Solvent recoverer hit with £12,000 fine

Magistrates' growing willingness to impose sizeable fines for offences committed under integrated pollution control (IPC) has been underlined by a prosecution of Southern Refining Services (SRS), a medium-sized solvent recovery firm based in Berkshire.

The case related to an air pollution incident causes by SRS' procedures for dealing with residues from a distillation process at its Membury Airfield site.

On 30 June, a process operator was neutralising acidic residues in a 40-gallon drum by gradual dosing with powdered sodium carbonate. The site manager had been dosing the site's cooling water system with a biocide - also a white powder - which he left near the drum in an unmarked container.

When the operator returned to the process to add a further dose of sodium carbonate, he mistakenly added kilogram quantities of the biocide, sodium dichloroisocyanurate. Reaction with the residues led to the release of noxious fumes, principally chlorine gas, which continued for 10-15 minutes until SRS doused the drum with water.

The fire and ambulance services attended the incident and 18 workers at SRS's site and two neighbouring factories were treated for eye irritation. The company co-operated in the subsequent joint investigation by the Health and Safety Executive and HM Inspectorate of Pollution (HMIP).

At a hearing before Newbury magistrates on 5 December, SRS pleaded guilty to a breach of IPC authorisation conditions under section 23(1) of the Environmental Protection Act 1990. HMIP identified three breaches - failure to take all practicable means to prevent fugitive emissions, failure to provide staff with appropriate written operating instructions, and failure to label all drums clearly.

An unusual feature of the case was that the magistrate asked for details of SRS' financial position to allow him to determine an appropriate fine for what he described as a "very serious incident". The firm reported a turnover of £500,000 and profit of £80-100,000 - and was ordered to pay a fine of £12,000, and to meet HMIP's costs of £6,571.

SRS was less than happy with the outcome. In its plea of mitigation, it said that it had responded quickly to the incident and that its recovery operations were of benefit to the environment. A spokesman later described the level of the fine as "totally absurd" and "out of complete proportion to the incident concerned".

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