Harshest Environmental Negligence Judgement Sends a Message

A record fine for environmental negligence has been handed out to an Oxfordshire bakery, even though no actual environmental harm occurred.

The Lady Bakery in Banbury was handed a fine of £180,000, made up of a £140,000 penalty for offences under the Water Industry Act 1991, plus £40,000 of legal costs. Given that this is the largest fine ever given for a prosecution relating to trade effluence, this is a clear signal that higher fines may be imposed in the future.

Thames Water presented seven offences and the bakery submitted a guilty plea for all. Its guilt related to the waste that it had discharged into water sewer systems that enter both rivers and streams, rather than into foul systems open to commercial enterprises.

Environmental concern and the desire to protect the planet are at an all-time high and it would seem that court judgements are reflecting public mood. Another example of these concerns relates to the protection of an aquifer in London – a cause championed by protesters at an HS2 site in Hillingdon, with these protesters saying 3.2m Londoners could be served contaminated water as a result of the contractors’ actions.

For further evidence of changing attitudes, there is a quarry extension in Northumberland, which has been halted due to fears of groundwater contamination. No wonder the 2019 Construction News Awards have Robertson as a finalist, given that its £140m distillery project, The Macallan has been supported by a bespoke water management system that protects the River Spey and which has a zero-impact on the watercourse.

Environmental cover-ups are no longer an option in an age in which environmental contamination can quickly be reported by social media users and whistle-blowers. Additionally, the relevant authorities now have enhanced and comprehensive means of environmental scrutiny and inspection.

Yet, despite this, errors of judgement and accidents do occur and some sectors are more susceptible when it comes to claims being brought against companies who might have infringed environmental law. Construction, transport and manufacturing are key examples of these sectors, but there are many more, and businesses can find themselves in the dock if they have done anything to pollute air, land or water, causing negative impacts on human life and/or biodiversity.

Should a business believe itself at risk from an environmental damage claim – which can arise under the terms of both UK and EU law, as well as common law – it can take out Environmental Liability Insurance. This protects a business from the charges that can arise from any necessary cleaning up of environmental contamination, from third party liability – which would include adverse impacts on property values – and also from nuisance claims. A policy should also offer cover for both legal costs and expenses.

Businesses often require this dedicated protection, as public liability and motor and property insurance all typically provide little cover for environmental damage. Any cover that is provided is likely to be inadequate in relation to the significant costs associated with clean-up, legal costs or damages. In sectors vulnerable to accidents that can spawn environmental liability claims reasonably frequently, specialist environmental damage cover can be viewed as essential. If this rings true with you, please get in touch with us.