Environmental guidance for your business in Northern Ireland & Scotland

Preventing water pollution

Water pollution can come from a number of different sources. Many solids, liquids and gaseous substances can cause pollution if they enter the water environment. Common pollutants include chemicals, oil and waste products. Even substances such as milk, which pose no risk to human health, can cause serious harm to the water environment.

You must have authorisation if you discharge anything other than clean, uncontaminated water to surface waters or groundwater. Surface waters include rivers, reservoirs and canals, and make up a small percentage of fresh water reserves. Groundwater is all water below the water table. Groundwater makes up the largest available reserve of fresh water.

This guide outlines the main causes of water pollution, and when businesses need to apply for surface water or groundwater authorisations. It also describes how to prevent pollution incidents and gives tips on how to store and handle materials responsibly.

Water pollution has damaging effects on the environment, humans, plants and animals. Pollution can occur if your business discharges substances into surface waters or groundwater without prior treatment or by accident, eg after a spill.

Key causes of pollution include:

  • spills or leaks from oil and chemical containers
  • trade effluent going into surface water drains instead of foul water drains, or straight into watercourses
  • removing too much water from surface waters and groundwater
  • run-off containing fertilisers and pesticides from farming into surface waters
  • run-off containing salt during winter months
  • silt and soil from construction sites and bank erosion on farms
  • wash waters and waste products
  • fuel spills
  • releases of hot water
  • spills of food products, eg dairy products and fruit juice.

If you pollute the water environment, you may be committing an offence.

Surface waters and groundwater are protected by a number of licensing regimes that prevent and control pollution from businesses. See the page in this guide on regulation that protects surface water and groundwater.

Point source and diffuse water pollution

Point source water pollution occurs where pollution comes from a specific, identifiable source, such as a sewage pipe or factory wastewater pipe.

Diffuse water pollution is caused by various sources, which are often hard to identify. Individual sources may be relatively small, but the combined effect of numerous sources can be damaging. Diffuse pollution has a greater impact on the water environment than any other source of pollution.

In rural areas, sources of diffuse water pollution include:

  • run-off from agricultural land containing substances including pest control products, animal medicines, slurry, sewage sludge and manure
  • run-off and leaching from contaminated land
  • silt and dust from mining, quarrying, construction and demolition
  • groundwater drainage discharging from disused mines
  • incorrect waste pipe connections.

In urban areas, sources of diffuse water pollution include:

  • pollutants from car parks and transport, such as oil and brake fluid, rubber and metal from tyres and brakes, exhaust emissions, and detergents and grease from vehicle cleaning
  • heavy metals and pollution washed from roofs
  • animal faeces, for example from dogs and birds.

You can prevent diffuse water pollution by:

  • using sustainable urban drainage systems (SUDS) to control diffuse pollution from lightly contaminated run-off
  • fencing off areas and establishing cover to prevent soil erosion
  • using silt traps, buffer strips and sand bags to prevent run-off containing sediment from polluting surface waters and groundwater
  • storing and handling hazardous materials carefully to prevent diffuse pollution from leaks and spills.

Further information

Septic tanks

SUDS

Chemical storage

Oil Storage

Farming and Water Scotland

You can use the NetRegs e-learning tools to get a good overview of key issues. These tools are free to use and cover the essential points of each topic. They might be useful as a refresher course, or to make sure that staff have a good understanding of their environmental responsibilities.

  • Preventing pollution – a general guide
  • Duty of care
  • Sinks, drains and sewers
  • WEEE
  • Generating renewable energy

All are available at: NetRegs e-learning tools

Surface waters and groundwater are protected by a number of different regulatory controls. These protect water from pollution, prevent water sources from being depleted and control interferences with the natural flow of water.

Be aware that:

  • You must apply for a discharge consent or groundwater authorisation if you want to discharge anything other than clean, uncontaminated water to surface waters or groundwater. See the page in this guideline on Consents and authorisations you will need
  • The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) can issue notices to businesses to control water pollution. See the page in this guideline on Notices that prevent and control water pollution.
  • If your business activities pose an imminent threat to the environment, you must notify the relevant enforcing authority if the threat continues and take steps to prevent environmental damage. Where environmental damage has already occurred you must take action to remedy the damage. See our guideline: Environmental damage.
  • You may need a trade effluent consent or agreement from your water and sewerage company before you discharge trade effluent (liquid waste) into a public foul sewer. See our guideline: Trade effluent – discharges to sewer.
  • You must have an abstraction licence from the NIEA if you take certain quantities of water from surface waters or groundwater, or an impoundment licence if you impound (store or dam) water on an inland waterway. See our guideline: Water use and abstraction
  • You must make sure you store and use hazardous substances safely to avoid causing harm to human health or the environment. See our guidelines: Chemical storage and Oil storage
  • If you have a farm in a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) - an area designated as being at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution - you must comply with specific rules. Northern Ireland: Nitrate Action Programme Regulations

If you pollute water or carry out certain activities without the necessary authorisation you may be fined, or even sent to prison.

Surface waters and groundwater are protected by a number of different regulatory controls. These protect water from pollution, prevent water sources from being depleted and control interferences with the natural flow of water.

Be aware that:

  • You must be authorised to carry out a controlled water activity if you want to discharge anything other than clean, uncontaminated water to surface waters or groundwater. See the page in this guideline: Consents and authorisations you will need
  • The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) can issue notices to businesses to control water pollution. See the page in this guide on Notices that prevent and control water pollution.
  • If your business activities pose an imminent threat to the environment, you must notify the relevant enforcing authority if the threat continues and take steps to prevent environmental damage. Where environmental damage has already occurred you must take action to remedy the damage. See our guideline: Environmental damage.
  • You may need a trade effluent consent or agreement from your water and sewerage company before you discharge trade effluent (liquid waste) into a public foul sewer. See our guideline: Trade effluent – discharges to sewer
  • You must have an abstraction licence from SEPA if you take certain quantities of water from surface waters or groundwater, or if you impound (store or dam) water on an inland watercourse.
  • You must make sure you store and use hazardous substances safely to avoid causing harm to human health or the environment. See our guidelines: Chemical storage and Oil storage.
  • If you have a farm in a nitrate vulnerable zone (NVZ) - an area designated as being at risk from agricultural nitrate pollution - you must comply with specific rules. Scotland: Nitrate vulnerable zones (NVZs)

If you pollute water or carry out certain activities without the necessary authorisation you may be fined, or even sent to prison.

In Northern Ireland:

If you discharge anything other than clean, uncontaminated water you must have a:

  • discharge consent for discharges to surface water
  • a groundwater authorisation for discharges to groundwater.

Surface waters include rivers, loughs, reservoirs and canals. Groundwater includes all water below the water table.

You can find information on the regulation of water discharges on the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) website:

NIEA: Regulation of water discharges

You can find guidance on groundwater authorisations on the NIEA website:

NIEA: Groundwater authorisations

In Scotland:

  • an authorisation under the Controlled Activity Regulations (CAR)
  • an integrated pollution control authorisation or pollution prevention and control permit.

Surface waters include rivers, lochs, reservoirs and canals. Groundwater includes all water below the water table.

CAR has three levels of authorisation:

  • general binding rules (GBRs)
  • registration
  • water use licences.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) will advise which level of authorisation you need for your activity, and can change the level of authorisation in order to protect the water environment.

GBRs

Certain low risk surface water discharges are authorised by GBRs. When you carry out an activity and comply with the relevant GBRs, you do not need to contact SEPA or apply for a formal authorisation.

Registrations

Registrations cover activities which present a low risk individually, but which cumulatively may pose a risk to the water environment. You must provide SEPA with a description of the controlled activity and its location. You must comply with a set of basic rules described in the notification of registration.

SEPA: Register for CAR-related activities

Licences

Licences cover activities that are regarded as presenting a medium to high risk of impact on the water environment. You will need a water use licence if:

  • your activity needs site-specific controls
  • your activity needs to be limited in some way.

There are two types of licence application - a simple licence or a complex licence. These are based on the scale and level of risk of your activity.

You must identify a 'responsible person' to ensure that your business complies with the conditions of the licence. A responsible person can be an individual, a company or a partnership.

You can find controlled water activity guidance from the SEPA website.

SEPA: CAR Practical guide (PDF, 540K)

Farming and Water Scotland

There are different notices that can be issued to prevent and control water pollution in Northern Ireland and Scotland. These are listed below in separate sections.

In Northern Ireland

The Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) can issue you with various notices to prevent and control water pollution including:

  • works notices
  • enforcement notices
  • prohibition notices
  • prevention notices
  • remediation notices

The NIEA can issue you with a works notice to prevent or clean up surface water or groundwater pollution, including water in the ground both above and below the water table. For example, if a polluting substance is likely to enter surface waters or groundwater you may be required to take precautionary action, such as using a secondary containment system. If you have caused pollution you may have to remove the polluting matter and repair any damage to the environment.

Enforcement notices are similar to works notices but are used if you have a permit or consent. You may be issued with an enforcement notice if you have breached, or are likely to breach, the conditions of your permit or consent. The notice sets out what you must do to comply and the deadlines by which you must take corrective action.

The NIEA can issue you with a prohibition notice to stop you from carrying out an activity that might directly or indirectly pollute any waterway or groundwater.

If your activities could cause environmental damage to water, land or biodiversity, you must take all practical steps to prevent any damage and, if the threat remains, report it to the NIEA. The NIEA can issue you with a prevention notice that requires you to take action to prevent environmental damage. See the page on preventing environmental damage in our guideline: Environmental damage.

If your activities do cause environmental damage, you must take all practical steps to prevent further damage, report the damage to the NIEA and remediate the damage. The NIEA can issue you with a remediation notice that requires you to repair the environmental damage within a certain period. See the page on remediating environmental damage in our guideline: Environmental damage.

The NIEA can serve notices on you to prevent or remedy water pollution if:

  • they think it is likely that you are causing, or will cause, a polluting substance to enter surface waters or groundwater
  • you break the conditions of a discharge consent.

If you cause pollution, the NIEA can also remedy the damage itself and charge you for the work.

For further information relating to groundwater, go to the pages on the DAERA website.

In Scotland

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) has enforcement powers to prevent and control water pollution.

SEPA can issue you with an enforcement notice to:

  • prevent water pollution, eg if a substance is likely to pollute water you may be required to take precautionary action, such as using a secondary containment system
  • require you to clean up any pollution or environmental damage you have caused
  • require you to comply with the conditions of a permit, licence or consent
  • stop you from carrying out an activity that might directly or indirectly pollute groundwater.

If your activities could cause environmental damage, you must take all practical steps to prevent damage and, if the threat remains, report it to the enforcing body.

If your activities do cause environmental damage, you must:

  • take all practical steps to prevent further damage
  • report the damage to the enforcing body
  • remediate (clean up) the damage

See our guideline: Environmental damage.

If you cause pollution, SEPA can also remedy the damage itself and charge you for the work.

Almost any type of solid, liquid or gaseous substance can cause water pollution. However, there are practical ways you can minimise the risk of causing a water pollution incident.

If you have a pollution prevention and control permit or waste management licence some of these measures may be included as conditions of your permit or licence, which you must comply with.

Good practice

Store and handle materials carefully

It is important that you store and handle materials in a responsible way. For example, you should:

  • store hazardous substances according to the manufacturer's instructions
  • label containers clearly and accurately
  • keep the smallest amount of materials necessary
  • store incompatible substances separately, eg chemicals that may react with each other
  • make sure you are aware of restrictions on the way you can use chemicals
  • train your staff to store and handle substances properly
  • take extra care when you handle and transport materials.

If you store oil, such as petrol or diesel, in containers there are certain legal requirements that you may need to comply with. See our guideline: Oil Storage

Prevent pollution from uncontrolled releases or leaks

Put in place measures to prevent uncontrolled releases or leaks from causing pollution. For example, you should:

  • Mark loading and unloading areas and isolate them from the surface water drainage system. If this is not possible, protect surface water drains using sandbags, mats or other devices.
  • Store all above-ground storage tanks, drums and containers on an impermeable base within a drip tray, bund or any other suitable secondary containment system to contain any spills.

PPG2: Above ground oil storage tanks (Adobe PDF - 276KB)

  • Install drip trays, or other forms of containment, beneath any equipment that is likely to leak or result in spills of pollutants. Empty drip trays regularly so that they do not overflow. You may need to dispose of the contents of the trays as special waste.
  • Have procedures to prevent pollution from your drainage system, eg keep an updated drainage plan and colour code your drains. See the page in this guide on drainage system requirements to avoid pollution.

Be prepared for pollution incidents

Be prepared for an accident at your site. For example, you should:

  • prepare a pollution incident response plan and train staff on how to implement it
  • keep absorbent materials, such as sand and other containment equipment, suitable for containing the type and quantity of substances you store and use on your site and make sure your staff know where they are
  • make sure your site and storage areas are secure at all times, particularly outside of normal business hours, so that containers cannot be tampered with.

You may be liable for pollution that occurs as a result of damage caused by intruders.

See our guideline: Pollution incident response planning

Further information

Oil storage

Chemical storage

Solvent use and emissions

You should have a good working knowledge of your drainage systems. There are two types:

  • Separate drainage systems have two drains, one for foul water and another for surface water. The foul water drain carries polluted water, such as sewage and trade effluent, to a sewage treatment works. The surface water drain should only carry uncontaminated rainwater as it goes directly into a watercourse.
  • Combined drainage systems have a single drain that carries both foul and surface water to a sewage treatment works.

What you must do

If you want to discharge anything other than clean, uncontaminated water into a surface water drain, or directly into surface water or groundwater, you must have:

  • a discharge consent from the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA).
  • an authorisation from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA).

See the page in this guideline: Consents and authorisations you will need.

If your business discharges trade effluent to a public sewer, you must have a valid trade effluent consent from your water and sewerage company. See our guideline: Trade effluent – managing liquid wastes

Use the correct drainage system

You can take simple measures to use the right drainage system:

  • Draw up a drainage plan to identify all drains and update it after building work. If you do not have the expertise in-house, use a reputable drainage business to do the work for you.
  • Colour code all manhole covers, drainage grills and gullies. Foul water drains should be painted red, surface water drains blue and combined drainage systems can be marked with a red letter C.
  • Check that facilities such as sinks, washing machines, showers and toilets are connected to the public foul sewer or combined drainage system.

If no foul sewer is available, you may be able to use a septic tank or connect to a package sewage treatment plant.

PPG4: Treatment and disposal of sewage where no foul sewer is available

Prevent pollution from high-risk areas

Isolate run-off from refuelling areas from general yard drainage.

Cover areas at high risk of contamination, such as refuelling areas, to prevent run-off from rainfall. Where this is not possible you may need to channel run-off to a collection tank.

If your drainage goes to the foul sewer, you may be required to install an oil interceptor. You may need permission from your environmental regulator or water company to discharge wastewater from your oil interceptor or other treatment system.

PPG3: Use and design of oil separators in surface water systems

You can only discharge roof water run-off directly to the surface water system if it is clean and uncontaminated. You must ensure that it does not pass through anything that could contaminate it, such as an oil interceptor.

This page provides links to the full text of key pieces of environmental legislation relating to water pollution. The websites hosting the legislation may list amendments separately.

If you are setting up an environmental management system (EMS) for your business, you can use this list to start compiling your legal register. Your legal adviser or environmental consultant will be able to tell you if other environmental legislation applies to your specific business.

Environmental management systems and environmental reports

Northern Ireland

Anti-Pollution Works Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2003/7. Anti-pollution works notices, how to appeal and claim compensation for access rights in connection with anti-pollution works.

Control of Pollution (Applications and Registers) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2001/284 . Procedures for applying or varying consents, including advertising applications and details for the water pollution control register.

Environmental Liability (Prevention and Remediation) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2009/252. Rules to force polluters to prevent and repair damage to water systems, land quality, species and their habitats and protected sites.

Groundwater Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2009/254 (as amended). Introduces classification systems in line with EU developments, makes it an offence to discharge listed substances without an authorisation, controls issuing and reviewing authorisations and consents. Covers enforcement, codes of practice and penalties.

Water (Northern Ireland) Order SR 1999/662. Makes provision for discharge consents.

Water Environment (Water Framework Directive) Regulations (Northern Ireland) SR 2003/544 Sets out requirements for managing, protecting and improving the quality of water resources, particularly river basins.

Water Framework Directive (Classification, Priority Substances and Shellfish Waters) Regulations ( Northern Ireland) 2015 SR 351

Transpose Directive 2013/39/EU which revised environmental standards for some priority substances and added a further twelve additional substances to the list of priority substances introduced by the original Priority Substances Directive (2008/105/EC). Consolidate all the current legislation which set out the Water Framework Classification Schemes.

Scotland

Water Environment (Controlled Activities) (Scotland) Regulations SSI 2011/209. Replaces 2005/348 (as amended). Increases the transparency and efficiency of processing applications for water use licences, and introduces greater flexibility to deal with emergency situations where there are imminent risks of serious harm to people, property or the environment.

The Water Environment (Controlled Activities)(Scotland) Amendment Regulations 2013These regulations amend the rules governing a number of activities that affect the water environment, including works close to or in watercourses, certain agricultural activities and the storage and use of pesticides.

The Water Environment (River Basin Management Planning etc.) (Miscellaneous Amendments) (Scotland) Regulations 2015Amends the river basin management planning regulations and the Water Environment Controlled Activities (Scotland) Regulations 2011 to take account of Directive 2013/39/EU, 2014/80/EU relating to water quality standards and priority substances. Revokes the Water Environment (Groundwater and Priority Substances) (Scotland) Regulations SSI 2009/420

Environmental Liability (Scotland) Regulations SSI 2009/266. Rules to force polluters to prevent and repair damage to water systems, land quality, species and their habitats and protected sites

Water Environment and Water Services (Scotland) Act 2003. Establishes public authorities' power and duty to protect the water environment, regulate potential polluting activities and manage river basins.

Water Environment (Diffuse Pollution) (Scotland) Regulations SSI 2008/54. Controls diffuse pollution from fertiliser, livestock, land cultivation, drainage system run-off, pesticides and sheep dip.

Further information

Pollution prevention guidelines (PPGs)

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Permits

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