Company to pay £795,000 for discharging banned toxic chemical into SSSI

A paint company has landed a £650,000 fine for allowing an extremely toxic banned chemical to pollute a protected site in Devon.

International Paint Limited, owned by the multinational AkzoNobel, has been found guilty of two charges relating to the discharge of hazardous waste from a tank at a paint testing facility on the banks of the river Yealm at Newton Ferrers in Devon. The adjacent estuary is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), noted for the freshwater species it supports. 

International Paint Ltd, which manufactures “high performance coating materials” for marine vessels, had used the testing facility for its anti-fouling paints for ships since 1928, but attempted to sell it in 2015, following which potential pollution was reported to the Environment Agency. 

According to reporting in the Guardian, on 15 January the sentencing judge at Plymouth Crown Court said that the company had “utterly failed” to control the banned and highly toxic chemical Tributyltin (TBT) which it had been storing in its old testing facility.

Tributyltin compounds are listed as a priority hazardous substance under the Water Framework Direction (WFD) and has been subject to a worldwide ban since the 2000s, due to how toxic it is in the marine environment.

It was highly effective at preventing microorganisms from settling on the hulls of ships, along with molluscs, but also proved highly toxic to the wider ecosystem due to its ability to bioaccumulate.   

According to the Environment Agency (EA), one drop of TBT in an Olympic-sized swimming pool equals one part per trillion (PPT), with the safe level of TBT amounting to 0.2 PPT - or a fifth of a drop.

However, an expert acting on behalf of the regulator, who reviewed sediment sample results from the tank and estuary, said that nine of 11 samples exceeded this safe limit. Close to the site, one sample contained 80,000 times the safe level, according to the EA. 

According to the Guardian, the sentencing judge said: “Though I don’t believe anybody directed the TBT should be washed out of the tanks, it is suspicious that the TBT was only discharged when a potential purchaser for whom the presence of TBT in the tanks was a serious problem came along.”

He added: “I am quite satisfied that the defendant, having closed its eyes for years to the problem, operated a reckless system in which it utterly failed to control the management of TBT and other chemicals. I’m satisfied that [a caretaker] emptied the TBT into the estuary and that is something that should never have been allowed to happen.”

The Environment Agency’s investigation also found evidence that copper, arsenic and mercury were present in sediment in a tank at the site, and that some of the sediment had escaped out into the Yealm estuary. The Food Standards Agency is to investigate whether any of these other chemicals could have entered the human food chain via shellfish.

International Paint Ltd pleaded not guilty to the charges, and was fined £650,000 and ordered to pay costs of £144,992. The Guardian also reports that the company has agreed to cover costs of remediation works, likely to be at least £500,000.

The charges were brought under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 the Environmental Protection Act 1990, following a nine day hearing at Plymouth Crown Court in October 2022. 

The EA’s James Wimpress said: “We’re extremely pleased with the outcome and hope this serves as a warning to other companies that we will not hesitate to pursue those that act without regard to their responsibilities.”

Ralph Slikkerveer, a spokesperson for International Paint Ltd spokesperson, told ENDS that the company took full responsibility for the incident and accepted the fine. 

He continued: “We regret and take full responsibility for the fine imposed by the court as a result of our conviction for the escape at our former Research & Development facility in Newton Ferrers in 2016.“ 

“We have been working closely with the Marine Management Organisation and are investigating steps to remedy contamination at the site. We have also conducted a full review of the events of 2016 and adopted the learnings to ensure an incident of this nature does not occur again at any of our sites.”

He said that International Paint Ltd is a responsible company, and that it takes its environmental obligations “very seriously”. 

“The company has been in operation for over 120 years and has no prior environmental convictions or cautions,” he said.