Chemical maker pays out almost £20k for odour

A West Bromwich-based chemical maker has paid out almost £20,000 after releasing a pungent mixture used to give natural gas supplies their smell. It had failed to install reliable abatement equipment.

A Midlands-based speciality chemicals firm was fined £10,000 with £9,584 costs on 28 June, following an odorous gas leak two years ago.

Robinson Brothers Ltd pleaded guilty before West Bromwich magistrates to failing to use best available techniques (BATs) to curb pollution, contrary to regulations 32(1)(b) and (2) of the Pollution Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Regulations 2000.

The company distributes all the mercaptan and sulphide odorant used in the UK gas networks. Without this, gas supplies would be odourless, making potentially dangerous leaks difficult to detect.

The Environment Agency prosecution told the court the company held a pollution prevention and control permit (now an environmental permit) requiring BATs to be used to stop the gases escaping. Vehicle filling and emptying provided the main risk of this occurring and was controlled by an extraction and incineration system.

But an escape occurred on 5 August 2008 when a supply vehicle was being depressurised. The remaining gases were vented through an incinerator, but the flame was extinguished by unusually high levels of nitrogen.

Backup systems failed to operate successfully, resulting in a release that lasted for ten minutes, according to Robinson Brothers. The court heard that the standby burner had failed on at least two previous occasions, in 2001 and 2007.

Members of the public and businesses contacted the National Grid, thinking that there had been a gas leak. The furthest report was 13 kilometres away.

The subsequent agency investigation found an absence of written procedures for dealing with an abatement failure.

After the case, agency officer Ian Kelcey said the incident “caused widespread nuisance and alarm to many people and should have been prevented”. The counsel for the defence said that steps had since been taken to ensure that it would not reoccur.

Roy Clifford, Robinson Brothers’ safety, health and environment manager, told ENDS that the incident was “unfortunate and regrettable, but we have a completely different solution now”. A pressure monitoring system automatically shuts valves to prevent odorant escape.

There was an unrelated gas release from the site in December 1998 (ENDS Report 276, p 5). The company received an enforcement notice from the agency after National Grid’s predecessor, British Gas Transco, received more than 1,000 complaints.

Robinson Brothers was also fined £63,000 fine, with £120,000 costs, in 2005 after a series of chemical leaks from the site in 2002 caused water pollution (ENDS Report 372, pp 55-56).

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