Paint company fined £650,000 after banned toxin causes water pollution

30th March 2023


International Paint Ltd, whose parent company is AkzoNobel, has been found guilty of causing pollution to the Yealm estuary with hazardous substances, including tributyltin (TBT), copper, mercury and arsenic, leading to a £650,000 fine.

Since 1928, International Paint Ltd has specialised in manufacturing maritime paints, including anti-fouling paints for ships, and had run a testing facility on the River Yealm at Newton Creek. The company also used paints containing TBT as a coating to prevent the build-up of animals, such as barnacles, on the ships’ hulls. That substance was banned for use on small vessels in the 1980s due to the extreme toxicity to the wider marine environment, with a complete ban on the use of this substance coming into force worldwide in the 2000s.

A lengthy investigation by the Environment Agency found that between 2 September 2015 and 27 October 2016, International Paints Ltd caused an unauthorised discharge of chemicals into the waterways causing water pollution, which the company denied.

After ceasing the operations in 2013, the company tried to sell the premises in 2015. The Environment Agency then launched an investigation to determine the source of pollution. The investigation found TBT was present in the sediment of a tank on the site and evidence that some of the sediment had escaped into the estuary. A laboratory review of the sample analysis found nine out of 11 samples collected exceeded safe levels of TBT, and those from closest to the site had 80,000 times the safe level. It was concluded the TBT levels in the estuary were sufficient to have the potential for a major toxic effect on marine life.

Sentencing the company at Plymouth Crown Court, the 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.

“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 company was fined £650,000 and ordered to pay costs of £144,992 under the Environmental Protection Act 1990. They agreed to pay to clear up the pollution, which is likely to cost at least £500,000.

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