Last reviewed 2 June 2015

On 16 February 2015, Guildford Crown Court fined a major water company £220,000 after it pleaded guilty to two offences under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010. The court also ordered Thames Water Utilities Ltd to pay prosecution costs of £27,500 in relation to the proceedings.

The Environment Agency, prosecuting, informed the court that the charges related to breaches of the defendant’s environmental permit for a sewage treatment works in Camberley which resulted in two pollution incidents in September 2012.

The Agency was alerted to the first pollution incident on 7 September 2012 when a member of the public reported seeing dead fish at Shepherd Meadows Nature Reserve. Agency officers visited the reserve and discovered that large numbers of fish were dead or dying in the River Blackwater which flowed through the nature reserve. The officers observed that the river had been discoloured along a 2km stretch that led back to the defendant’s sewage treatment facility.

The Agency officers discovered that a large volume of partially treated sewage effluent had been unlawfully discharged into the River Blackwater. The pollutant material was reducing the levels of oxygen in the affected stretch of water which was causing the marine life to suffocate.

Although the Agency was able to use aeration units to pump oxygen into the river to restore oxygen levels, tests of the river showed that the sewage effluent had already had a significant effect on its ecosystem.

The second incident was reported by the defendant to the Agency on 30 September 2012. On this occasion, sewage effluent was unlawfully discharged into the River Blackwater after on-site pipes became blocked with debris. This blockage caused partially treated sewage to be diverted into the on-site storm tanks.

Under the terms of its environmental permit, these are normally to be used where there have been high levels of rainfall and therefore higher volumes of liquid coming through the site. As the storm tanks became full, they started to discharge partially treated effluent into the river for a period of an hour.

In sentencing the defendant, the court held that both incidents had been caused by the recklessness or negligence of the defendant in the way it had operated the facility. This had resulted in significant environmental damage and both of these factors were reflected in the size of the fine imposed.

This case is a further example of the potentially high fines that can be imposed on environmental offenders using the revised sentencing guidelines created by the Sentencing Council in February 2014. Although the case was originally heard by the local magistrates’ court, it was passed to Guildford Crown Court after the magistrates decided that the sentencing powers available to them were inadequate given the severity of the offences.

The majority of environmental offences, including offences under s.38 of the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2010 (as here), are “either way” offences. This means they can either be heard in the magistrates’ court or in the Crown Court although the magistrates’ court has the power to transfer the case to the Crown Court for sentencing as occurred with this case.

Under the current statutory rules, magistrates’ courts can impose fines of up to £50,000 and/or up to 12 months’ imprisonment for “either way” offences whereas the Crown Court can impose an unlimited fine and/or up to five years’ imprisonment for the same offences.

The sentencing court must use the sentencing guidelines to assist it when determining the appropriate sanction for certain offences under the 2010 Regulations and the Environmental Protection Act 1990. The guidelines set out a number of factors to be taken into account including whether the offender is a corporate entity or an individual (with higher fines for corporate offenders) and whether other forms of financial order would be appropriate in place of a fine. The guidelines also place emphasis on ensuring that the sanction imposed removes any economic benefit made through the offences and also acts as a deterrent against further non-compliance with environmental regulations.

The guidelines also incorporate the four-fold categorisation employed by the Environment Agency for determining the severity of a particular environmental offence. Category 1 offences are those considered most serious through to Category 4 offences which cover those incidents where there is no significant environmental impact. The guidelines set out figures that are likely to be an appropriate starting point for each category and provide suggested upper and lower boundaries that courts should take into account after considering the facts of each case.

The culpability of the defendant will also be taken into account when determining the appropriate level of the fine. This means that an offence committed deliberately or with a high level of negligence will incur a higher fine than if the offence was committed with little or no culpability on the part of defendant. The large fine imposed in this case reflects the Crown Court’s finding that Thames Water had been reckless and negligent in the way that the incidents had occurred.

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