Record water pollution fine for Scottish construction firm

Miller Group, the Edinburgh-based construction firm has been fined £40,000 after pleading guilty to four charges of polluting watercourses with silt. The fine appears to be the largest imposed for water pollution offences in Scotland.

Construction companies have a major impact on water quality. A recent ENDS analysis of prosecution data compiled by the National Rivers Authority (NRA) found that the sector has the third highest number of convictions for water pollution offences in England and Wales, behind water companies and the food and drink industry.

Since September 1989, prosecutions of construction businesses have accounted for some 6% of cases brought by the NRA. The polluters' league of construction and aggregate businesses is headed by ARC, Tarmac, Balfour Beatty and RMC (ENDS Report 235, pp 42-43 ).

In Scotland, the Solway River Purification Board (SRPB) has been waging a battle with construction companies over pollution connected with two major projects - a long-distance gas pipeline, and the upgrading of the A74 to a motorway connecting Glasgow to the M6. In January, Balfour Beatty was fined £1,000 for allowing silt-contaminated water to pollute a watercourse. Miller Group was fined £2,000 for two similar offences in February.

The SRPB has spoken out about the need for higher fines because construction companies appear to be neglecting measures to protect rivers in an effort to complete contracts on time. The latest Miller case suggests that the courts are beginning to take heed.

At a hearing before Dumfries sheriff court on 30 November, Miller pleaded guilty to four charges of causing water containing gross quantities of suspended solids to pollute tributaries of the river Annan, contrary to section 31(1)(a) of the Control of Pollution Act 1974. The offences occurred in April at sites near Lockerbie and Ecclefechan.

The court heard that inadequate site drainage arrangements and illegal pumping operations had caused silt contamination of two watercourses. High levels of silt can smother fish and invertebrates, and when deposited on the stream bed may prevent fish spawning. Miller was fined £10,000 for each offence.

The fine appears to be the highest ever awarded by a Scottish court for water pollution offences, topping the previous record of £7,500 in 1992 (ENDS Report 229, p 9 ). The fact that four such large fines were awarded in one case suggests that the Scottish courts are becoming aware of the need to increase penalties to more realistic levels. Pollution fines in Scotland average about half those in England and Wales, and Scottish courts are also unable to order offenders to pay prosecution costs (ENDS Report 229, p 9 ).

SRPB has now asked the Procurator Fiscal to take legal action against another two contractors on the A74 project for a total of 14 pollution offences.

Other recent prosecutions of construction businesses include:

  • In November, Alfred McAlpine Construction was fined £5,000 and ordered to pay costs of £1,089 by Tamworth magistrates. The company pleaded 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 in April during bridge construction on the A5 Tamworth by-pass when surface water contaminated with clay was discharged to a local stream.

  • Tarmac Construction was fined £3,000 and ordered to pay costs of £380 after polluting the Grand Union Canal at Iver in Buckinghamshire with oil and silt. On 2 November, the firm pleaded guilty to a charge of causing polluting matter to enter controlled waters contrary to section 85(1) of the 1991 Act before Beaconsfield magistrates. The incident occurred when the company allowed lorry washings to escape into the canal via surface water drains.

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