Number of prosecutions for environmental crimes increases

The levels of fines for pollution crimes are so low that companies in England and Wales are still treating them as an acceptable risk, says the Environment Agency at the launch of a report revealing the companies that have the most and the least respect for the environment.

In Spotlight on Business Environmental Performance, the Environment Agency’s third annual report on good and bad environmental performance by companies in England and Wales, the organisation highlights an increasing number of prosecutions for environmental crimes.

“These pollution offences are the result of negligence, deliberate acts, or basic management failings,” said Barbara Young, Chief Executive of the Environment Agency. “Businesses must understand their responsibilities to the public and the environment. We need to see a culture change across management, with zero tolerance for pollution replacing apathy and acceptance of poor environmental performance.”

At last year’s Environment Agency AGM, the organisation’s out-going Chief Executive Ed Gallagher stated that one large company in particular would have to be fined £50 million to make the senior staff take environmental crimes seriously (see related story). However, the average fine for businesses prosecuted by the Environment Agency rose in 2000 to only £8,532, compared to £6,800 in 1999.

Nevertheless, staff in senior positions at companies are being made personally responsible for the effects that their firms have on the environment. Last year, seven company directors and senior managers were convicted or fined as a result of prosecutions taken by the Environment Agency, and a further two directors were cautioned. A total of 700 businesses and individuals were prosecuted by the Environment Agency for serious pollution offences, which left the public and the environment exposed to, amongst other things, raw sewage, acid and fuel leaks, says the Agency.

“Company directors are personally responsible for complying with the law,” said Baroness Young. “Analysts, investors, journalists and investor relations managers all rate quality of management as the most important factor taken into account when judging a company – what is good management when a CEO is convicted for avoidable pollution?”

Poor environmental performers shamed in the report include the chemical companies, Tioxide Europe Ltd, Contract Chemicals (Leeds) Ltd and NIPA Laboratories. Tioxide Europe Ltd alone has paid £150,000 in fines from two environmental incidents, and is second on the list of poor performers. NIPA Laboratories was prosecuted for six separate offences, and was fined £20,000.

“The Environment Agency takes a tough line with businesses that pollute, but, with a few exceptions, the scale of penalties levied by the courts makes pollution – and prosecution – an acceptable risk and an acceptable business expense for too many businesses across England and Wales,” said Baroness Young. “By contrast, the first two penalties extracted by the Office of Fair Trading for breaches of competition law were £1.2 million and £3.2 million. We welcome new guidance from the Magistrates Association for sentencing environmental offences. I hope that in the future these guidelines will mean that there will be tough fines and other strict penalties for those who fail our environment.”

The news is not all bad, however, as the report also reveals substantial cuts in emissions of dioxins, sulphur dioxide, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and particulates from power stations, and the chemical, mineral and metals industries. As a whole, the chemical industry cut its emissions of VOCs by 12% in 2000,with Solutia UK Ltd in Gwent, Shell (UK) Ltd in Merseyside, and CIBA in Bradford achieving reductions of 60%, 58% and 17% respectively, together equivalent to a 855 tonne reduction. There have also been considerable reductions in hormone-disrupting chemicals, nonylphnol (NP) and nonylphenol ethoxylate (NPE), within the industry.

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