The company appeared before Sunderland Magistrates yesterday and admitted five charges of breaching its environmental permit during 2010 and 2011.

The breaches relate to the firm’s control of leachate, a liquid produced by the decomposition of organic waste. It contains toxic substances and is a common product of landfill sites. Operators are required to contain the substance to protect the surrounding environment.

David Brooke, prosecuting for the Environment Agency, told the court that Biffa’s management of the liquid running from the tip was inadequate. He said that Biffa had breached its permit by allowing leachate to escape from the site, and by failing to notify the Environment Agency about the pollution.

The Environment Agency carried out an investigation after pollutants were recorded in groundwater at nearby boreholes in April 2010. It found that leachate was leaking outside of the landfill’s protective lining wall caused by the construction of an access road.

Leachate was also seen spilling out of one of the site’s leachate storage tanks, creating a stream of the liquid on an area outside of the site’s protective barriers.

Leachate control is particularly important at Biffa’s site at Houghton Le Spring because the quarry is situated on a Magnesian Limestone aquifer that feeds into the drinking water supply to the City of Sunderland.

Environment Agency Pollution Prevention team leader Graham Donachie welcomed the outcome of this case said it showed that environmental pollution, whether deliberate or not, would be treated seriously.

“There were a number of management failings on site at the time which contributed to the pollution and this case highlights the need for landfill operators to have in place effective and comprehensive operating and monitoring practices. It also highlights the need for operators to inform us when something on site happens that has the potential to damage the environment,” he said.

Biffa told the court that it takes its environmental responsibilities seriously. It said it had co-operated fully in order to prevent further pollution, and that it had removed and reconstructed the access road in line with Environment Agency design guidance.

The firm said there would be no impact on the safety of the public drinking water but the company will be required to drill more boreholes so that the spread of the contamination can be more accurately monitored in the future.

Conor McGlone

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