Dry cleaner sullies river with toxics

A subsidiary of Johnson Service Group - which calls itself the UK's "number one dry cleaners" - has been fined £12,000 after polluting an Essex stream with toxic dry cleaning fluid.

Johnsons Apparelmaster is the workwear arm of Johnson Service Group - the company behind both the Johnsons and Sketchley dry cleaning chains.

The company appeared before Southend magistrates on 20 June to admit causing pollution of a tributary of the Prittle brook in Leigh-on-Sea.

The incident came to light on 15 October 2003 when a jogger noticed that the stream had turned red/brown and smelt of oil. The Environment Agency was called to the scene and, with the help of Anglian Water, traced the spill through surface water drains to Johnson Apparelmaster's Hadleigh site.

Speaking after the trial, the company's technical director Martin Gregson said that human error had caused a tank full of waste oil and perchloroethylene to overflow. Perchloroethylene is a list I substance under the EU dangerous substances Directive; it is toxic to aquatic life and classified as a probable human carcinogen.

The mixture spilt into a bund around the waste tank but this was holed and unable to stop the liquid entering the site's surface water drains. Rainwater from a nearby cooling tower was also entering the bund helping to flush through the pollution.

The company was unaware of the problem until informed by the Agency, but then immediately began to clean up the spill. Prompt action prevented fish and wildlife being killed even though the pollution spread for 250 metres along the stream.

"Failure on the part of the company to recognise the weaknesses in the bund and its use as a pathway for rainwater allowed oil to escape to the river," said the Agency's Steve Bewers. "Had it not been for the dry weather conditions, the pollution could have been more extensive."

Johnsons Apparelmaster was fined £12,000 for causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters contrary to section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991. It was also made to pay £2,617 costs.

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