Chief executive Barbara Young’s comments came as the agency last week launched Spotlight 2006 – its annual report on the environmental performance of businesses in England and Wales.

It reveals courts issued some 11 years behind bars, £3.5 million in court fines – up almost £1 million since 2005 – and more than 240 days community service to individuals, companies and company directors responsible for environmental crime.

Ms Young said: “We’re pleased the courts are starting to get the message that environmental crime is a serious offence.

“Although this is a good sign, penalties for environmental crime still aren’t harsh enough. Some fines can be as low as a thousandth of a per cent of a company’s worth and despite the higher penalties the average fine was still only £11,800.

“Waste cheats for example make money from their crimes, pollute our environment and damage the legitimate, law-abiding businesses. So the penalties need to reflect the seriousness of the crime.”

This year fines against the waste sector overtook the water sector.

Meanwhile, the report found more than 50 percent of agency-regulated sites won top ratings for environmental performance.

“We are not interested in hassling businesses and operators that run a good ship,” said Ms Young. “That’s why we focus our attention on helping the poorer performers and catching the rogues.”

Agency-regulated sites reduced air pollution by 41 percent and sulphur dioxide emissions by 50 percent, the report found.

But greenhouse gases are creeping up as the economy thrives.

The agency noted this was partly due to more industries reporting to it but said the trend was still “worrying”.

Ms Young pointed to an agency survey finding that only eight percent of businesses believe they have a significant impact on the environment.

“We all have an impact on our environment and part to play in combating climate change,” she said. “At the end of the day it pays to be green.

“We all know too well that we have little time left to put the brakes on climate change and preserve our environment, so business as usual just won’t do.”

In other findings, the construction and demolition industry is still the UK’s largest single source of waste, producing some 91 million tonnes a year.

In farming serious pollution incidents fell by a third last year to a record low.

The agency has warned the water industry that climate change, a growing economy and an increasing population will pressure supplies unless efficiency improves.

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David Gibbs

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