Harder lines on poor performers pays off, says Spotlight

Environmental regulations are clearly paying off as serious pollution incidents in the UK have fallen by 12% overall, according to the annual Spotlight on business: environmental performance in 2003 report, published this week.

The water industry is yet again revealed as the worst polluter, with the most repeat environmental offenders in any one sector

The water industry is yet again revealed as the worst polluter, with the most repeat environmental offenders in any one sector

Speaking at the press conference, chief executive of the Environment Agency (EA) Barbara Young stated that the report was encouraging as it had just as much good news to be applauded as it did poor performances to be held to account. She said:

"Companies are realising that environmentally sound business is better business and that it is necessary for a sustainable future. There are now more well-managed sites, waste recovery is improving as more waste is being recycled or put to further use, and our risk-based approach, concentrating on poor performers, is paying off both for business and the environment."

Since last year's report (see related story), the chemical industry had made the biggest improvement by halving its number of serious pollution incidents. It was closely followed by the waste management and farming industries, both of which were down by 25%, the farming industry having the lowest number of incidents since regulation began.

Shamed as the UK's worst polluters were the water industry, with a 25% rise in pollution incidents, and the construction industry, which accounted for 3% of all incidents and produced 80 million tonnes of waste each year.

However, John Peters of the Construction Confederation said in the industry's defence: "We may be responsible for 3% of all pollution incidents, but we are also responsible for 10% of the GDP. Being an unregulated sector, we are currently running a forum to try and improve standards and reduce our environmental impact, and we would like to work more closely with the EA to achieve these goals."

Director of environment protection for the EA, Andrew Skinner also stated that the agency was aware of the difficulties that many water companies faced but that a greater effort was needed to overcome these issues:

"Many water incidents do arise because of actions from third parties but we still believe that the water companies should be accountable. We do investigate when third parties are believed to be involved, but the water industry must manage funds more effectively and pay closer attention to maintenance issues to prevent this from occurring."

The single biggest fine was awarded to waste management firm Cleansing Service Group Limited, which was prosecuted following illegal waste activities and non-compliance with conditions and charged £250,000. However, at £8,412, the average fine handed out by courts to polluting businesses was down £210 on the previous year.

One notable difference in the report this year was the trend towards personal liability for corporate environmental crime. With 11 company directors convicted for environmental crimes this year, the spotlight fell on chief executives and sole traders who found themselves at an increased risk of incurring high personal fines, community punishment orders and custodial sentences.

Although she felt the fines for environmental offences were still too low, Ms Young confirmed that an increasing number of individuals would have to take responsibility for their actions as the courts took a harder line for deliberately ignoring risks to the environment and public health:

"Company directors who try to increase profits at the expense of the environment should note that a personal fine or criminal record could be on the cards. It is not right that the public should pick up the tab for harm caused by private enterprise. All directors must have a duty of care towards the environment just as they do for their employees and the services they sell to customers."

The EA is actively working with the main hazardous waste-producing sectors to help them reduce the amount of waste that they generate and ensure that as many criminals are prosecuted as possible, according to Ms Young.

However, corporate campaigner for Friends of the Earth (FoE) Brian Shaad said that more still needs to be done. He agreed with Ms Young that heftier fines were needed to punish offenders (see related story), but insisted that businesses were still not taking their environmental responsibilities seriously enough:

"Too many companies are repeatedly breaching regulations because paying the fine often costs less than preventing the problem. We want to see tougher penalties for companies, but we also need new laws that impose environmental and social duties on directors to make them consider the impact of their actions."

The EA is currently taking a careful look into employing various schemes in use elsewhere in the world to control environmental crimes. Black-listing companies with poor environmental records when procuring services, or imposing suspended penalties which doubled or trebled if the fault was not corrected were two examples.

Another major concern raised by the report was a 5% rise in greenhouse gas emissions, which cast doubt on the Government's ability to reduce them by 20% and reach targets set for 2010. Ms Young told edie that the Government was committed to the targets but recognised that a struggle lay ahead:

"Industry performance must turn itself around and cut down emission levels, but gasses from transport still remain the key cause of this problem. The most important issue in all of this is that we all work together to ensure that the environment improves."

In total, the EA prosecuted a total of 266 companies in 2003, which resulted in fines exceeding £2.2 million. Around 60 firms were fined over £10,000, seven were fined over £50,000, and the water industry topped the list of repeat offenders.

Ms Young concluded: "It is important to bear in mind that there are many companies out there who are working to minimise their impact on the environment and they are doing so innovatively. Not only do environmental criminals tar industry reputations, they also undercut legitimate businesses. Business at the boardroom still needs to take environmental and CSR issues more seriously."

By Jane Kettle



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