Johnson Matthey, which makes catalytic converters for the motor industry, has been fined £35,500 for four offences of breaching Pollution Prevention and Control (PPC) Regulations.

The company was also ordered to pay £30,000 costs to the Environment Agency by Cheshunt Magistrates Court.

The judge was told that at the time of building the plant an automatic process shutdown system was not installed, even though it was stipulated as a condition in the PPC in the permit.

This would have automatically shut down the plant in the event of abatement plant failure. The abatement plant was put in place to reduce potentially harmful substances such as oxides of nitrogen (NOx) to safe levels.

Because there were no such safety measures installed in the event of an abatement plant failure, the permitted level of emissions were grossly exceeded over several months.

According to a statement from the Environment Agency, there is no evidence to suggest that environmental harm or harm to human health occurred as a result of the incident. However, there was potential for environmental harm and harm to nearby residents if such releases were allowed to continue for a prolonged period.

In the atmosphere NOx converts to nitrate and nitric acid, which when mixed with rainwater falls as acid rain causing damage to plant life. There is also evidence that nitrogen dioxide can cause some people to become sensitised to allergens leading to conditions such as asthma.

NOx is produced in the manufacturing process of catalytic converters, used for the reduction of exhaust emissions from motor vehicles.

Apart from excessive releases caused by the failure to install an automatic shutdown system, there was a failure of the oven seals in another part of the same process. This caused the escape of oven gases resulting in elevated levels of NOx within the perimeter of the company premises. The company failed to notify the Environment Agency of the fact that there had been a detection of escaped oxides of nitrogen that could have caused pollution nor that there had been a malfunction, breakdown or failure of the plant or techniques that either caused or could have cause pollution.

The company also pleaded guilty to failing to properly train its staff or give them proper written instructions to operate the plant and they were not familiar with the terms of the permit relevant to their duties.

The permit, which was issued under the Pollution, Prevention and Control (England and Wales) Act by the Environment Agency, regulates the emissions from Johnson Matthey’s plant.

‘In each of the failures by the defendant to comply with the terms of the permit, its conduct fell very significantly below the standards required of it and to be expected of a company of its size and experience working in such an industry,’ commented the Environment Agency's Kevin Rutterford.