Contractor in the dock for first prosecution under IPPC

A caustic soda spill has cost engineering contractor Kvaerner almost £9,000 - and given it the dubious honour of being the first company to be prosecuted under the integrated pollution prevention and control (IPPC) regime. An unusual feature of the case is that the Environment Agency used powers to prosecute a contractor rather than the holder of the permit.

Kvaerner had been contracted by Dalkia Utility Services to design, construct, commission and test a combined heat and power (CHP) plant at AstraZeneca's pharmaceutical site in Macclesfield. The contract made it clear that Kvaerner had managerial and operational responsibility for the plant until it was handed over to Dalkia. Dalkia's IPPC permit was granted in June 2002.

On 19 November, Macclesfield magistrates fined Kvaerner Engineering and Construction UK £6,000,with £2,947 in costs, for breaching a condition in Dalkia's IPPC permit requiring plant to be kept in good operating condition.

The charge was brought under regulation 32(6) of the Pollution Prevention and Control Regulations 2000, which allows the Agency to prosecute someone other than the permit holder.

Similar powers have been available for many years under section 158 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990, but have been used rarely. ENDS is aware of only two substantial cases, involving clinical waste contractor Eurocare and cosmetics producer Creighton's Naturally (ENDS Reports 337, pp 19-24 , and 271, p 43-44 ).

On 20 March, Dalkia informed the Agency that 22 tonnes of sodium hydroxide had been released to the site's effluent treatment system.

The caustic, used to treat water in the CHP plant, was kept in a bunded tank at the site. The tank split during a delivery of the chemical, which was able to escape the bund through a hatch which had not been properly secured. The spill entered the site's drains, but was contained within AstraZeneca's effluent treatment system where it was neutralised before being discharged to sewer.

The Agency told the court that the root cause of the incident was Kvaerner's failure to maintain the storage tank. The level of caustic had been allowed to fall below the level of a heater in the tank, which was not equipped with a low-level cut-out switch. The heater then weakened the tank wall.

The day before the incident, an electrician had entered the bund through a low-level hatch in order to set the thermostat on the heater. He was unable to complete the work and left the bund with the hatch only partially secured, intending to return the following day.

The Agency told the court that Kvaerner did not conduct a risk assessment of the work beforehand. Nor did it follow its own procedure to check the integrity of the tank and bund before deliveries.

According to the Agency, had it not been intercepted the discharge would have "severely compromised" the local sewage works and may have caused a significant pollution incident. Kvaerner has now recommissioned the tank using more dilute caustic soda, removing the need for a heating system.

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