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Last Updated: Wednesday, 30 July, 2003, 08:31 GMT 09:31 UK
UK's big polluters 'fail to learn'
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

Some of the biggest and best-known companies in the UK are continuing to commit serious environmental crimes, says a government watchdog.

Water gushes from pipe   BBC
Penalties often fail even to match up to costs avoided. This is unacceptable
Barbara Young, Environment Agency

The Environment Agency says higher fines and more prosecutions are failing to stop the companies causing pollution.

It says most fines are still too low to drive the lesson home.

But serious pollution incidents were a fifth lower than in the previous year.

The agency analyses the companies' record in Spotlight On Business Environmental Performance 2002, its fifth annual report on good and bad environmental behaviour by firms in England and Wales.

It says repeat offenders, who make up 20% of the 2002 list of poor performers, have failed to learn from their previous convictions.

Impervious to publicity

Although the number of fines increased by 36% and prosecutions by 13%, the average fine per prosecution was just 8,744.

Barbara Young, the agency's chief executive, said: "Courts are getting tougher on environmental offenders - but fines are still small change for big business.

One company was prosecuted 29 times by the Environment Agency in 2002

"It is disappointing, yet again, to see so many household names at the top of the enforcement tables, and so many repeat offenders.

"It seems extraordinary that multi-million pound businesses are still prepared to risk their reputations with careless and avoidable neglect of environmental responsibility.

"One constant theme has echoed down through successive Spotlight reports - the weak response of the courts to environmental crime.

"With irreparable environmental damage or serious risk to public health, penalties often fail even to match up to costs avoided. This is unacceptable."

Usual suspects

The agency says "significant" repeat offenders in 2002 included United Utilities, Anglian Water Services, Thames Water, BP UK, TotalFinaElf, 3C Waste Ltd and Tesco. It says all "were top offenders in 2001 too".

The agency says: "Many are UK stock market-listed companies and claim to be leaders in corporate social responsibility.

On average, an incident was reported every eight minutes
Prosecutions were brought as a result of 1,387 incidents
Among them was the leaking of 1,000 litres of cream into a brook in Somerset
Total fines levied were 3.65m, up from 2.7m in 2001
Average company fine was 8,744, up from 6,410 in 2001
The north east had the most pollution incidents reported, Wales the least
"The pollution caused by these companies despoils the environment for local communities, and some pollutants put wildlife and human health at risk."

It says the waste industry is the most frequent polluter in England and Wales, responsible for the largest number of serious pollution incidents and with the greatest number of companies fined more than 10,000.

But the industry did achieve a 56% reduction in serious pollution incidents, from 485 in 2001 to 212 last year.

Custodial sentence

There are growing worries over the problem of illegal waste disposal.

Fly-tipping continues to rise, and one company director was sentenced to a year's imprisonment for offences including dumping soil polluted with mercury, arsenic and cyanide.

Foam in water from spewing pipe   BBC
Water industry fines totalled nearly 1m
The sector which paid the highest financial penalty was the water industry, fined a total of almost 1m.

The agency says: "Water companies are responsible for one in six serious pollution incidents affecting water, a 23% increase since 2000 (from 115 incidents then to 150 last year)... Management lapses are often the cause."

The chemicals industry was the only one to record a year-on-year increase in serious pollution incidents, a rise of 47% from 2001 (28 incidents, up from 19).

Doing more with less

Those which managed significant reductions were the metals sector (79% fewer incidents than in 2001), the construction industry (41%), and farming (20%).

The report says serious pollution incidents caused by business were 21% fewer (1,854 in 2001, but 1,468 in 2002).

It also records "significant" reductions in emissions of key pollutants: particulates were 34% lower, sulphur dioxide 14% and nitrogen oxides 6%.

It says greenhouse gas emissions from processes regulated by the agency were 2% lower, although power output increased by 1.5%.

The BBC's Sue Nelson
"Last year, United Utilities Water plc, was prosecuted 29 times"

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