Case report: company fined following actions of an employee

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On 7 November 2018, Yeovil Magistrates’ Court ordered Ablebox Ltd to pay £13,000 in fines and costs following a pollution incident which turned the River Yeo purple.

The Facts

The court heard that Ablebox Ltd was a company that manufactured cardboard boxes and operated its printing works at premises in Buckland Road, Yeovil.

On 20 April 2017, the Environment Agency (EA) was informed that downstream of the Pen Mill Trading Estate, Yeovil, the River Yeo had turned purple. Members of the public reported that the discolouration seeped up to 4km downstream of the industrial estate. The EA traced the source of pollution to Ablebox Ltd.

The following day, officers returned to the site and saw waste ink being hosed into a drain. They also discovered that waste ink and spills kits were inappropriately stored and full of soiled absorbents. Subsequent dye testing confirmed that the waste ink had passed through the site’s surface water system, and into the River Yeo through a surface water outfall.

Upon investigation, it was found that an employee had poured up to 50 buckets of waste ink down a drain over two to three days. He claimed that he had done so following instructions from management as there was no room left in the waste ink storage containers. The company blamed the employee, stating that he had taken it upon himself to dispose of the ink in that manner without the company’s knowledge or authorisation.

The court was also told that Wessex Water had previously detected unauthorised discharges into the sewage system and had warned the company at least twice about polluting the river.

The Decision

The company was fined £6000 after pleading guilty to causing or knowingly permitting a discharge of noxious or polluting matter into a controlled watercourse contrary to s.38(1)(a) of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. The company was also ordered to pay investigation costs of £5566, a victim surcharge of £170 and £1281 in legal costs.

After the hearing, Oliver Hill, for the EA, said:

Businesses must never pour any waste down surface water drains as they are often connected to nearby streams or rivers. By disposing of waste in this way, you are committing a criminal offence. This prosecution serves as a timely reminder for businesses to act responsibly. Where we have evidence, we won’t hesitate to prosecute offenders.

Ablebox Executive Chair Sam Ainsworth said the directors were “horrified” by the incident and paid for the immediate clean-up operation. Ainsworth said:

We cannot shy away from what happened, but we do not want it to do damage to our company. We are doing everything we can to put it right and to protect Ablebox’s reputation and people’s jobs. We are a very environmentally conscious company — we drive electric cars and [pre-]ordered the UK’s first two Tesla trucks — which is why this is so painful for us.

In addition to paying the fine and the associated costs, Ainsworth said the firm will make a “sizeable, voluntary donation” to the Westcountry Rivers Trust.

Comment

This is an interesting and important case for waste managers, where the actions of their employees lead to a pollution incident. The company pleaded guilty as the regulations refer to “causing or knowingly permitting” pollution and is thus a strict liability offence. The courts have adopted a broad approach when deciding whether a company, or person, caused a water discharge or groundwater activity. Crucially, there is no need to show that a person or company intended or even knew about the activity in question. If pollution follows from a chain of events, a person or company can be regarded as having caused it even if someone else’s actions immediately triggered the pollution, such as here. Knowingly permitting also includes cases where a person (or company) is aware of a polluting incident but refuses to take steps to stop the pollution.

As the company pleaded guilty, there were no additional findings of fact regarding the authorisation. If the employee had acted under the direction of management, there is perhaps a clearer legal, and moral, rationale for their liability. However, even if the company’s claim was correct, that a rogue employee ventured off on a frolic of his own, this case emphasises that companies remain liable under the regulations. As such, waste managers must be mindful of their staff’s actions, even when the overall company policy appears focused on preventing environmental harm.

Last reviewed 4 December 2018

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