18.In this Chapter we will examine concerns that were raised with the committee about the potential for hand car washes on roadsides or in car parks to pollute rivers and streams by disposing of water directly into street surface water drains.
19.The UK is required to minimise water pollution as a signatory to the UN Sustainable Development Goals and EU Water Framework Directive. UN Sustainable Development Goal 6 is to manage water sustainably, for all. Target 6.3 commits Governments to:
By 2030, improve water quality by reducing pollution, eliminating dumping and minimizing release of hazardous chemicals and materials, halving the proportion of untreated wastewater …
The EU Water Framework Directive adopted in 2000 required the UK to achieve ‘good’ status of all water bodies (including rivers, streams, lakes, estuaries, coastal waters and groundwater) by 2015. However, by 2016, only 35% of surface waters across the UK were classified as ‘good’ or better. The prognosis for UK water bodies is bleak. The Defra Secretary of State confirmed in May 2018 that “around one quarter” of water bodies in England will not meet ‘good’ status and have been set lower objectives.
20.A further commitment the Government has made to improve water quality is its 25 Year Environment Plan which ‘aims to deliver cleaner air and water in our cities and rural landscapes, protect threatened species and provide richer wildlife habitats’. It pledges to ‘achieve clean and plentiful water’ by ‘improving at least three quarters of our waters to be close to their natural state as soon as is practicable’. It says that it will reach or exceed objectives for rivers, lakes, coastal and ground waters that are specially protected, whether for biodiversity or drinking water as per our River Basin Management Plans. It also says that it will make sure ‘that all those with a role to play take action to improve water quality by, for example, removing misconnected plumbing, improving surface water drainage and land management, and maintaining private sewage systems to a high standard.’
21.Car wash waste water can contain phosphates, detergents, surfactants, oils, silts/sediments, traffic film remover, rubber, copper and other metals. These pollutants can have a range of direct and indirect impacts, depending on the volume and frequency of discharge, the level of dilution and whether it flows directly into a watercourse. For example, the phosphates in detergents can ‘overfertilise’ the water with nutrients leading to excessive algae growth, consuming oxygen and killing animals and plants in large numbers.
The Car Wash Advisory service provided us with this description of some of the chemical products used in hand car washes:
Shampoos and Foams made from a mixture of surfactants, with a small addition of sequestrants and acid or alkali. Foams also have colourants and dyes added for visual effect. The shampoos and foams perform essential tasks in the car wash process. Manually applied by hand washers with mittens or in a machine by brushes, they help to wet the car’s surface, lift the dirt and assist in keeping the dirt in suspension prior to rinsing thereby preventing re-deposition on the paintwork.
TFR (Traffic Film Remover) made from strong alkalis such as sodium hydroxide and a range of other highly reactive chemicals. These are powerful cleaners and are designed to be selectively sprayed by hand onto the dirtiest parts of cars, or used in a much-diluted form in the pre-soak cycle in some rollover car wash machines. They help to soften and loosen dirt, remove insect remains, and are particularly effective at cleaning oils and grease from paintwork. Available in a range of strengths, extremely strong caustic alkali Traffic Film Removers are in widespread use in the Hand Car Wash sector as they are both cheap and effective. Used incorrectly they can damage car paintwork.
Acid Wheel Cleaner is made from strong acids such as Phosphoric Acid, Hydrofluoric Acid and Hydrochloric Acid (sometimes referred to as ‘brick acid’). As they are relatively cheap and effective in removing stubborn brake dust deposits without any manual scrubbing, they are widely used in the hand car wash sector where operators are rarely seen wearing the recommended eye protectors, protective clothing and nitrile gloves to handle these chemicals. If they are sprayed onto the car wheels and the hot brake discs immediately behind them, the resulting fine mist or vapour can cause immediate choking and skin damage. Used incorrectly, they can also easily damage the wheels’ finish and corrode brake pipes.
22.The number and severity of recorded water pollution incidents linked to vehicle washing is minor compared to agricultural pollution or water company incidents, but the detergents and vehicle dirt in wash water can impair water quality and have toxic effects on animal and plant life if disposed of incorrectly and not treated at a sewage works. The greatest risk to water quality relates to hand car washes located in car parks and similar sites, which drain directly to surface drains. Many surface water drains discharge to minor urban watercourses, with little dilution, particularly in dry weather.
23.The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) pointed out that the level of pollution risk is likely to be linked strongly to site specific issues and local watercourses. Discharge of acids or alkalis to watercourses will have different impacts depending on the location and pH level of the receiving water course. For instance, discharges of acids into chalk streams will have a far greater impact than if the same discharge was made into an upland stream coming off a coniferous forest, which is already acidic. Anything that could alter the pH balance of a river or lake could have significant implications on fish as different species are sensitive to different water pH (e.g. significant changes in a salmonid river could have a greater impact than, say, in the lower reaches near tidal waters).
24.The Environment Agency acknowledged that car washing discharge may have a harmful effect on animal and plant life in water courses if it is in sufficient concentrations and where there is low dilution - for example, discharging into a stream or river with low flow rate. However, it argued that it did not warrant serious attention:
At face value this may appear like a serious risk, however pollution incident evidence shows that car wash waters are very diluted by the time they reach water courses and any harmful effects on water quality and the environment tend to be minor only. Often any impact is indistinguishable from other low-level sources of pollution in the drainage system such as misconnections from washing machines, car washing outside homes or contaminated drainage from industrial and commercial premises.
25.Under EU law, however, the presumption in relation to groundwater is that broadly it should not be polluted at all. This precautionary approach comprises a prohibition on direct discharges to groundwater, and (to cover indirect discharges) a requirement to monitor groundwater bodies so as to detect changes in chemical composition. The European Water Framework Directive (WFD), which came into force in 2000, established a framework for the assessment, management, protection and improvement of the quality of water resources across the EU.
26.Only 40% of European surface water bodies surveyed by the European Environmental Agency (EEA) in 2018 were found to be in a good ecological state. England was one of the poorer performers to emerge from the State of Our Waters report published on 3 July 2018, which studied 130,000 waterways. Scotland outperformed England in the clean water assessment, with water standards similar to much of Scandinavia, across the 2010–15 period.
27.The Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) told us that although the pollution associated with hand car washes is relatively minor compared to pollution from agricultural waste and fertilisers, it is still something that needs to be prevented due to its local impacts. Alistair Chisholm said:
… we do not want this stuff going into surface water drains and into streams. It is difficult to get a picture of exactly how big a problem it is, but if you take into account that in 2016 only 14% of river water bodies were meeting their Water Framework Directive standard, or higher, target, and we have some quite significant targets to reach, either on the Water Framework Directive or under the 25 Year Environment Plan, even if it is not the biggest contributor to urban diffuse pollution, if we are going to reach 75% of water bodies in as close to their natural state as possible, which is the target in the 25 Year Environment Plan, we have to hit the smaller things too. If you are looking at water quality generally, and compliance against the Water Framework Directive, we are taking quite a lot of the low-hanging fruit already and a lot of the problem that exists now, relates to diffuse pollution.
28.Best practice for commercial vehicle washing requires discharge to be directed to a foul sewer from a dedicated non-permeable area, via an interceptor or silt-trap, in accordance with a trade effluent consent. Car washes should be able to show drainage plans. Where it is not possible to connect to a foul sewer, a collection unit should be used and all traps, separators and interceptors should be emptied regularly by a registered waste collector.
29.The Association of Convenience Stores provided this diagram outlining the difference between correct and incorrect drainage connections for a car wash:
30.Alastair Chisholm from the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management explained the difference in drainage:
In a properly regulated car wash, trade effluent permits would have been sought by the operator. There would be heavy duty drainage in place, so some kind of interceptor, silt separators, and so forth. In those contexts, the water is taken away to water treatment works, is treated, and is discharged back into the environment. There is really minimal impact.
31.Hand car wash operators are subject to the trade effluent provisions in the Water Industry Act 1991. Section 118 of the Act makes it an offence to discharge trade effluent to a sewer without the written consent of the local water company. It also states that to obtain consent, the discharger must serve written notice (an application) on the sewerage undertaker (the water company). This means that the onus is on the discharger to obtain consent and not the sewerage undertaker to make sure they have one. Anglian Water told us that, in its experience, ‘very few hand car washes obtain a discharge consent prior to conducting business, this includes many hand car wash businesses which set up in supermarket car parks.’
32.The Environment Agency is responsible for protecting water quality in England and regulates discharges into surface waters or onto or into the ground (and groundwater) through the environmental permitting system. You need an environmental permit if you discharge liquid effluent or waste water (poisonous, noxious or polluting matter, waste matter, or trade or sewage effluent) into surface waters, for example, rivers, streams, estuaries, lakes, canals or coastal waters. In England, the Environment Agency can issue fines to anyone who discharges waste water or sewage without a permit, or who breaches of their permit conditions. Helen Wakeham, from the Environment Agency, explained:
From an environmental perspective, the regulations for water and water protection are very simple. The environmental permitting regulations have an offence to cause polluting matter to enter water and the defence to that offence is to have a permit. There is a regulatory system in place. We don’t permit hand car washes because the effluent from hand car washes is unsuitable for discharge to water. What we would advise always is for hand car washes to be connected to the foul sewer.
33.We heard various accounts of hand car washes allowing their trade effluent into surface road-side sewers. Professor Clark, from the Nottingham Business School, said that many HCWs located on abandoned spaces are not connected to the correct foul sewers and that there is evidence of the tarmac being worn away by chemicals:
Many road-side petrol stations have appropriate heavier drainage systems. HCWs located on other abandoned spaces do not and there is clear evidence of degrading and damage to tarmac and around storm drains where chemical concentration eventually breaks down brick and tarmac.
34.The PRA argues that many supermarket car parks where hand car washes are located will not have the correct drainage connections or interceptors. It said that:
… past research has shown that none of the major supermarkets have installed foul water drains as their car parks were never originally intended to accommodate HCWs. In addition, they allow HCWs to conduct their activities on porous asphalt surfaces (as opposed to concrete pads with foul drainage connections) that allow the effluent to seep directly down into the water table - which is even more harmful for the environment.
35.However, the Environment Agency insisted that its work in Coventry had shown that most inner-city hand car washes will be connected to the foul sewer if they are operating within town or city centres, because of the nature of the existing sewer system. In 2014 the Environment Agency worked with the Car Wash Association and Severn Trent Water Limited (STW) in Coventry to educate and, where required, undertake enforcement action to minimise the impact of commercial car washes on the water environment. STW and the EA visited all the known car washes in Coventry and undertook dye tracing to discover where their contaminated drainage discharged to. They visited 47 sites and found that 25% of these were misconnected.
36.The Environment Agency (EA) has seen its budget cut in recent years. Figures from Annual Reports going back to 2010–11 show that there has been a real terms reduction in the overall funding of the EA of 5% since 2010–11. The specific grant-in-aid from Defra to the EA that is dedicated to environmental protection has fallen by 47% in real terms since 2010–11 (allowing a greater proportion of the budget allocated to the EA to be spent on flood defences). To ensure its resources are targeted effectively, the Environment Agency says that it takes a risk-based approach focusing on the most serious and frequently occurring pollution incidents.
37.The Environment Agency says that pollution from hand car washes is a minor problem. The Agency searched its National Incident Reporting System to provide evidence to the committee on how many pollution incidents were related to hand car washes. There is no pollution source category for ‘hand car washes’ and the system only records ‘vehicle washes’ of any type as a category. On average around 340 vehicle washing incidents of all types are reported in England each year according to the Environment Agency. This represents 2 per cent of the total number of water pollution incident reports it receives annually.
38.The Environment Agency categorise pollution incidents based on their environmental and amenity impact, so:
39.The Environment Agency provided us with a table showing a geographical distribution of all vehicle car washing pollution incidents in England (see Appendix 1). It illustrates the number of reports the Environment Agency received for all car washing pollution incidents between 2013 and 2017 and the number of these that were confirmed as having an impact on water. Confirmed incidents are categorised as either Category 1 Serious, Category 2 Significant or Category 3 Minor, depending on the severity of their impact.
40.Helen Wakeham from the Environment Agency, explained that urban pollution was a less significant problem for water quality than agriculture and water industry incidents:
On a risk basis, car washing will never make it to the top of the list. However, we know that about a third of the incidents and a third of our water pollution problems arise from the water industry where we have a sophisticated regulatory regime and a source of income for that because water companies can charge their customers. About a third of issues arise from rural land and agriculture where there are mechanisms by which we manage that impact. The final third is much more difficult and the 10% or 11% that arises from urban areas is really hard to tackle because it is lots and lots of very small sources. Hand car washing is a part of that; people washing cars at home is another part of that; road drainage is part of that. There are things that we need to do and ways that agencies need to work together to tackle that 11% because it is tricky and there is not a magic bullet for it.
41.There was some criticism of the Environment Agency during the inquiry for its decision to withdraw pollution prevention guidance on vehicle washing. The Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency and Natural Resources Wales have a document entitled Guidance for Pollution Protection 13 (GPP 13): Vehicle washing and Cleaning which is based on relevant legislation and good practice. However, similar guidance was removed from the Environment Agency website in England when it was consolidated into Gov.uk in 2015 to reduce the volume of guidance.
42.The Association of Convenience Stores said it was hearing accounts from its members who were having to use guidance from devolved administrations for the compliance of their car washes in England. The ACS said it would encourage the Environment Agency to review its guidance and ‘work with the devolved administrations to improve and relaunch the GPP13: Vehicle Washing and Cleaning guidance so there is one single guidance document across the whole of the UK.’
43.The failures to enforce planning and environmental regulations at hand car washes must be rectified. Risk prioritisation by the Environment Agency and water companies should not translate into a permissive licence to pollute for hand car washes or other businesses.
44.The Environment Agency should reinstate its pollution prevention guidance for car washes. We recommend that the Agency also writes to the planning departments of Local Authorities across the UK to remind them that hand car washes should have interceptors installed and be connected to the foul sewer so that their wash water is treated rather than discharged directly into the environment.
45.The Environment Agency should also write to major supermarkets to remind them that any hand car washes operating in their car parks needs to have the appropriate drainage in place connecting to a foul sewer.
46.The Environment Agency should work with immigration, tax recovery and GLAA enforcement to ensure that unannounced inspection of hand car washes are comprehensively investigated for a full range of potential regulatory breaches.
47.The Government should consider whether changes are necessary to the water regulations governing urban diffuse pollution. Water companies should be encouraged to map and report to the environment agency where waste water is not properly being handled. This would help address the lack of data that currently hampers effective enforcement.
25 House of Commons Library, (26 July 2018)
26 House of Commons Library, (26 July 2018)
27 House of Commons Library, (26 July 2018)
28 Defra, (2018)
29 Defra, (2018)
30 Defra, (2018)
31 Defra, (2018)
32 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management (CIWEM) (HCW0023)
33 Car Wash Advisory Service (HCW0013)
34 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, (HCW0023)
35 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, (HCW0023)
36 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, (HCW0023)
37 Environment Agency (HCW0024)
39 House of Commons Library, (26 July 2018)
41 Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management, (HCW0023)
42 Q25 Alistair Chisholm
43 Car Wash Advisory Service (HCW0013), Anglian Water (HCW0010)
44 Car Wash Advisory Service (HCW0013)
46 (Part IV, Chapter III, sections 118 to 141).
47 Anglian Water (HCW0010)
48 Environment Agency (HCW0024)
50 Nottingham Trent University (HCW0005)
51 The Petrol Retailers Association and the Car Wash Association (HCW0012)
52 Email from the Environment Agency to committee staff 6/07/2018
53 Analysis completed for the Committee by the House of Commons scrutiny unit (29 October 2018)
54 Analysis completed for the Committee by the House of Commons scrutiny unit (29 October 2018)
55 Environment Agency (HCW0026)
56 Environment Agency (HCW0026)
58 Petrol Retailers Association (HCW0012), Association of Convenience Stores (HCW0015)
59 Natural Resources Wales, Northern Ireland Environment Agency, Scottish Environment Protection Agency, (April 2017)
60 Association of Convenience Stores (HCW0015)
Published: 15 November 2018