Thames Water has been fined £250,000 for allowing untreated sewage to enter a brook running through a nature reserve.
The scale of the penalty imposed by Reading crown court reflected the new sentencing guidelines for environmental offences that came into force on 1 July.
The 143-acre nature reserve near Newbury, known as The Chase, is owned by the National Trust.
Thames Water pleaded guilty to allowing sewage to enter the brook from an emergency overflow pipe at its Broad Layings sewage pumping station on 2 September 2012. The Environment Agency said the discharge had been caused by a blockage in the pumps at the station on 29 August 2012 and that Thames Water had failed to act on the alarms system to attend and unblock them.
The raw sewage had a severe impact on aquatic life in a 600-metre stretch of Chase brook. “Water quality testing revealed that there were high levels of both ammonia and e-coli in the brook,” said agency officer Matthew Rice. Ammonia is toxic to aquatic organisms and low dissolved oxygen levels starve creatures of oxygen.
Under the new sentencing guidelines, there are four categories of offence, which relate to the level of harm caused, with offences causing the greatest harm likely to attract a larger fine.
The seriousness of an offence is also related to the offender’s culpability – that is, was it deliberate, reckless or negligent, or was the offence committed with little or no fault on the part of the organisation.
In this case, the judge, recorder Arbuthnot, said: “The parties agree that the level of culpability is negligence and with which I agree. With regards to harm I find that this is a category 3 offence but at the severe end.”
The starting point for fines for negligent, category 3 offences – generally those that have a minor or localised impact – committed by firms with a turnover of at least £50 million is £60,000, rising to £150,000. The courts, however, can impose financial penalties outside this range for large companies by considering whether the fine is proportionate to the means of the offender.
If a company has a large profit margin relative to its turnover, for example, courts can increase the penalty. The agency reports that Thames Water’s profit for the year ending 31 March 2014 was £346.7 million.
Rooma Horeesorun, prosecutor for the agency, said of the penalty imposed on Thames Water: “In addition to the culpability and harm factors, the judge took into account the financial circumstances of the defendant.”
Thames Water has since replaced both pumps at its Broad Layings station and sealed the emergency overflow pipe into Chase brook. A spokesperson said: “We very much regret this incident and have since carried out a thorough clean-up of the watercourse and funded an ongoing post for a National Trust warden.”