£1m pollution fine designed to send signal

A record £1m fine for Thames Water for polluting a canal has been handed down as a signal that big companies must improve their environmental performance, the judge said.

Thames Water Utilities was prosecuted by the Environment Agency for repeatedly polluting a canal in Hertfordshire.

Thames Water allowed repeated discharges of polluting matter from Tring sewage treatment works (STW) to enter the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal in Hertfordshire between July 2012 and April 2013.

On Monday 4th January, at St Albans Crown Court the company was ordered to pay a fine of £1m, costs of £18,113.08 and a victim surcharge of £120. This is the highest ever fine for a water company in a pollution prosecution.

Explaining why the fine was so large, His Honour Judge Andrew Bright QC said: “The time has now come for the courts to make clear that very large organisations such as [Thames Water] really must bring about the reforms and improvements for which they say they are striving because if they do not the sentences passed upon them for environmental offences will be sufficiently severe to have a significant impact on their finances.”

Thames Water has a permit to discharge treated effluent from Tring STW into the Wendover Arm of the Grand Union Canal. The conditions of the permit set by the Environment Agency aim to prevent any negative impact upon the canal itself and activities such as boating and fishing which take place on or in it.

The court heard that poorly performing inlet screens caused equipment at the works to block, leading to sewage sludge and debris – including panty liners and ear buds – being discharged into the canal. The inlet screens should take out the majority of sewage debris referred to as ‘rag’ from the process, but the screens had repeatedly failed in this case.