Record fine 'dramatically changes the landscape' for breaches of environmental law

22nd March 2017

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Lauren Darby

Thames Water has been fined a record £19.75m and must pay costs of more than £611,000 for polluting the River Thames on several occasions over a 20-month period.

Aylesbury Crown Court was told that more than 1.4 billion litres of untreated sewage were discharged into the river and its tributaries from the company’s water treatment works at Aylesbury, Didcot, Henley and Little Marlow, and its pumping station at Littlemore during 2012 and 2014.

The pollution, which the Environment Agency described as widespread, repeated and sustained, caused serious damage to wildlife over 14km, killing birds, fish and invertebrates.

The agency prosecuted the company for six pollution offences. The regulator said it was the biggest freshwater pollution case in its 20-year history. Its investigations revealed that managers had disregarded risks identified by their own staff and had failed to react adequately to thousands of high priority alarms used to alert them to the serious problems.

Judge Francis Sheridan described the catalogue of incidents as shocking and disgraceful, and told the company that it should not be cheaper to offend than to take appropriate precautions.

‘I have to make the fine sufficiently large that [Thames Water] get the message,’ he said.

Sheridan also referred to the company’s repeat offending, which he said was ‘wholly unacceptable’. He said Thames Water had a history of non-compliance and that managers had ignored warnings and risks that had been identified by employees and others.

Chief executive Steve Robertson, who attended the sentencing hearing, said Thames Water regretted the incidents. ‘We asked for these incidents to be considered and sentenced together, because it was clear that our performance in this part of our region, at that time, was not up to the very high standards that we and our customers expect.

‘Since then we’ve reviewed how we do things at all levels and made key changes. These have included increasing the numbers of staff in key operational roles and investing heavily to improve reliability.’

He said the number of pollution incidents at Thames Water sites had halved since 2013.

Commenting on the scale of the fine, environment lawyer Georgie Messent, a partner at Pinsent Mason, told the environmentalist the court was sending a clear message to large organisations that significant penalties would be handed down for environmental offences.

‘This fine dramatically changes the landscape for infrastructure and other companies that have committed breaches of environmental law. Fines awarded at this level will damage profitability and grab the attention of board members, particularly when combined with the adverse publicity associated with this sort of news,’ she said.

Martin Baxter, chief policy advisor at IEMA, said the fine should be a wake-up call to all businesses: ‘The size of the fine is an important reminder to shareholders and management that companies must have effective systems and capabilities in place to ensure regulatory compliance.’

The previous record fine for water pollution was levied on Southern Water in December 2016. It was fined £2m by Maidstone Crown Court for polluting beaches and the sea at Margate with raw sewage during the Queen’s diamond jubilee bank holiday in 2012.


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