Sevalco, the American owned chemical company at Avonmouth, has been ordered to pay £310,000 in fines and costs by Bristol Crown Court for six offences after it released up to seventeen times its authorised levels of cyanide into the Severn Estuary.
The case was brought by the Environment Agency and follows a hearing at Bristol magistrates court last month when magistrates said they did not have the sentencing powers due to the serious and aggravating features, dishonesty and total lack of management control.
The Environment Agency issued an enforcement notice on carbon black manufacturer Sevalco in November 2002 following the admitted discovery of discrepancies in the firm’s environmental reporting. The firm is authorised by the Environment Agency to discharge low levels of cyanide into the estuary and a nearby surface water channel in its waste waters.
A thorough and detailed investigation revealed a catalogue of inaccurate and falsified figures in the records of cyanide amounts – kept in a ‘blue book’, higher than permitted levels of cyanide discharged into the estuary and repeated failure to notify the Environment Agency of the situation. False results were also reported to the Agency in the company’s monitoring returns.
Between April 1998 and September 2002 records of the amount of cyanide released into the estuary were altered to deliberately conceal that authorised limits were being breached. Although managers in the firm were aware of a problem with high cyanide levels the firm failed to sort out the situation until a new general manager took charge of operations.
The firm pleaded guilty to six offences. At the hearing on November 15 magistrates said they were absolutely appalled by the findings that individual employees, Sevalco and the parent company were grossly negligent in handling the discharge of cyanide to the environment. Although there was systems in place, the company did not exercise due diligence in ensuring they were complied with. The current manager of the plant was commended.
Judge Darwall-Smith sitting at Bristol Crown Court said there had been an astonishing concealment of true readings required by legislation and potentially this was a very very high risk hazard. The company had failed and failed badly to have proper systems in place. He described the offences as very serious which could only be visited by very substantial fines and accordingly fined the company a total of £240,000 plus £70,000 costs.
“This was a serious and long term problem involving a toxic substance at the Sevalco plant which the company failed to deal with and deliberately concealed,” explained Tim Loveday for the Environment Agency.
“Despite knowing about the high cyanide levels for several years the management at Sevalco did not inform us and continued to hide the problem with no regard for the impact it could have had on the Severn Estuary.
“We commend the firm on its response to these issues once the current general manager raised the alarm. The voluntary admission to the offences, subsequent dismissal of staff involved in the cover-up and progress made in environmental matters in the past two years are reassuring.”
A study carried out by the Environment Agency showed the impact on the estuary was limited to local invertebrate life.