Environmental Law News Update

March 5, 2021

In this latest Environmental Law News Update, Christopher Badger and Mark Davies consider water pollution fines for Thames Water and fines in the US for a UK company found to be in breach of air pollution limits.

Thames Water fined £2.3 million for ‘foreseeable’ pollution

Thames Water has been fined £2.3 million for pollution of a stream in Oxfordshire following equipment faults at a sewage treatment plant in Henley. The Environment Agency alleged that there was no adequate monitoring in place to manage the risk of pollution at the site, made worse by staff not responding to alarms highlighting faults in the process. Ammonia levels in the watercourse were double the permitted limits and fish from 13 species dies, including chub, gudgeon, dace, roach, perch, tench and pike. The stream took almost a year to recover, having lost almost all its fish to pollution.

The fine was imposed by Judge Francis Sheridan at Aylesbury Crown Court on 26 February. The company was also ordered to pay costs of £87,944.

The Environment Agency highlight that this latest conviction brings the total amount of fines levied against Thames Water since 2017 to £24.4 million for 9 cases of water pollution across Oxfordshire, Berkshire and Buckinghamshire. It was Judge Sheridan that imposed a record £20 million fine against Thames Water back in March 2017 for as series of pollution events in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire that had resulted in 1.9bn litres of untreated sewage entering the Thames.

The incident took place 5 years ago and the Judge took into account significant steps that had been taken since the incident to improve matters. Nonetheless, it was clear that the Judge wanted to build a deterrent element into the financial penalty.

The Environment Agency’s press release can be found here

Air Quality News: USA, UK and EU (sort of)

In news from across the pond, UK-owned company Drax was recently fined in the US for breaching air pollution rules. The fine of $2.5m relates to a facility in Gloster, Mississippi that actually supplies wood pellets to the UK, and was imposed by the Mississippi Department for Environmental Quality due to breaches in the levels of volatile organic compounds at the plant.

It has been reported that, to Drax’s credit (scant solace though this may be,) the fine appears to have been levied after the company self-reported. It may well therefore be that the fine could have been even larger had this not happened and it been uncovered after an investigation.

The irony of the fine being imposed for breaches of environmental standards is of course that the pellets being produced at the plant are used in green energy generation in the UK. One has to question the true credibility of green energy claims when faced with a product produced in breach of environmental standards and shipped across the Atlantic, only to be burnt.

In news from across the Channel, the UK has, in what may be one of the last judgments from the ECJ to apply here, been found to be ‘systematically and persistently’ in breach of air pollution limits in respect of NO2.

The decision of the ECJ raises all kind of interesting points (and will no doubt be covered in full in this Blog at a later date): what will happen if the UK continues to fail to comply within a reasonable period? If the Commission issues a formal notice requiring the UK to remedy the breaches, what weight will it be afforded? Could the UK be forced to pay a fine levied by the Commission?

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