Record year for water company prosecutions

Water companies were forced to pay more than £870,000 in pollution fines and court costs in 2006 - 85% more than in 2005. The rise is the result of both more convictions and larger fines.

The courts found water and sewerage firms guilty of 82 pollution offences during 2006 - 20 more than the previous year, according to figures compiled by ENDS (see Table 1). Most were the result of blocked or broken sewers and malfunctioning sewage works or pumping stations.

The main reason for 2006’s record fines was the growth in the size of fines. The average fine rose by about £1,700 to almost £8,000 during the year, suggesting courts are taking pollution offences more seriously. If costs are taken into account, the increase was more than £3,000.

But there were still some disappointing penalties. For instance, Exeter crown court fined South West Water only £4,000, albeit with £35,000 in costs, for a 4-million-litre sewage spill at Teignmouth, Devon, in 2003 which closed beaches and suspended shell fishing. The case had been referred by Teignmouth magistrates who felt their maximum fine of £20,000 was not enough.

Thames Water again faced the largest overall bill at £226,126 and was prosecuted more often than any other firm in the sector (see Table 2). It was charged with 14 offences this year compared with last year’s four - although seven were the result of one incident (see following article ).

It also attracted the year’s biggest fine of £50,000 after allowing raw sewage to flood a brook flowing through a densely populated area in Leyton, east London (ENDS Report 380, p 47 ). The sewage escaped from storage tanks which were poorly maintained and should not have been in use.

The two companies that topped the prosecution table last year - Scottish Water and Southern Water - were prosecuted less frequently in 2006, and saw their overall fines fall.

Meanwhile, United Utilities and Wessex Water each attracted six more fines than in 2005 and had to pay an extra £100,000 and £50,000 respectively. In United’s case, the charges were the result of nine separate incidents. One of the worst was a sewage leak into the river Croco in Middlewich which killed more than 1,000 fish and threatened an important fishery (ENDS Report 379, pp 57-58 ). It was fined £35,000 and £6,883 in costs.

Much to its embarrassment, the Environment Agency also attracted its first water pollution fine (ENDS Report 376, p 56 ). Exeter crown court fined it £7,500 plus costs of £1,466 after contractors installing a flow monitoring station pumped water contaminated with concrete into the river Barle in Somerset. The case was brought by an angler under the Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries Act 1975 after the Agency failed to take any action.

Unlike the Agency, ENDS counts each offence as a separate prosecution and excludes waste offences. Figures are based on information published at the time of prosecution and include more costs than the Agency’s official database. The Agency is expected to publish its figures in the summer.

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