Heftier fines, and even the possibility of fines where a spill hasn’t occurred but where there is a vulnerability, appear to signal a sturdier and more proactive stance from the EA.
FIRMS need to take far more urgent and proactive measures to cover themselves against liability for spills, following the introduction on 1 July of a new order of magnitude of fines and charges against companies who fail to comply with Environment Agency guidelines.
Those involved in spill incidents can expect far more punitive fines. And the addition of a new category of culpability within the sentencing guidelines opens the door to firms being taken to court even where a spill has not occurred, but might.
A document released by the EA, Environmental Offences – Definitive Guidelines, outlines four categories of culpability: “Deliberate”, “reckless”, “negligent”, and – the new one – “low or no culpability”. Firms whose actions fall into this latter category could be liable for fines starting from £200 and extending upwards to tens of thousands of pounds, depending on turnover.
Simon Evans of Darcy Spillcare Manufacture believes the guidelines could have serious financial implications for many companies. “The changes turn what might have been a £45k incident into a potential £250k one,” he said. He advises businesses to take extra precautions to ensure they are compliant, and believes the issue has added urgency as so many companies seem to have a false sense of security about their level of compliance.
“We have grave concerns about the viability of ISO14001, for instance,” he said. Many of the sites Darcy has recently visited – carrying accreditation – show an environmental management system (EMS) that could be deemed non-operational. “Most also lack the necessary continuous improvement programme of EMS that is stipulated by ISO14001,” he said. “So for many of the 27,000 UK companies with ISO14001, you’d be tempted to conclude it’s not worth the paper it’s written on”, he said, suggesting this might be to do with the way the accreditation process has been managed.
Below ground, below awareness
A further problem, he suggests, is that “no one seems to be taking responsibility for what happens underground.” Drainage surveys are not being performed, interceptor drains are not being monitored, and provision is not being made for preventing spills appropriately – and these are a significant risk wherever there is a decent-sized car park.
The issue with the new guidelines is that such ignorance could now – for the first time – make the organisation liable for a fine, even without a spill occurring.
“You don’t try someone for murder if they haven’t committed one, but just because they’re thinking about it,” suggested Evans, only half-jokingly, by way of analogy. The change in sentencing guidelines may be laying the groundwork for a more proactive stance from the EA in the way it enforces compliance with its spill protection guidelines.
The change could presage a move with echoes of the Health & Safety Executive’s “Fees for Intervention” scheme introduced in October 2012, which raised several million pounds in fines for the H&S Executive in its first year.
“It means a far more proactive challenge for businesses, in ensuring environmental compliance,” he said.