Fine for toxic leak "a mere pinprick"

Posted: 23rd March 2016

MCr canalThe courts are getting increasingly tough on environmental crime and transgressors can expect to be hit heavily in the pocket. In one case, a chemicals company was fined £166,650 after caustic soda leaked into the Manchester Ship Canal.

The toxic substance was being pumped onto a ship which was berthed on the canal when a filter malfunctioned and 3.8 metric tonnes of the chemical escaped. About 500 litres of the liquid leaked into the canal. It would have sunk to the bottom; there were no signs of dead fish or other ill effects and there was no lasting harm caused to water quality.

Ineos ChlorVinyls was prosecuted and received the fine after it admitted breaching the terms of its environmental permit on the basis that the accident was caused by a manufacturing or design defect in the filter. Prosecutors accepted that it was an isolated incident and not representative of any systemic failure.

In challenging the level of the fine before the Court of Appeal, the company’s legal team argued that it was disproportionate. The one-off event had been voluntarily reported to the Environment Agency and prosecutors had accepted that there had been no corner cutting in search of profit.

In dismissing the appeal, the Court noted that the company had an annual turnover of more than £900 million. Although it had made a £37 million loss in the relevant year, the fine was a ‘mere pinprick’ on the company’s finances. It was impossible to say that the fine was excessive.