Water polluters neglect basic precautions

Recent prosecutions brought by the National Rivers Authority (NRA) have shown that many water pollution incidents continue to be caused by companies failing to take simple precautions. Many could also be averted if the Department of the Environment (DoE) delivered on its oft-repeated promise to introduce regulations setting standards on the storage and use of fuel, oils and chemicals.

Powers to make such regulations were first provided by the Control of Pollution Act 1974. The DoE has been promising to introduce them since the mid-1980s, and in this year's progress report on the 1990 White Paper on the environment promised to issue a consultation paper on oil stores by the end of this year. With a few days left in 1994, the promise, again, had not been kept.

The DoE's continuing failure is a source of frustration to the NRA because similar regulations for farm wastes and fuel oil stores, introduced in 1991, have proved effective in reducing agricultural pollution incidents (ENDS Report 225, pp 6-7 ).

In the meantime, the NRA is making its own effort to draw companies' attention to the precautions necessary to avoid water pollution. Its latest idea is a free video launched in September.1A series of recent court cases have underlined how the most elementary precautionary measures are neglected by some businesses.

Unbunded or inadequately bunded storage tanks are one of the most common causes of pollution:

  • Stevens Haulage of Great Ayton, North Yorkshire, was ordered to pay £3,000 in fines and costs by Northallerton magistrates on 5 December after pleading guilty to a charge of causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters contrary to section 85(1) of the Water Resources Act 1991.

    The incident occurred during a delivery of diesel fuel when a tank overflowed due to a faulty gauge. The tank was unbunded and situated close to surface water drains. Oil entered the river Leven but was contained by prompt NRA action.

  • Central Steel Pickling of Cradley Heath, West Midlands, was fined £4,000 and ordered to pay costs of £500 by Oldbury magistrates on 8 December. The company had pleaded guilty to a charge of causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters contrary to section 85(1) of the 1991 Act.

    In March, an unbunded tank containing thousands of gallons of spent hydrochloric acid cracked at the company's site, allowing the waste to pollute the river Stour via surface water drains.

  • On 5 December, Leeds magistrates fined GKN Axles of Kirkstall £8.000 for polluting the river Aire with thick black oil. The company had pleaded guilty to causing polluted matter to enter controlled waters, contrary to section 85(1) of the 1991 Act.

    The pollution was caused when an employee filling a storage tank left the operation unattended during his lunch break. A bund around the tank would have contained the spill but its poor construction allowed the oil to seep through, flow down a bank and on to the adjacent river.

  • Highgate School and Independent Petroleum Supplies, both of London, have been fined £5,000 and £2,000 respectively, following an oil spill which polluted a local stream. Both pleaded guilty to causing polluted matter to enter controlled waters contrary to section 85(1) of 1991 Act before Haringey magistrates in September.

    The incident occurred when a fuel delivery overtopped a tank. The bund surrounding the tank was faulty and allowed the oil to escape into surface water drains.

    The failure to contain spillage regularly results in water pollution. Inadequately trained employees often flush spills into surface water drains - exacerbating the problem.

  • Lever Industrial has been fined £15,000 with costs of £681 after a spillage of detergent polluted a brook close to its Port Sunlight premises. The company pleaded guilty to a charge of causing trade effluent to enter controlled waters, contrary to section 85(3) and 85(6) of the 1991 Act, before Birkenhead magistrates on 21 November.

    The court heard that a damaged container had leaked while in storage in an unbunded area close to a surface water drain. When the leak was discovered, staff flushed the liquid down the drain before notifying the NRA. The drain led to the Dibbinsdale brook, which was covered in foam for half a mile downstream of the discharge.

    The failure to maintain oil interceptors is another common cause of pollution:

  • W S Hunts Properties of Chertsey, Surrey, was fined £10,000 and ordered to pay costs of £390 by Chertsey magistrates on 1 November after pleading guilty to a charge of causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters, contrary to section 85(1) of the 1991 Act.

    In February, site drainage containing oil and kerosene polluted a local stream when the company neglected to empty an oil interceptor on its drainage system. The company is appealing against the fine.

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