In April 2006 the company accepted two tankers of waste including hydrobromic acid at the site in Merseyside, despite the fact that the waste fell outside the conditions of its waste management licence.
Most of the waste was treated in the site’s acid-neutralisation plant, but on 27 April four tonnes remained in a storage tank. That day, the company received 18 tonnes of nitric acid wastes. The site’s chemist carried out a compatibility test and gave the go-ahead for the acids to be mixed together.
By four o’clock that afternoon, a runaway exothermic reaction had begun in the storage tank. The treatment plant’s scrubbing system was quickly overloaded.
Four members of staff, including the site manager and the chemist, went into the plant to investigate the incident and were overcome by the fumes. The effects of the release, which may have included bromine and/or nitrogen dioxide, were felt as far afield as Anfield.
Appearing before South Sefton magistrates, Veolia pleaded guilty to eight charges – four under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and four under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. It was made to pay £65,000 costs on top of £101,000 in fines.
“This was a serious incident that could easily have been avoided,” said Mark Easedale, the Environment Agency officer who dealt with the case. “Hopefully the fine reflects the severity of the incident and should send a message to the hazardous waste industry that effective systems should be in place to ensure compliance with conditions of environmental permits.”
A statement from Veolia said it regretted the incident. “We have put in place new procedures to help prevent this type of incident being repeated,” it added.