In the past, a company's failure to use the "best practicable means" (BPM) to abate emissions to air rarely resulted in a prosecution. It was more common for HMIP or its predecessors to issue a letter of infraction or an improvement notice under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 - though even this was done infrequently. Even in cases where a company turned in a poor performance over a lengthy period HMIP rarely resorted to the courts.
Over the past 12 months, however, HMIP has been quicker to take polluters to court, though these have generally been either smaller companies or simple processes such as mineral works. Its prosecution of British Steel was therefore in a different league.
The case also had an important feature in common with another prosecution heard in October against Pozzolanic Lytag (see below), in that both were the result of management's failure to respond to recurrent demands by HMIP for improvement.
HMIP has been concerned for some time about the environmental performance of the Llanwern works. Its annual report for 1990/1 commented that "standards of control over smoke, dust and fume emissions have remained unsatisfactory" at the site.
The specific source which brought British Steel to court on 22-23 October was the works' basic oxygen steel (BOS) plant. Newport magistrates were told that HMIP had warned the company on several occasions over a two-year period that standards of fume collection at the BOS plant were in need of improvement.
Copious amounts of fume are released from BOS units. The main, or primary, fume is released when a jet of oxygen is blown through molten iron in a converter. A BPM note issued in 1987 provides that primary fume must be collected and treated prior to release to atmosphere, and this is normally done by means of an extraction hood placed over the converter and downstream filtration equipment.
Secondary fume is also released during other operations prior to and following oxygen blowing, and this gives a characteristic pattern of emissions during a BOS plant's operating cycle.
On 4 December last year, two inspectors observed emissions from Llanwern's two operational BOS converters from a point outside the works. Newport magistrates heard that emissions from one converter were satisfactory during four blowing cycles, but the second gave rise to a prolonged and heavy release of brown fume during each of four cycles.
British Steel was charged with failing to use BPM under section 5 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974. The main point disputed in court was whether the emissions observed by HMIP's inspectors consisted of primary fume from the BOS plant.
British Steel, which pleaded not guilty, argued that other operations on the site had contributed to the observed emissions. But the court accepted HMIP's contention that the pattern of fume emissions noted by its inspectors married closely with the company's records, which showed that the four blowing operations on the converter in question coincided with the main fume releases. The court was also satisfied that British Steel had failed to employ BPM to achieve adequate collection of fume.
The company was fined the maximum £2,000, and ordered to pay £19,000 in costs. A maximum fine of £20,000 will be available to magistrates for air pollution offences committed after 6 March 1992, and the first fine in excess of the old maximum was imposed on Pozzolanic Lytag in October.
The conviction is British Steel's fifth since July 1991, when it was fined £200,000 for an oil pollution incident at the Llanwern works (ENDS Report 199, pp 37-38 ). This and the other three cases were brought by the National Rivers Authority. The company has paid out well over £300,000 in fines, costs and clean-up expenses over the past 14 months.