we do? Who would we inform first? All issues a SEPA EPO would have to address. We were advised how SEPA are a “category one” agency in situations like that which means they have the same authority to resolve the situation and investigate the problems (and prosecute the offenders) as the Police. So they really are the environment police, but with a friendly face.
I can’t say I envy the people working for SEPA, but I do have a lot of respect for them.