Landfill site

Polluters to face unlimited fines for environmental offences

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The UK government has announced its plans to scrap the cap on civil penalties and significantly broaden their scope to target a much wider range of polluters.

Organisations that break environmental laws could face unlimited fines, according to the new legislation presented by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

Following a consultation that demonstrated “widespread public support” for the measures, Defra has revealed it will scrap the current £250,000 limit on civil penalties resulting from environmental offences. This will allow the Environment Agency (EA) and Natural England to impose large penalties without having to go through lengthy criminal prosecutions.

Defra said the size of the penalties will be subject to sentencing guidelines and will take into account the extent of the pollution and degree of responsibility and harm, as well as the polluting company’s size and ability to pay.

In addition, these higher penalties will also be able to be levied as a civil sanction for offences under the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, the regime under which the majority of Environment Agency investigations take place.

This will allow EA and Natural England to ensure the rules are enforced, and that organisations that hold environmental permits – from energy and water companies to waste operators and incinerators – are held to greater account.

“Polluters must always pay," said Environment Secretary Thérèse Coffey. "We are scrapping the cap on civil penalties and significantly broadening their scope to target a much wider range of offences – from breaches of storm overflow permits to the reckless disposal of hazardous waste.

“It builds on action being taken right across government to stand up for our environment – tackling pollution, protecting delicate ecosystems and enhancing nature.”

Rebecca Pow, Minister for Environmental Quality and Resilience, added: “By lifting the cap on these sanctions, we are simultaneously toughening our enforcement tools and expanding where regulators can use them. This will deliver a proportionate punishment for operators that breach their permits and harm our rivers, seas and precious habitats."

Meanwhile, Environment Agency chair Alan Lovell said: “We regularly prosecute companies and individuals through criminal proceedings, but these new powers will allow us to deliver penalties that are quicker and easier to enforce, even though the most serious cases will continue to go to court.

“That should be an important deterrent – boosting compliance across a range of sectors, driving down pollution and safeguarding the ecology and prosperity of our natural world.”

The news follows Coffey's announcement in April of her department's intentions to allow unlimited fines for polluting water companies after it was revealed that there had been a total of 301,091 sewage spills in 2022, an average of 824 a day, in what the EA called the "worst performance on pollution" seen in years.

Defra said future fines and penalties will be invested into a Water Restoration Fund, which will be used to improve water quality. In addition, the new rules will apply to any environmental business, from energy and water companies to waste operators.

Despite the new legislation, some environmental campaigners have raised doubts over the government’s commitment to making polluters pay, particularly because of its reduction in funding to regulators over recent years.

“Much of this looks like mere window dressing to me," Reverend Paul Cawthorne told PA. “Unless the Government gives the EA more encouragement and management steerage to actually test the sediments and wildlife of rivers more often, they will continue to miss much of the most serious industrial pollution that is increasingly impacting our river ecosystems.

“In response to citizen knowledge of just how bad things are now getting in our rivers, we want real action rather than defensive PR.”

Cawthorne has spent years investigating unregulated chemical dump sites. He pointed out that at least two landfill sites in South Wales used by Monsanto have been found to be leaking carcinogenic PCBs and indicated that there could be other sites that are not being properly tested in England.

James Wallace, CEO of River Action, said to members of the Greater London Authority on Tuesday that there need to be “very significant” fines and penalties for water companies who pollute. He stressed that fines of £2m are considered a “business cost” to some companies. 

 “Agriculture is actually responsible for more pollution and let’s not forget the Thames catchment," he added. “Although we’re thinking in the city terms here, a lot of the water comes through from agricultural land.

“Over 40 per cent of phosphates come off agricultural land from diffuse pollution. We need to see the government, whoever they are in next time round, invest in that as well.”

A Water UK spokesperson said: “We welcome this announcement. It is right that regulators have all the powers they need when things go wrong. With 99 per cent of sewage works fully compliant with their legal permits, enforcement will only ever be one part of the solution."

Water UK reiterated the commitment made in May to undertake "the largest modernisation of England’s sewer system since the Victorian era". The £10bn investment is said to be able to cut the number of overflows by up to 140,000 each year by 2030, compared to the level in 2020.

Sewage spills can also have serious public health consequences. Hospitals nationwide have reported some 400 accounts of sickness from people swimming and surfing in bathing waters. Some of the worst cases of sickness included leptospirosis and kidney failure.

The amendments to legislation will have to be approved by both Houses of Parliament before coming into force.

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