Last reviewed 27 March 2017
On Friday 3 February 2017, Suez Recycling and Recovery UK Limited (previously trading as SITA UK Limited) was ordered to pay £505,000 by Truro Crown Court following a series of offences at the Connon Bridge landfill site, near Liskeard. After pleading guilty, Suez was fined £180,000 for six offences under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. These were:
failure to comply with leachate level limits specified by an environmental permit
allowing leachate to overflow from a leachate extraction point
unauthorised emissions of contaminated water
failure to comply with water quality emission limits
failing to notify the Environment Agency (EA)
causing odour pollution.
A further five charges were contested by the company and were not prosecuted. Suez was also ordered to pay £325,000 in costs, which reflected the lengthy, complex and technical work that was involved in bringing the proceedings. The sentencing hearing brings the four-year investigation to a close.
The court heard that, in 2012 the EA became increasingly aware of problems concerning Suez’s management of rising levels of leachate, ie contaminated water, at the site. The leachate levels had quickly risen past the limits specified by the site’s environmental permit due to heavy rain. In 2013, the Agency began receiving reports from members of the public and in January, officers attended the site. They found that two nearby watercourses, the Widowpath and Connon Bridge Streams, had been covered in sewage fungus for around 4km. Sewage fungus is considered to be the worst indication of organic pollution and its presence is unacceptable in any watercourses.
The investigations by the EA found that there had been leachate spillages onto uncontained areas of the site. Leachate then contaminated surface water and compromised water quality in a groundwater drainage culvert underneath the site. Residents also complained of strong, unpleasant odours which had been caused by the inadequately controlled emissions of landfill gas. It became apparent that the site operator had struggled to regain control of the site. To remove the large volumes of contaminated surface water from the site, Suez resorted to unauthorised methods of disposal and pumped it onto adjacent fields.
The EA monitored the leachate spillages’ impact on the Widowpath and Connon Bridge Streams and concluded that it was the worst outbreak of sewage fungus in the area for 20 years. They also began collecting evidence from residents regarding the worsening odour pollution from the landfill site. Officers found that uncapped areas of the landfill site had contributed to the release of the foul odour.
The court accepted that Suez had a good compliance record at its other sites and that it tries to comply with environmental permits. It also noted that the company had striven to improve leachate management at the site and worked with the EA to ensure that Connon Bridge landfill was compliant with regulatory duties.
Following prosecution, Simon Harry of the EA commented:
People living close to Connon Bridge landfill will not have forgotten the appalling odours that emanated from this site in 2013. The negligent failings of the landfill operator resulted in pollution both by odour and to local watercourses. The judge in this case acknowledged, in particular, the distress caused to the local community by the odour.
We take pollution incidents very seriously and this case should send a strong message to all industrial operators of the potential consequences of failing to take adequate steps to protect the environment.
Suez also issued a statement which said:
Like many other landfill sites around the country, Connon Bridge experienced issues managing leachate and landfill gas during the exceptionally wet weather conditions experienced throughout 2012.
We have not sought to shy away from these shortcomings and pleaded guilty to six of the 11 charges at the earliest opportunity, co-operating with the EA throughout its investigations and the subsequent court proceedings. We contested the remaining five charges and these were not pursued.
We deeply regret that, despite our best endeavours, we were unable to maintain full compliance at the site during 2012 and early 2013, but are pleased the judge recognised that our overall compliance record across our 211 operational sites (of which 11 are active landfill) around the country is good and we do our best to manage waste in compliance with our environmental permits.
The site is due to be closed by December 2018.
Pollution is undoubtedly a core environmental concern and failure to adequately deal with its risks will result in serious legal consequences. Despite pleading guilty, Suez’s failure to comply with permit conditions resulted in lengthy legal proceedings and an increased fine under the new sentencing guidelines. The level of the payment order reflects the serious impact that the pollution had on the local community and the amount of resources required by the EA to investigate and address concerns.
The site itself had been problematic for many years. The previous operator, County Environmental Services Ltd which was owned by the local authority, was ordered to pay £91,000 following three prosecutions between 2004–2007. However, the prosecution makes clear that operators retain responsibility even for historic landfill sites, where the costly and complex methods needed to prevent pollution may not be possible.