Acid spill firm neglected by IPC inspectors

A fertiliser manufacturing business and its managing director have been fined over £34,000 for two incidents involving a serious leak of waste acid and a major emission of nitrogen oxides near Much Wenlock in Shropshire in 2001. Despite the company's previous conviction for water pollution and enforcement action to address poor maintenance, Agency inspectors had not visited the site for 10 months.

On 20 October, Landowner Liquid Fertiliser pleaded guilty before Telford magistrates to six charges of breaching conditions in its integrated pollution control (IPC) authorisation and a further two under waste legislation.

The six IPC charges were under sections 6(1) and 23(1)(a) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, including failure to keep plant in good condition, failure to provide written operating instructions, operating a process without proper experience or supervision, and allowing an unauthorised release of NOx.

The other two charges, under sections 33(1)(c) and 34(1) of the 1990 Act, related to inadequate waste management procedures. The company was fined £18,250 and ordered to pay £15,000 in costs.

Landowner's managing director, William Boon, pleaded guilty to five charges under section 157(1) of the 1990 Act relating to his neglect in ensuring compliance with the IPC authorisation. He was fined £1,425.

Landowner manufactures liquid and slurry fertilisers by blending ammonia with concentrated phosphoric and sulphuric acid wastes supplied from companies such as Rhodia and BP Chemicals.

In August 2001, Mr Boon replaced an acid storage tank on the site with a second-hand 3,000 litre stainless steel tank. The old tank had been weeping acid. The new tank was positioned in the same place as the old one within a contained area, but because it was smaller than the tank it replaced there was a gap between the new tank and the asphalt surface.

The concrete in the gap was cracked and a culvert underneath this area fed into a brook. Workmen installing the tank were given no written instructions and were unaware of a flange underneath the tank. Mr Boon knew about the flange but did not inform the installer or check his work.

The first incident occurred on 27 August 2001, when a Much Wenlock resident spotted distressed fish and a strange sweet smell in the brook. An Agency officer found that the watercourse was highly acidic. It also proved to be contaminated with nickel, cadmium and chromium.

On entering Landowner's site, the officer found a serious leak of concentrated acid coming from the flange which was found to be loose. Mr Boon attempted to pump the acid to another tank, but this was also found to be leaking. Some 1,500 litres of acid, with a pH below 0.1, had escaped.

Jon Philpin, the officer who first attended the site, said he was "shocked at the level of contamination in the brook". However, Landowner was not prosecuted for water pollution from the spill. The Agency agreed to drop this charge in return for guilty pleas to the others.

Landowner has now switched to storing acid in different tanks which are fully bunded within a contained area.

The second incident was in October 2001. Landowner had been in discussions over plans to take potassium nitrate and nitrite from BP Chemicals' Hull site. A consultant chemist for BP had conducted small-scale trials and found that brown fumes were created in the initial stages. BP and Landowner agreed to conduct a full-scale trial at Much Wenlock under the guidance of the chemist. Mr Boon had agreed a variation to Landowner's IPC authorisation with the Agency.

On 9 October, Mr Boon attempted to process 75 tonnes of the potassium compounds. He was neither qualified nor competent for the work. The result was a release of a brown cloud of nitrogen oxides, later estimated to be over four tonnes. Nobody was affected.

The incidents raise questions over the adequacy of the regulation of the site, which had a history of problems with maintenance and had been subject to enforcement action. Under the Agency's OPRA tool for risk-based enforcement, the site had an operator appraisal score of 20 out of 35 - a C rating. This was reduced to a D following the incidents.

Landowner was fined £6,000 in March 2000 following an incident in 1998 when waste ammonia solution was discharged to the brook. The Agency also issued an enforcement notice in July 2000 requiring the firm to address poor maintenance of corroded pipework and spill containment.

An Agency inspector visited in October 2000 to check that the notice had been complied with. However, over the 10 months leading up to the acid spill the following summer, the Agency did not visit the site once.

Another inspector, Steve Riley, took responsibility for the site in mid-2001. He explained that his predecessor had been unable to visit the site because of the burden of dealing with an IPPC permit application for an incinerator. Mr Riley did not visit the site until the spill.

This was not an isolated case, Mr Riley suggested. The workload of dealing with IPPC applications made it difficult to find time to visit sites. Similar pressures elsewhere brought the total number of IPC/IPPC inspections down to a record low in 2002/03 (see pp 9-10 ).

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