Sewage leak company's persistent record

Posted: 29th January 2014

SewageA water company has been criticised by the country's top judge for its handling of a leak which led to raw sewage being pumped into the sea off Kent. Defective equipment at a pumping station had resulted in discharges of untreated sewage between January and July 2011, causing some beaches in Thanet to be closed.

Southern Water Services Limited (SWSL) admitted breaching environmental regulations and was fined £200,000 at Canterbury Crown Court in July 2013. The company appealed against the level of the fine, with its lawyers arguing it was 'too high' as there was little that could have been done to prevent the incident.

However, Lord Thomas, The Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, dismissed SWSL’s challenge, saying that it could not have complained even had the fine been pitched higher than it was. Noting that SWSL had a record of 160 previous offences, he added, "Looked at as a whole, there is a persistent record of criminality and offending by this company.

"In the absence of any explanation as to what the board of the company has done to deal with reforming itself – to eliminate its offending behaviour, to explain its conduct in detail in dealing with the incident in question – there is very little mitigation that can be put forward."

SWSL had a permit from the Environment Agency which allowed treated waste to be discarded at sea. However, a fault at the pumping station in January 2011 resulted in raw sewage being pumped into the sea off Margate. There was a further leak in July of the same year and several beaches in Thanet were closed temporarily.

Lord Thomas, sitting at the Court of Appeal, said that, whilst there was no evidence of any 'actual harm' being caused, the Court had to consider the 'potential harm' to the public and the possible impact on the economy. He said that the incident affected an area which has the largest proportion of Blue Flag beaches in the country and that any loss of confidence in the waters could have a serious impact. SWSL had failed to notify the Environment Agency promptly of the incident and had not employed sufficient resources to remedy the problem more quickly.

Lawyers representing SWSL argued that the fine was excessive on the basis that the leaks were caused by a design fault in the pumps which had been difficult to either anticipate or remedy. They also pointed out that the company’s profits are reinvested in its services and that its profit line – which was £79 million in 2012 and £157 million in 2013 – was not as high as had been suggested.

However, Lord Thomas said that the company had provided very little information to either explain the leaks or to show the Court what steps it had taken to avoid any possibility of a recurrence. The judge concluded, "One would hope that this will be the last case that comes before this Court where a company has not taken seriously criminality of the seriousness involved in this case. We can see no basis for interfering with the fine; indeed this Court would not have interfered with a sentence very substantially greater than the fine imposed on this company."