Shanks condemned for 'blasé' attitude after effluent spillage case

Failure to prevent drainage systems overflowing and flooding its Hartlepool waste treatment site cost Shanks almost £32,000 following a three-day hearing which took four years to come to court. The Environment Agency hit out at the firm's "legal cloak and dagger tactics" in trying to stop the case and castigated the site management's "blasé" attitude.

Shanks' site at Tofts Farm Industrial Estate, near Hartlepool, handles a range of chemical wastes, including acidic and caustic liquids, flammable substances and laboratory chemicals. The site recently suffered a major fire which caused several explosions (ENDS Report 350, p 21 ).

During routine visits in the spring and summer of 2000, the Agency discovered numerous licence breaches. On 9 June, an enforcement notice was issued requiring Shanks to comply with 12 of its licence conditions within periods ranging from seven days to two months.

The requirements included measures to remove wastes which had been stored on site for more than six months and marking of all containers with an identification code giving the date of receipt. Shanks was also ordered to isolate and collect all leaks and spills and apply procedures to prevent liquids from sumps flooding the site.

However, on 5 July, Agency officers found that the drainage system had overflowed because the single intercepting sump had not been maintained and emptied. The ground was covered with effluent some four inches deep.

The site manager assured the officers that the problem would be dealt with that afternoon, but when they returned in the evening the effluent was as deep as before.

On 9 November, Agency officers again found excess liquid on the site. On neither occasion did the effluent escape beyond the site boundary or pollute local watercourses.

In June 2001, the Agency laid court papers against Shanks and McEwan Teesside Ltd, but on 28 January 2002, the day of the scheduled trial, Shanks announced that it had given the company's name incorrectly and the trial was postponed.

A second set of papers was laid in March 2003, only for the trial to be adjourned to allow the High Court to consider an application by Shanks for judicial review.

Neither the Agency - which may prosecute Shanks in relation to this year's fire - nor Shanks would say what arguments the company presented for the judicial review, which eventually ruled in the Agency's favour.

It appears that Shanks had claimed there was an "abuse of process" because of the length of time between the offences and the case coming to court, and because there was no evidence that an offence had been committed.

The prosecution finally concluded in May, following a three-day trial before Hartlepool magistrates. In mitigation, Shanks claimed that the July 2000 incident was due to blocked drains and the November offences were due to heavy rain.

On 21 May, Shanks Waste Services was fined £10,000 with £6,046 costs after being found guilty of two charges of breaching its waste management licence, contrary to section 33(6) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990.

Earlier, on 6 May, Shanks Chemical Services was also fined £10,000, with £5,788 costs, on two similar charges. The different company names follow corporate changes at Shanks between the two incidents in 2000.

After the case, the Agency castigated Shanks for "repeatedly and knowingly" breaching licence conditions. "The blasé attitude of the management about fulfilling their legal obligations was shocking, especially bearing in mind the dangerous chemicals this company stores and processes on site."

The Agency was "delighted" that the court chose "to recognise the merry dance the Shanks group has led us in his awarding of full costs...No amount of legal cloak and dagger tactics will deter us from prosecuting those companies that flagrantly break the law."