Last reviewed 12 August 2013

On 5 July 2013, Truro Magistrates' Court fined a local ship repair company £10,000 and ordered it to pay costs of £14,300 after it pleaded guilty to causing pollution to a Cornish estuary in September 2011.

The court heard that the incident occurred after the defendant, A & P Falmouth Ltd, had been contracted by the Ministry of Defence to refurbish a vessel known as the Cardigan Bay. The vessel was docked at Falmouth Docks where the refurbishment works were to take place.

On 29 September 2011, the Environment Agency (EA) received a report that pollution had been observed in the Fal estuary. EA officers visited the affected area and noted that part of the estuary had been significantly discoloured over an area the size of a football pitch. Following the stream of pollution, the EA officers traced the source back to Falmouth Docks where the defendant was undertaking the refurbishment operations.

The EA officers observed that part of these activities required the defendant to use high-pressure jets on the hull of the ship to remove anti-fouling paint. This paint is applied to the hulls of ships to prevent molluscs and other sea creatures from attaching themselves to the hull, thereby slowing down the vessel.

Although most of the paint was removed using a large pressure jet, the defendant's employees were also required to use smaller jets and hand lances to remove paint from some of the harder to reach places. The key distinction between these two methods of removal was that the large jet had an attachment, known as a hopper, to collect the removed paint, whereas the smaller jets and hand lances did not.

This meant that, where the defendant was using the smaller jets, a significant quantity of the removed paint was discharged into the docks where it flowed into the estuary. Investigations on this paint revealed high levels of tributyltin (TBT), which is highly toxic and has been banned for use since 2008.

Although the defendant is permitted to carry out refurbishment activities at the dock, it is not allowed to work on vessels that use TBT. On questioning, the defendant informed the EA that it had obtained a certificate from the Ministry of Defence relating to the use of TBT on the Cardigan Bay. The certificate stated that, although TBT-free paint had been delivered to the vessel prior to it last being painted, it could not be confirmed whether this paint was in fact used or not.

The EA therefore held that the defendant should have been aware that there was a possibility that the ship had been painted using a TBT-based paint, and should have carried out the necessary tests to confirm this point. The defendant's failure to do so had resulted in a potentially serious pollution incident that could have caused significant damage to the estuary and its ecosystem.

This case underlines the importance of taking the necessary steps to be satisfied with the information provided by a third party when dealing with matters that might impact on the environment. In this case, the qualified certificate provided by the Ministry of Defence should have put the defendant on notice that it needed to carry out its own checks before undertaking the refurbishment.

The Government is taking steps in this regard to reduce the burden on waste operators when satisfying their obligations to document the handling and transfer of waste materials. One key part of this is the introduction of an electronic platform for waste transfer notes or other forms of evidence to demonstrate the transfer of waste.

The thinking behind the platform is that an electronic database of waste transfer notes will allow businesses to comply with their waste obligations more efficiently and at a reduced cost. Recent surveys suggest that the project has been welcomed by waste operators, who are keen to reduce the burden of waste compliance. This is particularly the case in light of a recent publication by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which reveals that businesses in the UK spent around £2.4 billion in 2011 in complying with their environmental obligations. The current expected launch date of the electronic platform is January 2014.